The true story of Tom and Margaret Potter’s Upstage scene
In a time when social unrest and Vietnam were reaching a boiling point, music was the communal salve that healed all wounds. In the city of Asbury Park, culture and art clashed head on into some of the biggest musical innovators of the moment and the results are still being felt today. This is the story of two people, Tom and Margaret Potter. It’s the tale of humble beginnings and aspirations that inexplicably lead to one of the premiere music scenes in the country. And though the innovators are gone, their presence and vision still burn brightly through the ongoing musical community that we know today.
When author Carrie Potter-Devening first told me of her book, I was afraid it was going to be yet another depiction of a town known only for its favorite sons, developer debacles and political pillage. But as I read the various recollections and perused the rare photos and even rarer artworks of Grandfather Tom Potter, I knew this was something much more important. This book explores a solid community bonding that we haven’t really experienced in our time. Sure, we hang out and there are probably some folks left in S.O.A.P. that keep tight, but for the most part, I think many New Jersians take their musical legacy for granted. Today it’s more about herding crowds that come in, have one drink and then leave after their band is done playing. Drinking and driving laws, the economy and the overdose of a technologically based generation have also change the parameters of what once was.
The tradition and lineage described in For Music’s Sake is something anyone involved in the Asbury scene should absorb and embrace. From the innocent tales of budding players that would go onto to become giants, to the patrons, artists and general characters that added color and soul to the nightly happenings, the musical community cut its teeth on Tom and Margaret Potter’s simple dream of solidarity and fun.
For Music’s Sake, Asbury Park’s Upstage Club and Green Mermaid Café, The Untold Stories is a big, bold, 8×11 glossy book featuring over 255 pages of stories, clippings, montages and photos depicting the true glory days of the Upstage and the town. The author lets the patrons tell the tales and the recollections are filled with love. Stories about founding father Tom Potter describe him as some sort of magical, pirate Svengali. Tom was larger than life and his disposition was kind-hearted and no-nonsense. Potter was known to wear a .22 Derringer in his oversized money belt and posed for pictures with an eye patch. He understood publicity and so did Margaret. They were early socialites for the arts. Potter’s vision of the Upstage had started years earlier when they hosted rooftop parties above their Cookman avenue beauty salon.
The rooftop get-togethers were described as “the place to be” and on any given night you would walk in to find the space decked out in Tom Potter’s sculptures, artwork and drawings. The rooftop hangout even boasted a fountain with lily pads. It also sported a secret entrance through the store that was disguised as a wall panel. The saying around town was, “If you didn’t know about it, you didn’t belong up there.”
The book is a visual wealth of late ‘60s and early ‘70s history. Tom Potter’s photos of bands playing the coveted upstairs stage pepper the book with overlying paragraphs from the people who were there and saw the magic unfold. From the verifiable stories of Albee Tellone to the affirmative recollections of Joe Petillo and Carl “Tinker” West, For Music’s Sake reads like one of the fun house rollercoasters of the day. The information verges on overwhelming as stories roll about the club, the music and the way of life they shared. From all night jams with the Boss to mini-skirt competitions and getting smacked by the “Spoon Girls,” the place was hopping and everybody stayed till the end.
If there is an underlying theme that runs through this book, it’s one of positive power from a generation thought of as “lazy and longhaired.” Through their enthusiastic belief that they could accomplish anything, Tom and Margaret encouraged everyone from Springsteen to Southside Johnny in their struggle to the top. Margaret’s band, The Distractions, formed on the very rooftop they partied on. They went on to play a myriad of clubs in the area. Tom’s work in both photography and other forms of sculpture and physical art are highly original and sought after today. Their belief in themselves turned both in directions that most of us would deem crazy and dangerous. But the Potter’s were doers, and this book is a loving documentation of that passionate outcome.
The Upstage crowd didn’t always experience the good life on Cookman Avenue. The book explores the riots that took place in Asbury and ended a decade of good times. The shock and dismay is expressed from musicians that never really considered skin color or the underlying civil distortions that affected many local black residents. As Joe Petillo states in the book, “One day the riots began and people who were our friends, in some cases lifelong friends, had lines drawn in the sand. That was very hard to deal with and it was a rude awakening.”
The book goes on to point out that after those unfortunate times, despite a good struggle, things never really came back. Residents fled, businesses closed and the general feeling was one of confusion and loss. Tom and Margaret continued to run things for a time, trying to keep it on an even keel until finally, after 10 years of marriage, they parted ways. Tom and Margaret continued to care for one another till their respective passing’s, with Margaret manning the reins at the Upstage and optimistic about Asbury’s comeback right up until the end.
Granddaughter Carrie Potter-Devening has painted an extremely vivid picture of her family’s organic history. Other writers have covered some of these topics, but she has taken the high road, opting for focused detail of this family and the scene they helped create, instead of continuing to lump the same tired topics into how the world views New Jersey. For Music’s Sake is the type of story the world should know us for. This is a state of creative supernovas. It’s not just Bruce and Bon Jovi or The Jersey Shore or The Sopranos. It’s visionaries like Tom and Margaret Potter that have placed this little area into the correct light and into the hearts of so many.
Next time you’re hanging out in the Saint or The Stone Pony or The Wonder Bar, remember the special alumni that you have become part of. Remember the people in this book that created the blueprint for what still goes on every day in Asbury’s music scene.
For Music’s Sake is a touching and thoughtful look into a way of life that continues to exist in the hearts and minds of everyone in the City by the Sea. My advice would be to pick up a copy of this book and keep it near and dear. For more information on For Music’s Sake, Asbury Park’s Upstage Club and Green Mermaid Café, The Untold Stories, head over to authorhouse.com.