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Home Arts and Culture  Musical Memoir: A New Jersey State of Mind
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Wednesday, September 21,2011

Musical Memoir: A New Jersey State of Mind

by Tom Helma

I was born — literally — in the shadow of
the Empire State Building. Each day, the morning sun cast a shadowy
gloom all the way down Union Street, to 8 Daniel Street in my
Czech-Slovak hometown of Little Ferry, N.J. 


What is there about this small East
Coast state that captivates the country? What makes people yearn for
the seriously mean streets of this urban-industrial corridor that
parallels the Hudson River? Is it that view from the city of West New
York, N.J. (yes, that’s the actual name), from which Woody Allen fans
romantically ponder the skyline of the city that never sleeps?  


Beginning next Wednesday, the Wharton
Center skims the surface of what was the real-life musical experience
of many Jersey boys growing up. “Jersey Boys” is based on the lives and
careers of just four of those guys. Frankie Valli headed up the Four
Seasons, known earlier and less successfully as the Four Lovers — and
not to be confused with the Four Aces, the Four Lads, the Four Freshmen
or the four members of the Three Musketeers. The Four Seasons were not
the first, nor the worst, nor nearly the best, of the dozens of
musicians of all stripes, the doo-wop dudes we worshipped and mimicked
in the era of Brylcreem. 


In the beginning, before Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, before doo-wop rock and roll,  before
New Jersey was even a thought in the yet-to-be-awakened musical minds
of many Midwesterners, there was Frank: Old Blue Eyes, the Chairman of
the Board, the leader of the Rat Pack, Frank Sinatra. 


I still remember at 18 years of age, sneaking up that dark highway of 9W trying to find the  nightclub
in which Frank Sinatra first sang and, a year later, as music
transitioned, crossing the Hudson in my Convertible, over the  GW
— the George Washington Bridge — finding the Apollo Theatre in Harlem,
standing on my seat, dancing in the aisle, experiencing my first major
immersion in doo-wop rock and roll.


New Jersey boasts (of course, we boast)
more acclaimed musicians than any other state. Paul Simon, Jon Bon Jovi
and Bruce Springsteen are just three of the biggest but, my God, there
is Count Basie, Nelson Riddle  and
Les Paul, too, and George Clinton, Tommy James, Ice-T and Wyclef Jean,
Rick Nelson and David Cassidy. There are the women: Sarah Vaughn,
Whitney Houston, Dionne Warwick, Lesley Gore, Janis Ian, Debbie Harry,
Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lauryn Hill, Marilyn McCoo, The Shirelles, Queen
Latifah and Patti Smith — and who can forget that guy, Angelo
Badalamenti, of “Twin Peaks” fame? 


Music was one of the major ways up and
out of that blue-collar, working-class ethnic ghetto of mostly European
second-generation Americans, people that Midwesterners commonly call
white people. Back then, however, there were no whites and no blacks
either. People were Polish and Hungarian, Italians and Puerto Ricans,
Negroes, Germans and Jews, Catholics and Protestants. It was in the
midst of that international salad of musical traditions that New Jersey
became the music capital of the East Coast. No joke.


Yes, we all did sing: some, in three and
fours, often on street corners, under evening lamplights. We sang at
Knights of Columbus and Labor Day picnics. I talked my dad and brother
once into doing a doo-wop trio of “In the Still of the Night,” decades
before karaoke. I sang in junior high in a multi-racial quartet, I sang
in that Catholic high school — both as an altar boy and in the choir —
and, come to think of it, every day of my life since.  


Contrary to popular belief, it was not
entirely the music. It was also the hair, that long, luxurious
greased-back, straight, dark brown, ducktail hair. The hair alone
almost got this good Catholic Jersey Boy kicked out of Holy Trinity
High School in Hackensack, circa 1957. Not a day has gone by without
singing — but also not without mourning the loss of that hair.


It’s been a while since I was a Jersey
boy, 19 years old, sitting on the hood of my 1954 Ford convertible, the
one with bubble skirts, Hollywood glass-pack mufflers, Buick hubcaps
with stainless steel spinners on the front wheels (conveniently lifted
off someone else’s Buick by my good friends, Lennie Grebler and Ralph Ridnick). It had red leather
upholstery and matching red and white buttons pinned to the visors with
names — Tommy and Rosemary — and there was a graduation tassel hanging
from the rear view mirror. Saturday mornings would find me sitting out
on that car, listening to the radio countdown from No. 10 to No. 1 on
the Hit Parade. Writer Sherman Alexie says, “Music just might be the
most important thing there is. Music is powerful medicine.”


And so it was.


We wanted to be those
up-there-on-the-big-stage guys. Not just the Four Seasons, but all
those icons who preceded them: our guys from the home country, the old
country.  


A lot of upper New York State reservoir
water has gone out to the sea under that George Washington Bridge in
the intervening years. The once Jersey Boy faux-greaser has ditched his
blue suede shoes and his black leather jacket with the eagle on the
back. He moved on up and out, first into Army uniforms,
then Brooks Brothers three-piece herringbone wool suits in the world of
business, then on to wearing sports jackets while attaining degrees in
theology and psychology and then, most recently, now in
semi-retirement, Casual Friday clothes seven days a week.


In my household (I laugh as other members of the family call it ’our household’ — yeah, right) the singing continues.
We have a saying: “You can take the man out of New Jersey, but you
can’t take the New Jersey out of the man.” There will never be a
non-singer in our nuclear household. It was almost a requirement of
marriage that my daughters hooked up with a man who got music, who
could sing.   


A certain seemingly hostile chip-on-your-shoulder macho insecurity remains to this day. Being  born
in the shadow of the Empire State triggers a need to assert,
aggressively at times, a radical in-your-face sense of individual
rights. We say what we think, we tell it like it is.   


“The Sopranos” was filmed in my dad’s
backyard: Lodi, N.J. Some location shots in the series feature
buildings that I know, that I recognize. The dominant Italian Mafia
influence is still palpable there.


The “Jersey Shore” in South Jersey has
now become the title of a creepy and venial little TV series that takes
away the much of the charm of those beachside communities, places where
real Jersey Boys made out under the boardwalk at Manasquan and Point
Pleasant with real Jersey girls — and lived to talk about it. Hey,
Rosemary! You know what I mean.


Yep, all of us New Jersey boys thought
we were not only as good as anyone else but better. Frankie Valli said,
“We are the Jersey Boys who made it big.” Well, a lot of us felt like
we made it big, escaping small-minded families of origin that were too
busy surviving to dare to dream. Some might suggest that his comment is
a sign of a big ego. Huh. Imagine that. 


Those oldies but goodies? Hell, yes — they can make a grown Jersey boy cry. Almost.




’Jersey Boys’


Wharton Center


Wed., Sept. 28-Oct. 16


7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays


$35-$95


Special 1:30 p.m. show Sept. 29: tickets $27-$67


(800) WHARTON


www.whartoncenter.com

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