For the past few decades, patrons at one particular corner pub in Carteret have been seeing four colorful and oddly familiar figures hanging around by the back wall of the bar’s garage. They huddle together at the edge of the parking lot behind the tall blue plastic recycling barrels. Though now a bit faded and worn, the four cartoonish characters are clad in the most mod of fad gear (by Swingin’ Sixties standards) and look as though they’ve just stepped off Carnaby Street and onto Washington Avenue in downtown Carteret. Behind them sits their ride––a vintage model Yellow Submarine.
There’s certainly no mystery as to the identity of these four mop-topped chaps, they are of course the Beatles as depicted in cartoon form in the 1968 animated feature film and psychedelic pop art masterpiece, Yellow Submarine. But just how did they come to be painted on the cinderblock façade of this working class corner bar in Middlesex County? Well, as it turns out, this particular watering hole has more than just one music-related tale to tell. You see, the establishment, which is now known as Kelly’s Pub, was once called Babjak’s Corner Tavern. That was back in the 1970s, when a young Jim Babjak, the owner’s son, worked at the bar and whiled away some of his spare time by painting the Beatles on the garage wall. Jim would soon go on to make a name for himself in the 1980s as the lead guitarist for the renowned New Jersey rock band, The Smithereens.
There’s no denying the profound influence the Beatles had on The Smithereens. Their 2007 album, Meet The Smithereens, covered the entire Beatles’ U.S. debut record, Meet TheBeatles, and their 2008 disc, B-Sides The Beatles, pays tribute to B-sides of early Beatles singles. (But CDs are available through The Smithereens’ website at officialsmithereens.com.)
I decided to document the origins of this unique roadside curiosity and met with Jim at Kelly’s on a bright Saturday afternoon in October. He reminisced about what life was like back in the days when the place was Babjak’s and he and his family worked the bar and lived upstairs.
“My dad owned the bar between 1973 and 1980. It was a shot and beer joint,” Jim recalled, looking around in amazement at how much the place has changed since he had last seen it. “It’s really weird to be here, I haven’t been back in years. About the only time I come here now is when someone in town dies and we meet here after the service.”
Jim points around the barroom, drawing a mental picture of the way the place once looked. “There used to be a pool table here, a pinball machine at the end of the bar and one of those huge freestanding air conditioner units over there in the corner that blocked that window. There was a jukebox up front that played 45s––I took that when we sold the place and have it in my bar at home now. The stairs to the basement were over there, where I’d have to carry cases of beer up and down the stairs to the bar. The stairs to the upstairs, where my family lived, used to be over there. It wasn’t easy living over a bar that was open until 2 a.m. during the week and 3 a.m. on the weekends. It was loud and sometimes people would wander up in the middle of the night and ask my father to cash their paycheck for them. Some of them would spend half the paycheck before they left the bar.”
“What was the clientele like back then?” I asked.
“Very working class. There was a mix of old men and young customers since the drinking age was recently lowered to 18 in the early ‘70s. The old men only came in during the day––by nightfall it was primarily packed with 18- to 30-year-olds.”
“Doesn’t seem like that’s changed too much,” I pointed out. The pub was doing a brisk business that day at 1 in the afternoon, several of the patrons being older gentlemen.
“So what about the mural, when and how did that come about?” I asked.
“In 1976, I decided to paint a life size mural of the four Beatles and their Yellow Submarine on the wall of the garage, which was next to a small built-in swimming pool. I don’t know why I wanted to do it, but I do remember not wanting to do anything complicated. I didn’t ask my parents for permission either.
“The wall did not face any area where the public would have seen it since it was fenced in. Years after my dad sold the place, the pool was filled in with dirt and I believe the fence was knocked down too. I went back to visit the wall in 1990 and that was the last time I saw it. I think Dennis [Diken, Smithereens’ drummer] might have been with me. I thought someone would have painted over it by now.
“If I remember correctly, I never finished painting the submarine part. The whole thing was about 80 percent done. After that summer, I was more into driving my car anywhere it would take me, dating, going to college, playing guitar and then just lost interest. It was just something to do one summer and then life got in the way.
“Recently, an old acquaintance emailed me about someone [who] asked the owner of Kelly’s Pub for permission to take a photo of the wall. I’d forgotten all about it till I received that email. It made me curious myself, since I thought it was knocked down years ago.”
Jim and I finished our beers and headed out back to inspect his 35-year-old artwork. We slid back the dozen or so blue plastic recycling barrels full of beer bottles to reveal the lovingly rendered painting. Though chipping and faded, the mural has held up surprisingly well. All four Beatles were almost completely painted, with the exception of John Lennon’s left hand, but the submarine itself was never filled in––just as Jim had remembered it. All of the other exterior walls of the building have been repainted in recent years, but fortunately someone had enough respect to consciously not paint over the wall bearing the mural.
As Jim and I stood in the parking lot, a couple of long-time patrons of the bar recognized him from back in the day and greeted him fondly. Soon, a handful of costumers from inside the bar began to gather outside the side door to swap stories with him about the bar then and now and the 30 or so years that have passed in between. A few told him how much they loved his band and their music, and showed an obvious sense of pride in the hometown boy who made good. Others just seemed pleased to once again see the person they remembered who used to work at his father’s corner tavern as a young man.
Who says you can never go home again? Sometimes, all you need is a little help from your friends and a Yellow Submarine to get you there.