Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, July 12 2018. Photos by JOHN CAVANAUGH
If there ever was such a thing as a Mount Rushmore of Honorary Shorecats…you know, those veteran rockers whose long-running careers were nurtured in the same pool of influences as our own Asbury-area aces…and whose wall-of-sound work ethic has allowed them to mix, match and make themselves entirely at home among the stars and bars of the Jersey Shore, despite being rooted in other states/ other scenes…then Joe Grushecky would have to be considered a carved-in-granite cornerstone (our other picks: John Cafferty, John Eddie, and Willie Nile, himself profiled in this space a few weeks back).
A frequent-flyer visitor to all shapes and sizes of Asbury Park venues (plus nearby Monmouth U) for nearly forty years…and a core component of the Light of Day concerts since their inception…the Pittsburgh-based musician and educator has staked a place on our city’s boulevards, beach and boardwalk since the days of the original Iron City Houserockers, the acclaimed late 70s/early 80s band that put a particularly amped-up spin on the “working class rock” template.
“I’ve always felt a strong kinship with Asbury Park,” explains the singer-songwriter-guitarist who made his local debut in 1980, as opening act on a Convention Hall bill with Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson (who would go on to co-produce, with Steve Van Zandt, his band’s acclaimed sophomore release Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive!). It’s a well-traveled road that would carry him numerous times to the old Fast Lane, the Stone Pony (on whose stage he recorded a 2016 live album), the Paramount — and the Wonder Bar, where Joe Grushecky and the rebranded Houserockers return on July 14 for a Saturday night session that looks to be a sell-out as we post these words.
“I’ve played in Asbury at least once each year since 1993…including that era when you could drive a truck down the middle of the sidewalk and not hit anyone,” he says. “I like to think that we’ve been part of the fabric of this scene, and I’m really gratified to see the way it’s rebounded in recent years.”
“Of course, Light of Day had a lot to do with it,” adds Grushecky in reference to the annual slate of concerts — and the foundation for Parkinson’s disease research that they support — established by Joe’s manager Bob Benjamin, himself a person who’s lived with Parkinson’s for many years. “Light of Day played a large part in keeping Asbury Park afloat.”
As a fixture on the program of those big January Light of Day concerts produced by Benjamin and veteran promoter/ executive director Tony Pallagrosi (as well as ancillary L.O.D. events in places like Philadelphia and Niagara Falls), Grushecky has shared the stage with multiple generations of recording artists, in addition to movie stars, TV stars, circus stars — plus a certain Mr. Springsteen; composer of the song “Just Around the Corner to the Light of Day,” and a guy whose tendency to jam frequently with his Pittsburgh pal has made him not so much Joe’s Big Scary Friend as, quite possibly, Joe’s biggest fan.
“We share a lot of the same roots,” says Grushecky of Springsteen, who famously produced Joe’s 1995 solo album American Babylon — and who added his voice to the timely anthem “That’s What Makes Us Great” last year. “We’re the same age, same working-class background…I come from a family of coal miners…and you can say that our viewpoints are very closely aligned. It’s an easy friendship, and it translates whenever we play music together.”
Bruce, of course, is committed on Saturday to an 8 pm performance of the massively successful “Springsteen On Broadway” at NYC’s Walter Kerr Theatre — and the actual fact is that Grushecky has cultivated a solid Shore fanbase that transcends the rubberneckings of Boss birdwatchers, even as the Wonder Bar’s famous streetside windows make for an always-friendly casual viewing experience. But then again, Joe is quick to admit that “we’ve got a deep repertoire of Bruce material from years of playing with him,” and, well, stranger things have certainly happened on the streets of Asbury Park, NJ.
Above all else, the occasion will present an opportunity to spotlight material from the recent release More Yesterdays than Tomorrows, the first album of new songs issued under the Houserockers brand in nearly ten years — and a project partially made possible through a crowdfunding effort, an endeavor that Grushecky cites as “how we keep up with the ways in which the business has changed.” Among the current cast of Houserockers is Grushecky’s son Johnny, a guitarist who “was making music since he was a baby…he played with Bruce when he was eight years old; he was born with The Fever…and his production skills really shaped the course of the new album.”
“If anything, I feel bad for the guys in the younger bands; what these young people have to endure these days just to get your attention, and just to make a go of it,” says the lanky veteran who, like his contemporary Springsteen, cut his teeth in the teen clubs of the 1960s, and the raucous rock clubs of the early 70s.
“We’d play four to five hours a night, several times a week,” he recalls, name-checking local Pittsburgh rooms like The Decade. “We jammed until we actually knew what we were doing…we learned lots of songs, and we didn’t have to worry about things like pay-to-play, or spending our own money on promoting the show.”
That degree of concern for the “trials and tribulations” of the younger generation is entirely in character for Grushecky, a longtime school teacher who returned to the profession following the breakup of the original Iron City Houserockers in the mid-1980s. A specialist in working with at-risk youth within the inner-city environment, he has at various times in his career taught students with Down syndrome, autism, and even schizophrenia.
“Teaching is a tough gig in general, and especially in a place that’s economically distressed,” he observes. “No funding, low pay, not much support for what we do…but we provide emotional support for a lot of these kids, and the rewards are there for the kids that we’re able to reach.”
Here in the interlude between school sessions, the Houserockers have stepped up their activity — and “I think we sound better than ever,” says Joe of the band that maintains a characteristically strong presence in its native Pittsburgh, while regularly playing to fervent fanbases in territory that extends “from D.C. to the south; Toronto and Niagara Falls to the north; Cleveland to the west, and Asbury Park to the east.”
“It’s nice to branch out now and then; work with other people that want to share their talents…but it’s always great to come home to the boys.”
Doors open at 8 pm for the July 14, with tickets ($20 in advance) available at wonderbarasburypark.com, or at the door for $25.