Lucky Town

Bruce Springsteen plays Santa to his much-loved, if dumpy, adopted hometown: Asbury Park, N.J.

December 15, 2004|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

ASBURY PARK, N.J. — Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us

This pier lights our carnival life forever

Oh, love me tonight and I promise

I'll love you forever.- From "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," by Bruce Springsteen

ASBURY PARK, N.J. - This is the story of a love affair of sorts between a rock legend and this gritty beach town of 17,000, some 40 miles south of New York.

Yet sometimes, as on this overcast morning just before Christmas, you wonder what the rocker, Bruce Springsteen, sees in the old girl.

Oh, the main drag of Cookman Avenue breathes new life after a decades-long decline, with its eclectic restaurants and shops, including Wish You Were Here, an "espresso bar, gelateria and resort boutique." But walk a few blocks up to Ocean Avenue and it might as well be Dresden-by-the-Sea.

Urban blight scars the landscape as far as the eye can see. Boarded-up buildings and empty, graffiti-covered pizza joints line a desolate, wind-swept boardwalk, where not even the faintest echoes of the old carnival life can be heard. All the way down to Convention Hall, the once-stately venue where Janis Joplin, the Stones, the Doors and the Who played, trash litters the sidewalks and the only people you pass are wild-eyed drifters.

Over the years, after the race riots of 1970 precipitated its steady decline, lots of people wrote off Asbury Park. But not Bruce Springsteen.

By all accounts, Springsteen remained fiercely loyal to the town that helped forge so much of his identity, and his music. He grew up in nearby Freehold and lives in Rumson, a 15-minute drive away. But he's always called Asbury Park his adopted hometown.

It's where he lived for years, where he met most of his E Street Band members, where he jammed in clubs like the Upstage and the legendary Stone Pony and first tasted fame. It's memorialized on his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, and it's the place that moved him to pen a plaintive song about the Fourth of July to "Sandy."

Bruce loved the town from the very beginning, even when he was broke and living in a dingy apartment above a beauty salon in the 1970s. And the town loved him right back, even as he soared to the big-time as one of rock 'n' roll's supernovas.

"We treat him like he's another guy," says Lynda Young, events manager for a local restaurant and nightclub, Harry's Roadhouse, where Springsteen frequently stops for a burger and beer. "He loves Asbury Park. When he walks in the door, he just gleams."

So this Christmas, as he has for the past few years, Springsteen is again playing Santa Claus - at least figuratively - for the town. As part of a contest to help the Merchants Guild of Asbury Park, he's agreed to play two gigs Sunday, each in front of 500 people, at Harry's Roadhouse.

The contest, which ends Saturday, is designed to bring holiday shoppers downtown. Anyone visiting one of 48 participating stores can fill out an entry form to win one of 10 free pairs of tickets to each show, along with a backstage pass. (Other tickets went on sale Monday through Ticketmaster for $100 each.)

Springsteen has done shows to raise funds for local organizations before. But when he steps on the stage Sunday with members of the renowned Jersey Shore band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, it will mark the first time he's performed in downtown Asbury Park since the late 1960s.

Predictably, the chance to see their idol in such an intimate setting has caused Springsteen fans to go nuts, and swarms of them, holiday shoppers or not, have descended on the town.

More than 25,000 entry forms have been filled out. Eileen Chapman, president of the Merchants Guild, says the contest has been "incredibly successful. ... It's boosted [foot traffic] at least 100 times what we would [normally] have."

On this weekday afternoon at Harry's, one of the fans hoping to see Bruce this Sunday is Arlene Perez, 50, of Newark. Perez is a huge Springsteen fan. She's seen Bruce in concert, what, 25 or 30 times? She's here with her boyfriend, who declines to give his name.

Perez spent the morning visiting 25 stores and filling out 25 entry forms. What gives her hope of seeing Bruce at Harry's is that last summer, she won a contest to be among 200 lucky fans who spent a few hours with Springsteen as he signed copies of his latest book, Bruce Springsteen: Songs, at Antic Hay Books across the street.

"You want to see a picture of me and Bruce?" she asks.

She turns to the boyfriend: "Go out to the car and get that picture."

The boyfriend looks like he'd rather dive headfirst into a tub of broken glass. But he goes and gets the picture. It's a keeper, all right. There is Perez, smiling as if she'd won the lottery, her arm wrapped around Springsteen's shoulder like you'd need a crowbar to pry it off.

After Perez leaves, Chapman walks a visitor outside. The day is unseasonably warm. The streets are not exactly bustling, but there is a steady flow of people for a dreary Thursday.

She shakes her head in wonder.

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