It was a wintry night on February 8, 1974, as white flakes of snow scattered across the otherwise dark and desolate boardwalk of Asbury Park, New Jersey. On the corner of 2nd and Ocean Avenues, just off the boardwalk, a new bar and music venue was hosting its opening night. Eight inches of snow covered the entryway, and the heater inside rumbled as it took its dying breath. A lone patron inhabited the bar; the night’s total receipts amounted to just one dollar. Little did anyone know that this spot called The Stone Pony would soon be a legendary music venue in the rock n’ roll community.
Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, The Ramones, and so many others would go on to grace the Pony’s stage early in their music careers. But the story of The Stone Pony is much deeper than its place in rock history. The club and the local community would come to define one another in the decades to come, both sharing similar stories of meteoric rises and falls, followed by resilient rebirths. To understand how the Pony came to be, we must first understand the void it filled in the Asbury Park community during the 1970s.
Asbury Park, A Warzone
In the first few weeks of July in 1970, Asbury Park made national headlines. Major riots and protests had been set off amidst years of growing tension between community leaders and racially segregated minorities over systemic inequalities and economic discrimination. What started on the west side of town as a few broken windows soon broke into full-scale rioting and protesting. Over several days, even as black community leaders met with the city council to present demands and a path forward, altercations between police and the largely youth-led protestors ramped up.
After nearly two weeks, the rioting calmed down, but not without leaving a wake of violence, destruction, and bloodshed. In the end, about 170 were arrested, and it’s presumed that just as many citizens were injured (largely from police gunfire). There was $4 million in property damage, the west side business district was wiped out, and many families lost their homes. During the days of the riots and for years to come, many considered Asbury Park to be a warzone. This sentiment would be felt for decades; the town needed a savior.
“The riots had pretty much cleared what was left of the town out. It was left to us misfits and rogues and renegades and outcasts who moved in.” – Stevie Van Zandt (guitarist for the E Street Band, & the Asbury Jukes) in a New York Times interview.
Asbury Park became a popular destination for many musicians in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. The town had been in decline for years before the race riots and was now in a complete tailspin. The economic decline offered affordable living to musical “misfits” and proximity to notable music venues along the Shore. One popular music spot, in particular, was known as the Upstage Club right in Asbury Park. The Jersey Shore staple was the perfect spot for young musicians to get quality stage time and refine their performing craft. And for many, it served as their primary source of income. But then the club closed in 1971, leaving a squabble of young, hungry musicians empty-handed in a community traversing further into the abyss. A hole was left in Asbury Park, and the stage was set for something big to fill the space.
The Birth of The Stone Pony
John P. Roig and Robert Pielka founded The Stone Pony back in the early ’70s with no plans for it to be a haven for local musicians—and eventually part of rock history. Roig purchased the club, which was then an abandoned disco, without ever looking inside. He enlisted Pielka to help run and construct the bar, and soon enough, the legend of The Stone Pony would begin.
Despite its grand opening revenue totaling one dollar, The Stone Pony would get off the ground quicker than imagined, as local artists soon found a much-needed home. It all started with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (then The Blackberry Booze Band) led by Johnny Lyon and guitarist Stevie Van Zandt. Their style was certainly fun, heavy with soul, and horn-driven rhythm and blues; not all that different from Springsteen and The E Street Band’s well-known style. This early kind of rock music was more similar to Jazz than the Aerosmith or AC/DC “rock n’ roll” style of the ‘80s that we so commonly think of.
A Southside Resident
Southside and the Jukes saw the potential for a mutually beneficial relationship with The Stone Pony. The club struggled to stay open during the summer of ’74, and the band needed to make a name for themselves. Van Zandt convinced the owners to let them play any music they wanted (a rarity in those days) for as long as they wanted. In exchange, they’d come into play on the venue’s worst nights. From there, the rest is history. What started as a crowd of roughly 50 the first week became 150 the next, 300 the following week, and more in weeks to come.
But still, by the end of 1974, foreclosure seemed to be on the horizon as the club was deep in debt to creditors. The club then turned to Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes once more, making them the first residency of the Pony. Southside and the Jukes would quickly draw crowds of 1,000 on a routine basis, saving the Pony in the process. This chain of events foreshadowed the decades to come, as local musicians remained the beholders of The Stone Pony’s fate.
Becoming the Heartbeat of Asbury Park
Once Southside and the Jukes had established themselves and the Pony, business boomed seemingly overnight. Other local musicians discovered the venue, and it became the favorite hangout spot among them. Asbury Park inhabitants could hear live music radiating from the confines of The Stone Pony seven nights a week. The club was a heaven-on-earth reprieve for native musicians, including one prominent name who was beginning to taste big-time success, none other than New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen, an Asbury Park resident at the time, was friends with Johnny Lyon, Stevie Van Zandt, and many local artists. So naturally, he found his way to The Stone Pony. His debut album “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” had come out in ’73, but despite being in the early stages of fame, Bruce frequented the Pony to support his friends as well as perform himself. He, just like his fellow musician friends, couldn’t get enough of the liberating atmosphere.
Owners Roig and Pielka supported a loose environment and allowed the musicians to essentially run the shows themselves. This ambiance was exceptionally conducive to creative expression and musical freedom, which is part of what made these performances so notable.
An Unforgettable Night
With Springsteen as a frequent visitor and performer at the club, The Stone Pony had solidified itself as a Jersey Shore staple. But soon, one legendary night would bring The Stone Pony national recognition. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes signed with Epic Records in ’76 and were set to release their debut album with tremendous promotional support from the label. What better way to showcase Southside and the Jukes than to have them perform a live broadcast from none other than The Stone Pony?
On Memorial Day of ’76, local radio station WJLK and a conglomerate of stations along the East Coast and Midwest broadcasted the live performance for music fans across the nation. Springsteen and several notable artists from the area joined the band on stage to produce one of the most memorable nights in rock history. The Stone Pony was now known across the country, and even fans from Europe would soon be making visits to Asbury Park. Johnny Lyon summed up the experience perfectly in a New York Times interview:
“It was a chance for a club in Asbury Park, New Jersey, the joke state, and one of the joke towns of joke state, to get some recognition all around the country because there was this night of live music.”
Check out this rare footage from news coverage of the event in ’76:
The Top of the Mountain
Heading into the ’80s, The Stone Pony became a pilgrimage site in the rock community for fans and artists alike. At the same time, Springsteen’s fame had skyrocketed, and he was now one of the most famous musicians in the entire country. But his relationship with the Pony hadn’t changed, and fans were privy to this. On any given night, there would be what locals dubbed “Bruce watchers” in the venue. These were individuals who came to the Pony solely for the hope of catching a glimpse of Springsteen since one never knew when he would be there or if he would perform. The Pony would even get loads of mail from around the world addressed to Springsteen. Here are some great shots of Bruce at the Pony over the years:
As the ’80s progressed, so did rock music and the popularity of local bands. However, a new wave of music was also emerging. Performances at the club started to include genres like hard rock, country rock, and even reggae. The venue built off their live concert success and started scheduling national acts rather than just shows from local artists.
During this time, legendary musicians and bands graced the Pony’s stage, such as The Ramones, Joan Jett, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Meatloaf, and many others. The Stone Pony had reached its peak by the mid-‘80s. But as Asbury Park was becoming a destination for outsiders, the town itself was sinking further into despair. And soon enough, the Pony wouldn’t be able to outrun its wrath any longer.
The Forgotten Town
Like The Stone Pony, Asbury Park was once the crown jewel of the Jersey Shore. For much of the early 20th century, Asbury Park was among the top seaside destinations in the state. However, as the state infrastructure expanded and nearby areas developed, Asbury Park got left behind and forgotten. Much of the town’s minorities, segregated to the west side where the riots would break out in ’70, relied on labor from the tourism scene. When tourism all but vanished, so did their jobs and opportunities in Asbury Park. This would not only bring about the riots in years to come, but it would also be representative of the town throughout the rest of the 20th century. Take The Stone Pony out of the community, and all that was left was poverty, exclusion, and lack of opportunity for a dwindling population. But it wasn’t always like this:
After the riots, the middle-class east side community left town in a mass exodus. The west side business district remained in destruction. The boardwalk was crumbling. All amusement parks and attractions shut down for good. Vandalism, drugs, and gang activity began to define this once glittering seaside town. Asbury Park’s leadership was also notoriously corrupt up until the dawn of the 21st century. Bribes and scandals were routine, and the local government was entirely ineffective. The city proposed numerous redevelopment plans throughout the ’80s and ‘90s, yet none ever came to fruition. As the turn of the century approached, it was hard to imagine the town getting any worse, especially since their only shining light had now dimmed.
The End of the Golden Age
By the late ’80s, problems at The Stone Pony began piling up. The national acts had changed the club’s atmosphere, hurting business on nights of local performances and shooting overhead costs through the roof. Insurance and other expenses were soaring for venues everywhere, and many offering live music began to shut down. The club was also tangled in numerous lawsuits: whether it be a liquor liability suit or from an instance where Joey Ramone whacked a fan with the mic stand. They even had some minor run-ins with local biker gangs. With their legal issues mounting, the club was forced to run without insurance. Bribes to local, corrupt officials could only get the owners so far; Judgement Day for the Pony had become inevitable. And in 1991, Roig and Pielka were forced to sell the Pony in bankruptcy court. The golden age of The Stone Pony was officially over.
The Dark ‘90s
The Pony was sold to Steven Nassar in bankruptcy court in ’91, and it would never be quite the same. Asbury Park had become dangerous and desolate. The Pony was nearly all that was left, and even former locals wanted to steer clear of the now threatening atmosphere that hung over Asbury Park in the ’90s.
Nassar pushed forward, however, with national acts leading the way. The Ramones continued to play there, as well as other shows like Hootie and the Blowfish and Joan Osborne. But as Asbury Park continued to struggle, the local musicians who had long been the club’s heartbeat became fewer by the day. This was aided by the fact that the punk rock scene was sweeping the nation. Nassar tried to bring the club along for the ride, but the mosh-pitting, hardcore style clashed with the Pony’s roots and following.
The connection with the community was all but gone under Nassar. However, he took over the club as it was a sinking ship in the eye of the storm that was Asbury Park in the ’90s. Eventually, Nassar decided to cut his losses and converted The Stone Pony into a dance club called “Vinyl” in ’98. Unsurprisingly, the new club didn’t fare so well. By the end of the century, Vinyl and The Stone Pony would be no more, once again creating a void in the Asbury Park community.
As the 21st century was set to begin, things couldn’t have seemed worse in Asbury Park. But behind the curtain, things were beginning to happen. A local businessman named Domenic Santana was about to take a leap of faith and change the Asbury Park community for years to come.
Santana was looking to make some investments around 1999 and into 2000, so he took a trip out to Asbury Park. Despite the eerie vibes the ghost town was giving off, he noticed that buses full of tourists were outside the closed Pony taking pictures. It was then he saw an opportunity. Santana decided he wanted to bring The Stone Pony back, and he enlisted the help of long-time club DJ Lee Mrowicki. Santana was determined to recapture the lost ambiance of the Pony. So he brought it back just like how it was in its heyday. In early 2000, Santana held a press conference announcing the venue would reopen on Memorial Day that year. The Stone Pony was back.
Better Than Ever
Memorial Day arrived, and so did then New Jersey Governor Christie Todd Whitman for the ribbon cutting. This moment, in retrospect, was symbolic of the new era of The Stone Pony and Asbury Park. The club was reborn still with its roots and connection to history, but this time with a needed aura of establishment and security. The Stone Pony could no longer be the hidden gem off the beaten path as it once was. By having the Governor there, Santana signaled to the world that a new age of The Stone Pony had begun and that this time, it wasn’t going to fail.
Just as the Pony needed that mainstream appeal to make it, they also needed to reconnect with their heritage. And what better way to do so than through community events and the blessing of “The Boss” himself? Since its reopening, The Stone Pony committed itself to the Asbury Park community like never before. They began hosting charity events, organizing a local festival, and so much more that continues today. The club needed the community again, and the community needed them. But to truly solidify the Pony as back, they needed the help of those that made it. And so, Mrowicki encouraged Springsteen to come back to the club to see for himself. And thankfully, The Boss gave his much-needed blessing. Here’s Bruce on stage again back in 2019:
But it wasn’t just the Pony that was being reborn again; for once, the Asbury Park community had reason to hope.
Coming Back Together
As Santana had brought the Pony back to the community, a group of investors that came to be known as Asbury Partners bought the rights to the redevelopment of Asbury Park’s oceanfront in 2001. With a corruption-free city council backing the development, it seemed as if the tide was shifting in Asbury Park. However, Santana learned, the developers were planning to build condos all around The Stone Pony, which would effectively kill the club’s allure. So once again, the Pony had to turn to the local musicians and community. Soon enough, people were marching down the street with “Save the Pony” signs. The developers quickly got the message of how critical the Pony was to Asbury Park.
Though Asbury Park was booming with new development, Santana decided to step aside in 2003. He sold The Stone Pony to the Asbury Partners to usher in a new era for the town more effectively. Even so, the Pony didn’t miss a beat. Soon the new owners would bring back national acts better than before. This was primarily aided by a new arrangement made with a promotion company now known as Live Nation, which made the Pony one of their national venues. With this new arrangement, The Stone Pony still relied on local artists and citizens to keep the club’s heart beating.
Check out this shot taken in the seaside area of Asbury Park, showing the vibrance of this resurged community:
The Modern Age
The Stone Pony has since gone on to further stake its claim in the national music scene and rock history. Their national prominence was reliant upon their new outdoor concert stage and venue added in ’09. The Pony continues to serve as a platform for young artists and groups like Weezer, Maroon 5, Green Day, and many others who’ve performed there before reaching stardom. To this day, it’s widely regarded as one of the greatest rock clubs of all time.
The Asbury Partners have continued to build up the boardwalk and seaside areas of Asbury Park, specifically on the east side and the areas near the Pony. The town is once more a popular tourist destination and desirable place. As it hosts a new boardwalk, luxury real estate, excellent restaurants, and many little shops.
Work To Be Done
But I’d be remiss if I portrayed this development and rebirth as complete. To this day, the west side of Asbury Park has not recovered. Some storefronts damaged in the riots nearly 50 years ago remain vacant. A good portion of Asbury Park’s west side residents still live below the poverty line. And with development comes the double-edged sword of opportunity and gentrification, specifically for minority groups of Asbury Park. However, it seems that in recent years particularly, the city has acknowledged these problems. The town has done a fantastic job righting past wrongs. But lots of work remains to once-and-for-all move past the darkest time of its history.
2020, in particular, was a tough year for the town just as it was for most places across the nation. Asbury Park depends on events and happenings that bring people together, which made last year notably challenging. However, the community seems to have bounced back this year and more specifically, this summer. And of course, The Stone Pony had been leading the way with a booked summer schedule. This short Instagram video offers a nice look into the feel of Asbury Park this summer:
Nothing Without Music
The draw of present-day Asbury Park and The Stone Pony are both past and future-oriented. Both have a troubled, yet alluring history but are still defining themselves in the 21st century. They both symbolize ups and downs, resilience, and the unwavering power of community and the arts. As we ponder over that history and imagine the future, it’s easy to see in retrospect how this town and the Pony had all the necessary elements to cultivate a vibrant independent music scene.
Asbury Park was a town of “misfits,” corruption, racial tension, and a dying economy. It was begging for a savior, and often in forgotten places like this, it’s culture that comes to the rescue. Despite the worldwide fame the club and the city would obtain, the real intrigue was always that proximity to edge. Yeah, you might catch a glimpse of Bruce Springsteen, and hell, you might even see him perform. But you also wouldn’t go outside alone or walk more than a block away from the Pony. It’s a sense of rebellion, release, and freedom that draws people in. And The Stone Pony in Asbury Park was beautifully symbolic of that. As much as Asbury Park and The Stone Pony struggled, one couldn’t survive without the other. The people of this lost town saved each other through music and community.
Check out this cool video The Stone Pony put up for a deeper look into the legendary club:
Main Image via @the_stone_pony