How they found the right Jack
By Mark Voger, author, “Groovy: When Flower Power Bloomed in Pop Culture”
As faded rock star Jack Ainsley — a one-hit wonder from the glam-rock ’80s-’90s who hails from the Jersey Shore — Keith Roth is right at home in William DeVizia’s new drama “Let Me Down Hard.” Roth, a radio personality and the frontman for area rockers Frankenstein 3000, wears the role like a second skin. I spoke with Roth about his star turn in the film, which is poised for home video release in 2018.
Q: A rocker from the Asbury scene — it’s a role that seems tailor-made. Was it written for you?
Roth: It wasn’t written for me. The script was actually written many years prior by Billy (DeVizia) and Frankie (Harkins). They initially reached out to people like Rick Springfield over the years. They just couldn’t find the right Jack. When Frankenstein (3000) played the Max’s Kansas City reunion, I met Billy, and he said, “You remind me of Jack Ainsley.” We got to talking, and the irony was, we lived about a quarter-mile from each other. I read the script; I thought it was something I could relate to; and I went for it. They said it would take 11 weeks. It took six years (laughs).
Q: Jack is a complex character: part charmer, part snake. Who is this guy?
Roth: Jack is a guy who got a lot of attention when he was young, and it messed him up. He got all this success, and wound up abandoning his family. Then grunge came in and wiped away a lot of that. So he is kind of bumming around, looking for opportunities. He happens to be back in Jersey when everything blows up. So he has no choice but to reconcile with his family. You kind of root for him.
Q: Career-wise, Jack was a star in the ’80s-’90s period. There’s a Mark Weiss cameo, and a quotable line: “It’s tough to play the Brighton when you’ve opened for Kajagoogoo.” What is Jack’s specific era? What bands would he have toured with?
Roth: Like, the era is probably ’89 to ’92, so he got in at the tail end of when that whole thing was happening. It’s loosely based around John Eddie. Billy had spent some time with John Eddie on the road. That gave him the idea. As far as tour mates, I’m thinking Hanoi Rocks, Guns ’N Roses — real sleazy, Lower East Side, Hollywood kind of stuff. Not, like, Slaughter or any of that stuff.
Q: You’ve backed a lot of vintage rockers onstage; recorded with them; interviewed them on “The Electric Ballroom” (Roth’s radio show on WRAT-FM). Who did you draw on to play this somewhat bitter, has-been-y guy?
Roth: Honestly, nobody. I know that sounds weird. He presented the script. When I the read it, I thought I could put a little bit of myself into it. As a kid, I was a little bit of an idiot. I was, “It’s all about the rock!” So I kind of drew from myself, and from watching people’s careers go south, playing the Playpen and the Birch Hill back then. Maybe not anyone specifically, but it all resonated.
Q: You did scenes in which Jack plays the Brighton Bar (in Long Branch) and the Stone Pony (in Asbury Park). You’ve played these venues many times. Did you feel the ghosts?
Roth: What was weird was when we played that song at the Brighton. (Roth plays the song solo, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.) I mean, I’ve played these rooms hundreds of times. But when I had to get up and play for the crew and do the best I possibly could — it was a one-take thing. That brought back nerves like I had back in, like, the “battle of the bands.” That was the only time I felt a little uncomfortable. What you’re hearing is really me playing. I would have been more precise in the studio. But, you know (laughs), you had cameras literally up your ass. And of course, they used the first take. I was, “Oh, man, there’s a couple flubs.” I was still learning the chord structure a little.
Q: The movie never mentions Bruce Springsteen. Of course, so much coverage of the Shore music scene only talks about Springsteen. Was it a goal of the film to give voice to the idea that the Shore music scene is more than just Bruce?
Roth: Yes. That’s exactly it. Bruce gets so many accolades. Everybody loves the guy. I mean, he’s Bruce Springsteen. Who doesn’t love him? He’s, like, the mayor. But people who see this film who are not from the area — there’s so much else. The Misfits, the Zakk Wyldes, Frank Sinatra, all these other people, the Ribeyes. There’s so much cool stuff. Some of the best musicians in the world, I really believe, are from this neck of the woods. But we didn’t intentionally leave Bruce out. I did a rap where I talked about how my sister took me to the Stone Pony when I was a kid, and Bruce jumped onstage, and I stole his beer, and I still have it. That didn’t make it in the movie. On a personal level, I think the guy’s a genius.
Q: You wrote “Revolution (Coming of Age),” the song that is Jack’s big hit in the movie. It definitely sounds the part; it has that catchy ’80s-ness. How did you approach it?
Roth: You know me, Mark, and what my roots are. We have a lot of the same tastes. I was thinking Mott the Hoople, Ian Hunter, all that stuff. He wanted a big ’80s singalong; I wanted to make it cool. So I drew from Mott. I was thinking, “What would Mott the Hoople do if these guys were in this time frame, and they were asked to write a big singalong for that time period?” I just kept picturing Ian hunter’s face with the top hat, and went from there.