I must confess that it took me a while to get into The Red Album of Asbury Park and I didn’t start to appreciate it until around Chapter 9. While it is well-written and detailed in its often disconsolate description of Asbury Park and the surrounding area in the late 1960s, it’s more of a murder mystery than a tribute to the good old days of rock ‘n’ roll. Getting to know the main character – freshly discharged from the service and the Vietnam War, wannabe rock star Sam Nesbitt – is a bit painstaking.
“Cast down into the resort on a winter night, Sam Nesbitt, 22, arrives broke and homeless, but filled with musical ambition. Seeking shelter, he boards a floating wooden swan ride, one of the seaside resort’s numerous offbeat attractions abandoned in winter.
Drifting into an intoxicating dream of a rock ‘n’ roll future, Sam is nettled from the fantasy of fame and regained love by men’s voices rising outside the swan, discussing Jersery Arcana…and murder.
To the backbeat of a brutal struggle to control a dying and increasingly surreal town, Sam pursues a vision at once heroic and carnal, self-destructive and soul affirming.”
While taking shelter in the aforementioned wooden swan and hiding from the gangsters whose conversation he is overhearing, Sam carelessly cuts his left hand with a fishing knife, severing a few tendons in the process, leaving him with no alternative but a costly surgery if he’s going to ever be able to play the guitar again.
Sam’s parents are alcoholics. The brutal father who raised him (but wasn’t his biological father) is now dead and his mother is trying to survive and stay on the wagon. His younger brother Tom wastes his time surfing with his friend Brandon and lives like a vagabond. All Sam can think about is being the guitarist in a band, writing songs, and alternately daydreaming about a girl named Jillian whom he met on a rather gruesome train ride back to New Jersey and his first love, the more conventional, Julie.
Sam’s unemployment benefits are running out and he needs $2,000 for hand surgery so he foolishly decides that his only option is to accept the offer of one of the murderer’s he overheard (and ran into in a local bar) and get the money from a shady loan shark.
Not long after, his hand is on the mend and he stumbles into a job installing and fixing antennas which gives him the opportunity to purchase an amp for his guitar. Ready to manifest his rock ‘n’ roll dreams, Sam joins a band called The Neons and starts playing a mix of bluesy rock cover tunes by artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Yardbirds, The Beatles and Creedence Clearwater Revival, all bands that I know and admire. He finally summons the confidence to pursue Jillian who just happens to be the singer in another local band that is experiencing some success, called The Decisive Moment.
The Red Album of Asbury Park is not uplifting or soul affirming in any way. It’s about a young man who dreams of rock stardom but deep down knows he’s never going to get out of Jersey because he’s trapped and stuck working for the malevolent Terrence Cassidy (T.C.) while at the same time trying to work through his father issues in a rather self-destructive manner.
The story is equivalent to watching a decently acted, B mob movie, set in a very grey and dreary place. It’s curiously entertaining and you keep hoping that the story is going to become more positive and hopeful, but it never does. While it has unexpected twists in it, the book was overall too much of a downer to be the fun rock ‘n’ roll tribute to the Asbury Park of the late 60s that I was hoping for.
All this being said, Los Angeles based novelist and playwright Alex Austin is a strong enough writer that I would definitely read more of his work. The Red Album of Asbury Park is a sequel to Austin’s first novel, The Perfume Factory which I haven’t read, but perhaps if I had, I might have enjoyed his second book more.
POST REVIEW NOTE
I just found out from the author that the book was re-written and republished as The Red Album of Asbury Park Remixed and it has been receiving nothing but glowing reviews. I would highly recommend looking for it if you’re interested in this story as I’m sure I would have rated it considerably higher.