When House of Independents burst onto the scene in 2016, it wasn’t just another venue; it was a bold declaration of artistic exploration, setting the stage for a raucous journey of spilled beer and soaring spirituals.
Nestled in the very soul of Asbury Park, House of Independents was a cultural battleground where music and creativity waged a relentless war on the mundane. Since opening on a dark, cold November 25th night, House stood stoically as a testament to the city’s spirit, digging deep roots in the social spheres of music and art.
As a founding partner and inaugural executive director, it wasn’t just a venue to me; it was a passionate love affair. Embodying the very essence of Asbury, House was a bastion of authenticity and non-conformity, much like the sound and fury that originally defined it.
When we opened, I told the Asbury Park Sun (asburyparksun.com) in my best P.T. Barnum, “This isn’t a halfway house. It’s a house on fire. From the first spark, House has concentrated on breaking revolutionary new ground. These House parties of ours are defined by desire, they are fueled by thoughtful theatrics, stocked with local and legendary voices who resonate with creativity that is simple, imaginative, and fresh. Our stage holds the very heritage of Asbury Park within its hardwood. It burns with artistic expression, crackles with an authentic, off-center spirit. With each engagement we burn down the house and it’s a kind of celebration that sings.”
This might have been bold bravado without much to back it up, but we knew it was no ordinary venue when Jimmy Gestapo of Murphy’s Law unleashed a torrent of punk chaos that very first night. This was quickly followed by the firestorm of Fishbone’s soulful punk-ska fusion, which hit like an auditory hurricane, leaving the floors buckled and the roof raised. It rolled right into Henry Rollins (2.13.61), who sold out before the ink could dry. His +3 hour spoken word sets were thunderous roars of brutal, broken tooth truth. Rollins was followed by John Waters, the irreverent sage who graced us with ‘A John Waters Christmas: Holier and Dirtier’ whose wisdom came wrapped in razor-sharp humor, reminding us why he remains the ultimate visionary vanguard, a provocateur who lives life on his terms, the pristine Pope of Trash.
These singular sensations sharing their treasured talents within our newly-minted artistic sandbox made it seem like anything was possible. The talent I booked that very first year was as eclectic as the space itself, filling a necessary niche in the empty performance downtown. Russian punk activists PussyRiot led discussions on global civil rights alongside the iconic John Cameron Mitchell, creator of Hedwig. Amy Poehler’s Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre unleashed comedic chaos, proving that laughter was the most potent form of rebellion.
What started as a modest endeavor to bring diverse entertainment to downtown Asbury Park quickly blossomed into a cultural, creative clubhouse that defied conformity. In just one short year a series of performances from every genre electrified Cookman Avenue including Rakim, Sugarhill Gang & Grandmaster’s Furious 5 Reunion Tour, Superkick Lucha Libre Mexican Wrestling, The Dictators, NJ Golden Gloves Boxing, Coney Island Circus Sideshow, Harlem Gospel Choir Brunch series, Junk Dance, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Howard Jones, Book of Love, Please Kill Me 20th Anniversary with Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain, Talk About Rock & Roll with legendary photographer Bob Gruen & Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith), shock Illusionist Dan Sperry Anti-Conjuror, Molly Ringwald, Puddles Pity Party, Le Scandal Cabaret, The Lumineers, Colin Hay, The Lone Bellows, A Christmas Carol, Light Of Day Foundation Concerts with Dramarama, Jill Hennessy, Willie Nile, Billy Walton Band Group, Steve Forbert, ComedySportz, Asbury Park Music in Film Festival, Marshall Crenshaw, comedians Suzanne Westenhoefer & Robert Kelly (“Louie”), Emily Kinney Music (Walking Dead), Minikiss, Gas House Gorillas, The Amazing Kreskin, gay programing including The Pyrate Ball with legendary DJ Johnny Dynell performing with Jackie 60 stars from NYC, DJ Princess Superstar for the 25th anniversary of NJ Pride, graphic illustrator event Carousel, Gideon Luke & The People, Remember Jones, Offseason Poetry, The American Poetry Theater, The Pietasters, and Where’s the Band, to name just a few.
Where in Asbury Park can such a mad mix tape of magical entertainment be found today?
I truly mourn the dimming of the House of Independents, a luminous space that skyrocketed only to fade just a few years after its ascent. Its absence leaves a deep chasm in the heart of Asbury Park, a stark reminder of the ongoing and often losing battles for performance art against the relentless forces of dollars and cents, small audiences, and hyper-gentrification.
As the curtains fall on House, and I bid adieu to this most sacred space, I hope it will carry forward the enchantment it infused into our lives. When we reflect on all that Asbury Park has surrendered in just a fleeting span of years — the littered remains of once-thriving stages that adorned our landscape — it jolts with a resounding alarm. It’s a stark reminder of the vital importance of cherishing our cultural gems, nurturing the arts, and steadfastly preserving the distinctive character of our outsider artists over commercial interests.
In the immortal words of Henry Rollins, “The blues is losing someone you love and not having enough money to immerse yourself in drink.”