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Wisecracks and Roadside Flats: The making of an anthem

Levon and the Hawks, the pre-Dylan version of The Band.

I was at Jake Larson's Clubhouse Studio on the Duluth hillside overlooking Lake Superior. Eric Pollard and Steve Garrington were producing the sessions for my next album. The story songs and blues I had been writing lately were not what they were looking for.

"Just the goods," Eric would say from behind red sunglasses.

Eric and Steve returned to Duluth inspired from an international tour with Retribution Gospel Choir and were determined to push the limits of their musical powers through long hours of focused studio work. They were also intent on getting the absolute best from every musician and engineer in the studio, so when Eric and Steve passed on a song I played for them, I didn't take offense. I wrote more songs.

"I have a hometown Jersey song," I said, strumming and tuning my ripened mahogany acoustic guitar. "That classic Springsteen thing, you know, without the saxophone. And I have a Tom-Waits-in-the-church house kind of thing and a lovers' rock jam."

"Let's hear the Jersey song," said Steve.

"Alright," I said. "Imagine this on electric guitar."

"Boardwalk Anthem" begins with a reference to Levon Helm and The Band's summer residency at Tony Mart's in my hometown of Somers Point. The last bar gig by the best bar band that ever was. Levon and the Hawks' residency at Tony Mart's ended when they received a call from Woodstock inviting them to become Bob Dylan's band.

Somewhere 'round the summer of '64, Levon and the Hawks put it down here.

Something like three sets a night. That must've been something like a good year.

In the '60s, well before my time, bars in Somers Point did not allow bands to play original music. That was still the scenario three decades later when my first band was looking to play a hometown show. Only The Pearl Lounge would have us, as a favor to our friend Patrice, owner of the famous Smitty's Restaurant. Wednesday night. No pay. No free drinks. 75 people showed up.

The following Wednesday they let us play again. No pay. Free drinks for the band. 150 people.

Reluctant local venues now saw dancing girls and dollar signs and begrudgingly began to allow us to play our original music.

Our band, Spilled Milk, eventually became local legends in the same building (Tony Mart's was now Brownies By The Bay) as Levon and The Hawks, and the fictitious Eddie and the Cruisers from the 1980s movie filmed in Somers Point.

I've been squeezing my heart, collecting the drops, hiding from the ghosts and the phantoms.

"Son, you oughta keep it to yourself. All they want to hear is boardwalk anthems."

There are few stars in a clear Somers Point night sky. The false promises of Atlantic City cast a shadow on the land while the neon skyline dims the stars. A dark feeling overtakes me when I drive the streets at night. Somewhere between loneliness and boredom.

Deep in the shadows of the bright lights, I'm running 'round working up a thirst.

It's 99 or nothing, you'd better get your money's worth ...

Not like I haven't been pushed around, a punch away from being knocked out before,

In Somers Point, on the Jersey Shore.

After high school I left Somers Point for California. Back in Somers Point a few years later, with Spilled Milk gaining momentum, I left again for Minnesota. The last verse of "Boardwalk Anthem" is a tribute to the fellowship my brother Ian and I were part of in Somers Point. Between the two of us, our Somers Point friends were skaters, rockers, rappers, ball players, Irish, Italians, African-Americans, Germans, Greeks and a few whose families have no record of ever having been outside county lines. We all became brothers.

This is for Smitty's and The Baggs and the boys bayside of the Ninth Street bridge.

You can take the kid out of Jersey, but you'll never get the Jersey out of the kid.

"I'm not going to sing backup on this," said Eric Pollard, aka Actual Wolf, ejecting himself off the dingy Clubhouse studio couch. "My Minnesota Iron Range accent will mess it all up." Eric pulled off his sweatshirt followed by his undershirt, adjusted his red sunglasses and walked bare-chested towards the door of the control room.

"Don't you wanna hear the other two songs?" I said. I feigned disappointment, but subtly smiled with gratitude for his enthusiasm.

"Later," said Eric, waving his drumsticks in the air. "Right now, we're going to roll tape. I may not be from Jersey, but I was born to play drums on this song."

"Boardwalk Anthem" may be heard here.

Teague Alexy

Teague Alexy is a Duluth-based musician and writer who grew up in Somers Point, N.J. teaguealexy.com

Check out the podcast version of Wisecracks & Roadside Flats on iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play.

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