A Place I Long For
This is a sensitive subject. A place I long for.
There has always been a place I long for — anywhere away from where I was at the time. The grass was always greener, so to speak — everything was better at the place I longed for, and so I’d act as if I was already in the place I longed for and abdicate any responsibility for things to be done in the place where I actually was.
I think that the first places I longed for, which were not the places I actually was, were Wilmington, Delaware, where my grandparents lived, and the Jersey Shore, where several of my parents’ friends lived. These were always special places because, in the case of the former, it’s where I got all the love from my grandparents, and in the case of the latter, it’s where I could be myself, free of all of the prejudices of my peers back in my hometown of Long Beach, New York. In both cases, they were actually places with lots to do, explore, and have fun; and also, I was away from home and school, and it was all about letting loose and having a good time, with no responsibility, burden, or fighting off the forces that conspired against me.
In fourth grade or so, I wanted to be in Israel. I had just spent my second summer there, between third and fourth grades. If I ever had anything resembling a Zionist streak, it was then — but it wasn’t political, it was personal. It was about getting away from Long Beach, once again. I remember how I’d put on my Israel Air Force beret and other Israel Defense Forces accoutrements that I had acquired that summer, put whatever Israeli music I had (particularly the Four Ayalons, but also Aris San and the Israel Song Festival records from the early 1970s) on the stereo, and long for being in Israel. That lasted maybe a couple of months. Then, it was back to wondering what lay just over the southern horizon, along the Jersey Shore.
In eighth grade came the formative event of my youth and early adolescence — my trip to the Jersey Shore in November 1978. That started a longing for the Jersey Shore and Asbury Park that lasted for 12 years, all the way through the time I actually spent in Israel and my two years in Boston afterward.
I did not know the Shore well. I knew Interlaken and Asbury Park, with maybe a smattering of Ocean Township, from all the times I visited the place with my family visited throughout my childhood. After November 1978, I began to read up on Asbury and the Shore, from Chamber of Commerce brochures, encyclopedias, books from the library, records by Bruce Springsteen and Southside Johnny, and such — but never really from first-person experience. I also received a gift of several shares of Resorts International stock for my bar mitzvah, and the literature that came with the certificate was full of illustrations of the Resorts complex and Atlantic City, which further added to the mystique (I had actually been in AC for a weekend about two years before). The result of all this was the building up, in my mind, of a mythic place where all dreams are made real, a rock-and-roll fantasyland populated by kids who flash guitars just like switchblades. Springsteen’s mythologization did a lot to create that city-on-a-hill, castle-in-the-air, pie-in-the-sky version of the Shore that had only a tenuous connection to its reality. But it’s what kept me going through those 12 years of exile. I plastered the posters and maps on the wall, played the music (and wrote the music too), collected every scrap I could about the Shore and its scene, and couldn’t wait for the opportunity to go there and become a local.
In 1990, I did just that. My first marriage crumbled and my ex challenged me to “put my money where my mouth is” and move to the Shore. I was in Boston at the time and I figured I had no further reason to stay there, so I took up the challenge and moved down to the Shore. I became a local. At first I lived at my parents’ friends’ house in Interlaken, the same house I had stayed at during my many visits over the years; then I moved in with my girlfriend at Atlantic Highlands. From there, we moved to Elberon, at the southernmost end of Long Branch. From there we moved to a whole lot of places, some at the Shore, some away from the Shore; eventually, we got married and several years later moved to the opposite shore … the West Coast.
But in all those times before moving out west — particularly the first couple of years, in Interlaken and Atlantic Highlands — I totally made the Shore scene. I traveled all over the place, explored all the nooks and crannies, the back roads, the holes in the ground, and every single town along the Shore from Atlantic Highlands to Cape May and even beyond, along the Delaware and Raritan bayshores. Working as a limousine driver, as crappy and underpaid a job as it was, went a long way in helping me learn my way around the region. Then later, whenever my girlfriend and I got in the mood, we’d go wherever, whenever, usually ending up at some point along the Shore. My favorite places were Asbury Park, throughout its hell years; the Wildwoods; Cape May; Point Pleasant; Great Bay Blvd; and even Seaside Heights, with all its trashiness. If I had to pick one place as a favorite, it would be Wildwood. I loved going there in the summer, when the beach, boardwalk, piers, and rides were hopping with action; I also loved going in the off season, particularly in the fall, when the hordes had gone home, and I’d revel in the quiet and dormancy of the place. (I need to get back there again soon.)
But even though I became part of the Shore, and the Shore became a part of me, it quickly proved itself not to be the mythic rock’n’roll fairyland I had made it out to be in my exile. The scene and its denizens let me down in a big way. Instead of becoming interested in the music I was making and hearing me out, they met me with a wall of indifference and incomprehension. And the hell years of Asbury Park corresponded with an era of anti-Bruce backlash in the local clubs, with the result that nobody wanted to hear what I had to say or how I said it. It was all passé. Alternative and grunge were the things. And the clubs themselves — very few had original music, and those that did put the onus on the bands to bring the people. The drinking age was raised, with the result that the 18-21 set — those most likely to seek out original bands — were shut out of the scene. Through it all, I got no respect.
My second marriage eventually ended in divorce as well, and in the wake of that cataclysm, I moved back, across the country, to the Shore again. Oddly enough, I moved back into the same house I had lived in after my first divorce, some 14 years earlier. But by that time, the Shore had become so full of my history with my ex and her family that I began to feel that could no longer stay in the area. Every stone hid another memory — every club along the boardwalk, another piece of that history.
But then, Asbury Park started coming back from the dead, and people started coming back to the city … and a curious thing happened: I started getting the respect I had craved. Journalists and pundits and even some club-related personages regarded me as “something of a local icon,” as one local publication once called me. But by that time, I felt old, jaded, and spent … and a lot of other things were going on in my life that ultimately pulled me away from the Shore.
Even as I lived at the Shore, something still pulled me back to Long Beach, the town I couldn’t wait to leave, yet hadn’t wanted to leave when my family and I moved to Israel in 1979. I visited several times during my time at the Shore from 1990-2003, and each time I’d get the willies, with all my old demons and ghosts resurfacing. Often I’d just drive through, not stopping anyplace, just driving around and looking at all the old landmarks. But then — in my second time at the Shore, from 2006 to 2008 — I began to go back to Long Beach to stay for weekends and holidays, meeting people from the old days as well as new people who moved into town since I left. And I felt safe and unspooked enough to actually consider moving back there.
Asbury Park itself was reborn — a renaissance I had prayed for — but it was being remade in an image I was not familiar or comfortable with. In the last week of August 2008, I was at Martell’s in Point Pleasant Beach for one of Southside Johnny’s traditional pre–Labor Day appearances there; he sang The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” and I knew the writing was on the wall. And then, on Labor Day of that year, I was driving up Fourth Avenue in Asbury Park when an inexplicable, asphyxiating feeling gripped me, declaring to me in no uncertain terms that I needed to GET OUT OF THERE, ASAP. And one month later, on October 2, 2008 — ten years ago last month (as of this writing) — I moved to Long Beach, almost 30 years after moving away. The era of being a Jersey Shore local was over.
I don’t miss living at the Shore, with its history of me and my ex, and memories of the disrespect and indifference I got there. But I do acknowledge its vast role in my life and the shaping of my creative vision. Soul In Exile, my story of me-at-the-Jersey-Shore, will be completed and recorded and released, as envisioned, regardless of how old I’ll be when it’s done or what shape or form the Shore scene will take by that time. It’s my story, my masterpiece, and it will be released as written. I still love the Wildwoods and of all the places, that’s where I can go and say that it’s the most “mine,” as opposed to mine-and-hers. And I’ll still go back to Asbury Park, every now and then, to remind myself and the world that the Shore still has its place in The Hesh Inc.’s canon and pantheon.
But the big challenge to me at this point in my life is to Be Here, where I am now. I can write and record and sing and perform about all the places I’ve been, but I’m teaching myself that it’s OK to be where I am and not to always be looking for the next place I want to be. It’s a big challenge, and a learning experience, every day. But I am here, and it’s OK to be here and write about other places … knowing that wherever I am now is home, where I’m settled, where I can come back to after my exploratory forays to other places, and use as my base of operations.
(Until such time to go back to Eretz Yisrael, in the Jewish sense. But that’s a whole different story.)