“The Unsuspecting Venue: Asbury Lanes” Originally Published in The Aquarian, February 12, 2008
The rumble of bowling balls competes with the bass during an Asbury Lanes show. The 1960’s décor could come out of your parent’s basement, but the tattooed bartenders and alternative crowd could not. Fueled by local artists, dripping with history, and defiantly DIY, this unsuspecting bowling center has reinvented itself to become one of the premiere music venues on the Jersey Shore.
When Asbury Lanes owner Ralph Ayles was asked if he ever thought he would possess a music venue in Asbury Park, he responded with a resounding “never.” The self-described “bowling guy” comes from a family who has successfully operated bowling centers since the 1950’s. He inherited Asbury Lanes from his father in 1990.
However, after years of steady leagues and tournaments, the turn of the millennium saw interest in Asbury Lanes wane.
“I was having difficulty getting people to come to Asbury Park to bowl. People come to Asbury Park for music,” said Ayles. So, when regular customer Mel Stultz asked if Ayles ever considered bringing live music to the bowling center, Ayles was game.
In 2003, Stultz arranged for Red Bank garage rock band The Ribeye Brothers to set up on a thick carpet in the middle of the building. They played to the biggest night crowd Asbury Lanes had ever drawn. Ayles knew he was on to something. He also knew someone more plugged in to the music scene would be a better fit for booking bands. Ayles brought on Stultz as official manager and booker, and enlisted Asbury Lanes employee “Juicy” Jenn to help.
As punk, rockabilly, psychobilly and garage rock bands drew larger crowds and word spread about the “new” Asbury Lanes, Stultz began restructuring the building with music in mind. In 2004 a raised, circular stage was constructed in the center of the bowling lanes, splitting them in half. Lighting and sound systems were installed. Nightclub hours of 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. took effect, and shows filled the calendar. The bowling equipment, furniture, and wood paneling from 1968 were kept, along with an outdoor sign that’s so old even Ayles doesn’t know what year it’s from. Turned off by the new setup, the remaining serious bowlers retreated. Asbury Lanes, a bowling center since the 1930’s, morphed into a music venue and lounge with a vintage vibe that offers a kitschy activity.
In retrospect, hosting shows at Asbury Lanes seems inevitable. The bar and lounge had been a meeting place for musicians and their friends for years. Asbury Park’s renaissance was gaining momentum, and other local venues seemed to have already experienced their heyday. The shore was ready for something unique. It was ready for “The Lanes,” as it’s affectionately called by regulars.
Still, the transformation from bowling alley to music venue was not smooth. Stultz left The Lanes over a year ago, due to “creative and personal differences,” according to Layney, who now manages and books bands alongside Juicy Jenn.
“We have put [Stultz’s departure] behind us and tried to move on, continuing The Lanes with as much happiness and harmony as we can, letting everyone put in creative ideas now,” said Layney. Judging by The Lanes’ growing popularity and notoriety, the venue has continued to flourish since Stultz’s adieu.
“The staff works their tails off to keep it a place where people want to come and bands want to play,” said Ayles.
These are managers, bookers, and bartenders who pride themselves in being completely DIY.
“We don’t have corporate backing. We don’t have thousands of dollars to buy any band we want. We don’t have political backing,” said Layney. “We work for every show we get… every relationship we’ve built.”
The staff’s passion for music, the local scene and the people involved bleeds into their work.
“We give our lives to this place,” said Layney, who mentioned the staff has worked for $.50 an hour to book, manage and run a venue they do not own. “We are not in it only for the money. We work in this industry because we love it, because we are called to it, because we are artists, musicians, and individuals.”
This standout commitment to punk rock and DIY has prompted shows by well-known bands such as Strike Anywhere, Against Me, World Inferno Friendship Society, and Agent Orange. Punk icons The Bouncing Souls have played two sold-out shows at The Lanes, and can often be seen hanging out in the lounge.
“It’s so rare these days that places like [The Lanes] exist, because everything is being taken over by larger corporations,” said Pete Steinkopf, guitarist for The Bouncing Souls. “It’s a local, independent venue with a cool vibe. I will always support this kind of place, because it’s hard to keep it running.”
The stage is certainly a break from traditional clubs, and makes for a more intimate show than The Bouncing Souls are used to playing.
“I’m into anything that’s a little off the beaten path and a little different than the normal venue. It’s kind of cool to play a show and have people throwing bowling balls all around you,” said Steinkopf. “We’ve played there twice, and both shows were packed with our hometown kids. There was a lot of heart in the crowd, and people going crazy and having a good time.”
The Lanes even made an appearance on The Bouncing Souls’ most recent album, The Gold Record. The song “So Jersey,” written about Asbury Park, says: “Stepping out of a Asbury Lanes in a midnight snow/The skeleton of this old town feels like it’s coming alive/Riots and corruption, beaches and Bruce/These songs were the key to the engines of our road.”
Part of The Bouncing Souls’ video for “Lean on Sheena,” also from The Gold Record, was shot at The Lanes’ bar. The staff and Asbury Park locals were used in the video.
Well known bands are not the only ones drawn to this venue. Local, unsigned musicians see The Lanes as a rite of passage.
“[The Lanes] will let a band play without a huge following. You don’t have to prove yourself to play here. You prove yourself here,” said Jarrett Dougherty, drummer of Screaming Females. The three-piece rock band from New Brunswick recently played Punk Nite, which occurs every Wednesday and features a rotating list of bands on the bill.
“[The Lanes] is the best ‘real’ venue in New Jersey. It’s alive now and it’s making a name for itself now. It’s not holding on to the past. It’s not dead. It’s one of the few venues in the area that cares about the bands and the music, and not just getting asses in seats,” continued Dougherty. This type of ‘realness’ is exactly what the staff strives for.
Though The Lanes has built its reputation around punk rock, other types of music and art are slowly pushing their way onto the stage.
“We have made an effort to expand acts to include rock, pop, indie, indie rock, funk, metal, burlesque acts, multi-media, video premieres, lectures, etc.,” said Layney. “We have actually spent more time booking other ‘styles’, so we can expand our audience, expand our own understanding, and get to know other people,” she continued. The Lanes also holds cult movie nights and hosts a Vinyl Swap/Record Sale/Vintage Meet every couple of months. Recently, transgressive cult filmmaker and actor John Waters took the stage to perform his one-man comedic monologue, “A John Waters Christmas.”
Artists have also found a home here, and original paintings and drawings hang on the walls. Tony and Wendy Groholski, the team behind Squindo, have a collection of cartoon-like animal “dead heads” displayed in the lounge. The inspiration for his recent collections comes from Juicy Jenn and other friends he has made at The Lanes.
“The Lanes and the people there are the reason I began to paint again,” said Groholski.
Artist Erica Doll has a collection of acrylic paintings hanging in the bowling room.
“[The Lanes hosts] art that wouldn’t be represented locally and one might have to go to New York City to see. It’s a welcome relief from seascape galleries and other tired art,” said Erica.
“The Lanes is a comfortable place where people who may not frequent a traditional art gallery can see art of all sorts from mostly local artists,” said Groholski.
In just 4 years, The Lanes has influenced the local music and art scene. At this point, it’s more CBGB’s and Knitting Factory than Bowl-O-Rama, and it’s uncertain whether The Lanes will ever return to its bowling roots.
“We want the Lanes to be a facilitator for independent, unknown acts to be brought to this community. We want to be somewhere where there is always something new, different, and innovative,” said Layney. Certainly, The Lanes is forging a path that no Jersey Shore bowling center ever entertained before.
“We want to be infamous. We want to be the ‘greatest DIY venue that any band can remember’,” said Layney. If The Lanes keeps it up, they just might be.