When Hoboken resident John Sayles directed the ‘Glory Days’ video for Bruce Springsteen at a then relatively young bar called Maxwell’s back in 1985, no one could have predicted how prophetic history would prove that day to be. By the time Bruce and his crew had stepped out of their Chevy van and into MTV annuls, the Hoboken music scene was already off to legendary status. A status that would sustain for the better part of two decades and then burn out quickly.
So, when were the Glory Days of Hoboken music? For a lot of folks, they were not that long ago. However, memories of the past can be blurred by nostalgia or corrupted by a lingering present-day bitterness. (In fact, I began to wonder if my own memories were all that clear.)
Crammed into dark spaces under low ceilings, choking on smoke and ears ringing from over-amplified sound, the object was try to find cheap beer and try to be heard. It was a trial of obstacles that bands needed to overcome. As harsh as it sounds, the conditions were really no different than those of any other musical metropolis. What made Hoboken’s scene different was the amount of venues and the unusual camaraderie among bands.
It’s hard to imagine this today, but at its peak in the 80′s and 90′s, Hoboken boasted many places for local, original bands to play on any given weekend. In fact, just a few blocks from the PATH there were places like Boo Boo’s Funkadelic Lounge, Cadillac Bar, Scotland Yard (which is still there), Love Sexy (aka Signore’s Lounge), Down Under, and The Beat’n Path (later called Live Tonight, Zells, and Whiskey Bar). Moving further into town, there were Willie McBride’s, Court Street, Elysian Cafe, The Liquid Lounge, and–the one that started it all–Maxwell’s.
Sowing the Seeds
In 1978 Steve Fallon–along with his sisters Kathryn Jackson Fallon, Anne Fallon Mazzolla and his brother-in-law Mario Mazzola–dreamed of turning an old factory-worker hangout into a successful restaurant and music venue. Its opening could not have been timed better. The depressed economics of the town in the late 70s and early 80s made Hoboken the ideal place for young musicians and artists seeking affordable housing.
“Hoboken was lucky enough to foster not only one, but a few places to play,” says James Mastro; Guitar Bar owner, musician and member of The Bongos–who were the first Hoboken band of the era to be signed to a major label. “And rent played a big part in it. If rents are cheaper, you’re gonna have a lot more more artists around who can afford to be in original bands.”
It was also attracting suburban kids who were intimidated by NYC. The legend of this new Hoboken scene began to grow around the country as well. A fanzine called The NY Rocker employed a young reviewer named Glenn Morrow who was a member of the very first band to ever play at Maxwell’s. That band, simply called ‘a’, also included Richard Barone, Frank Giannini and Rob Norris of The Bongos. Morrow later went on to found Bar/None Records.
Thanks in large part to the meticulous booking practices of Todd Abramson, Maxwell’s quickly became famous as a place to see great live music. Both local and touring bands thrived here.
The Legend Grows
The members of R.E.M. were avid NY Rocker readers at the time and began making frequent stops at Maxwell’s. So taken by the venue and the town, when Maxwell’s was confronted with financial difficulties, guitarist Peter Buck became part owner. Later, Bob Mould of Hüsker Dü did the same. A myriad of touring bands–many of whom went on to fame or infamy–considered it a staple venue. And Hoboken was on the map as a music town.
For the local musicians, there was a sense that a community was growing even beyond Maxwell’s. “The [Hoboken] Arts and Music Festival allowed almost all of the local bands to perform,” says David Ribyat of Las Vandelays. “It was a great day for these bands to play to a big audience.”
There were shows at the historic Lackawanna Terminal, one of the oldest running railroad stations. The Bongos playing at the station is one of Mastro’s fondest memories. Meanwhile another show featuring Black 47 in 1993 attracted so many rowdy fans that the entire city had to be shut down.
kitchenTablemusic, a series started by musician and future mayoral candidate Tom Vincent at Live Tonight in 1989, was a forerunner to a vibrant open-mic tradition in town. And of course, there were the loft parties. Artists who could afford large-scale studios in converted industrial complexes would throw massive parties featuring live music… and even the occasional tire swing.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
So, what happened? The economy happened, again. Only this time, it was different. Whereas a depressed economy helps foster the arts, an upswing often knocks them out. As early as 1985, when Coyote Records (founded by Steve Fallon) released Luxury Condos Coming To Your Neighborhood Soon (the title written in blood), an unsettling image of Hoboken’s future began to come into focus and by the mid 90s, the party was coming to an end.
The rising cost of living affected everyone, including the clubs. “Owners stopped paying guarantees to bands,” explains musician and studio owner Chris “Gibby” Gibson. “After that, the clubs had the upper hand. They knew there were a lot of mediocre bands popping up out of the woodwork that would play for nothing just to get their foot in the door. The quality acts that were once paid were no longer necessary.” And even that didn’t last.
The cultural diversity of Hoboken was dwindling as well. “At one time you could tell the cut of a man’s jib just by looking at him,” said Mastro. Today, the constant movement of transient students and young professionals looking only to eat, drink, and sleep close to work or school has washed away much of the town’s personality along with that feeling of community.
“Bars turned into expensive dance clubs and live-music venues only wanted cover bands to fit the new arrivals’ tastes,” said Ribyat.
So how did Maxwell’s survive? It almost didn’t. In the late 90′s, it was sold and turned into a microbrewery. Gone was the booking policy that allowed new music to flourish, and in its stead was a rancid smell from giant conical vats situated too close to the dining area. It failed.
Thankfully Todd Abramson, who had left during this time, returned to buy the club along with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and Dave Post of The Amazing Incredibles and Swingadelic. Reopening in 1998, Maxwell’s soon reclaimed its throne as the best–and pretty much only–place for original live music.
The Legend Lives On
Toward the end of the 90s, a handful of devoted fans, promoters and performers worked to keep the original music scene alive. This was not easy as venues kept changing format.
Artist and bar owner Joseph Borzotta made sure the The Liquid Lounge was a haven for original music. The weekly open mic hosted by Mike Latch set a standard of quality that continues to this day. There singer/songwriter Scott E. Moore began his popular Writers Hang, at which performers would play and discuss their craft to an always enthusiastic crowd.
When The Liquid Lounge was sold, the scene moved to the Rodeo/Ristra Lounge. The open mic continued under the guidance of Ivy Giacchino of ArtKore.org who also hosted Sunday afternoon showcases and Monday night poetry. And when that place closed, the scene moved to The Goldhawk. It would become the center of new music in town through the 00′s, thanks to owner/musician Fran Azzarto and long-time open mic host Dave Entwistle who had inherited the reins of the showcase, changing its name to The People’s Open Mic. Jim Testa of Jersey Beat and Lazlo of BlowUpRadio.com hosted Folk You!, a monthly showcase of local talent.
When The Goldhawk closed in 2009, it was a blow many thought the scene could not survive. But, it’s hard to keep a good scene down.
Throughout the mid to late 00′s, folks like Roland Ramos would host guerrilla-style showcases all over town. Bill Hamilton of beelmedia built a stage, converting his residential loft into a venue. Vocaliast Jennifer Lampert began staging intimate showcases at her music school called Be Vocal. In 2010, musician Marc Giannotti began an acoustic showcase at old-school watering hole Louise & Jerry’s. And The Peoples Open Mic is now at Northern Soul and is going strong. Even the venerable coverband joint Whiskey Bar has been booking more original bands of late.
There may not be as many places for bands to play these days, but the passion for live, original music is still strong. And many of the of the people who made the scene happen in the 80′s and 90′s are still here.
“I don’t know how any of them can afford to live in Hoboken anymore, but they’re still there, still making the Mile Square City special,” says Jim Testa of Jersey Beat. “A place that started out in the late 70′s as a blue-collar ghost town, as a place you came to from somewhere else to be a musician or an artist, became the town where people put down roots. That is what defines Hoboken for me.”