Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
Sunday, August 17
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