Yearning for My Emo Days in Nostalgia-Inducing Asbury Park

Mabel Rosenheck looks back at a group of friends, and a music festival on the Jersey Shore, that came along when she needed them most.

Mabel Rosenheck | Longreads | July 2017 | 20 minutes (4,918 words)

 

On April 27, 2003, I sat with two friends in arena seats in Convention Hall in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Inside, the building looks like a generic mid-size concert venue, but its lobby is a fantastic, mammoth arcade and exhibition space with polished floors, square arches trimmed by Corinthian columns, and wrought-iron windows that sunlight pours through in spades. It is industrial, yet elegant. It is American, yet with unmistakable allusions to European modernity, to beaux arts style. Overwhelming the boardwalk and the beach, it is urban architecture that rises dramatically from the ocean, jutting out into the breakers, bearing the brunt of Atlantic hurricanes. It is a hard place to describe, but it is also a hard place to forget and an easy place to romanticize.

I’d met my friends the year before on an internet message board for a shitty pop punk band from Chicago named Mest. The internet was still figuring out what it was; we were still figuring out who we were. We were lonely and isolated in the suburbs of Connecticut, Long Island, and New Jersey. We found something we needed in this music. We found something we needed in each other.

It was a Sunday, and some of our friends had to leave to catch buses and trains to finish term papers and make classes on Monday morning. I was there with Dena and Deirdre, but we felt deeply the absence of Jillian, the last of our essential quartet. Jillian’s leaving that morning made the moment more melancholy than a Sunday hangover or an emo song alone, because something was missing.

Inside, we were about halfway up the stands on the left side of the stage, or at least that’s how I remember it. The seats were blue. The room was kind of a hazy gray with sunshine struggling to find its way through windows nestled into the top row, or maybe that was just the hangover, or maybe that is just the nostalgia.

I’d met my friends the year before on an internet message board for a pop punk band. The internet was still figuring out what it was; we were still figuring out who we were.

The band on stage was Brand New. Before they were playing Madison Square Garden and headlining Coachella, before Deja Entendu came out, when it was only Your Favorite Weapon’s particular brand of angsty emo with songs about breaking up with girlfriends and best friends, Brand New was on stage on day three of Skate and Surf 2003, a music festival in Asbury Park. They promised us there that tonight would go on forever while we walked around this town like we owned the streets.

We’d been down the shore since Friday afternoon. Jillian came down from Boston and met me in New Haven, and though she wasn’t there for that Sunday moment, Asbury Park was nothing without her, and the trip down was nothing without her. I had left college in Massachusetts and moved back in with my parents in Connecticut a month before. Jillian was in college in Boston, but not happy. Dena was in Philadelphia, finding her way well enough, but not quite enough. Deirdre was always the most well-adjusted of all of us, but I guess even she was looking for something. We bonded over 18-year-old existential loneliness on an internet message board, and that weekend we, along with a few thousand other existential teenagers like us, drove down I-95 and the Garden State Parkway to the parking lot of the Berkeley Carteret Hotel.

The Used performing in Asbury Park in 2003 (Photo by David Pomponio/FilmMagic)

With Jillian and Dena and Deirdre and everyone else, I had sugary teenage drinks with the back of my car open before the hotel room was ready. I had more drinks in our hotel room that day and that night and the next day. We watched a parade of punk rock lineage including post-hardcore bands like Thrice, screamo bands like The Used, and indie performers like Onelinedrawing. We shared a bottle of tequila with a guy with a straight edge tattoo. Then I made out with him. It was a frenetic good time, but as much as I remember the red angel wings I paired with a wifebeater and black vinyl pants, as much as I remember the Home Grown drum head that I used as a cocktail tray, as much as I remember the Kiwis that crashed on our floor, I remember Sunday afternoon sitting about halfway up on the left side of those blue seats in that hazy gray room that the sunshine didn’t quite reach. Listening to that song, at that time, and in that place, I felt closer to the people who were there and the one who wasn’t than I maybe ever have to anyone. We were a few girls in a sea of teenagers, in a beachside town where we didn’t live, but as much as it was a moment shared with the thousands of people who were there, I remember this as a small moment between us; I remember this as a place that belonged to us.

It may be my own nostalgia because of course since then life has gotten more complicated, or it may be the nostalgia attached to Asbury Park as the site of not just Skate and Surf in the 2000s but of Springsteen in the ’70s or vintage vacationers in the ’20s, but that weekend and that moment lives with me like few others do. Like few others do, that moment brings me both joy that it existed and sadness that it can no longer exist.

***

In our suburban lives and our urban colleges we’d been lonely and isolated. But in 2001, there were also message boards, and there was also AOL instant messenger. Not to sound too nostalgic, too much “back in my day,” but before Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat, there were message boards, and there was AOL instant messenger.

We bonded over 18-year-old existential loneliness on an internet message board, and that weekend we, along with a few thousand other existential teenagers, drove down to the parking lot of the Berkeley Carteret Hotel.

I don’t remember my first post to the Mest board. I don’t remember what it was about that site that seemed welcoming and accessible when others weren’t. I don’t remember how I made the connections I made. I know Jillian (here4ulaw) was first. We were talking one day about whether we could get to Asbury Park via public transportation when Dena (ekk), a Jersey resident, offered advice. Though Jillian was in college in Boston, she was from Long Island, the next town over from Deirdre (dorkmeister2000). Others would become part of our internet lives — and our real ones — 16-year-old Mollie (tasteofink) would join us when her parents would let her, and Amanda (benjisleftnut) was a fixture too — but Jillian, Dena, and Deirdre were the ones that made friendship seem to me like something that wasn’t impossible.

At the time, I liked to construct my identity in terms of the subcultural, outsider cache of old-school hardcore and punk rock. I still do. It makes me feel different, but also legible, as though I value something specific that is a little outside of the mainstream, but I’m still recognizable to kindred spirits. In my performative moments, I used to list The Clash, X, and Minor Threat as my favorite bands. I came into punk rock through The Clash and the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, through CDs I could order from Columbia House or BMG for a penny, through cassettes I could steal from my older sister. And when it came out in 2001, Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life changed the way I thought about music, and I devoured every band he listed there, every label those bands were on. Minor Threat’s Complete Discography made me think about the world in a new way. Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising made me hear the world in a new way. It may be trite, but Black Flag’s Damaged sounded the way I felt. These bands were formative for my 17-year-old self. They did whatever it is that music does for so many teenagers like me. They gave me a sense of who I was, and a sense of who I could be.

Yet if, in my performative moments, I listed The Clash, X, and Minor Threat as my favorite bands, the bands I just as often listened to in my car were these older artists’ more melodic, more mainstream, more suburban, and whinier descendants. These were the pop punk bands and the emo bands. Where Black Flag and Minor Threat played as loud and fast as possible, The Get Up Kids, Saves the Day, and New Found Glory wrote songs with actual choruses and verses and hooks. Where hardcore bands howled about alienation from society, emo bands dwelled more often on the loss of their girlfriends. Emo bands also found homes on record labels like Vagrant and Drive-Thru that operated with the aspirations of majors rather than with the fuck you ethos of DIY indies from the ’80s like Minor Threat’s Dischord or Black Flag’s SST. Both hardcore and emo were expressions of white, male, teenage isolation to be sure, and earlier emo bands like Rites of Spring or Texas Is the Reason are a bridge between ’80s hardcore and 2000s pop, but it’s hard to mistake Embrace for The Starting Line, and I was just as much the latter as I tried to be the former.

So I was obsessed with the cool punk rock past, but I was never the hip, scenester emo kid who competed over who knew the more obscure band or had the more esoteric collection of colored vinyl. I listened to indie music, but I was never cool enough to go to basement shows of bands that would only become legendary after their demise. I have precious few stories about seeing artists before they “sold out,” but I did go to CBGB, and I did see Taking Back Sunday when their only album was Tell All Your Friends, and I did see Brand New when their only album was Your Favorite Weapon. And though these bands weren’t the ones that gave me the same sense of who I was that The Clash did, the people I met because of these bands changed my life maybe even more.

All of this began to happen in 2000 and 2001, right when emo bands like Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional started breaking into MTV, right when pop punk bands like blink-182 and Good Charlotte were having their moment. In the fall of 2000, when I was a junior in high school, I spent a semester abroad. It didn’t go well. I was depressed and suicidal. Being in a foreign country didn’t turn out to be the solution it had once appeared. Though it was what my dad wanted, going back to my all-girls boarding school was the last thing I could imagine would help. So I dropped out of school. Moved back in with my parents. And with a blue clamshell iBook, I started spending a lot of time on the internet, and I met Dena, Deirdre, and Jillian.

For a time, we lived for long threads and long weekends with stops at Irving Plaza (originally a Polish-American community center) in New York, the Worcester Palladium (an old movie palace) in Massachusetts, and the Birch Hill Nite Club (an old country club) in New Jersey. We took trains into the city and drove my green Subaru station wagon down Route 9 in the Garden State. We’d arrive early and hang out in the parking lot drinking Malibu rum with Mountain Dew Code Red and pineapple juice from red plastic Solo cups. We’d stay late with stops at Jersey diners, not yet ready for the night to end, not yet ready to go back to our parents’ houses or our college dorms, not yet ready to go back to the rest of our lives.

It may be my own nostalgia because of course since then life has gotten more complicated, or it may be the nostalgia attached to Asbury Park as the site of not just Skate and Surf in the 2000s but of Springsteen in the ’70s or vintage vacationers in the ’20s.

I don’t know if other people at those shows thought we were those girls. Inauthentic. Not really there for the music. Poseurs. But we didn’t care. Maybe because we weren’t there for the music, or at least not just. We were there for each other. I would’ve done anything for those girls, and I think they would’ve done anything for me. We’ve grown apart some in the years since I moved away for graduate school in Texas in 2008. I take responsibility for all that has happened, all of the times I didn’t say happy birthday, all of the times I didn’t know how to stay in touch, but even now that I’m back — trying, but mostly failing, at transitioning out of academia and into a high-powered New York career — we only seem to see each other when one of those old bands reunites, and I’m still not sure how to reconnect. I never used to think of myself as a nostalgic person, but if there is anything I am nostalgic for, it is for those days and those nights. It is for those girls and the person they brought out in me. They made me someone new. They made me someone capable of joy.

I don’t know if other people at those shows thought we were entertaining or pathetic, whether they loved us or hated us, whether we were ruining things or running them. But that didn’t matter. What mattered, I think, was that we not only had each other, but also had a space which we could occupy. In those parking lots, on those sidewalks, we took up space that wasn’t granted to us anywhere else. We were young women who didn’t have the garages and basements of band practice, who didn’t want the suburban malls that we were given as female consumers (though Dena did work at a Hot Topic). We didn’t think of it this way at the time, but Jessica Hopper’s formative essay “Where the Girls Aren’t” and eight years of graduate school has led me to understand those trips and what they meant to us in new terms. The emo music we listened to was The Get Up Kids telling us to “Forgive me for running off to find the one thing I have to do.” They were telling us to wait for our boyfriends while they went off to make art and follow their ambitions. The emo music we listened to was Saves the Day singing “Let me take this awkward saw, run it against your thighs,” linking sex and violence in ways that are not so comfortable for me now. So often this music — music sung by suburban white boys claiming rebellion through electric guitars and three chord songs or through shows at VFW halls and self-released EPs — denied subjectivity to the women these men idealized. They negotiated masculinity through emotion and vulnerability, but they didn’t think critically about the women in their lives, choosing instead to whine about them.

We didn’t think critically about it at the time either, or at least I didn’t, but those parking lots were a rebuke to just singing along and finding solace in someone else’s emotions. We were staking an active claim with our bodies rather than resigning ourselves to the passive role of the teenybopper and the groupie. Yes, we courted boys in bands — we laughed with Dan from Home Grown and tried to strike a deal for his t-shirt, we took pictures of the boys from Mest with a farting doll that looked like a mutual friend — but it was for our own amusement more than theirs. They were players in our game, not the other way around.

The struggle to find a space of one’s own is real for everyone, but even more so for teenagers who are always confined by their parents’ addresses. “Boys passing the bottle back to Pete on the overpass,” to quote the lyrics of Brand New’s “Soco Amaretto Lime,” is not necessarily so different from girls pouring drinks in the back of a car in a suburban parking lot. However, this search for a place of our own means something different for girls and young women who are still told over and over again that our place is in the home, that our place is as cultural consumers not cultural producers. My friends and I never started a band, never even talked about starting a band, but in those moments, at those venues, we, in some small way, remade cultural consumption into a statement about our place in the world. Through female friendship, through our very existence in public, we did something not as fans of a band, but as autonomous selves. We were more than cultural consumers, more than teenyboppers or groupies. No, we weren’t in bands, but together we defined who we were rather than letting even the bands we came to see do it for us. In some sense music brought us together, yes, but it wasn’t some male singer or macho guitarist who allowed me to make sense out of adolescence, it was a bunch of teenage girls from the internet who helped me take up space in a parking lot in Asbury Park.


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As much as I see now how aspects of that music are problematic — its whiteness, its masculinity, its construction of women — that music was the soundtrack to my growing up. And when I think about that music and that time retrospectively, I think about the women I knew whose friendship changed my life, and I think of our nascent feminism. I do also think about the boys I encountered in crowds, on Friendster and Makeoutclub and Mad Rad Hair, or in hotel rooms in Asbury Park. I used to ask strangers to make out with me in the pit. I asked a boy from Amish country (he wasn’t Amish) to pose with me as if he was my prom date, because I never went to prom, and I was wearing a tiara. I almost had sex with the tour manager for Senses Fail in the back of their van. I discovered that I was a woman with desire, and, in strange ways, those spaces — backed within them, as I was, by my friends — allowed me to act on that, to explore it, to grow up. This wasn’t a safe, high school boyfriend with a promise ring who either guaranteed purity or assured just the opposite. This wasn’t about love. This was probably reckless, but mostly it was fun.

For a long time, I defined myself in terms of depression and sadness and the anger turned inward that I’d felt from the time I was 11. It wasn’t until I was 17, 18, 19 that, because of these people, I began to see myself in new terms. I fear that I’ve lost that person now, but nostalgia reminds me of her; Asbury Park, with its own built-in nostalgia, reminds me of her.

***

In 4th of July, Asbury Park: A History of the Promised Land, Daniel Wolff traces Asbury Park’s identity as a promised land, but a promised land that never really existed the way so many dreamed it could. James A. Bradley, a Victorian converted Methodist from the Lower East Side of Manhattan, first developed the site in the 1870s as a Christian oasis and a wholesome middle-class destination for white tourists from New York and New Jersey and Philadelphia. Wolff argues that even though the place has its own history of racial and class conflict, of violence and segregation, the city has often been imagined as an idealized space that urbanites could escape to, a space for leaving behind the chaos and oppressive crowding of the modern industrial city. Asbury Park had pristine beaches, healing salt waters, and cool ocean breezes. It was designed as a contrast to the raucous, democratic space of Coney Island, but its identity was still contested by groups like the Ladies’ Christian Temperance Union, on the one hand, and, on the other, pharmacists selling “medicinal” alcohol at the turn of the century or bootleggers running rum during prohibition. As much as Asbury Park was a Christian promised land that vowed a virtuous escape from the corrupt city, it also has a long history of providing immoral amusements, not-so-innocent flirtation, and the threat of female sexuality in vintage bathing suits.

The struggle to find a space of one’s own is real for everyone, but even more so for teenagers who are always confined by their parents’ addresses.

Asbury Park’s heyday ended in the 1920s, but it is only since the last four miles of the Garden State Parkway opened in 1955 and since the opening of the Monmouth Mall in 1960 that the city has truly been in decline. People of color have been left behind in a community that no longer sees the tens of thousands of visitors who have moved on to more serene, less congested, whiter shore towns further south. The abandonment of the city by tourists was followed by urban rebellions in the 1960s. Rehabilitation was attempted in the 1970s, but unemployment reached 20 percent in the 1980s when sunny portraits of the resort’s revival finally gave way to much graver realities, though those realities were nothing new. In the 1990s, the private developers who were supposed to save the town by building new housing complexes went bankrupt. As it did for Springsteen in the ’70s, this boardwalk life seemed through. The promise of Asbury Park is a promise that has been broken over and over again.

In the new millennium, there was optimism that an influx of gays and lesbians looking for vacation alternatives to Fire Island and the Hamptons and hipster-types opening vintage shops and frequenting the bowling alley would revive the city with year-round attractions. But there was also recession. And there was also Hurricane Sandy. And so now the identity of Asbury Park is still being contested. There are those who want to look inward to the community — both new communities and perhaps more importantly old ones — and there are those who want to look outward (or backward) to middle-class, white tourism. There are those who privatize the vintage appeal of the past, who capitalize on history for individual, commercial gain as they bring in new, outside developers to take over the old Boardwalk and build new condos or luxury hotels, tearing down mid-century neon or dingy bars, and there are those who see nostalgia as a public asset and civic identity. But nostalgia, in any form, is dangerous, because it writes out these histories of opposition, instead imaging the return to a time when things were more wholesome or more pure than they ever really were.

For a long time, I defined myself in terms of depression and sadness and the anger turned inward that I’d felt from the time I was 11. It wasn’t until I was 17, 18, 19 that, because of these people, I began to see myself in new terms.

Sitting in those arena seats fourteen years ago, I didn’t yet know any of this. I didn’t know how intertwined my own nostalgia could be with the nostalgia of this place that had been so contested for so long, had been so idealized for so long. Convention Hall opened in 1930 in this seaside, resort town on the Jersey Shore. Designed by the same architects who created Grand Central Station, it was the apex of economic development in Asbury Park in the first half of the twentieth century, intended to attract tourists to the Boardwalk more than to serve a self-sustaining community. Since its opening, it has served as a military officer training center during World War II, and it hosted a Mrs. America (not Miss America, but Mrs.) competition in 1952. In 1956, a concert there spawned a riot (labeled a race riot by local police) after which rock and roll music was banned from the city outright. It has seen performances by white-led big band jazz combos in the 1930s, by black rock and rollers like Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers in the 1950s, and, most famously, by Bruce Springsteen returning triumphantly home to his working class roots in the 1990s. Reflecting Asbury Park’s new hip, young residents, Convention Hall is currently a venue for women’s roller derby and punk rock flea markets.

When we were sitting in those arena seats in 2003, it was Skate and Surf, a large-scale celebration of punk rock and emo that was capitalizing on the place’s appeal as a shore town past its prime that might return there with some good ol’ rock and roll. When we were sitting in those arena seats, Brand New was on stage, and they played a song about staying 18 forever. They were twenty-somethings preparing already to be as nostalgic as they place where they were performing.

Though I clearly indulge in it, nostalgia is a problematic mode of understanding the past. It is too often about loss and innocence, about a time and place that is romanticized, a time and place that never really existed quite as we want to remember it. My memories seem so real, so accurately recalled, but I know better than to trust them. I know that memories lie, and yet I believe mine. I know that, like Asbury Park’s, mine is an idealized history, but I cling to it anyway, in part because it is easy, in part because it is joyful. Mine are memories that want to find a place in the present, because I want to imagine myself as someone compassionate, as someone who would do anything for the people I care about, for the people that care about me, but they are memories which I fear are simply naive artifacts of the past. They are artifacts I’m not sure I should retrieve. They are artifacts I’m not sure how to retrieve anyway.

If the past is a site of struggle, Asbury Park and I have something in common as we negotiate our longing for the past and our need to move forward. Asbury Park finds economic development in the restoration of Convention Hall, in the reconstruction of the Boardwalk with retro boutiques like Bettie’s Bombshells and the Silverball Pinball Museum, in images of Tillie, the grinning avatar of the now-demolished Palace Amusements. As municipal marketing wrapped around new construction declares, Asbury Park is “where the future is crafted from the past,” where “artistry is ancestry.” White vacationers now pack the beach, delighting in the city’s kitschy past while enjoying the amenities of remodeled hotels, fashionable restaurants, and modern stretch fabrics.

It was harder for me to return. Last year I came back to the shore looking for the past. I was alone. It was difficult. The loss of the past, the loss of those friendships, the loss of who I was when I was with those people, in that place was too fresh. Memories were everywhere with nothing new to replace them. There was no way to move forward. I was looking for a feeling of belonging, for a feeling of home, but like vacationers in the 1920s or the 1950s, I could only be a visitor to Asbury Park, to the past. In the end, I was more like Springsteen, looking for a way out, than I was like Brand New staying 18 forever.

Nostalgia, the longing for the past, the idealization of the past, has power. It reunites bands. It sells records and concert tickets. It reunites friends. Can it even rebuild cities? Nostalgia reminds us of things we valued before we faced jobs and homeownership and parenthood, before we learned more about gender politics and racial conflict and systematic economic neglect. But it must, if it is to be anything more than wistful, reckon with these harder histories.

Last year I came back to the shore, alone. The loss of the past, the loss of those friendships, the loss of who I was when I was with those people, in that place was too fresh.

Indeed, if those years of graduate school have taught me anything about nostalgia, it is that we must interrogate what we are nostalgic for. I have a feminist nostalgia for that kind of song, for that place, for those people, for that version of myself, but it is embedded in a sanitized nostalgia for Asbury Park, for Convention Hall, for all of the historical venues and all of the parking lots we took over and took apart. When I was there, I didn’t see the service economy that the shore is contingent upon. When I was there, I didn’t see the race relations that underpinned these venues and the very music that brought me and my friends together. I can write now about the gender politics of what we were doing and what it means to me, but it is harder to insert the West Side of Asbury Park into my narrative of Skate and Surf. It is harder for me to fit whiteness into this conversation because it is so normalized in the genre and in my experience. Nostalgia has power. It reunites bands. It reunites friends. It can maybe even rebuild cities, but who gets left out? Who gets left out when we build community around nostalgia for white, middle-class leisure, around nostalgia for white, middle-class emo?

So when Brand New sang the words to “Soco Amaretto Lime” in Asbury Park, when they sang about bullshitting with friends while you pass the bottle on the overpass, when they sang about wanting to stay 18 forever, they sang lyrics about us, yes, but those words were just as much background noise to something larger, at least for us, or at least for me. On their next record Brand New recited the lines “I hope this song starts a craze. The kind of song that ignites the airwaves. The kind of song that makes people glad to be where they are with whoever they’re there with.” Dena always resented that line. She resented the almost sarcasm with which this punk-rocker-cum-teen-idol called out our earnest relationship to “Soco Amaretto Lime,” a relationship that clearly wasn’t ours alone. He seemed to mock our investment, mock what this silly emo band meant to us, but maybe he also mocked the nostalgia that was already embedded in that song, and in that place, and maybe he was right to, but maybe we don’t need to give up on 18 either.

* * *

Mabel Rosenheck is a writer, historian, and historiographer with a PhD in media studies from Northwestern University.

Editor: Sari Botton