||September 27, 2009
The Red Album of Asbury Park Remixed follows a young man's efforts to front a rock band against the backdrop of an increasingly surreal and dangerous city.
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It's the late Sixties, and on the East Coast, Asbury Park, fading as a resort and rent with drugs, crime and racial unrest, looks to become the epicenter of a new brand of rock and roll. Against the backdrop of a fabled town in trouble, 22-year-old musician Sam Nesbitt, struggles to rid himself of his personal demons, past and present, as he pursues a girl, a mystery and a rock ‘n’ roll dream.
My father and Larry had been drinking companions for a while, probably because no one else would have much to do with them. A brawl at Maloney’s tavern over the Pope’s infallibility—or maybe relativity theory—had ended their relationship. It was shortly before that incident, my mother said, that Larry had sold my father the gun.
I was taking a chance making inquiries but I knew that neither Glen nor Larry would offer up anything to the cops. I needed to know if the gun was traceable. Over the phone, I hadn’t said anything specific about the .38 revolver to Glen, only that I might need his help.
Now as my Pontiac Safari climbed Hattey’s Creek Bridge, the RPMs sank and the car bucked, slowing to a crawl. I shifted into neutral and turned down the radio. Although Port Beach was only 20 miles north of Asbury, I hadn’t been back to my hometown in seven years. The marsh spread uniformly pale green, except where patches of snow packed tightly against the reeds, fixed there by the bay wind that now whistled through the cracks in the wraparound rear windshield. Along the creek banks, thin sheets of ice melted into the winding olive streams, where gulls foraged for soldier crabs and edible garbage, a hundred gliding now under a dull winter sky. To the east, past a string of sand-swept houses, the bay spread toward the Amboys, gray and wind-blown like wrinkled aluminum foil. For a final test, I rolled down the window. A chill air carried the dense chemical vapors exhaled by the town’s solitary factory, a scent that I carried with me like a scar. Blessedly the engine revved, nearly every cylinder firing, and I rolled on past front yards of rusting appliances, raised cars and chained dogs, rising from the dirt to track my progress across their territory.
I didn’t consider him a friend, but Glen Ketter had gotten drunk with me a couple of times. Often, after fights with my father, I had slept over at his place, always on the floor. The house was built low as a bunker, punctured in a half-dozen places and patched with raw plywood. Seven kids crowded into it, two girls and five boys. Glen was a year younger than me and the oldest; his brothers followed about a year apart, each one more trouble than the one before. Guys without much brains and less ambition. His two sisters, teenyboppers now, I supposed, I didn’t know that well.
Glen’s father, Larry, was a big lazy guy and as mean as my father around his kids. Living on disability, Larry spent his days at the kitchen table reading the National Enquirer and shouting at his wife, a quiet beaten-down woman forever drying her hands. Whenever I stopped by, I would find Larry sitting there, deep into the paper, his scissors on hand to cut out articles of interest. On the kitchen wall, Larry affixed numerous clippings on Martians, Bigfoot and werewolves. Stupid shit, really, but Larry believed every story. He would warn us that the streets would soon be crawling with those creatures, which, he said, were in some conspiracy with the federal government, although he never spelled out the connection.
The Ketter house always smelled as if a large animal had died under the floorboards, especially in winter when the plumbing froze. Their solitary toilet, flushed with a bucket of water from the tub and always threatening to overflow, lent its particular odor to the stench. The Ketter boys pissed out their window, but I held my water and steadfastly avoided that toilet. Larry was too lazy to repair it himself and too cheap to hire a plumber. Maybe he thought the Martians would take it away.
Parking the Safari on the street, I danced around the dead orange cat in the Ketters’ mud driveway and climbed the broken wooden steps. I didn’t bother to try the doorbell. It never worked. “Hold your water,” someone yelled from inside, as if he knew it was me on the doorstep. Glen’s next youngest brother, Jack, opened the door. He wore his hair in an Elvis Presley pompadour, but even in that ancient hairstyle, he struck me as far more handsome as a man than he had been as a boy.
“Who are you?” Jack asked.
“Sam Nesbitt. I lived on Second Street.”
“Look like a girl.”
“I’m in a band.”
“Yeah? I wanna hold your gland, huh? Come on in.”
I followed Jack through the living room where two of his brothers slumped on the couch, eating dry cereal and watching TV. They looked me over suspiciously.
“Who’s the faggot?” asked the older of the two, whom I thought I recognized as Billy.
“Sam Nesbitt,” said Jack. “You remember his brother Tom? Their family lived on Second Street. Sam, this is Billy.”
“Nice to see you, Billy.”
“Hey, man, how the fuck are you?” said Billy. “What’s with the hair? You turn hippie?”
“I’m in a band.”
The youngest brother farted. “There’s a hit for ya.”
“Sam’s a guest,” Jack warned. “You fucking pig.”
We passed through the kitchen where Larry sat at the faded Formica-topped table drinking a beer. He looked twice as big as I remembered him, his eyes sunk in red flesh, throat bulging like a tuber. He wore reading glasses and he had an open National Enquirer laid out on the table, and a pair of scissors.
He dropped the paper, took off his glasses and looked at me with wonder, as if I were one of the Martians that had hopped right out of his news.
“Sam Nesbitt.” I flicked my hair. “I’m in a band.”
“You better be.”
“How have you been, Mr. Ketter?”
“I’ve got four bums for kids. They’re no fucking good. You see their lazy asses? I can’t fucking work. I got a bad back. If I didn’t have a bad fucking back...”
Jack nodded for me to follow him.
“Good to see you, Mr. Ketter.” I pointed to his paper. “That another Martian?”
“Venetian. You see his antenna?”
I followed Jack down the hall, shying away as we passed the bathroom.
Jack knocked on the bedroom door. “Glen, it’s Sam come to see you.” There was no response. “Might be asleep.” Jack knocked again, and turned the handle. “Coming in” he said, easing open the door.
I followed Jack into the room, which smelled of wine and cigarettes. Glen sat up on the bed with a couple grayish pillows at his back. He wore a Guinea T, the stump of his left arm extending two inches out of the sleeve. He had a glass of white wine in his hand and an open book on his lap. On the night table, a bottle of wine sat next to an amber pill bottle and a cigarette burning in a clamshell ashtray.
Glen smiled slowly at me, like new snow melting on a windshield. He set the wine on the nightstand and got to his feet.
“Wow, that’s you, huh?”
In his boxer shorts, he walked across the room and touched my hair, tentatively lifting a few strands as if testing fishing line for a bite. I dropped my gaze to his stump.
“Go ahead. Touch it,” said Glen.
I pinched the stump. “Feels like a hard-on.”
Glen laughed. “You want a glass of wine? This is good stuff. Comes from California. Hey Jack, get Sam a glass, will ya please?”
Jack walked out of the room and a minute later returned with a glass, which he tossed to me. “I’ll leave you two guys alone,” Jack said, backing out of the room and softly closing the door.
“Take a chair,” Glen said, sitting back down on the bed. I sat down and we both took a swallow of the wine. We stared at each other for a while.
“I’m sorry about your arm,” I said.
“My own fault. I should have been more careful.”
“It’s crazy over there, huh?”
“You can’t believe it. I could tell you some stories...” Glen smiled stiffly. “They say we were the good guys, but I don’t know...” Glen sipped his wine. “So what, you moved south?”
“That’s nice. Uptown, right?”
I turned up the palm of my left hand, where the scar across my fingers glowed like a needlefish fresh drawn from the sea. “I’ve got a band.”
“A band? Never figured that.”
“I’m a guitarist.” I wriggled my fingers down an imaginary guitar neck. “Writing songs, too.”
Glen got up and poured more wine. On the nightstand was a photo of Glen and a couple of his buddies sitting on a log in the jungle. An enemy soldier lay at their feet. She had a hole in her forehead and one breast bare.
“I was sorry to hear about your father passing,” Glen said. “He was a pisser.”
“He was dead before the car hit him.”
“His liver was gone. He’d walked out of the hospital just to keep drinking.”
“He used to put it away, didn’t he?”
“If you want to know the truth, I don’t miss him much,” I said.
“I guess not.”
“What I came to tell you is that Tom’s in jail in Freehold.”
“They say he killed a guy during a robbery.”
“The cops don’t have much evidence.”
Glen put his feet up on the bed and sank back against the wall, where faded little cowboys on galloping horses rounded up dumb cattle.
“The problem is that they’ve got the gun,” I said.
“I gave it to them.”
Glen snickered, as if I could not be serious. Whatever you do, you don’t betray blood. When I nodded in confirmation, his eyes wandered the room for a few seconds before they came back to me, waiting. But before I explained why I provided the police with the murder weapon that might send Tom to prison for twenty years, I wanted Glen to know why I was here.
“I think it was your father’s gun,” I said.
“My father never had a gun.”
“Twelve, fifteen years ago.”
“Why are you so sure?” I asked.
Glen closed his eyes. When he opened them, he slipped off the bed and walked to the closet. He rummaged around the pile of boxes. After a minute, he brought out a wooden checkers box. He set the box on the bed, undid the latch and opened it. He drew out a pellet gun. Glen raised the gun, took sight on a wallpaper cowboy, and pulled the trigger. There was the sound of a quickly drawn breath, followed by a soft pop. A hole marred the cowboy’s face.
“Remember this?” Glen asked.
“Sure. It got you kicked out of school.”
“My father wouldn’t come to claim it. My mother had to get it. Larry’s got a thing about guns. Any guns. He won’t touch 'em.” Glen looked at the pellet gun. “My mother threw it in the garbage.” He set the pellet gun back in the box. “You know how I lost my arm?”
I shook my head.
“Friendly fire. Began friendly, leastways.”
Glen put the box back in the closet. “I’m set for life.” He wagged the stump. “I could move anywhere in the world and get my check. Tahiti, even.” He gave me his slow smile and his eyes got keen. Glen had beautiful, smooth skin, glowing almost. “I’ll probably stay right here anyway.... What do you think of the wine?”
“It’s really nice.”
“Do you taste pear?”
“No, I didn’t notice pear.”
“It says on the bottle that the wine has the taste of pears. Sometimes I think I taste it.”
“I’m sorry I bothered you.”
Glen sat on the bed again and brought his feet up. I thought he was going to smile, but his lips trembled and he started tearing up. I looked away at the damaged cowboy.
“Shit man, shit man,” he whispered, wiping his eyes on the bedsheet. “I’m weepy and you’ve got the problem.”
He took a bottle of pills from the nightstand and shook a few onto the bed. He shoved two in his mouth and washed them down with the wine.
“What do you want me to do?” Glen asked.
“If it wasn’t your father’s gun...”
“You want me to ask him?”
“It would be a favor.”
“Why would you give the cops the gun?”
“I thought I was doing the right thing. I wasn’t. I messed up.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I don’t have time?”
Glen poured me another glass of his California chardonnay with the taste of pears. The label showed a vineyard stretched out under a brilliant sun.
So I started telling Glen the story; not everything, of course. There wasn’t time for that, and wouldn’t have helped what I wanted to explain. Other parts would have been too personal, and still others might have hurt Glen. I tried to stick to the truth, to what had happened to me in something less than three years; but in the telling you arrive at the truth as much as you start from it, and you learn a few things that you neglected to learn while you lived them.
Review: The Red Album of Asbury Park/Caught in the Carousel Magazine
BY ALEX GREEN • EDITOR
The follow-up to 2005's The Perfume Factory, Alex Austin's The Red Album of Asbury Park rejoins protagonist Sam Nesbitt and his unquenchable thirst for rock and roll glory. Set at the tail end of the '60s in an Asbury Park that presages the arrival of Springsteen, Austin guides Nesbitt through the back alleys of the life of a struggling musician and on the way he comes face-to-face with its seedy underbelly—its demons, its drugs, its dark, doleful nights. Austin namechecks the Beatles, RFK, Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, and places Nesbitt at the dawn of a decisive and future-altering decade. There are all-night jams, racial tensions, parental angst, hand injuries, the electricity of new love and even a murder, all of which are placed tauntingly in front of Nesbitt, as Austin challenges his lead character to make decisions that will change not only his life but the lives of those around him. Writing with an assured and highly charged narrative velocity, Austin's voice is authentic and true, making Nesbitt a narrator who is likable, flawed and helplessly tragic. His innocence may get swallowed by his experience, but his optimism and youthful romanticism remains in the end: "I was still in love with her and of course always would be, and in a vague way, without any details, I thought that somehow it would all come out right." An affecting and honest work that rolls out like a pop song and resonates unforgettably, the way a great chorus should.
True to Its Roots/Monmouth University Outlook
BY FRANK GOGOL • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
“Alex Austin’s novel The Red Album of Asbury Park is the sequel to The Perfume Factory and chronicles the story of 22 year-old Sam Nesbitt, an aspiring rock guitarist. Set in Asbury Park in the 1960s, the story shows the ramifications of the events of Sam’s first night in the shore town. The exploits of Sam include forming a band, falling in love, rising to the top of the Asbury Park music scene, all revolving around a murder mystery. Austin, like me, grew up in Union Beach, and his knowledge and love for the Jersey Shore is prevalent in his book. Having grown up here, I have heard the stories about Asbury Park in the 60s, and he doesn’t miss a beat. Not a single character or event in the story is without purpose and the development of each is incredible....There is truly nothing I can say is wrong with this book, which is a first for me. It brings a little of everything to the table and hits close to home, and to this university. I highly recommend this rare read and give it 10 out of 10. The Red Album of Asbury Park, is a must read for anyone, especially those hailing from or familiar with the Jersey Shore."
New Novel is a Shore Thing/Asbury Park Press
BY KELLY-JANE COTTER • STAFF WRITER
AUTHOR ALEX AUSTIN has lived in California since he was 21, but it is the Jersey Shore that fuels his imagination.
Austin grew up in Union Beach and went to Keyport High School. In the late '60s, his parents moved to Asbury Park, and he went with them, finding his bearings as a young adult.
The neighborhoods of Bayshore towns and the nightlife of Asbury Park provide the setting for Austin's latest novel, "The Red Album of Asbury Park." Part coming-of-age story, part murder thriller, this is a beach book for readers who don't mind being horribly depressed by stories of antiheroes in bleak situations.
"The Red Album of Asbury Park" serves as a sequel to "The Perfume Factory," which follows the teenage trials of Sam Nesbitt. In the follow-up, Nesbitt is a 22-year-old aspiring rock guitarist with a remarkable knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of Austin's characters have bad habits and worse luck.
There is a sense of resiliency in this book. The characters keep trying, and most of them are neither good guys nor bad guys, but are wavering somewhere in between.
And not everyone is a loser. Bruce Springsteen himself makes a memorable, wordless cameo, as Nesbitt sees an unnamed musician in a club, "sitting at a table, his hands on the table, fingers laced, as he leaned forward concentrating on the music, his long curly hair spilling over his shoulders . . . he was getting plenty of attention, but he looked alone. I nodded to him. He grinned and nodded back. He was just another rival that had emerged from the sea."
"Yeah, that's supposed to be Springsteen," Austin said. "I didn't want to write about him, per se, but because the book is about Asbury Park, it's like the elephant in the room. So I wanted to acknowledge that somewhere."
The inclusion of Springsteen, with his talent and his drive, makes the fate of some of the other characters that much more poignant.
"I was there when Springsteen was starting out," Austin said. "I went to The Upstage and the other clubs, and he was just another struggling musician. But I was blown away by him — I didn't see how you could see him and not think he was gonna be something.
"My parents, they were there through the '70s and '80s, and I'd go back and visit in the summers," Austin said. "So, I was in Los Angeles, but I'd brought with me there these memories of Asbury Park and Springsteen and the other musicians who were there. I'd seen other cities. I thought, "Asbury is richer than Los Angeles.' There was something about that time, and those musicians."
During the fledgling days of Asbury Park's music scene, Austin's brother, Johnny Austin, led The Fantasy Band, which also featured the drummers Vini Lopez and Ernest "Boom" Carter, both of whom would become Springsteen's bandmates.
The author drew upon happy memories of the music scene but set them in context. The Asbury Park depicted in the book is on a downward trajectory. The Vietnam War shadows the young people — damaged veterans and hippies alike — and adds to the relentless tension in the background.
"I wanted to keep that as a subtext," Austin said, "to keep the general history of the times in there."
The title of the book hints at the mayhem in the story, but also, Austin said, "an album is also a record of something. It's about memories."
"Asbury Park meant a lot to me," the author said. "Through Sam's story, I'm trying to reflect on Asbury Park and what would happen. No matter how much Sam struggles, at the end, he's still hoping."
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