IN ASBURY PARK, SHE’S SURE THE DARLENE WE LOVE

Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, June 21 2018

It maybe didn’t qualify as the strangest sight that’s ever been seen around these parts; that day a few summers ago when a cherry-red classic Cadillac convertible eased onto the herringboned hardwoods of the Asbury Park boardwalk, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers, and numbering among its passengers the runaway rocker Joan Jett, and a surfboard-toting Paul Shaffer.

But for the woman behind the wheel, that sunny afternoon in July 2015 represented the home stretch of a fifty-plus years journey; one marked by detours off the main road every bit as much as victory laps. After a long career as that uncredited voice behind the hit song, or that kind-of familiar face on the movie screen, or that seasoned professional working her craft “twenty feet from stardom,” Darlene Love was finally in the driver’s seat, as the justly celebrated superstar of her own story.

The occasion was the filming of the official music video for “Forbidden Nights,” the (Elvis Costello-penned) single from the (Steven Van Zandt-produced) album Introducing Darlene Love — and as a crowd of camera-ready fans gathered in front of the shoot’s beachtop stage, the star of the show explained to a “making of” documentary crew that the people of Asbury Park “adopted me as their own…so when I come here, I automatically have fans that I didn’t know I had.”

A little more than a month later, Darlene Love was back on the boards; this time as the headline attraction for a Paramount Theater concert organized and produced by Van Zandt — one that found the veteran voice of countless Phil Spector recording sessions recreating that fabled “Wall of Sound” with the full faith and fury of the Monmouth Symphony Orchestra. The vivacious vocalist whose 1960s work so inspired Van Zandt and his E Street Boss has returned many times to the area since; notably for a series of Yuletide-season concerts at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre.

As Ms. Love tells it, those shows grew out of the handful of songs that she performed on the Spector-produced A Christmas Gift for You, the 1963 album that overcame its bad-timing debut (it was released on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination) — as well as its Bad Santa association with the now jailed-for-life impresario — to trailblaze an entire new market for pop/rock holiday LPs. While Darlene appeared on the record as a member of Bob B. Soxx and the Blue Jeans (whose space-age Spectorization of the Disney tune “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” was an oddball hit that caught the ear of young Springsteen) — and was billed under her own name for a set of secular seasonal favorites that included “Marshmallow World” (co-written by hit composer Peter DeRose, who owned a home on Asbury Park’s Eighth Avenue) — the real standout track was “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” the thrilling Ellie Greenwich-Jeff Barry original that, as it turns out, had a very influential fan in the person of one David Letterman.

“Dave gave me a brand new career,” she says of the late night host who made a tradition of inviting her to perform her signature “Christmas” song on his show a total of 29 times, beginning in 1986. “He dubbed me the Christmas Queen…and I’ve been really blessed to be remembered for it by so many people.”

Among the people who took notice from the start was the restaurateur-entrepreneur-philanthropist and eternal Shore musicmaker Tim McLoone, whose concerts with the positive force known as Holiday Express drew a tremendous part of their sonic signature from Love’s classic Christmas repertoire. In a break from the big-event settings for which the singer is best known, the bandleader has invited her to perform several times with his combo The Shirleys, in the more intimate environment of Tim McLoone’s Supper Club. On Friday night, June 22, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love joins Tim and the Shirleys for a special summertime set, inside McLoone’s sophisticated space at the top of the space-age landmark that famously and formerly housed Asbury’s HoJo’s restaurant. Set to start at 8 pm, it’s an evening that promises “a mix of my songs…I never know what we’re gonna do until he calls me” (it’s also, happily but also sadly, an event that’s apparently sold out as we post this).

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A ‘Bridge’ of souls on Bridge Avenue, at Two River premiere

Actor-playwright David Greenspan (fourth from left) tops the cast in his adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY, on stage now at Two River Theater.  (Photos by T. CHARLES ERICKSON)

(Published in the Asbury Park Press on March 2, 2018)

“There is a land of the living and a land of the dead,” wrote Thornton Wilder at the end of “The Bridge of San Luis Rey,” the 1927 novel now on stage in a world premiere theatrical version at Red Bank’s Two River Theater, “…and the bridge is love.”

Those who’ve come to love Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning piece of work may find this “Bridge” to be an altogether different structure. But while it takes some ever-wilder liberties with the sometimes somber source material — a meditation on mortality and the seeming randomness of the Creator’s will, set in the aftermath of a rope-bridge collapse that kills five people — the dramatization by serial Obie Award winner David Greenspan manages to preserve the beating heart of the author’s core themes, even while losing the one presence who pretty much tied it all together.

Presented without intermission inside the Marion Huber space at Two River’s branded Bridge Avenue arts center, Greenspan’s commissioned work finds the dynamic actor-playwright-director working once more with a company of fellow players, having recently wrapped a Guinness-level gig during which he performed a six-hour solo take on Eugene O’Neill’s mammoth “Strange Interlude.” He and the other eight members of the cast collaborate here under the direction of Two River returnee Ken Rus Schmoll, whose 2017 production “The Women of Padilla” served as satisfying prelude to this time-hopping tale centered around an 18th century Peruvian village.

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‘DWELLING’ ON THE PAST, AT NEW JERSEY REP

Left to right: Dustin Charles, Maria Couch, Dana Brooke and Jared Michael Delaney share space in “Multiple Family Dwelling,” the James Hindman play that premieres this weekend at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch. Photos by SUZANNE BARABAS

It’s a play that’s ostensibly set in its author’s hometown of Mount Clemens, Michigan — but as James Hindman tells it, “Multiple Family Dwelling” was directly inspired by frontier tales of gentrification here on the Jersey Shore, specifically his own experiences house hunting in and around Asbury Park around the turn of the century.

“I was standing out front of an old house in Asbury, and just as the real estate agent was putting her key in the front door, a team of police in full militarized riot gear pulled up to the house next door, and surrounded the place with assault rifles,” the playwright recalls. “Without missing a beat, the realtor says, ‘See? The neighborhood’s cleaning up nicely!'”

While he eventually settled upon Bradley Beach as his down-the-shore base of operations, Hindman would make Asbury Park’s landmark Carousel House the 2010 premiere venue for “The Bikinis,” a jukebox-musical study of a (not always harmoniously) reunited 1960s girl group that’s gone on to more than 50 productions around the country. For his return to the Shore area stage, the writer and actor whose credits range from Broadway’s “Mary Poppins,” to a recurring role on Marvel Studios’ forthcoming Netflix series “Iron Fist” expanded a ten-minute playlet into the full length “Dwelling,” which opens this weekend as the latest in a long line of world premieres at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

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A CURSE FOR CHRISTMAS

hope-deflated

“I look forward to the storm…keeps everybody in sight. Washes everything clean.”

— The highway killer, in the film JOY RIDE

Straight Outta Compton's CreekDon’t know why I exactly got to thinking about that disappointing killer-thriller feature — a movie that I hadn’t thought about once since the lone time I saw it — there on that chilly day in the run-up to Christmas. Maybe it was the stretch of highway before me; a not-common sight since I don’t have all that much occasion to drive these days. 

That, coupled with the light freezing rain that was starting to fall, and which prompted all the other cars ahead to slow down, tighten up the flow just a little bit. Keeping everybody in sight, if not exactly washing it all clean.

For me the occasion was a too-rare excursion to my old Wetside stomping grounds, a place that I generally steer clear of even more than I do driving in general — not out of any lingering sense of dread or evulsion; just the knowledge that, now as ever, there’s really not much reason to go there…or even to pass on through, as there always seems to be an easier alternative than that tired old highway and its traffic lights positioned what seems like every 50 feet.

The fact that I can pretty much get everything I need in and around my adopted little city — and the fact that the world pretty much finds its way to me — keeps me close to base camp. And not having day-to-day use of a car makes for a dandy excuse to not visit my mom’s house; so ridiculously close to where I live now, but so “been-there-done-that” I only manage to make it over there maybe twice a year anymore. And no, Christmas won’t be one of those times.  

(I’ve gone on at length about my beloathed hometown…and I’ve done it most eloquently in my extended rant “The Sprayer Man Cometh: A Wetsider Elegy.” Read it right here if you dare…then come back in an hour or so. We’ll be here.)

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THE SPRAYER MAN COMETH: A WETSIDER ELEGY

PoMonRd1997

I’m a Wetsider…a Cricker. A native of that peculiar cranny of the Monmouth County, NJ “Bayshore” that sits just short of the Atlantic Ocean, and, for much of the time I spent growing up there, on the wrong side of not one but TWO highways PLUS a set of railroad tracks. 

You can say I’m “Straight Outta Compton’s Creek.” Straight, but (as it turned out) not at all immune from occasionally getting bullied for being a “fag” (even my mom got into the act: “Why ya’s gotta use words like that? Whaddaya think yer ROYALTY?”). I’m old…very old…very white, and, despite the best efforts of several dedicated employees of the Middletown Township school system, wholly uneducated.

Straight Outta Compton's Creek

There’s a bit of the (not terribly focused) striver in me, but at the same time a barely suppressed streak of hillbilly-grade Lazy and Shiftless…a general knee-jerk disdain for authority that isn’t always grounded in reality, and (given the environment I had to operate within) an inclination toward isolation that has to be consciously fought against every day, if I’m to maintain any sort of a place in this world.

I came of age, besieged by allergies and beset by nervous tics, in a neglected backwater that sat just outside the borders of “normal” suburbia, polite society, and anything that might merit getting graced with something…shiny new shopping centers, skilled jobs…that could have maybe lifted us out of the mucky marshland we were mired in. As my grandma used to say, “Ya’s can’t have nuttin’ NICE!”

And yet, from my folks I received a most valuable gift: a real experience of a part of America…a BIGass part of America…that baffles and flusters and even frightens a lot of folks who haven’t spent time there; haven’t lived it. Despite the props and the posturing, it’s nothing to be frightened of…believe me, folks…but it takes some understanding, and if you’re not up to the task (or the long read to follow) then just take it here for Frankie Laine’s performance of the theme from TV’s “Rawhide” (“Don’t try to understand ’em; just rope and throw and brand ’em”).   

My father…the original Angry Commuter in those years before talk radio…was the sort of guy who was prone to purple-faced, spittle-lipped, vein-popping apoplexy; who when he wasn’t taking it out on the family and the pets could be found attempting to run over a couple of little kids who hit his station wagon with a snowball, or actually booby-trapping the foam rubber ball on his car antenna with embedded razor blades, as a deterrent to mall-parking-lot mischief. 

Presidential campaign season was an especially rich time around the household; an interval when the mid-summer decorative trinkets and gewgaws (rustic folk-art figures of watermelon-eating picaninnies) would soon be supplanted by patriotic tchotchkes and items in support of George Wallace, Nixon, Reagan, Pat Buchanan…even a threatened write-in of David Duke. 

I was taught well for sure…but maybe because of my standing as the oldest kid (and therefore the only one who really remembered what it was like to live in an urban place) I could never quite get the hang of it; could never really carry on in the old man’s name…certainly could never single-handedly build a garage or finish an attic like he could. For a time there I’d even spend portions of my summers with my grandparents up in the city; a sort of “Reverse Fresh Air Fund” in more ways than one, as we’ll touch upon in a moment.

Frank's Signs

Still, these are my people; this is where I’m from…and it’s as a lead-blooded Wetsider that I attempt to explain the One Thing that unites our ornery kith and kind.

You know, the One Thing…as in, if you had only one thing in this whole world, how hard would you work to hang onto it?

That One Thing you couldn’t do without; the one thing, tangible or no, that defines your own sense of worth…that spurs you to haul yourself out of bed in the morning; that colors how you choose to interact (or not) with the rest of the world?

Could be your family…your faith…your face, your fame, your house or your car. Your “success,” your sexual preference, your youth, your senses of decency/ superiority/ survival/ humor. Your reputation, your tribe, your guns, your pets, your victimhood, your centeredness, your slabbed and graded copy of Amazing Fantasy No. 15? 

Whether you wear it on your social media sleeve, or bury it like a ticking time capsule, chances are you’ve got your One Thing. So the flipside of the question is: if you were dealing with someone who you knew was all about THEIR One Thing…would you move to take it away from them?

THEIR faith? THEIR home? Their success, their survival mechanisms, their sexy prefs, their pets? Their guns? If you DID manage to take it away from them, what happens next? Do you even care, or is it just Mission Accomplished?

Do they “see the light” and come quickly and cleanly around to your way of thinking? Do they withdraw from the world, or do they crack and lash out? Does anything else ever really take the place of their One Thing?

I only ask because I make no secret of embracing my heritage as a Wetsider…and chances are excellent that if you’re reading this (or, really, if you read anything at all), you’re not familiar with the “Upper Wet Side” of my youth. Suffice to say it was one of those dyin’ places located off the main route…a place of dirt roads that dead-ended into skeeter-infested swamps of cattail reeds. A place of washed-out bridges that put the next, equally dismal town just out of reach. A place that sat literally within eyeshot (and a cheap bus ride) of the big city…but might as well have been on Pluto’s bastard moon for the amount of light and heat and energy that reached us there.

It was the kind of place where a “normal” house would butt up against a shack on cinder blocks, with a tarpaper flap for a front door. The kind of place where some of your classmates came to school with no shoes; where cars would roll into your neighborhood from other communities, busted sofas and refrigerators strapped to their roof, and dump their castoff cargo with the full knowledge and tacit approval of the town fathers. 

It was the kind of place where everybody knew somebody who got sent away to juvie lockup, or had a sister who got knocked up, or a family member who committed suicide, or even a family member who murdered another family member. A place where all of the symptomatic bugaboos of “urban” life were present and accounted for, in this dark holler so far away from the scare-story “street” settings of the evening news.

E Kburg Robt Zarinsky murder 1968

And above it all hovered the spectre and the stench of the Fish Factory…the neighborhood’s only employer of any significant scale (that is, until the also-fragrant sewage treatment plant and the county mulch-pile came on line a few years later), and a grim complex that…with its belching chimneys, grimy windows, foreboding fences and barracks-style outbuildings…resembled nothing so much as a gulag workfarm in the much-feared Communist Bloc.

Perched at the edge of a filthy bay clogged with stinging jellies and toxic, gelatinous black tarballs, the plant processed the unwanted little junk fish known as menhaden into chicken feed and fertilizer…and at any time of the day or night, the stacks would spew a thick, oily, heavy effluvium that hovered close to the ground and enchanted everything (from the leaves on the trees to the laundry on the clothesline) with a death-reek of rotting bilge and brooding desperation.

(It should be pointed out that on some rare occasions, if the wind shifted just so, you’d get a whiff of the fragrance plant up the road apiece…perhaps even a rare “perfumed harbor whore” confluence of nose-hair-singing olfactory excitements)

Belford mulch facility

Granted, there were modes of escape; literal as that “good” side of the highway that beckoned just a mad dash away ‘cross four lanes of traffic; accessible as those buses and trains that shuttled persons unknown to the forbidden big city; figurative as the handful of books inside the little branch library that would eventually get shut down by the township. But the Wetsider didn’t need to escape…he had already made his escape, to this curiously coccooning place. The Wetsider was Home.

Of course one needn’t be so specifically from my Wet Side to have known places that were similarly touched by despair and red-lined completely out of the action. But consider the Wetsider, just for a moment. He’s somebody you don’t often cross paths with if you’re not FROM there…a person who’s very easy to overlook; who from most folks’ vantage point doesn’t much show his face in the greater game of whack-a-mole. 

Nobody seeks his counsel or quotes him; no one will ever grant him power of attorney or ask him to be their Best Man. He’ll never travel much…maybe not even to the city some 40-50 miles away. Never be named to a board of trustees; never be appointed to any position of responsibility, never get so much as a door-crack glimpse of the mechanisms of power and influence. To paraphrase a very wise man, he’ll “never get a dinner.”   

So who then is a Wetsider that you might be familiar with…Steven Van Zandt? Negative: lived about fifty feet into the dry side; a world away. Kevin Smith? YES on wet…but then again NO because of innate intelligence, ambition, determination to derail the seemingly locked-in sled/tree crash of his Bayshore-by-birth destiny. 

Celeb chef David Burke? Dry side. NFL running back Donald Brown? High side (Atlantic Highlands). Film actor Lou Taylor Pucci? Too much outside-the-Bayshore-box breeding in his background. No, the famous Wetsider…if indeed there ever was such a thing…ran more along the lines of Terry Alden, Jimmy Coonan, Sal Naturile (look them all up). 

In his most crystalline “cricker” form, the Wetsider is the criminal mastermind who steals cigarettes from the gas station by breaking the window with his face, then commandeers a toddler’s bicycle from a nearby yard to make his getaway, then lets the cops simply follow the dotted line of blood spots…like something out of a Sunday “Family Circus” layout…straight to his home, located just a few doors away from the gas station (true story).

The Wetsider is the guy on the street corner who will sell you a video game console that turns out to be a brick in a box. The Wetsider is the guy who will purchase a video game console that turns out to be a brick in a box, from his neighbor on a street corner…then return to the corner (where the neighbor still stands conducting business) with multiple generations of relatives, who proceed to beat the guy up, and reportedly butt-rape him (also true story).

The Wetsider is the entrepreneur who opens a fish-market business just yards away from the commuter ferry terminal, and bitches about sitting around all day with no customers, then getting caught in a traffic jam just as he tries to shut down and leave for the evening (true all).

The Wetsider is the onetime scourge of the neighborhood that ages into the fat fortysomething guy who still lives with his mother; who stole your dad’s car when he was a teenager and pedaled off on your little brother’s kiddie-size bike ten years later; who once upon a time did things like beat up the neighborhood letter carrier and burn his bag of mail; who suffered a debilitating stroke in his thirties and wound up a gouty speechless slumped-over husk, being pushed up and down the street by his elderly mom in a rickety old wheelchair (so true).

The Wetsider is the guy who will attempt to tie up a drooping muffler/tailpipe assembly, on a still-running car, with large Brillo pads; screaming in front of an audience of young onlookers as his fingers burn and chunks of soap and tiny filaments of steel wool fall into his eyes (guaranteed true stories).

The Wetsider is your friend’s toothless dad who watches cars all day from a lawn chair on the corner. The Wetsider is your friend’s mom who bails on her brood one day, riding off into the sunset on the back of some greasy biker’s hog. The Wetsider is your neighbor who got foreclosed upon and wound up living on a flat metal barge tied up in the creek. The Wetsider is your other neighbor who “renovated” his house sans permit; accidentally knocked down half of it, and wound up with an unsellable water-filled hole in the ground, a modular shed hastily retro-fitted as his residence, and a sheriff’s order to quit the premises.

The Wetsider is that kid you knew from grade school, who jumped on a dare off a rusty old train trestle, and landed in an inch or two of crick water, quadriplegic for life. The Wetsider is your other old friend who celebrated his unlikely graduation from high school with a street dragrace in front of his house…living fast, dying young, maybe not so much leaving a pretty corpse.

The everyday Wetsider is the local yokel who’s still working the same entry-level job at McDonald’s some forty years after donning the paper hat. The Wetsider First Class is he who sprang into action in Superstorm Sandy’s wake…not to lend his neighbor a hand, but to scour curbsides with his street-pirate’s pickup truck for scrap-metal appliances, ripped-out copper, and other quickly re-appropriated memories.  

Belford_NJ_06_hangar

See, the Wetsider’s been told he’s a worthless piece of SHIT pretty much all his life…and he knows it, in that gut-level way that passes for understanding. 

Yet even the Wetsider finds a way to face each dawning day; finds somebody or something to blame for his travails; finds something or somebody over whom he can lord a certain threadbare and faded hierarchy. 

We figured out pretty early on what our lot was as Wetsiders, and how we stood with the folks from the other, “good” side of the highway and the unseen world beyond. If the whole neighborhood-dump thing didn’t drive the point home, then the Fish Factory served to brand us with an unmistakable moss-bunker kiss. 

They could literally SMELL the cricker on us; could sum us up in an instant. We might get bused to their school for a year or two, but when class was dismissed it was expected we’d hustle ourselves on back to our own kind.

We didn’t have much to keep us occupied, during those humid, sunbaked, bug-clouded summers of stink and boredom. Oh, we had the occasional abandoned car to pounce on in the weeds; every now and then enough junk plywood and debris to salvage into a Little Rascals-level fort or hot rod or unseaworthy craft…but above all else, we had the Sprayer Man. 

The Sprayer Man in his mini-flatbed Jeep truck, outfitted with a pesticide fogging machine that buzzed like the sparking spaceships from the old Flash Gordon serials; that announced its blocks-away approach like a swarm of monster-movie giant locusts, that blanketed the drab crabgrass hues of our neighborhood in a thick blue DDT fog designed to annihilate the skeeters that spawned by the billions in the standing waters of the surrounding marsh. 

The fact that it did little to keep any of us from “gettin’ bit” didn’t temper our excitement one bit. We’d charge out to the street and follow behind, biking, running, laughing, facing full-blast into the pretty blue belched-out poison that issued from the truck…visibility close to zero, and with no thought to any tumorous future that existed at a remove from the here and now.

In recent months we from the Wet Side have come to have a special connection with one who has emerged from plain sight to stand as our savior…a King in Orange. 

And the King in Orange is our Orange Crush is the Trump, and the Trump is our Sprayer Man returned; come to bathe us in His oily-sweet and strangely fragrant poison cloud. 

We drop what we’re doing when we hear Him coming; we rush to greet Him at the sound of his sputter and whine; we follow Him into the mucky swamp, down those streets that dead-end into the tall cattail reeds obscuring the horizon. We have been waiting for Him for a very long time, as it turns out…we just thought all along that we were waiting on somebody else. 

Not that any of this was ever really part of some well-thought-out PLAN, mind you…but we did get a kick out of seeing every “expert” Nostradamus David Brooks/George Will get curb-jawed during the course of the primary season. 

We were truly tickled to watch all your Scott Perry Grahams and Lindsey Huckabee Patakis fold faster than we could learn their names. 

DeLIGHTed, to witness the humiliation of Jeb, the marginalization of Mitt, the booing of boohoo Ted, the put-down of all those who we always suspected were “too good to drink with me.” 

Even a little bit ASTONISHED at ourselves, to realize that the whole wobbly facade of inevitability…the whole playbook we’d been browbeaten into accepting as sacred text…the whole impregnable donor-class money fortress could flop to the floor if you just blew on it hard enough. Like, for once we were actually looking at each other and wondering, did I do THAT?

A whole lot of magazines and papers and websites that we don’t read…and a whole lot of TV and radio shows that we don’t watch or listen to…have been struggling to get a handle on what the hell just happened; trying to squeeze it through a prism that just doesn’t jibe with our flat-earth point of view. 

Some of them ALMOST nailed it, too…like when The Atlantic (a magazine we don’t read) tossed off the notion of the Trump as representing a lucky “Powerball” ticket for His followers. Even closer to the cigar was when the New York Times (another rag we don’t read) likened the whole phenomenon to the “Prosperity Gospel” extolled by the likes of Creflo A. Dollar.

But how rock-bottom WRONG they all are, as they tell us over and over that the Trump has surfed a “wave of populist anger;” has seized upon “issues” that we supposedly care about, like income inequality, Wall Street shenanigans, globalization, trade imbalances, etc. 

The truth is that no true Wetsider gives a god-damn about any “issues” other than our own personal own; that we’d throw our neighbor, our brother, our grandmother, our newborn child under the bus if it came down to it…that there is NO more sovereign space than our immediate zone of comfort. 

In short, it’s all about ME…millions and millions and millions of ME. Gaze out upon a crowded Trump rally and you’ll see not a single gloriously unified entity, but a whole lot of individual Republics of New Freelandia, jostling for preferred space and jockeying for chosen-one status. 

What few alliances there are to be made are of the short-term, Machiavellian, reality-TV kind…and when we run out of perceived enemies we will most definitely turn upon our own; will feud and freeze-out and gossip and grind on down until mutual destruction is assured. Just like we did in our own family tree, where long-festering feuds remain rooted in those five dollars that weren’t paid back in 1948; that flip remark some long-gone person made in 1962.

Hey, you gotta have an enemy….be it the quaint old commies or the newfangled terrorists; the people you thought you were escaping when you loaded up the truck and moved to the Wet Side, or the ones that made you feel like a stranger on your own home turf. 

None of this works otherwise….and to prove it we point to the fact that our hometown always had a healthy two-party system back in the day: the suburban country-clubber Republicans from the “good” side of the highway, and the riled-up cricker Republicans from our side. 

Each side even had its own figurehead champions: Dame Judith from the “Who’s Who of American Women” and the Bush 41 fundraiser functions and the board of trustees of every entrenched organization in the state…and fat sweaty Cap’n Joe; purveyor of discount liquor, publisher of the local tabloid, proud owner of a trash incinerator, and father of the “Evil Clown” highway sign that’s been celebrated and reviled in equal measure. 

Both are passed now…but time was the local press was filled with the rancorous back-and-forth between the steadfast GOppers Judy and Joe, as they traded accusations, forced their colleagues to take sides, and waged open warfare over…over…uh, what was it again that we were all supposed to be so het up about?

Whatever it was, one thing is for sugarshit-sure: we created, perfected, gifted GOPamerica with The Joe ‘n Judy Show, the spirit of which plays out now on a grand national scale; its giant ghostly combatants battling in the sky over a breaded cutlet of “soul” that wouldn’t feed a sick possum.

Anyway, you can see how us Wetsiders are no strangers to a little intramural skirmishing…and how the impulse to blow our fucking fingers off with a firecracker can seem worth the bang that it makes in the moment.

You can maybe understand how the dirt on our side of the highway could nurture the only real brick-and-mortar Tea Party movement, in a state that’s been too often represented by horsefaced horsey-setters like Christie Whitman and her scolding clones. 

Let’s face it, though…even the old neighborhood, that close-to-last domino in the gentrification chain, hasn’t been immune to changes. The streets have all been paved by now; a new/improved bridge offers access to a modern marina and a busy county park; the town’s oldest house has re-opened to the public as a museum and nature center, and the (considerably cleaner) bay waters host recreational fisherfolk and frolicking kids. 

The seedy old mom ‘n pop businesses have long since been replaced by chain pharmacies; the dumps were long ago shut down, and even the DDT trucks decommissioned. Weirder yet, the former site of the Fish Factory is host now to luxury condos, located just seconds from a commuter ferry line to the financial district.

Sandy damage house PoMon

And make no mistake, the Wet Side took a big hit during Sandy…but for every velveeta-box bungalow that’s since been raised up to ridiculous altitudes, there are numerous lots whose houses have been razed to nothingness; their occupants opting never to return. The gas stations, markets, pizza places of the old neighborhood have faded away accordingly, with the quiet exodus of the old crowd.

So the Wetsider gets to feeling like some endangered marshland species; the one that doesn’t have an advocate in the halls of legislature or forums of public opinion…the unsuccessful, non-adapting organism that no one’s ever particularly going to miss. 

And without that advocate…or without any of our own number who are hard-working and ambitious enough to rise up to the task…we get told who it is we are, and what it is we want, by the ones who are too good to drink with us.

We get told that we represent a “trend” and a “movement,” when we’re just doing and saying the same as we’ve said and done for generations. 

We get told that we’re “outliers” and “revolutionaries” carrying the mob-mentality torch for a “Chaos Candidate,” when all’s we ever really wanted was for some Strongman to take care of all the details and hard work, so that we maybe wouldn’t have to drag ourselves out to the firehouse voting booth every couple of years.

We get told that we’re the Working Class; the still-proud people who want our good old American manufacturing jobs back…when in fact we Wetsiders never held those jobs in the first place. If and when we worked at all, we’d likely be found doing the jobs that “the people who do the jobs that Americans don’t want to do”…didn’t want to do. 

We get told that we’re passionate about Law and Order…when we’re much more likely to be that guy you’ve seen chased down and tackled on the lawn in an episode of “COPS.”

We get told that we’re “values voters” of an Evangelical bent, when in fact we haven’t been to church since they got that lady assistant pastor a while ago (well okay, we’ve been to funeral parlors, which are practically church, if church was run by used car dealers)…so we know deep down that all of it, the drugs and the drinking, the fighting and fornicating, the stealing and cheating, all of these trespasses are all forgiven in the end at the gate, which lets us do shit like rip the copper pipes out of our neighbor’s house in the here and now. 

We get told that our hearts beat for The Troops…when there’s actually damn precious few of us ever suited up for our country, least not since they did away with the draft. So you can see how old POWs and grieving moms aren’t going to rock our world either way.

We get likened to something called the “Appalachian Diaspora”…but about that all we can say is we’re getting a prescription from the Walk-In Medical on the highway.

We get told that we pine for the Good Old Days; that we bear some sort of wounded and nostalgia-choked sense of privilege…when everyone and his uncle knows we were never granted a place at the table even then. In fact, you might say that we’ve never been so empowered as we are right this very moment.

We get told lots of things about ourselves, by lots of cucks and/or quacks who refuse to accept that we DO kind of have a hard-on for Putin’s take-charge style; that we DO think the President is a Muslim who’s down with Rad Islam and that Kill/Bill Vol. 2 is indeed The Devil; that the Trump’s marital journey has produced a beautiful and gracious family; that armies of vaguely foreign rapists lurk waiting to compromise the virtue of our womenfolk; that we can tell you right now the whole damn election is rigged as shit; that we don’t give a feck about NATO, can’t name any of our state legislators, and have no idea what precisely the Supreme Court does; that we’re not particular interested in the difference between the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the GOP platform, those Two Guys from Corinthians, the TPP, or that thing we heard somebody say over at the Junction Liquors bar.

But maybe the part they get wronger than anything else…the bit that nobody but a born Wetsider would understand…is the part about how the Trump “speaks our language;” how He “says the things we’re thinking and have always wanted to say.” As if there ever was a time when we were shy about blurting ANYthing out loud. As if it wasn’t US who invented and perfected the fact-free, filter-free lifestyle.

As if it wasn’t HE who was the puppet, dancing to OUR dog whistle. Doing the bidding of the only guy whose head is bigger, whose sense of self-importance trumps Trump: the Wetsider.

You don’t think that we who have nothing…who ARE nothing…CAN’T have an all-consuming Ego larger even than the mighty Donald? Well, that makes YOU a racist…or a classist…or SOMEthing, I dunno. We’re looking into it.

The fact is that THIS is our One Thing…that thing that gets us flopping out of bed each morning; that defines how we see ourselves and how we interact (or not) with the world at large. It HAS to be that over-developed, our Ego does…else we shrivel and shrink to our actual size, and die.

Call it Wet Supremacy…Blah Lives Matter. If we don’t have somebody to hate on, troll on, look down on in turn, we cease to BE even sooner “before our time” than the third-world mortality rates that were a signifier in our community long before you read about them in the news…another thing that we perfected and gifted to America at large.

So we who don’t get to identify with much of “mass culture” these days are able to see ourselves, for once and maybe for the last time, in this successful businessman, this builder, this winner, this strongman, this patriot, this speaker of truth and agent of God.

Just this once, we get to crash the party; turn it upside down; break some shit, and take a shit on anything that we can’t break. 

Fuck “Morning in America”…it’s SATURDAY NIGHT and time to go a little nuts, lose ourselves in the mob, make like Sunday morning’s NEVER coming down.

(And Satire? That’s the thing that “closes on Saturday night.”)

What some call the “very worst of us” represents, for us, the optimal idealization of ourselves. We give Him our money, as we did with the TV preachers who built theme parks and custom-ordered private jets…’least THEY had something to show for it, more tangible than buying “air time.” His success is our success; we feed into it and it’s reflected back at us with a honey-nut glow. 

If anything, HE is the empty vessel; WE are the ones who transmit the signal and noise to the receiver, and we get it played back to us the way we like to hear it, and for that little while it makes us feel like we matter. 

We hear the music in the air while the rest of you waste so much time parsing His words; looking for any sort of sense or meaning or consistency there. We appreciate the point-and-shout, the sub-lingual signals, the random abuse…they remind us of home. And the contradictions, the backpedaling, the hypocrisy, the just-kiddings and the double-downs, all the things that everyone else finds so maddening, are the home cooking we’ve survived on our whole lives. We are HOME; we have home field advantage; we’re in the big game.

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Not that we’re expecting to win — we never really DO, somehow; never really see things going our way even in those rare occasions when we managed to bet on the right horse. Hell, we’re not at all sure we’d know the first thing to do if we DID win the election, or the lottery, or the job, or the breaks. 

And do you really think we expect that we’ll EVER again be allowed to tilt the game board, affect an outcome, express ourselves in a way that upsets so many received wisdoms and fucks so with the system? We have it on good authority that it’s rigged in the first place, so why shouldn’t they go all the way and just rig it so’s we never pull the lever again?

And while you’ll never exactly “win” an argument with us, it never did take much to make us fold in a fight…to cause us to crawl beneath the bed and not come out, and not really want to be anyone at all. 

All you’d really have to do is yell and threaten and wave your arms around a little…it really IS all that we understand, and it’s not too far removed from how you’d keep a Canada goose from fouling your driveway. 

Shame us, defame us, slap us down at every sign of energy and organization. Don’t set a place for us at the table. Don’t even let a simple organic molecule coalesce from our crazy chemical soup. Shoo us away from taking the controls; separate us from our perceived reward like a rat looking at the cheese just beyond the glass wall of the maze. 

We’re willing to wager, though, that you’re probably too “decent” a person to do all that…and that your deep-down desire to treat us like adult human beings…to refuse to accept that Yes We CAN be THAT fucking hateful, and ignorant, and self-destructive…will forever be your weakness.

Do it anyway. Come at us with all the data; the cold equations at your disposal…but know that we’ve inhabited this parallel dimension for a long long time, and we’ve done it without your natural laws and immutable facts for as long back as anyone can recall. 

Or set us off against each other…never a hard thing to do…but know that, given half a chance, we’d revel in taking our house, your house, the whole shithouse down with us.     

Or co-opt us if you dare; piggyback on our moment for your own ends….but know that the stink of the Fish Factory is just as strong second-hand, and it don’t wash off. 

Or try, even, to show a little compassion for the Wetsider, if only out of some smug sense of superiority….but know that unless you’re feeling our level of heart-attack Hate and pants-shitting Paranoia, you can never truly know what it’s like to BE us.

Just whatever you do, please DON’T move to take this one brief moment, this One Thing, away from us. It’s all that we’ve got.

9/30: Turning the Mall Into Movie Nirvana

The Broken Circle Breakdown-Belgian director Felix van Groeningen’s THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN is among the more than 20 sneak preview films screening in Chuck Rose’s Arthouse Film Festival, starting October 1st at Monmouth Mall. 

There’s the notion of the Best Kept Secret…and then there’s the sort of gem that Hides in Plain Sight; in this case for the 20-plus years that the Arthouse Film Festival has been operating inside one of the most heavily trafficked locales in Monmouth County.

Formerly known as the Filmmakers Symposium series, Arthouse Fest is a twice-yearly slate of sneak-preview screenings from major Hollywood studios and indie distributors; a schedule of ten-week Fall and Spring sessions that unspools at the AMC Loews Monmouth Mall 15 multiplex on Tuesday evenings, beginning on the first of October (a concurrent series of Monday night screenings takes place at the AMC Loews on Route 22 in Mountainside).

It’s the work of one man — Chuck Rose, a unassuming guy from Brielle and a lifelong cinephile who’s worked variously as a film prof, a story editor, a director, and a correspondent for The Hollywood Reporter. And, while it’s not necessarily a cheap ticket (a five week half-session subscription runs $133), it’s a real opportunity to see some buzzed-about features on the big screen, long before anyone else…and in a setting that’s blissfully free of talking, texting, and any of the other behaviors that make a night at the multi such a pondersome purchase.

If you’d followed the Arthouse series from its inception, you’d have been among the first people on the planet to catch everything from Shawshank to Schindler’s…and you’d have been present for guest interviews with the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ethan Hawke, Famke Janssen, Viggo Mortenson, Aaron Sorkin, and Kevin Smith. The Fall 2013 session promises fare like director Steve McQueen’s highly anticipated 12 Years A Slave, in addition to Meryl Streep in August: Osage County and Nicole Kidman as Grace of Monaco; as well as the latest from Scorsese (The Wolf of Wall Street with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey), the Coens (Inside Llewyn Davis), Clooney (The Monuments Men with Matt Damon), and David O. Russell (American Hustle with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence).

Features are generally announced close to screening time and never advertised; the idea is that it’s absolutely worth dropping what you’re doing to see these films, and to maybe take part in a Q&A with a very special invited guest. So how does Chuck Rose do it? Your upperWETside correspondent decided to investigate…

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5/3: A Multi-Track RIDE in Red Bank

lisa-kron-1-500x333“That was the greatest ride,” says Lisa Kron — or rather, Lisa Kron as her own diabetic, heart-diseased, legally blind father — in “2.5 Minute Ride,” a rollercoaster that rambles up one track on an outing to a sun-baked Midwest amusement park, and swoops down another on a pilgrimage to the dark heart of Auschwitz.

The one-woman show, for which Kron won an Obie Award in its 1999 staging at New York’s Public Theater, is being performed by its creator for the first time in several years, during an all new engagement at Red Bank’s Two River Theater. It’s a production that re-teams the playwright with director Mark Brokaw — as well as with Two River Theater Company’s John Dias, who brought her play “Well” to Broadway a few seasons back.

The title notwithstanding, “2.5 Minute Ride” is an approximate hour and a half of high comedy, matter-of-fact tragedy, poignant fantasy — and the reality that life means having to drive many hours to get from one to the other. Framed as an unseen slide show on a sparsely appointed stage (designer Allen Moyer works with lighting director Philip Rosenberg and the audience’s own imagination to fill in the “missing” elements), the play finds Kron, laser pointer in hand, quantum-leaping from the slapstick sitcom of her aging family’s annual caravan to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio — to the “malevolent ground” of the Birkenau death camp, where she accompanies her ailing father on a trip to the place in which his parents met their fate.

Delivered by the playwright in a largely breezy, conversational tone that doesn’t let the pace flag for a second, it’s a “Ride” that hurtles willy-nilly through time more so than space; a midway attraction that travels parallel tracks, branching off into unexpected detours  — a strangely funny scene at a Winona Ryder movie, a Gestapo member’s thought-provoking words to his interrogators, a supermarket encounter with the ghosts of Kron’s grandparents — that somehow converge on a satisfying end point. It may take a moment to realize that the ride has reached its conclusion, but a conclusion has most surely been reached.

Kron is hardly the first performer-playwright to have collaged a solo show from a scrapbook of family memories (or to have used the spectre of the Holocaust as the glue that holds the images in place), but unlike too many “Journey to Me” theatrical pieces, the author is not the center around which the universe revolves — she’s an observer-participant who cedes the spotlight to her impressions of her notoriously picture-phobic mother; a crippled and contrary aunt; a cantankerous closet-case uncle and a lonely brother whose Jewish Singles explorations lead him to embrace the Orthodox faith. The implication is that all of these people reside within her to varying degrees — and that it takes an understanding of these (at times unsympathetic) figures to form a portrait of the storyteller.

An out lesbian in a clan that would just as soon never have to attend another wedding — and a self-appointed caretaker who’s often in need of directions herself — the Lisa Kron of the script uses keynotes like food to trigger jumps between memories, and goes from complaining about the Sandusky theme park to wishing that the hopelessly confusing real-world Poland of her travels was replaced by a more easily navigable “Poland World.”

Lisa Kron has the take-no-prisoners timing of a battle-tested standup comic, the sizing-up savvy of a seasoned sideshow barker, the laser-honed instincts of a photojournalist, and the entrancing oral-tradition skills of that one good friend whose stories are a joy to listen to. She’s no slouch as a playwright and a performer either, and for the duration of this “Ride” she’s got the audience strapped in right where she wants them.

“2.5 Minute Ride” continues with a mix of matinee and evening performances through May 12. Tickets ($20 – $65 adults) can be obtained by calling (732)345-1400 or visiting www.trtc.org.

12/27: WET, in Need of Changing

Thanks again to Danny Sanchez for the proey-looking photo session, one image from which even wound up in a gallery exhibition. Hint: one of the objects in this scene is a phony prop.

And…we are back. Wait, no? Yeah.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the upperWETside blog has been in the middle of a holiday hiatus of sorts; a newly minted tradition that’s timed to coincide with that time of the year when most of the things we write about stop dead for a spell, broken only by the annual Bouncing Souls Home for the Holidays stand, the Light of Day 2012 hoohah and a Polar Bear Plunge or two.

We’re taking the opportunity to catch up with various entities and ecstasies on the local artscape; collecting some news, rumors, interviews and twaddle from up and down the Upper Wet Side of NJ — and getting ready to effect some changes here on everyone’s favorite boo-teek blog.

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