Jersey’s Secret Service Band Has Got It Covered
CRAIG PHILLIPS IS fully aware that “there are bands that sing better, look better, play better. Our goal is to get people to have the best time of their life.”
Dom says, “We decided that we were not going to go for that easy-listening-duo thing. We wanted to play with the big bands. At first, people were wary. How could two guys play where a band like Royal Flush, an eight-piece horn band, would be normal?”
This is where talking with the members of Secret Service is like doing anthropological field research into the lost tribes of the Jersey Shore. Shore culture revolves around its beaches and its bars, and one of the key cultural totems of the 130-mile shoreline society is the bar band. Despite the ethnocentric gloating of the Asbury Park Stone Pony tribe, which launched a few acts—need they be named?—from pukey provincial back rooms to international tours of jammed arenas, most Shore bands remain only local heroes. Over the years, hundreds of bands have come together and split again in a flicker; Craig and Dom can name dozens of them. More successful organizations might last for a compressed generation, supported by a cohort of fans through the years spanning late puberty to parenthood. Even after children make the grown-ups too tired to go out and party anymore, those bands keep playing somewhere in their memories.
“It’s part of the fabric of life at the Jersey Shore,” says Big Daddy Graham. “For thousands and thousands of people out there, when they look back on their lives, they’re not gonna remember the big Red Hot Chili Peppers show they saw. They’re going to remember the great drunken times they’ve had at a place like the Ocean Drive.”
It’s tempting to categorize Dom and Craig as the high-volume bar-band equivalent of tribal elders, sage holders of the secrets of longevity. Dom intuits the validity of this analogy: He describes himself and Craig as “the Last of the Mohicans.” While they’ve earned their venerable status, it’s constantly undermined by another key component of their popularity, something described succinctly (and not unkindly) by Graham: “They’re a couple of goofballs.”
Indeed, these entertainment elders have been known to wear funny hats. During a period when his weight topped 300 pounds, Craig would stop the music and spend some time trying to sell the crowd his purported exercise video; Dom has no qualms about telling a wife or mother-in-law joke. But their musical material stays remarkably up-to-date, and that may be their best joke of all. “Dominic has no right to be doing a rap song,” says Graham. “They get away with it because they openly say, ‘Look at us, what the fuck are we doing doing rap?’ They pull it off because they do it with tongue in cheek. They’re laughing at themselves.”
Dom recognizes that there’s humor inherent in his rendition of something by Biggie Smalls or Ludacris or DJ Khaled. “I’m freakin’ gray,” he says, leaving unmentioned the paler color that adds to the preposterousness. “The thing that amazes people most is that it just looks funny. But I’m actually pretty good at it.” Ever the goofball, Dom is likely to introduce a rap tune by saying something like, “This song makes me want to bust a cap in somebody’s ass—not that I know what that means.”
Fearlessness at tackling new material extends across the stage to Craig, who has lost enough weight in recent years to make the fat jokes moot. Trained as a singer in the music department of what was then Glassboro State College, Craig can support his upper range well. It falls to him to sing the girl songs and anything teen-idoly. “It’s kind of funny to people to see an old man sing a Justin Bieber song,” he says. “Then I do the girl songs, and that’s just too funny.”
Not long before this summer season started, Secret Service added the hit “Call Me Maybe” to its repertoire. First recorded by Carly Rae Jepsen, a 20-something Canadian starlet, it’s a classic summer-radio pop song that even the sober music critic from the New York Times described as “breezy and sweet, an eyelash-fluttering flirtation run hard through the Disney-pop model.” When the AARP-eligible Craig, who is six-two and now 237 pounds (and has two daughters just a few years older than Jepsen), fluttered his eyelashes and launched into the song for the first time at the O.D., a number of young women in the crowd screamed with delight—both at the ridiculousness of it all, and because he sang it surprisingly well. And, of course, because they knew the words by heart.
Last year, its 29th together, Secret Service had one of its best years ever, playing 143 dates that included the jams at the O.D., semi-regular Friday-night appearances at Curran’s Irish Inn in the Northeast, occasional gigs at Finnigan’s Wake in Northern Liberties, and a fair number of private parties and weddings. Rumors float around that the two-man band charges $10,000 to play a wedding, but Dom says it’s really about half that. Pasceri, the O.D.’s owner, says he considers Dom and Craig “phenomenal business partners,” and while they don’t capture a percentage of the money they draw in, “They’re pretty reasonably paid.”
“It keeps the electricity on,” says Dom, who sold his interest in a concessions business some years ago, after his five children were old enough for his wife to return to nursing. He now lives solely off the band. Craig still teaches music. “We could work seven nights a week in the summer,” he says. “But we turn down a lot of work right now. We just can’t do that anymore.”
Of course they can’t—they’re freakin’ gray. But here they remain, two goofballs, now an institution of sorts, even if their main monument is a musty bar in Sea Isle City. It’s a situation both luxurious and precarious. They’ve seen enough in this business to know that someone throws a switch one day and you go from being pretty cozy to being Cozy Morley. You’re not in on the joke anymore; you are the joke.
“Me and Craig look at each other,” says Dom, “and think, When is this going to end? The music may change too much for us to keep up. But I don’t think so. It’ll happen if there comes a time when you absolutely have to dance while you sing, and we won’t be physically able to do it.”
“I remember when I was in my 30s telling my wife, ‘I can’t imagine people coming to see me when I’m in my 40s,’” Craig says. Soon, he’ll be saying it in his 60s. “People are crazy,” he adds. “Thank God.”