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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the August 13, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Rock Reunion in Asbury Park

It’s often said that everything old is new again. This

seems to hold true for a particular form of rock music sometimes described

as "the sounds of Asbury Park."

Drummer, singer, and songwriter Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez, a Jersey

native now living in Jackson Township, is one of the primary practitioners

of this art form. Last August at the Monmouth County Friends of Clearwater

Festival in Asbury Park, Lopez reconstituted the once-legendary shore

band, Steel Mill. Lopez, a founding member of the original, called

the new band the Steel Mill Reunion Band.

Back in the early 1970s, members of Steel Mill included guitarist

Little Steven Van Zandt, keyboardist Danny Federici, and a then little-known

singer, songwriter, and guitarist by the name of Bruce Springsteen.

Van Zandt and Federici are part of Springsteen’s current E-Street

Band, and Van Zandt is also known for his role as Sylvio Dante in

HBO’s mega-hit series, "The Sopranos."

The Steel Mill Reunion Band takes the stage at this year’s Clearwater

Festival in Asbury Park on Sunday, August 17, at 2:45 p.m. Also featured

on this year’s weekend lineup at Sunset Park, Saturday and Sunday,

August 16 and 17, are the Nerds, the Incinerators, Steve Forbert,

and Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys.

Lopez, who was raised in Neptune Township, right next to Asbury Park,

says that the reunion band seemed like the right idea at the right

time. At 54, he had lost interest in "jamming for jamming’s sake."

"I just had an idea about doing the Steel Mill stuff again, because

Bruce told me I could, years ago," says Lopez who, for six years,

worked as caddie master at Deal Golf and Country Club in Ocean Township.

"I was working the golf gig, so I hadn’t been out and about. But

when I sold my house in Ocean Grove and we moved here to Jackson,

it gave me like a breath, and I decided I wanted to do it."

"Danny Federici was on the bill at B.B. King’s blues club last

year, and they wanted me to come in and jam with them," Lopez

recalls, "only I said to myself, I don’t really want to jam. I

want to play stuff that I want to do, some good stuff."

Steel Mill Retro’s new members include Tony "Boccigalupe"

Amato on Hammond B-3, Billy "Wonder Boy" Walton on guitar

and vocals, and John Luraschi, bass and vocals. All are members of

Amato’s band, Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys. Contributing to the project’s

success was the enthusiastic response to some very early songs written

by Springsteen.

Lopez is a legendary drummer on the Jersey Shore scene because of

his involvement in many groups, including one led by the great guitarist

Sonny Kenn, But he’s best known for his drumming on Springsteen’s

first two, ground-breaking albums for Columbia Records, "Greetings

From Asbury Park, N.J.," and "The Wild, The Innocent and the

E-Street Shuffle." Lopez was replaced in the E-Street Band by

Max Weinberg, but he refused to go into details of his dismissal.

This year, on July 21, Lopez rejoined Springsteen on stage at his

Giants Stadium show to generally good reviews.

Interestingly, Lopez — who attended Monmouth College but dropped

out when he thought his music career was about to take off — has

always had a passion for golf that equaled his talents as a musician.

He graduated from Neptune High School, which is famous in Garden State

golf circles for several pros and some talented amateurs who have

come out of the golf team including Wayne Warms, Kevin Kenney, and

Richard Davis. Growing up in Neptune, Jumping Brook Golf Course wasn’t

far away.

Lopez says his parents were always supportive of his

musical efforts. His father was a general contractor, painter, and

carpenter, while his mother worked as a waitress and carhop at White’s,

a Neptune burger and seafood drive-up. Many years later, after leaving

Springsteen’s E-Street Band, Lopez became a caddy at Hollywood Golf

Club and later at nearby Deal Golf and Country Club.

Asked for his earliest recollection of playing a professional show,

Lopez says he played soprano cornet in a drum and bugle corps in his

youth. But he became fascinated with drums and ended up playing with

guitarist, singer, and songwriter Sonny Kenn at the Monmouth Shopping

Center, in the 1960s glory days of outdoor strip shopping centers.

"I became fascinated with drums when I was a kid when I went to

my cousin Ralph’s house. He had this beautiful drum set sitting there,

glistening in the sun, and I went over and sat on it, and it was beautiful

to me," he recalls. He was probably nine or ten years old at the

time.

Lopez credits Buzzy Lubinsky of Bradley Beach with teaching him how

to play. Buzzy Lubinsky was the son of the notorious Savoy Records

boss, Herman Lubinsky. The elder Lubinsky’s label, based in Newark,

recorded such singers as Jimmy Scott, who still has mixed feelings

about Lubinsky, as well as ground-breaking jazz musicians like Miles

Davis, Stan Getz, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.

"One day Buzzy told me about Sonny Kenn, and so I went and played

with Sonny and the Starfires," he says. "We used to play the

Monmouth Shopping Center all the time. I remember we auditioned for

the gig and we’d play there every other week or something. But it

had to be a nice day, otherwise we couldn’t set up and play."

"Years later, Bruce told me, `I used to come watch you guys play

at the Monmouth Shopping Center,’" adds Lopez with a chuckle.

"Back then — and even now, man — Sonny Kenn is a star.

In those days, we had three guitars, bass, and drums."

How did Asbury Park’s music scene begin to gel in the late 1960s?

Lopez says a central gathering place for musicians in those days was

Margaret and Tom Potter’s late-night coffeehouse, the Upstage, on

Cookman Avenue.

"That place brought all of the cliques together, and it brought

in musicians from neighboring towns," Lopez recalls. "We’d

get done playing our gig at the Student Prince and we’d get to the

Upstage at three in the morning.

"To this day, there are no clubs anywhere like the Upstage,"

he says. "There were two shows, eight to midnight, and from one

to five in the morning — and you just never knew who was going

to be there." Lopez played drums in Margaret Potter’s band, Margaret

and the Distractions, for a time.

How Lopez met Springsteen and formed the Steel Mill Band is the subject

of a book he plans to write.

"This is all stuff I hope to get into in my book," says Lopez,

"but I remember me and Danny saw Bruce play and we were standing

there with Margaret, and she says, `He’s got so much charisma!’ He

was jamming with Little Vinnie [Roslyn] and next thing I knew, we

were jamming with them, and that was the birth of Steel Mill."

In the summer of 1969, Steel Mill visited California, where Springsteen’s

parents were living, and they performed at Bill Graham’s Fillmore

Auditorium in San Francisco. Graham offered the band a contract with

his own Fillmore Records label, but the band turned him down. Steel

Mill eventually disbanded in 1971, when Springsteen formed the E-Street

Band.

Lopez says Steel Mill Retro plays tunes that written

30-odd years ago and songs that used to be the core of Steel Mill.

Many of these songs were written by Springsteen and other original

band members.

"There are a lot of bootlegs of Steel Mill out there," Lopez

says, "but we’re not Steel Mill, because for it to be Steel Mill

you’ve got to have Bruce, [Little] Steve, and Danny [Federici]. What

we are trying to do is just bring the feel of that music to the present."

Lopez says his involvement with the Clearwater Festival goes back

to the 1980s, when its was held at the Sandy Hook National Recreation

Area. This was before the Red Bank-based environmental group was prevented

from selling merchandise to raise funds for the group at the park.

The festival moved to Asbury Park in August, 2001, and, to help draw

attention to the event, Springsteen performed an hour-long acoustic

set, enjoyed by perhaps 90 people, including this writer.

"Clearwater is just a part of me, and I don’t expect to get to

play there every year, but it’s a good cause and I like being a part

of it," he says. "After all, downtown Asbury Park needs a

little help, too."

As with the original Steel Mill, listeners will hear straight rock

‘n’ roll, blues, and jazz. "We used to do different little jazz

parts with Steel Mill, it wasn’t real straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll

all the time," says Lopez. Songs by Springsteen that will showcase

Lopez, Luraschi, or Walton on vocals include "Going Back To Georgia,"

"The Judge Song," "The American Song," and "The

Wind and the Rain."

Steel Mill Retro may just offer a breath of fresh air to the Garden

State retro club scene where everything old is new again.

— Richard J. Skelly

Clearwater Festival in Asbury Park, Sunset Park, Main

Street and Sunset Avenue, Asbury Park, 732-872-9644. $5 donation.

Saturday and Sunday, August 16 and 17, noon to 7 p.m.

Festival Lineup: Saturday, August 16

Noon: Singing Sons of Washington, D.C.

12:45 p.m.: Jason Shain.

1:30 p.m.: Rod Picott.

2:15 p.m.: Virago.

3:15 p.m.: The Nerds.

4:15 p.m.: The Incinerators.

5:15 p.m.: Chik A Boom.

6:15 p.m.: Clearwater All Star Jam.

Sunday, August 17

Noon: Green Inside.

12:45 p.m.: The Premiers.

1:45 p.m.: One Spirit.

2:45 p.m.: Steel Mill Retro.

3:45 p.m.: Steve Forbert.

4:45 p.m.: Boccigalupe and the Bad Boys.

5:45 p.m.: Clearwater All Star Jam.


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