On a frigid February night in 1974, the Stone Pony opened its doors for the first time. The only problem was, nobody came. The club had booked a band to perform, but it snowed several inches in Asbury Park that day, putting a serious damper on any appeal the premiere of a new nightclub held for locals. When the staff finally called it a night, receipts behind the bar totaled $1. It was an inauspicious debut for a spot that would become one of the most iconic music venues in the country, one that continues to inspire pilgrimages by music fans from around the world and will celebrate a historic and unlikely milestone—its 40th anniversary—this month.
Before going any further, it’s important to get one thing straight. Despite nearly every media account of the club, the Stone Pony is not where Bruce Springsteen got his start. By 1974, Springsteen had already released two critically lauded—if commercially underwhelming—albums on Columbia Records and was on the verge of releasing his career-making 1975 album, Born To Run. The Pony would later become one of the Boss’s regular haunts and play host to other Jersey-born stars like Jon Bon Jovi over the years, but the real story of the club is about local heroes, Jersey Shore legends who sweated it out on long summer nights and kept fans coming week after week through Asbury’s decline and rebirth.
Asbury Park has been an entertainment destination almost from its start. The promise of a day at the beach and a night on the boardwalk has enticed hordes of visitors since the late 1800s, prompting Cole Porter’s snide line, “Is that Granada I see, or only Asbury Park?” in his 1938 song, “At Long Last Love.”
Despite a decline in popularity in the 1960s and riots sparked by racial and economic tensions in 1970, Asbury Park remained the place to be for rock ’n‘ rollers at the Shore. In that dismal period, late-night jam sessions at the Upstage Club, a coffee house on Cookman Avenue, brought together a young Springsteen and early incarnations of what would become the E Street Band—players like Steven Van Zandt, Danny Federici, Gary Tallent, Vini Lopez and David Sancious—along with local attractions like Southside Johnny Lyon, Sonny Kenn and Bill Chinnock.
In 1971, the Upstage shut its doors. Though Asbury still had rock ’n‘ roll rooms like the Student Prince (reborn in 2011 as Porta restaurant) and the Sunshine In, the seemingly endless supply of talent drawn to the city had no clear late-night focal point. While blight depressed many parts of town, the beachfront still retained its timeless appeal.
“Everything was at the boardwalk at that time,” says longtime Stone Pony DJ and de facto club historian Lee Mrowicki. “It looked like Seaside Heights with the rides and everything. There would be times you couldn’t even get a parking spot anywhere near Main Street,” which is more than a half-mile inland.
In 1974, John P. “Jack” Roig and Robert “Butch” Pielka took over a building directly across the street from the beach at Ocean and Second avenues—once the site of Mrs. Jay’s restaurant and bar, later a failed disco called the Magic Touch—and gave it a name that reportedly came to one of the owners in a dream: the Stone Pony.
The new owners had high hopes for the Stone Pony as a live music venue, but things didn’t take off until 1975, when they hired the Blackberry Booze Band, which featured Van Zandt and Southside Johnny as the house band. “It was Little Steven Van Zandt who started this craziness here,” says Tony “Boccigalupe” Amato, whose band Cahoots earned local stardom on the emerging Pony scene. “They started out working for the door, so the first night you made $3, and the next week you made $6, and it just built up.” The group evolved into Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and their rowdy, energetic brand of horn-fueled R&B would define the club’s early style, sonically and socially.
“The first time I was at the Pony, I’d gone specifically to see the Jukes,” says Tony Pallagrosi, who later joined the band as a trumpeter. “I knew nothing about the band at that point, and I was shocked to see that there were 200 to 300 people in that place on a Tuesday night.”
The Jukes became a consistent draw; at their peak, they performed five 40-minute sets a night, three nights a week, attracting thousands of fans as their gigs lasted months on end. In a return of the late-night jams that had been the hallmark of the Upstage Club, spontaneity took hold. Suddenly it wasn’t unusual for locals like Springsteen to jump onstage with the Jukes, or for big-name artists, like Boz Scaggs, to sit in after they finished their headlining shows at nearby Convention Hall.
Physically, the space was unremarkable. It had a stage, a bar, a DJ booth, capacity for an audience of a few hundred, and a kitchen in the back that could be counted on for a mean hamburger. But the quality of the music, the camaraderie of the musicians and the promise of an unpredictable night conspired to make the Pony the nucleus of Asbury’s music scene.
“The Pony was a very social scene in those days, and when the Jukes were home and the E Street Band was home, it was the place we all hung out,” says Pallagrosi. “We were young. It was rock’n‘ roll, drugs and sex. There was a lot of booze, and the Pony was open until three o’clock in those days. A lot of times you’d stay in the club and party ‘til the sun came up.”
The Jukes’ Memorial Day 1976 record-release show for I Don’t Want To Go Home, their Epic Records debut, marked a turning point in the Pony’s transformation from local hotspot to national destination. The concert was simulcast live by Mrowicki, who worked at Asbury Park radio station WJLK, to nine major markets around the country. Springsteen showed up unannounced, joining the scheduled guests, former Ronette Ronnie Spector and R&B singer Lee Dorsey. Word about the Stone Pony was out, and with the Jukes moving on to international touring, music fans and record executives began flocking to the club in search of the next big Asbury band.
In truth, there was no Asbury Park sound. “There were a dozen typical Asbury-style bands,” says Mrowicki, who became the club’s full-time DJ in 1980, spinning tunes and entertaining the crowd between bands’ sets seven nights a week. “We had a hard rock band called Salty Dog that used to pack the place, and there were country and heavy metal and disco and top 40 bands every week.”
“If we weren’t one of the guys playing that night, we’d be sitting at the bar having drinks enjoying whatever other band was up there,” Amato says of the collaborative nature of the scene. “It was a very tight, family-oriented clique. We might not have all been in the same band, but everybody was a family. Nobody was better than each other. There was no, ‘Oh, that’s Bruce Springsteen.’ It didn’t matter. We never looked at him as anything other than being one of the guys.”
Springsteen was in the midst of a legal battle that prevented him from recording and touring in the mid-1970s, but it was common knowledge that he could be found at the Pony performing with the Jukes or with other homegrown favorites like Cahoots, Cold Blast and Steel, and Mad Dog and the Shakes (featuring former E Street drummer Vini Lopez). In the 1980s, Cats on a Smooth Surface, a band fronted by current Bon Jovi rhythm guitarist and frequent Juke Bobby Bandiera, became the hottest act on the scene, and Springsteen was a regular guest at their Sunday-night shows when he wasn’t on the road.
“One night Bruce came in on a Monday, there was a new wave band called NRG playing, and he brought along a new single,” remembers
Mrowicki, who was manning his usual spot in the DJ booth. “He said, ‘Let’s try it out on the crowd,’ and I played the premiere of ‘Dancing in the Dark’ that night.” Springsteen and the E Street Band even played an unannounced 1984 show to kick off their mammoth Born in the USA stadium tour.
All the attention helped attract big-name artists, including Elvis Costello, Blondie, the Ramones and Gregg Allman, to perform at the club, but by the late ’80s and early ’90s, Asbury Park resembled a ghost town, and the Pony stumbled as the city struggled. A series of lawsuits over drunk driving, combined with poor financial management forced the club into bankruptcy. Mrowicki attempted to lead an effort to purchase the place in the name of the staff, but was unable to compete with Deal businessman Steve Nasar, who bought the club, redid its interior and brought in Pallagrosi to help expand the bookings.
“When it reopened in 1992 after that first closure, our goal was not to recreate the old Stone Pony,” says Pallagrosi, who by this time had left the Jukes and was promoting concerts at Asbury clubs like Xanadu and the Fast Lane. “Our goal was to embrace all the new music that was coming out and turn it into a pure national-act venue. I purposely didn’t book Southside Johnny as our first act. The ’90s at the Pony brought groups that became major bands, like Green Day, the Deftones, the Black Crowes.”
In the vacant space next door that had been Mrs. Jay’s Beer Garden, the new owner erected a circus tent known as the Stone Pony Big Top to host outdoor concerts in the summer. Today, outdoor concerts are held at the Stone Pony Summerstage, which has played host to Jersey-bred breakouts like Pete Yorn and the Gaslight Anthem as well as international stars like Social Distortion and Dropkick Murphys.
Pallagrosi’s strategy helped keep the club afloat despite Asbury’s decay, but some locals who had been playing and working at the club for decades felt it had drifted from its roots. As the ’90s wore on, Asbury Park and the club continued to face a bleak financial landscape, and in 1998, after a brief attempt at converting it into a dance club called Vinyl, Nasar shut the Pony’s doors once again.
The building sat dormant until 2000, when it was purchased by Jersey City businessman Domenic Santana, who recognized the club’s historic significance and potential value. “When Domenic took it over, that place was a mess,” says Steve Schraeger, who performed with Cahoots and Cold Blast and Steel. He credits Santana with saving the club. “They’d been closed a couple years and had water damage inside; the roof was leaking bad. He fixed it because it was falling apart.”
Santana, along with former general manager Eileen Chapman, renovated the space to reflect its original look and feel, updating the walls with memorabilia—from signed guitars to vintage photos to a giant reproduction of the Greetings From Asbury Park postcard that adorns Springsteen’s debut album cover. “When Domenic bought the place, he reverted it more back to its roots and invited classic artists to perform here,” says house promoter and local legend Kyle Brendle, who first booked shows at the club in the mid-1980s. “There was a visible focus on Asbury Park.”
In 2005, the development company Madison Marquette, which owns most of the Asbury Park waterfront, purchased the Pony from Asbury Partners (who had purchased the club from Santana in 2003). Today, the Pony hosts a mix of national acts and local favorites, often on the same bill, and while Asbury may not boast the same musical vitality that earned it the reputation of America’s Liverpool in its heady early rock days, music fans from across the world keep on coming, and the Pony remains an integral part of the city’s identity and economy.
Forty years in, everyone has a theory about what’s enabled the Pony to survive two closings and outlast nearly every other business in the city. “There’s two things that make any bar business survive,” says Pallagrosi. “First one is buying the thing at the right price so you don’t choke to death on the mortgage payments. I think every owner has bought the Pony at an exceedingly great price. The second reason is Bruce Springsteen. The Pony closed a couple of times, and that could have been it, but because of the connection to Bruce, there was always someone who said, ‘The Stone Pony closed? How could that be? That place must be a gold mine.’”
The Springsteen association is a huge factor, but not the sole reason for the club’s endurance. “The proximity to New York City brings a lot of players through,” says Brendle. “It’s very accessible as a stop between Philadelphia and New York for a lot of national touring bands.”
“It’s not just the history and Springsteen and Bon Jovi and Southside,” says Pat DiNizio of the Smithereens, the seminal New Jersey band that got one of its first big breaks in 1980 opening for the residency of the Lord Gunner Group, a band that featured Lance Larson, who now runs the nearby Wonder Bar with Debbie DeLisa. “It’s about the uniqueness of the room. It’s funky and traditional and audience friendly. You’re treated like family here. You see old friends and they’ve got their own families now, but they never lost their rock ’n‘ roll heart. The Stone Pony is where they come to keep that heart beating.”
The word family comes up a lot when talking to staff and regulars about the club’s endurance. “I really think it’s the people,” says bartender/maintenance man Jimmy Capobianco. “The fans know who is playing, they can go see the band anywhere else, but they come here for a reason.” Capobiancio began working at the club 12 years ago, after he and his wife Melissa—now a bartender at the Pony—had been coming every Friday night regardless of the performers. “It’s the atmosphere and getting to know the people who work here that makes it special,” Capobianco goes on. “They said, ‘You’re here so often, why don’t you work here?’ Down here, I fit in.”
Capobianco was manning the outdoor smoking-section bar on a recent Friday night while several hundred fans packed into the club to see the Smithereens perform something of a homecoming concert. Mrowicki was back in the DJ platform, where he frequently returns to action, spinning tunes from Jersey bands between sets and giving the crowd quick history lessons. Capobianco poured beers and waxed philosophical during a quiet moment. “It’s good to be alive and in Asbury Park,” he said. “The third time’s a charm for revival.”
Anthony D’Amato is a musician and writer whose parents first brought him to the Stone Pony at age 5. He’ll release his new album on New West Records this summer.
Read about The Wonder Bar, the Stone Pony’s sister bar, here.