If there's one thing Ricky "Shorty Long" Tisch knows how to do, it's how to make a fucking entrance. In the past, the three-foot-tall lead singer of the party band Shorty Long and the Jersey Horns has wheeled up to his microphone and keyboard on toddler-sized models of fire trucks, SUVs, and boats. He has dressed like a pimp, a peep, and the pope. At an Atlantic City casino, during the genesis of his antics, he claims he hired two strippers to carry him on-stage hidden in a trunk. On a late June afternoon, when I watched him for four glorious hours at the Sea Shell Resort and Beach Club in Beach Haven, a town on New Jersey's Long Beach Island, he drove around the outdoor bar aboard a miniature tractor.
Sitting at the tiki bar, I listened as people yelled "Shorty," chanting the moniker that serves as a direct reference to his size: The 38-year-old was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, the "brittle bone disease" that has stunted his growth and restricted him to a wheelchair. Always unable to walk, he found solace in the keyboard at a young age; when he was older, he sought to be a studio musician.
As he weaved through the legs of vacationers, I noted who was in attendance. I observed a woman climb on top of a large pot of palm trees and shake her breasts, as her husband yanked the branches and yelled, "Free Bird!" I witnessed a mom cradle—and occasionally breastfeed—a baby. She and her father took turns reprimanding concertgoers for their concert-going behavior: dropping cigarettes on the ground, clinking beer bottles, talking too loudly. Through her complaints, I learned her child had just turned six weeks old. Later, when I was talking to Shorty during his set breaks, we were constantly interrupted—by two women, in their late 20s, who wanted to become better acquainted; by a drunk lady who wished to praise the "expiration" of the event; by a pair of toddlers who insisted Shorty was their favorite singer.
"When Joe Cocker comes on the radio," the father said, "they think it's you."
Shorty laughed and didn't quite acknowledge the compliment. He's one of those guys whose day-to-day existence flies in the face of consequence. As we spoke, he offered candid personal details without any prompting; he nursed a previous night's hangover with a Jack and Coke; and he finished off Marlboros with a consistency that would have put Christopher Hitchens to shame.
As a frontman, he has co-opted the universal handicap sign to serve as his logo: The white, wheel-chaired stick figure has a cigarette in his mouth, and a string of piano keys float in front of him, not quite resting across his lap. The symbol appears most prominently on a large, black banner that hangs from Shorty's keyboard and bears resemblance to a pirate flag. Shorty has, in other words, formed a lucrative enterprise that centers on his disability, a strategy that doesn't distract from his music but rather enhances it. Each performance comes close to what the bassist, John Kern, calls a "circus."
"It's gotten to the point," Kern said, "that people will drive hours just to say 'hello' to him."
Kern acts as the band's primary, energetic master of ceremonies. With a thick mohawk and a fu manchu mustache, he looks like an aged punk rocker. He wears shades, and besides his camo-patterned shorts, he dresses mostly in black. He is the guy in the band who quickly ignores his instrument and grabs the t-shirt gun. When he operates the device, he tries to land the band's merch across the Shell's pool, beyond the bar, and onto the fenced-off area of beach, the last bit of the hotel's property before the sand becomes public. The only thing potentially more dangerous than his cotton fabric weapon is the electrical equipment that stands a few feet from the hotel pool, a literal manifestation of "living on the edge."
With more than 2,000 songs in their repertoire and 200-plus dates annually scheduled, the eight-to-ten person band (varying in accordance to the limitations of a given location) is particularly apt at adjusting to a specific audience. Depending on the crowd, the Jersey Horns will transition without hesitation from respectable renditions of "Brick House" to "Uptown Funk," from "What I Got" to "Superstitious," from "Walking On Sunshine" to "Let Me Clear My Throat." Their fan base consists of a wide-ranging demographic, containing what seems to be every character on the Jersey shore: children who are jealous of Shorty using their favorite toys, shirtless young men, middle-aged parents in "Life Is Good" tank tops. Really, anyone with an interest in fun.
Clearly, Shorty Long and the Jersey Horns are able to turn any day into some raucous celebration, but it'd be disingenuous to ignore the fact that, in some ways, they aren't that unique. There are enough party bands in the Northeast to fill up the Caribbean-bound cruise ships, and most of them are guilty of the same sweeping statements declaring their own talents. Other acts represented by Shore Bets, Shorty Long's management company, include: Drop Dead Sexy, "often imitated but never duplicated," which lauds itself as "THE premier party band on the East Coast"; another, Philbilly, provides "the Philadelphia area's answer to country music"; and Weird Science purports to be "THE ultimate 80s experience." There's difficulty denying any of these contentions, mainly because nobody cares enough to dispute them.
For their part, Shorty Long and the Jersey Horns boast that they're "The World's Number One Party Band." As to why they have to say this about themselves, Shorty told me, "No one else is going to give us that kind of honor."
Still, the esteem they've heaped on themselves might not be totally undeserved, as he and the Jersey Horns have begun, perhaps, the initial steps to world party band domination. Recently, they have expanded beyond the clubs of Ocean City, Wildwood, and Asbury Park, booking gigs in Philadelphia, Maryland, and this winter, as far south as Key West. They've even opened for bands they've covered: They've introduced the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Three Dog Night, and in 2012, to honor the Devils, they jammed with DMC at Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. Mega-famous comic Artie Lange also counts himself as a fan. And yet with the growing triumphs throughout the mid-Atlantic, the Jersey Horns emphasize nothing comes close to rivaling their home.
Shorty doesn't really need to travel elsewhere. Any additional successes are merely bonuses, accomplishments he attributes to the venues that have supported him since the beginning—and continue to support him now. It wasn't a surprise, then, that when I questioned him about his favorite area to perform, he didn't pause, answering boldly and generally: "Jersey," he said.
"We all get along so well here," he added. "Too bad that isn't its reputation."
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I thought a lot about those words as I wondered, for weeks, what made the guy so popular in the state of my birth. The "reputation" to which Shorty was alluding—the cast of an MTV reality series, the political corruption steeped in public officials' personal dilemmas, the toll booths and smokestacks and highways in the opening credits of The Sopranos—has seeped so much into the country's consciousness that New Jersey subsists, beyond its borders, as nothing more than a caricature built of its worst attributes. The nation lauds Springsteen and tolerates the movie Garden State, and that's about it.
But for those born and bred here, this land also breeds a particular nostalgia. While it's a place that many natives try to flee, it's also one that anticipates their return, always with the absence of judgment or ridicule: Being in New Jersey is the only spot one can talk about New Jersey without the constant obligation to defend it. I went to college in Boston, and in the four years I spent in the city, I recognized one identifiable difference between Massachusetts and where I grew up: People from Massachusetts share the belief, unprompted, that where they live is indisputably the best; people from New Jersey, in contrast, are forced into that same philosophy from a responsive camaraderie, a universal attitude that values the eccentricities the outsiders ridicule. The effect of the feeling is easy to summarize: It produces one big fucking party.
Like the audience, Shorty cherishes these carnival aspects, and it's the mutual embrace that distinguishes his party band from any other party band: Here, he and his fans belong—and thrive—in an exclusive space, an atmosphere that can't be recreated anywhere else.
"There ain't nobody on after us," Shorty said, encouraging a final string of cheers at the Shell, before journeying into the parking lot.
Behind his trailer, he waited 20 minutes to start an encore. But that's only because the bar had emptied out.
Everyone had followed him.
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