oral histories

The Hoboken Sound: An Oral History of Maxwell’s

Photo: Ian Tilton/Camera Press/Redux Photo: Ian Tilton/? CAMERA PRESS

“Maxwell’s felt like a Portkey in Harry Potter,” says ex–Hoboken resident Chris Stamey, one of the many musicians  mourning the great venue’s passing. In the pantheon of important New York City rock clubs — Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, the Bottom Line — Maxwell’s ranks as high as any, even though its legal address is New Jersey. Hoboken was still known mostly as Frank Sinatra’s birthplace when Steve Fallon began booking unknown bands in his tiny, plain bar 35 years ago. On July 31, after countless nights of weird music from acts that went on to fame (Nirvana, R.E.M.) or didn’t (the New Marines drew only one paying customer), the first couple of bands to perform at Maxwell’s — the Bongos and a — will play a final show, and the club will close.

Steve Fallon, founding co-owner, ­Maxwell’s: My brother, my sister, her husband, and I wanted to open a bar. I scouted Hoboken for three weeks, and Maxwell’s Tavern on 11th and Washington was always closed. I finally found the owner and asked, “When the fuck are you open?” He said, “Between shift changes at the Maxwell House coffee plant down the road: 5:30 to 6:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.” The factory workers would have a shot and a beer in between shifts. We bought the building in 1978 for $67,000. The apartments ­upstairs rented for $55 a month.

Tom Beaujour, producer and owner, Nuthouse Recording: My wife was born in Hoboken. It was an incredibly sketchy place for a long time. There was a whorehouse on every corner of Hudson Street back in the sixties.

Glenn Morrow, a and the Individuals: After the shipping industry left, the town was completely dead. I found an apartment across from the coffee factory: $65 a month for six rooms. It’s probably a million-dollar apartment building now. Hoboken was more innocent than the East Village, not quite as debauched. We were suburban kids who fell in love with the third Velvet Underground record.

Janet Wygal, the Individuals: Hoboken felt safe and worlds away from ­Manhattan. It was kind of like going home to Mom when you’re in college.

Richard Barone, the Bongos: I’d never heard of Hoboken. The town was from the era of Leave It to Beaver. And that informed the look of the Bongos and the Feelies. Both bands looked very 1950s.

Glenn Morrow: In ‘77, I got a band together, called a, with Rob Norris, Frank Gianni, and Richard Barone. A friend said there was a bar around the corner looking to book bands. I gave Steve Fallon a cassette tape. He listened and said, “Come back Saturday night, you’re going to play three sets.”

Barone: They didn’t have a stage or a sound system.

Fallon: At first, bands would play in the front barroom, without a stage. A New York New Wave band, Nervus Rex, came to play. Their lead singer, Shaun Brighton, was a total dick. He said, “We won’t play. It clearly states in our contract that we have to be elevated above the audience.” I went upstairs to my apartment and brought down my throw rug. I unrolled it and said, “There! You are now elevated above the audience.” They played.

Will Rigby, the dB’s: It wasn’t really a rock club — it was a working-class bar with bare lightbulbs on the ceiling, and when we played, some of the patrons laughed at us. We didn’t sound like Bob Seger or whatever was on the radio.

Glenn Mercer, the Feelies: In the spring of 1980, Crazy Rhythms came out and we wanted to do a few warm-up shows before going to England. I remember walking into Maxwell’s and thinking, Well, this is a step back. It’s a dive. It was pretty hot most of the time, and that night was particularly brutal. But it was so much fun. We made it a habit to play there.

Ira Kaplan, Yo La Tengo: Georgia ­[Hubley] and I moved to Hoboken because of Maxwell’s. We wanted to move to a place where we could live a little better. And where we could walk to a club. I ­never felt like I fit in at CBGB or Tier 3.

Georgia Hubley, Yo La Tengo: Four of us shared a whole house. The rent was under $200 a month.

Chris Stamey, the dB’s: I lived in Hoboken with Ira Kaplan, above a pizza place on 5th. We had a kitchen table and a coffee­maker. There was no furniture.

Todd Abramson, co-owner, Maxwell’s: I started coming to Maxwell’s when I was underage. The night I saw the Fleshtones, a guy waiting at the bus stop outside looked in and called the police. He saw us going crazy and thought there was a riot going on.

Mac McCaughan, Superchunk: I went to college at Columbia in the mid-­eighties, and if a band was playing at CB’s and at Maxwell’s, we’d get tickets to Maxwell’s. We’d buy a 40 and walk from the PATH to Maxwell’s without ever passing another loud bar. It was convenience stores, ­diners, and Hoboken Exterminator.

Peter Holsapple, the dB’s: I lived in an apartment on Jefferson Street, which had bullet holes in the wall. I moved in the same day the article on the “Hoboken scene” came out in the New York Times.

Morrow: The Hoboken sound, as it was called, began to get national attention. The dB’s got a record deal. So did the Bongos. A&R guys were always floating around Maxwell’s. It was weird.

Chris Butler, the Waitresses: Hoboken bands weren’t particularly sexy or charismatic. The Feelies are not gorgeous. The emphasis was on music, rather than star power.

Bob Mould, Hüsker Dü: Maxwell’s is sort of my CBGB. For R.E.M., the Feelies, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, all the bands of that era — that was our room. Bear in mind, I never played CBGB. In early ’85, I called up and tried to get a gig there. They were like, “Never heard of you.” Really? You didn’t hear Zen Arcade or New Day Rising? Maybe you should go read The Village Voice or something.

Mike Mills, R.E.M.: At one of our ­Maxwell’s shows, we did Roky Erickson’s “I Walked With a Zombie” as an encore. I played drums, and we had our girlfriends up onstage, singing backup. The crowd was oddly sophisticated.

Kaplan: Steve treated bands well. That shouldn’t be a revolutionary practice, but it was.

Ian MacKaye, Fugazi: The “dressing room” was a tiny closet in the basement. You sat among crates of beer and boxes of napkins.

Julie Panebianco, former Warner Bros. Records executive: When I moved from Boston to New York, I stayed at Steve Fallon’s apartment for a few weeks. He had a crazy parrot that only said, “Fuck you.” There was always a band crashing at his apartment. I saw Soul Asylum in their underwear.

Guy Ewald, former house D.J.: Steve liked to set off fireworks inside the bar at 5 a.m. And there was a faux-Molotov-cocktail fight late one night — stick a napkin into an empty beer bottle, light it, and hurl it at your enemy. He’s a combination of insecurity, egotism, and generosity, all in extremes.

Fallon: Maxwell’s had no particular sexual identity. Yes, I was out. But I wasn’t your typical fag. Everyone who worked at Maxwell’s was a little eccentric. That was the beauty of it.

Barone: The club was extremely bisexual. The same way a president affects the tone of a country, the owner of a club affects the clientele. Who did I sleep with? Everyone.

Mould: One of my memories is constantly banging my head on the heater that was attached to the ceiling, stage
left. I think it was a Reznor-brand ­heater — as in Trent Reznor’s great-great-grandfather.

Barone: The heater was less than seven feet off the ground. I’m five foot seven, and I hit my head on it so many times I think it caused permanent brain damage.

Abramson: After Bruce Springsteen filmed his “Glory Days” video at ­Maxwell’s, there was a year where every weekend was packed, regardless of who was performing. In May of 1986, just when that mania ended, I took over the booking.

Wygal: It’s funny, but I still think of Todd as “the new guy.”

Abramson: There was resentment among some of the “old guard” who didn’t get the same treatment from me they’d got from Steve. Richard Barone wanted to play a few shows on Thursday nights. I told him those dates weren’t available and explained that I had some pretty big acts booked: the Descendents and the Dead Milkmen. He sarcastically opined, “Oh, yeah, really big acts, Todd,” and slammed the phone down.

Fallon: The Replacements loved Maxwell’s. Tommy Stinson brought his mother. They never had a bad show here. Maybe because they knew I’d stay up until 5 a.m. and drink with them.

Abramson: There was one Replacements show when it got so hot chairs ­actually melted. It was discovered afterward that the attendance clicker had ­broken, and they’d let in something like 380 people. Capacity was 200.

Fallon: Peter Buck of R.E.M. paid for us to put an air conditioner in the back room, thank God.

Jon Langford, the Mekons: Unusual things always happened at Maxwell’s. One night, I fell asleep onstage. I was tired and drunk, and in the middle of a long jam, I laid down for a nap. It was very restful. I was comfortable there — too comfortable.

Mould: After Hüsker Dü broke up, I moved to Hoboken in the summer of ‘89, because that’s where Steve lived. And the first post-Hüsker Dü show I played was at Maxwell’s. I started hyperventilating before the show because I was so nervous. Steve brought me an oxygen mask.

Steve Shelley, Sonic Youth: I saw ­Nirvana as a four-piece in 1989, not long after I’d seen Mudhoney. I remember thinking, “These guys are pretty good, but they’re no Mudhoney.”

Panebianco: Everybody claims to have been at that Nirvana show. There were about fifteen people: Sonic Youth, J. Mascis, Fallon, me, and maybe four other people. I could name everybody who was there.

Fallon: After Nirvana became big, the major booking agencies wanted you to take their shitty post-grunge bands in order to get their good bands. One very vivid memory is — what’s the name of that fucking band? Starts with a K. Korn. When Korn played Maxwell’s, I said to myself, “What the fuck am I doing here?” The crowd was ugly. The bass player punched their bus driver in the face. It was the exact opposite of why I opened Maxwell’s.

Abramson: Yeah, Korn. It’s never a good sign when a band loads in and starts lifting weights.

Fallon: In 1995, I sold the club to Bill Sutton, a management consultant who turned it into a stupid brewpub.

Beaujour: We stopped going there. It was Maxwell’s in name only.

Chris Repella, former waitress: Beck did a solo show, right after “Loser,” and it was really crowded. Mr. Sutton thought the crowd was there to see Jeff Beck. And the managers he hired were sleazy guys who ran a titty bar in Weehawken. At one point, I was the only female employee at Maxwell’s without silicone in her breasts.

Abramson: He was brewing lousy beer, and the place smelled horrible. It took two years until the brewpub was run into the ground. When Sutton went out of business, two partners and I bought the place.

McCaughan: Bands from Hoboken were poppy but slightly weird. Yo La ­Tengo became synonymous with Hoboken, which seems right, because they had beautiful songs and weirdness happening at the same time.

Abramson: Maxwell’s and Yo La Tengo are each known for a lot of things, but I think the Hanukkah shows became the things each is best known for.

Kaplan: We had the idea to do some kind of holiday show, but it seemed like a lot of work. Finally we said, “Why don’t we play the eight nights of Hanukkah?” That seemed ridiculous. The first year, 2001, Jon Spencer sat in. We did “You Look Like a Jew.” In the last few years, my mom closed the Hanukkah shows, singing “My Little Corner of the World.” In 2010, Peter Wolf came to do some songs one night, and when I told him he wasn’t closing the show, he seemed surprised. Sorry, nobody closes the show but my mom.

Beaujour: David Cross was dating a ­really cute Maxwell’s waitress, and I saw him at a Superdrag show in 2002, ­bouncing up and down, and suddenly he stopped dancing and freaked out.

David Cross, comedian: You want the pee story, right? I was at Maxwell’s with my then-girlfriend, Sarah, enjoying myself, when somebody spilled something on the back of my leg. But they kept spilling it. And I realized it was warm. So I turned around, and there was a guy peeing on me. I fucking freaked out, as you might imagine. I threw my drink in his face and started screaming and swinging at him. One of the most debasing things you can do is piss on somebody who’s not paying for it, or enjoying it. And I’m not an Orthodox Jew, so it doesn’t appeal to me in any way. The people who work there were calming me down, my girlfriend was saying, “That guy used to be a bartender here, we all hate him,” and I got angry again, so I went after him a second time. It looked like two spastic people who were being shocked with electricity. My girlfriend told me his nickname was Taliban Jim, because on 9/11, he was running down Washington Street going, “¡Viva la revolución!”

Taliban Jim [on Maxwell’s Facebook page]: Mr. Cross, I don’t know you from Adam, and would very much like to have not found myself standing behind you at that specific moment, with an old ­psilocybin vow rattling inside the same head that commanded a bladder full of Campari and Colt 45. I am truly sorry.

Cross: I’m honestly fine without his apology.

Abramson: The only person I ever caught having sex was Leif Garrett. ­Customers got tired of waiting to use the women’s restroom, so I knocked for him to come out. He said, “C’mon man, it’s rock and roll!”

Mills: A friend who techs for Patti Smith told me Maxwell’s is closing. I looked it up online and read the sad news.

Rigby: CBGB stayed alive for twenty years on the back of its reputation. By comparison, Maxwell’s is going out with a sterling reputation.

Abramson: Why am I shutting down the club? There’s the lack of parking. The town’s demographics have shifted, so the percentage of residents who are interested in Maxwell’s isn’t as high as it was. There’s the rise of music venues in Brooklyn, which has an aura of hipness Hoboken no longer possesses. Also, I could use a change of scenery. I’m not going to pretend otherwise.

Kaplan: I don’t know if Georgia and I are going to stay in Hoboken. Getting on my bicycle to see the Bats on a Monday night at Maxwell’s was high on my list of reasons to live here.

Barone: I love the symmetry that a is both the first and last band to play at Maxwell’s. It was a very idiosyncratic group with disjointed song structures. And Maxwell’s is a place where anything goes. Thats not the right verb tense; it’s a place where anything went.

*This article originally appeared in the July 29, 2013 issue of New York Magazine

The Hoboken Sound: An Oral History of Maxwell’s