‘Asbury Park was my Liverpool’

Jersey musican records in his Secaucus home

“My dad took me to see Buddy Rich when I was like 6 years old,” said musician Mark Rivers. “I think the second concert I ever saw was Elton John in 1970 down at Asbury in the Convention Hall. And then my grandmother took me to see Elvis in ‘72 at the Garden. So that pretty much sealed my fate right there.”
Rivers grew up in Asbury Park in the midst of a vibrant music scene that generated Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny, and dozens of other musicians. A lifelong musician, he now lives in Secaucus, where he records in a home studio set up in his living room.
Calling his music “alternative blues rock,” he’s a prolific singer-songwriter-guitarist who recently released two CDs simultaneously – one filled with originals and one consisting of all covers.

Road to music

Oddly enough, Rivers’ music career started at the rear of the stage. Following that fateful Buddy Rich show, Rivers’ dad bought him a set of drums, which became his first instrument. In Rivers’ initial bands down Asbury way, he was a singing drummer, before making a conscious decision to switch focus.
“I realized pretty early on that songwriting was the key to the industry, where the real money was,” he said. “That became my passion, writing songs.”
A big fan of Prince, he creates in a variety of manners, sometimes writing a song around a title or lyric, other times building from a rhythm. Initial tracks are recorded in his studio. Then he heads over to Sonic Arts Studio in North Bergen for additional recording and mixing.

“When John Lennon got murdered, that day I made a conscious decision that I was going to play music until the day I died.” – Mark Rivers
Rivers’ partner in crime is guitarist Lee Boice, a lifelong resident of Secaucus. “We’ve been working together for like 15 years,” said Rivers. “I mainly play rhythm guitar and I’m a lead vocalist. I’ve been very lucky to have great guitar players around me my whole life so I didn’t see any need for me to try to be a great lead guitar player. I’m really good with rhythm because I was a drummer. I’m good at creating grooves.”
The recent CD of originals, “Lessons in Laughing,” bears this out. The songs hit a variety of grooves, from reggae and rocking pop to swampy contemporary blues, from modern dance tracks to powderkeg rock that sounds like the Rolling Stones jamming with T. Rex.
“My lyrics, I try not to get too deep,” said Rivers. “I’m from the school of Chuck Berry and ZZ Top, where I like to sing about girls, cars, and guitars. It’s fun. You don’t want to get too heavy.”
Nonetheless, he’s been working for over two decades on a concept album called “The Hard Road to Freedom,” begun while he was working as a musician at Club Med and became exposed to the poverty just outside the walls of the resort.
Another piece of his inspiration comes from musician Garland Jeffreys, whom Rivers road-manages. Making a living as a musician can be a precarious existence at best, so Rivers also runs a limousine business to pay the bills. Jeffreys, a socially conscious songwriter who began recording in the 1960s and has a strong reputation as a musician’s musician, is one of Rivers’ regular clients.
“What’s funny about the whole Asbury connection is that it was through Garland that I reconnected down there,” said Rivers. “Through Garland we did a couple of benefits with The Boss [Springsteen] and when I went backstage I was running into everybody I know. I was like, ‘Wow, this has come full circle.’”

Springsteen, Elvis, Lennon

“I remember when I graduated high school they had lowered the drinking age to 18 that year. So I walked in the Stone Pony one night and it was just packed and the [Asbury] Jukes were onstage and Springsteen was singing and the place was packed with chicks,” remembered Rivers. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this looks like a good job.’ “
Now 56 years old, Rivers said, “To me, Asbury Park was like my Liverpool. Or Nashville. Nobody realized it was going on at the time. I guess Bruce did, because he kicked the doors wide open for a lot of people. I think Bruce hit big in like ‘75 with ‘Born to Run’ and then all the talent that was around there started to bloom a little bit more because when people see a local guy does good, it brings a lot of attention to the area.”
“And then like in the early ‘90s the town just kind of dried up,” Rivers recalled. “Politicians were stealing all the money, they weren’t putting it where it was supposed to go. And Bruce and everybody left to go on world tours. So I came up to Manhattan. I spent over 20 years up there.”
In New York, Rivers found new collaborators and recorded the first of his numerous CDs. He eventually found his way to a memorabilia-packed hideaway in Secaucus. And he left behind the bar room chicks to get married — in the back of a pink Cadillac in Vegas, with the service officiated by “Elvis.”
Elvis in fact left another legacy with Rivers. “My legal name is Wisniewski. I’m a Polack. But they could never fit that on the marquee,” he said. “‘Rivers’ came from an Elvis movie in 1957 [‘Loving You’] where he’s a runaway and he wakes up in a graveyard and the name on the tombstone is Deke Rivers.”
The tribute eventually found its way into his band name as well.
Among his other idols are Bob Dylan and The Beatles. “When John Lennon got murdered, that day I made a conscious decision that I was going to play music until the day I died, whether I made it big and rich and famous or not,” he said. “That I was going to do it for the sake of the music. Because I realized what all that music meant to me, how it hit me so hard when he was gone. All the Beatle music, all the happiness. Every time I hear one of those songs there’s a memory. The soundtrack of your life, I guess you could say.”
Rivercat CDs are available on www.cdbaby.com.

Art Schwartz may be reached at arts@hudsonreporter.com.

© 2000, Newspaper Media Group