Let’s Do the Time Warp
Walk into any Cape May restaurant, bar, distillery, coffee shop, or dry cleaner these days and you’re likely to hear an acoustic guitar and someone doing their best James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. (Okay, maybe not the dry cleaners.)
Live music has become as ubiquitous here as bike rental shops, t-shirt stores, and saltwater taffy, and the breadth and quality of it has never been greater.
Everywhere you turn there is an amazing young singer like Nancy Malcun mesmerizing a room, or the Wilco-esque Gordon Vincent burning it with his intensity. Or Animal House being, well… Animal House. The present and future flame of live music is well kept—though those Animal House guys are getting up there.
But for people of a certain age, there is only one era of music in Cape May. It began somewhere around “Just Like Heaven” (The Cure, 1987) and peaked around “Runaround” (Blues Traveler, 1994). The era of Green Day, Jewel, Counting Crows, Alanis Morrisette, and a hundred one-hit wonders. An era when you could walk from The Ugly Mug to Carney’s to The Shire and hear just about all of it. You could, and often did, plan your week around who was playing where and when.
If you were there, you know. If you weren’t, we’re sorry. It was music Camelot. And here is just a bit of it. From the people who were there. As much as they remember.
Bob Maschio, currently a bigwig at Regional Media overseeing 28 national radio stations, including 98.7 WCZT “The Coast” in Wildwood, was once the rafter-swinging, mic-stand-twirling front man for Funnybone, who regularly rattled the windows at Carney’s. Funnybone played some standards but traded mostly in the alternative music of the day: Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Green Day. Where some of us consider “alternative” the mumbled lyrics and jangly melodies of R.E.M. or so-happy-I-could-kill-myself twinklings of The Cure, Maschio and Funnybone took a different approach.
“Within the alternative genre,” he explained, “is the category Active Rock. So, where we might play an R.E.M. or Cure song, we’d also mix in some White Zombie and Disturbed.”
Not your uncle’s alternative music.
Funnybone accrued a massive following, playing all the big clubs of the day, most of which no longer exist outside of our deep memories: Kitty’s (N. Wildwood), The Red Bull (N. Cape May), The Playpen and Jimmy’s (Wildwood). The Gen X Las Vegas strip of south Jersey.
Their biggest songs? “Really anything by Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, or Nirvana. It was new, it was refreshing, it brought a lot of energy.”
Was it his favorite music? He’ll never tell. “We never played the stuff we liked or else we’d be out of business,” he laughs. “We played to the girls, believe it or not. Where the girls are, the guys will follow.”
These days Bob listens to modern alternative acts like Panic! At the Disco. “But,” he opines, “as you and I both know, the scene isn’t what it was, and the talent level—even in national acts—is not what it should be.”
True, or the lament of every 50-something former lead singer? You decide. As for songs he simply cannot listen to today due to repetitive stress disorder? “Ugh! ‘Blister in the Sun’, Violent Femmes. If I had a nickel…”
One of his cooler moments? “I got to play a Pearl Jam song in front of Pearl Jam at Maui in Philly during a live radio show. I think I remembered the words.”
Bob is currently in rehearsals with Joe Furey of fellow 90s giants, Fuzzy Bunny Slippers, as they prepare to hit the circuit. You can find two of his sons, Jimmy and Bob, Jr. in the local band Cult Tides.
“I completely do not respect lead singers who put an iPad up on their music stand,” Bob says. “I look at my bandmates and think, ‘How are you supposed to put on a show when you’re reading from an iPad?’ Of course, I jumped on the bars and swung from the chandeliers. That’s what made Funny Bone Funny Bone. People listened with their eyes. But it was a great time for local music, a lot of fun. And, of course, you can’t talk about Cape May music without mentioning The Shire.”
Ah, The Shire, that little place at the end of the Washington Street Mall. You never went to The Shire for a four-star dining experience, but if you wanted a shot, a beer, and some of the best music around, it was the Ritz-Carlton. And if the Cape May music scene of the 80s and 90s was a three-ring circus, Shire owner Wayne Piersanti was its undisputed ringmaster.
Piersanti grew up in South Philly near the Italian market surrounded by the music of Bobby Rydell, Jim Croce, and Philly Joe Jones. Dizzy Gillespie once had dinner at his aunt’s house on 17th Street. Music was in his blood.
“My classmates called me ‘Rittenhouse Wayne,” Piersanti says, “because I spent so much time downtown listening to artists like Pat Martino, whom I would later book in my bar.”
After a wasted, wonderful youth of summers in Cape May, Wayne purchased The Shire in 1983. The rest? History.
“I scouted all the local venues and it seemed most of them featured cover bands, and they were all the same to me. So I thought, ‘The Shire has 125 seats, all I have to do is find 125 people who like eclectic and improvisational music.’”
He did. The Shire became the go-to place for non-traditional beach-town music. It was after booking Pat Martino, who was recovering from a near-fatal medical event, that the tide turned.
“The gates were open!” Piersanti crowed. “I’d hit Philly and shop for talent at places like All That Jazz, North Star Bar, and J.C Dobbs off South Street. We had a Rolodex of over 150 bands. Steve Green became a regular. Robert Hazzard, who wrote ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun’ and ‘Escalator of Life’ was one of our guys. I’m not sure how, but we managed to keep those 125 seats filled for 15 years before we moved on. It’s all memories now, but the friendships remain. I’m a lucky guy.”
We all were. Because, as Wayne mentioned, Steve Green and his Elevators were Shire regulars right up to the end. Their floor-thumping version of “Thank You for Letting Me Be Myself” by Maceo and All the King’s Men was a life-altering experience. Steve is still very active in the Philadelphia music scene and has been since the 70s. It was only after leaving the great Lou Rawls’ touring band that he put together the iconic Elevators and made Cape May so funky.
Mr. Green currently works as a studio musician in Philly and writes and records with his gospel band, Breakwater. Their song, “Faith Walk,” really slaps, as the kids say.
Steve Green does not use an iPad.
Another guy as active now as he was then is Don Shough. Don is one of about six local musicians who, if you put them in the same room, can be traced to about 100 local bands. Don plays numerous gigs in Congress Hall’s Brown Room and Boiler Room. But during Cape May’s music heyday, he was a member of the versatile David Christopher Band.
Don spent the latter half of the 80s in L.A. trying to make it as a Big Rock Star, getting as close as opening for Guns N’ Roses at the Whiskey just as Appetite for Destruction was starting to hit. He also recorded an album with Astrid Young, Neil’s sister, at A&M Records which, sadly, never gained much traction. He came back east and split his time between Cape May and Nashville, where he hooked on with Doug Stone, a number one-charting country artist, with whom he toured the country, and got to check one off the bucket list: playing the Grand Ole Opry.
“With David Christopher, it was the tail end of the whole Wildwood thing. We played Dreams, the Oasis, Shaker’s, the whole ‘block that rocks.’ And every Monday we played at Carney’s. It was insane back then.”
Don is no longer the platinum blonde long-haired freak from 1995, but is still handsome under his short, gray locks, and grows wistful looking back. “Michael Garrett at The Shire, he kind of helped me get my feet back in Cape May. I had another band, The Waterbugs. We had a Thursday night at the old Bayshore, and you could not get in the door. We played Yesterday’s Heroes in the Atlas. That’s where I met Joe Pepitone from the Yankees!”
Before discovering the Gospel of Hendrix, Don cut his teeth at a church (that is now Panico’s), learning charts from the organ player. He then went on about Tele’s and Strats and I wished for him that he was being interviewed by a guitar guy.
Aside from maybe sticking it out a bit longer in Nashville, where many colleagues ended up landing plum gigs, Don has no regrets. “I get backstage passes and front row seats now every time they come through Atlantic City!”
Don Shough does not use an iPad.
While no global chart-topping artists have emerged from Cape May (yet), most musicians just want to land a good gig, not host The Voice. In that category, Cape May is well represented. For example…
Avery Coffee was a member of the aforementioned Fuzzy Bunny Slippers, perhaps the only band to exceed Funnybone in popularity. Avery started at age 18, a kid who just wanted to play guitar.
“I loved it,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been allowed in bars normally, so I met players I wouldn’t have hung out with otherwise. Those older musicians taught me a lot. The band scene was thriving. There was a great energy around town every night. Yclept, Black Friday—I sed to sneak in to see LeCompt, Funnybone, Crystal Roxx… It was a great time.”
That sneaky kid now tours the world playing guitar for Chubby Checker. “When I’m home I play with numerous local songwriters, sub for wedding bands, and do recording sessions for a few studios. I teach as a day job, too. The common thread throughout my entire career is that I’m still in love with learning, sharing, and playing music.”
His first band, Uncle Junk, played modern rock, which fit his metal/ punk style. “I loved singing Rage against the Machine and Fugazi and playing guitar on ‘Hot For Teacher.’” With the Fuzzies, he slid into more Reggae and Ska, a big 90s trend. A 20-minute hip-hop medley also found its way onto their playlist. “We played Dreams, the Playpen, Jimmy’s, LaCosta in Sea Isle. Carneys was our most frequent Cape May bar.”
Coffee currently keeps his eye on singer-songwriters Dallas Malone, Kathryn Zacckey, and Zach Weissberger, talented young folks playing the South Jersey/Philly area. Coffee also echoed Bob Maschio, Steve Green, and Don Shough in mentioning Fat Mezz, a band of local 20-somethings who play an eclectic blend of yacht and classic rock.
Now a globe-trotting artist for a Big-Name Act, Avery has access to the most cutting-edge equipment there is, but still prefers a simple tube amp and a couple of pedals. “Just like I played in the 90s.”
Avery Coffee does not use an iPad.
Coffee joins a list of homegrown talent that includes Geno White (acclaimed jazz guitarist), Gordon Vincent (award-winning singer-songwriter), Adam McDonough (country music artist), and Maddie Hogan (pop singer-songwriter, American Idol finalist) who may not be household names but have left their mark on the music business.
While crafting this article, countless names surfaced: Dave Garrett, Erik Simonsen, Mike Rogers, Bobby Wilhelm, Tim Joyce, Ed Dobbs, and everyone’s favorite singer, Rose Kelly. Their gifts are timeless. They were sometimes bandmates, sometimes rivals.
But, as Bob Maschio deftly put it, “It’s like being on a professional sports team. You may be going up against each other now, but at some point, you might wind up on the same team. So, you might as well be kind.” ■
Terry O’Brien was lead singer of Southwind, 1995-1999.
Terry O’Brien uses an iPad.