Musical Map Of The USA: New Jersey— Catch 22

0726.4_States5You probably were expecting Bruce Springsteen’s name here, or Frank Sinatra’s, or any musician who paid their dues in the Garden State to make it big enough to cross the Hudson. New Jersey is filled with streets named after rock stars, and we tend to mythologize the hometown heroes who sing about surviving the state. I grew up around the interactive Bruce Springsteen museum known as Asbury Park, New Jersey. His tributes to my Jersey Shore home have become the state’s own tributes to him, and the lines blur as to which is which. Is that Greetings From Asbury Park sign paying homage to the town’s historic postcard or to the 1973 Springsteen album? Does it even matter? New Jersey is happy to share its monuments with Bruce Springsteen.

But Bruce isn’t the only act that New Jersey incubated, and we’re even more loyal to the acts who never left us for greener pastures and cleaner recording studios. Asbury Park’s music scene wasn’t frozen in time after his departure to fame. Out of state tourists (yes, we have those) might visit The Stone Pony for its Bruce regalia, but for years, Asbury Park’s music venues were the only establishments that stayed open when hard times fell on the city.
Now, Asbury Park is exploding as the new must-see town on the Jersey Shore, but for decades, it was a graveyard of abandoned buildings, suffering from its own recession. By the time I got there in the 90s, the city felt trapped in time and too caught up in nostalgia to move forward. Whether it was a battle of the bands at The Saint or a psychobilly act at Asbury Lanes, those historic venues and the fledgling punk scenes they showcased would breathe life in Asbury Park when Asbury was still gasping for air.

New Jersey had an impressive roster of early pop-punk, emo, and ska bands that found stages in our dingy bars back in the 90s and early aughts, and the cultural links the state has to these genres still linger. But ska, for me, was a more natural partner for Jersey. Bands like Professor Plum, Inspecter 7, and a fleet of other acts mostly coming from New Brunswick would grace our shores with hyper speed horn playing. Our state’s brand of ska had a knack for laying dismal lyrics on top of erratic tempos. It was a genre that suited a stir-crazy city like Asbury Park, and it sounded great blaring from our boardwalk, our skatepark, and our punk rock bowling alley. Celebrating a life in shambles was an ongoing theme, and at its very pinnacle was a punch-happy song about waiting for death in Keasbey, New Jersey.

Catch 22 became an immediate cult classic with their debut album Keasbey Nights in 1998. Every kid knew them and every college radio station worshipped them. Even the guy who thought ska sucked played the title track at his party. For a moment in time, nobody was coming to Asbury Park for Bruce Springsteen memorabilia; we had new bands to call our own. Catch 22 were quintessential of New Jersey’s local punk and ska revival but had fans well beyond that scene. Lead singer Tomas Kalnoky would later re-record the entire album with his next act, Streetlight Manifesto, but the grittier sounds of the original album capture that youthful desperation felt by everyone growing up here.
As a song, “Keasbey Nights” sounds like the musical equivalent of restless leg syndrome. It’s a celebration of the anxious euphoria you get living this close to New York City, but knowing you’re not leaving Jersey anytime soon. You need thick skin to live next to the greatest city in the world only to exist as New York’s personal punchline. As the song goes, “I still remember when we were young and fragile then / No one gave a shit about us because times were tougher then.” Lyrically, it’s a rushed tribute to nostalgia, acceptance, and the joys of awaiting death in New Jersey. The part of the chorus that everyone screams when they hear it–“My, my, my, how the time does fly, when you know you’re going to die by the end of the night”–feels like the state’s slogan. Keasbey Nights is a hyperactive tribute to the impending doom we all feel living here, but the crazy time we’ll have before it’s over.
This is one of more than 50 posts that make up our musical map of the United States, published by region—the West, Midwest, South, and Northeast—by writers who have strongly associated a song with a state.

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