Monday, June 27, 2016

A Jersey Shore Playlist

Clip from a doc about the Shore from the 90s, during the Shore's scuzzier days

Tomorrow I'm heading off to the Jersey Shore with my family, including my parents, who are in town this week. I am relishing turning my parents on to the magic place that is the Jersey shore, a place that makes me inexplicably happy. As a child of the Great Plains, nothing consoles my soul like wide vistas, whether they be the ocean or the broad expanses of the prairies. But on the Shore I also get a sea breeze, cool water, and the carnival atmosphere of the boardwalk. I have assimilated myself to New Jersey in so many ways, and not just out of the need to make peace with the fact that this is the place I have chosen to settle down. I do love so much about this wrongly maligned place, and the Shore is near the top of the list.

Driving down to the Shore is an experience in itself. There's the beauty of the Parkway once you cross the Perth Amboy bridge and the industrial grit gives way to trees that become increasingly pinier and more foreign as you keep moving south. There's also the anticipation of soon being able to bask in a summer that is more summer. (It's the only way I can explain the Shore this time of year.) Key to relishing that anticipation is a good soundtrack. Here's some of my favorite Shore songs.

Bruce Springsteen, "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
Okay, I am going to get the obvious pick out of the way first. Not only is The Boss from Jersey, he cut his teeth as a musician in Asbury Park, a shore city that had fallen on hard times in the 1960s and 1970s. When you go there, you immediately understand his early sensibility. It is a ragtag place with a few monuments to its faded glory, a visible symbol of the realities beneath the shining, false propaganda of the American Dream, perhaps Springsteen's most potent theme. This song is the most direct one of his about The Shore, describing bands playing at the Casino (not a gambling casino, btw) on Asbury Park's boardwalk. It is an unjustly forgotten song of longing from The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, perhaps his most Shore-centric album. (His previous record may have been called Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, but more of the songs seem to be about New York City.)

Tom Waits, "Jersey Girl"

Tom Waits has different modes, from the weirdo street poet to the cracked bluesman, to the wacko mad scientist of odd sounds. It's easy to forget his skills as a balladeer, and this song is probably his greatest ballad. It's about falling in love with a Jersey girl, something both he and I did in real life. It expresses so well the feelings of newfound love, the ecstasy that almost seems too good to be true, along with the anguish about being separated from the person that makes you so happy. The key line for our purposes here is how he expresses the ecstasy "Down the Shore everything's all right/Just you and your baby on a Saturday night."

Journey, "Don't Stop Believin'"

Don't judge me. On the Shore some things have never gone out of style, and that includes the big hair and big music of the 1980s. Folks there sorta decided around 1989 that they liked things how they were and were not too keen on changing it all that much. This song, as cheesy as it is, represents the kind of chance romantic meeting between two lost people that the Shore was made for. Also it doesn't hurt that it's associated so strongly with The Sopranos.

The Drifters, "Under The Boardwalk"

Wildwood, New Jersey, had its heyday as a Shore town in the 1950s and early 60s, when folks could motor on over from Philly for some fun in the sun. The amazing number of tacky mid-century motels in the town are called "doo-wop architecture," in honor of the music that dominated the Shore at the time. The Drifters sang the ultimate song about romance on the beach, about making out under the boardwalk. It's been covered many times, but nothing beats the original.

The Shirelles, "Dedicated To The One I Love"

And of course, some of the great vocal R&B music being played on the boardwalks during the Shore's boom times came from right within the Garden State. The mighty Shirelles hailed from Passaic, and pioneered the "girl group" sound well before Phil Spector came around. There's the boardwalk and all that on the Shore, but sometimes it's good just to relax and let the beauty of the ocean wash over you, just as these harmonies do.

Bruce Springsteen, "I'm A Rocker"

Okay, I just couldn't help myself with a second helping of The Boss. This is not one of his more famous songs, but just you see if you can find a better one to blast from your car as you shoot down the Garden State Parkway into the heart of summer on the Shore.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes, "The Fever"

Not all of the Shore musicians got as famous as Springsteen, but many still cut some great tracks mining the same shaft of rocking riffs mixed with old-school R&B grooves. It's a sound that fits the Shore's imperative to dance and let the good times roll. I still want to see Southside Johnny play a show.


Oblio said...

BRAVO!!!! I shared this post with a NJ-born co-worker who spent many many days of his youth on the Jersey Shore, and he said it almost made him cry. He even met Bruce during one of his unannounced visits to The Stone Pony and said they had a big time that night. I really enjoy your musical time-travel pastiches... many thanks!

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Oh man, what I would give to go back in time and see Bruce at a club show. Thanks for the kind words.