A song for Jesse

24 January 2024

Nobody gets through this world alone. We can try. We can be “strong” or “tough it out” but over time – and more than once – we’re going to need to reach out for help. That concept is the heart and soul of Light of Day’s Winterfest in Asbury Park.  When Bob Benjamin was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s, he threw a rock and roll birthday party and told everyone to bring money for Parkinson’s research. Bob’s friends - many of them musicians - showed up to let Bob know they had his back. They tore the roof off and raised a few thousand dollars. 24 years later, led by Joe D’Urso, Joe Grushecky and Willie Nile, those friends are now raising millions and still tearing off the roof. Another musician who has been part of Light of Day for many years is Jesse Malin. Born in Queen’s and raised on broken radios in the Bowery of New York City, Jesse’s punk rock attitude and relentless energy shot through every one of his performances in support of Light of Day. He would blast out from behind the curtain, grab the mic stand by the scruff and take the audience on a out-of-control subway ride of social commentary, political rants and uncompromising, unparalleled rock and roll. When he finally stopped to take a breath, he wouldn’t plead for donations. He’d INSIST on them. That’s Jesse. He understood the reason for the party. It wasn’t hedonistic revelry. It was music for a cause. He prowled the stage with a beat-up acoustic guitar and a band of like-minded rockers and he wouldn’t quit until your pockets were empty and your heart was full.

Last year, not long after Jesse’s 2023 performance at Light of Day’s main event, he experienced a rare and life-threatening spinal stroke. This force of rock and roll nature, this crusader for a cause, was suddenly facing almost insurmountable odds. Within days of Jesse’s stroke, the same community that stepped up for Bob Benjamin, stepped up for Jesse. Fans, friends and strangers reached out in support, raising thousands to assist in his recovery and rehabilitation.
On Saturday, January 20, 2024 at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, right before the last song of the night, we all watched through a curtain of tears as Jesse’s peers let him know that the organization he’s supported for so long, was supporting him.

Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to witness some incredibly soulful performances in support of Light of Day. Bruce Springsteen sharing the mic with Bob Benjamin on “Thunder Road” was a moment of beauty. Watching Jesse’s long-time bandmate Derek Cruz lead all the musicians in a sing along of Jesse’s song “Brooklyn” now resides right beside that. Joe D’Urso sang a verse, so did Willie Nile and Johnny Pisano. James Maddock took a stanza alongside John Easdale and Amanda Cross. Joe Grushecky threw in a poignant guitar solo; all of them playing and singing for Jesse. At a time and place in our world where screeching hatred and vitriol seems to drown out everything righteous, this one performance reaffirmed my faith in the power of music and in the best of our humanity.

When people ask my religious beliefs, I always say, “I don’t believe in religion, I believe in rock and roll.” It’s not a flippant response. It’s the truth. I’ve seen more kindness and compassion from musicians than I’ve ever witnessed from preachers. I’ve experienced epiphanies backed by Telecaster guitars and raptures that resounded with the thunder of a Black Beauty snare drum on the two and the four. If the church of rock and roll exists, hearing 40 musicians sing and play for their injured comrade was our version of high mass. It was a hymn of healing and a communion of spirit. It was exactly what we all needed and maybe, just maybe, it was exactly what Jesse needed too; a gift in return all for he’s given to Light of Day. Jesse always finished his Light of Day set by saying, “God bless Bob Benjamin and God bless Light of Day.” I don’t know about God but on Saturday January 20th, we were all blessed to hear a choir of musicians reaching out to let Jesse and Bob know they weren’t alone, and they never would be.