If you gazed at the back music room in Maxwell’s when it was empty, as I did on a recent weekday afternoon, it would strike you as less than impressive; the stage cramped, the room itself dark and uninspiring.
But, oh, the history on that stage.
When it was announced in early June that Maxwell’s would close its doors July 31 after 35 years in business, it induced the greatest music-related depression in the Garden State since Bruce Springsteen broke up the E Street Band in 1989.
What made this unassuming bar/restaurant/music venue at the corner of Washington and 11th Street in Hoboken so renowned, known even on an international level?
The roster of artists who performed at Maxwell’s reads like a veritable all-star team of indie rock, punk and grunge; R.E.M., Nirvana, Pixies, The Replacements, Sonic Youth, Mudhoney, Hüsker Dü, Buzzcocks, Soundgarden, Fugazi, The Strokes, The Fall, Minutemen, Yo La Tengo, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and The Pogues all graced the tiny stage. A list of all the acts who played the club in its history would likely fill an entire issue of The Aquarian. It was also the site where Springsteen filmed parts of his “Glory Days” video in 1985.
Though the performance space at Maxwell’s was small (a capacity of only 200 people), it meant fans were right on top of the action. Bands had to walk through the crowd to get to and from the stage.
“I enjoyed the intimacy of Maxwell’s; it’s great to play in a room so small that you can reach out and touch the fans,” remarked singer and guitarist Dean Wareham, who performed at the club numerous times as a member of Luna and Galaxie 500. At one point in Maxwell’s history, Luna had played more shows at the venue than any other band.
Wareham laughed as he recalled one Maxwell’s gig where the tiny room was more of a hindrance.
“I remember telling two drunk guys to quiet down and go to back of the room because they were singing along with all the songs, and making up their own words,” he said.
Maxwell’s co-owner/booker Todd Abramson said that it was the “right time” to shut down Maxwell’s when its lease expired on July 31, as several factors made it increasingly hard to support the business. Parking near the club, while always difficult, had become all but impossible in recent years.
“The city of Hoboken treats visitors like enemy combatants,” says Abramson, who blamed unclear parking signs that frequently led to fans, and even bands, having their vehicles booted by the city. Also, the vibe of the neighborhood had changed dramatically from Maxwell’s heyday. The plethora of bars in town cater mostly to patrons who prefer hard drinking or sports watching.
“There are fewer people living in Hoboken who are interested in what we do here,” said Abramson. “The locals are out for a different kind of scene.”
Once a thriving arts community with a burgeoning music culture of its own, Hoboken has been altered by condo development and rising rents, driving out much of the club’s initial clientele.
“The cost of living in this town is not very artist friendly anymore,” Abramson stated. “That’s another thing that impacted us negatively—there aren’t as many Hoboken bands.”
He added, “The fact that it’s so difficult to travel here, we can’t offset that with more local patrons.”
The emergence of Brooklyn’s music scene has also had an effect on Maxwell’s bookings. Over the past decade, numerous venues have sprouted up in the neighborhoods of Williamsburg and DUMBO, offering artists another viable option to play shows just outside of Manhattan.
“A lot of times shows that would have gone to Maxwell’s now take place in Brooklyn,” explained Abramson.
Maxwell’s first opened in August 1978, intended by original owner Steve Fallon to serve primarily as a restaurant and bar; the back room, where so many rock legends would eventually appear, was not initially used.
Then Hoboken band “a” requested to rehearse in the back room and perform some shows for folks dining in the restaurant. The group—featuring Glenn Morrow, who later played in The Individuals and founded Bar/None Records, as well as Richard Barone, Rob Norris and Frank Giannini (all of whom went on to form The Bongos)—became the first band to play Maxwell’s.
The live gigs proved so popular that Fallon started booking acts routinely in the back room, and the rest is history. Under Fallon’s watch, Maxwell’s developed a reputation as an artist-friendly venue—one that paid bands well, fed them, and treated them with respect.
“Steve and his family were very accepting of the artists,” said Stan Demeski, drummer for The Feelies.
Bands appreciated the fact that Maxwell’s audiences were filled with serious music fans, unlike similar venues in Manhattan, which are often inhabited by record industry employees.
“It wasn’t as snobby as some clubs in New York City,” commented Demeski.
Artists who frequently jammed at Maxwell’s will seemingly miss the way they were treated at the club.
“For bands, it was ideal,” explained Wareham. “It was run by nice people, they gave you a higher cut of the door receipts than other clubs, they fed you…”
Several acts, such as The Feelies, The Bongos and The Fleshtones, would become synonymous with the club, but none more so than Yo La Tengo. The Hoboken indie rock legends had deep ties to the place; guitarist Ira Kaplan was once Maxwell’s regular soundboard guy, and the group played its debut show as Yo La Tengo there in 1984.
The group’s annual eight-night run of Hanukkah shows became the stuff of legends and attracted a slew of surprise guests. As Kaplan told the crowd at Yo La Tengo’s final Maxwell’s performance in June, “This band does not exist without this club.”
The Feelies had their own holiday tradition at the club for many years, playing a series of shows each Independence Day week.
“This time I tried to take it all in, since I knew these would be the last shows,” said Demeski of the band’s recent Fourth of July gigs.
“The first time I went to Maxwell’s was in the summer of 1980, so I had quite a history there,” he continued. “And I first played there in 1981. There was no other place like it.”
One of the unique aspects of Maxwell’s is that it served as a communal meeting place of sorts for the Hoboken music scene. It was commonplace to see members of Yo La Tengo hanging out in the club on any given night. And for fans, Maxwell’s remained a spot where you could grab a good pre-show meal, then walk a few feet to see a killer band play in the back room.
Fallon and Abramson co-owned the club for a brief period, then sold it in 1995 to William Sutton, who spearheaded a short-lived, and likely ill-advised, attempt to transform Maxwell’s into a brewpub. Abramson, along with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and Dave Post of the Amazing Incredibles, bought the club back from Sutton in 1998, and restored it to prominence.
Abramson has been floored by all the accolades heaped on the venue since the closure was announced.
“I’m discovering that the legacy of the club is so much more than I thought it was,” he commented. “A lot of New Jersey musicians have told me they started playing instruments because of what they saw here.”
Yet Abramson expressed a sheepishness about all the attention paid to him personally in the club’s final months.
“It’s the bands and fans who really made the place what it was,” he said.
For Maxwell’s final farewell, an outdoor block party is planned for July 31. Inside the club, the band “a” is scheduled to perform, a fitting way to bring Maxwell’s musical legacy full circle.
As for the future, Abramson said he might seek to open another music venue in neighboring Jersey City, but insisted that he wouldn’t use the Maxwell’s name again.
“I think it would be a disservice to what was done here,” he said.
Despite the club’s beloved status, the shuttering of Maxwell’s serves as a reminder that live music venues are businesses first and foremost, and economic factors will always win out over fan adulation. The truth is that clubs can close at any time.
“If you love a place, don’t take it for granted,” said Abramson.
And how does Abramson hope Maxwell’s will be remembered?
“A place where a lot of people had a good time,” he replied, “whether they played in a band, went to a show, or just hung out at the front bar.”
Or, as Demeski poignantly remarked, “It felt like home.”
Maxwell’s closing night block party takes place on Wednesday, July 31. For more information, go to maxwellsnj.com.