An Ode to Maxwell’s
It’s been a year since Hoboken’s pivotal indie rock club and restaurant Maxwell’s has closed its doors, but it’s going to take much longer than that to wipe away its memory. Maxwell’s, which opened in 1978 and closed at the end of last July (with a brief three-year gap where it was a brewpub before coming back under new ownership, and an even briefer interlude last fall when the club temporarily opened its doors to diners only), has been credited with launching the careers of countless bands—bands that even your mother would recognize by name, as well as tons that she wouldn’t. But more than that, Maxwell’s was one of those rare gems of a place that was more like a home to many than just a club.
Maxwell’s helped to shape lives and foster long-lasting bands, friendships, and relationships. It was the place where first record deals were signed (the Bongos and Antietam, for instance), or musicians met their significant others (Glenn Mercer of The Feelies and John Klett of The Individuals, to name a few). In honor of the one-year anniversary of the club’s closing, I wanted to talk to some of the people who hold Maxwell’s closest to their hearts about their favorite memories, what made the venue so special, and the puzzling question of why it was that Maxwell’s felt so far away from the venues just across the river in Manhattan.
Most Memorable Shows
Lou Barlow (Dinosaur Jr., Sebadoh, The Folk Implosion): The size of the room, tiny, made just about every show an experience… The early Dinosaur Jr. shows were special because the audiences were thin and we played with bands like Big Black who became immensely influential… An apartment building burned down around the corner from Maxwell’s after one of the shows I played. We came offstage, walked out and watched it burn. That was memorable.
Ronnie Barnett (The Muffs): We’ve done two New Year’s Eves there, both of which were memorable. One with Southern Culture on the Skids in which I’ll always remember their drummer Dave Hartman dressed as Baby New Year riding in the trunk of a car as we finally went “home” to the Palace Hotel. The other was with Guided By Voices, which was an amazing night that involved them playing a three-hour show, pissing in the trash cans in the “dressing room” (no proper bathrooms down there as everyone knows), lying down one at a time and having the rest of the “gang” pour beer on them, their bass player Greg Demos pissing onstage behind his bass amp, and seeing Robert Pollard propped up by his Dayton homeboys as he departed.
Janet Wygal (The Individuals, Splendora, I Ride the Bus): I had a side band called I Ride the Bus with my sister Tricia and we opened for The Replacements! That was really quite memorable because they were just so wild, and so drunk! But really good! It was one of their early shows in the area and I think it was just sort of their recklessness that was so appealing. And obviously the songs were really great, of course.
Patrick Stickles (Titus Andronicus): The most special [shows] were like a composite one of the last three we did, because in a way the set list over those three last nights were a single cohesive statement even though not many people experienced them all. Over the course of those three nights we played every single song we had ever done, and all these different cover songs too. I’m gonna remember that as the definitive artistic statement in that building [for me]. Even though it was very sloppy—it was too ambitious to play all those songs!
Tara Key (Antietam): All the Hanukkah shows that Yo La Tengo have done have been super special… The Hanukkah [show in 2011] I filled in on guitar for two nights, and to be able to do that with those guys (they are old friends who met at Maxwell’s) and be there for the whole set, and crash learn about thirty YLT songs…it was really a special thing.
Jon Fried (The Cucumbers): Of shows we attended, I remember Antietam when they had two bass players and it sounded like glorious, beautiful thunder in the room! And one night Sonic Youth had a cassette player on stage blaring Madonna so every time they stopped playing you heard Madonna in wonderfully odd, incongruous moments.
Todd Abramson, owner, 1998-2013: A number of years back Lloyd Cole played…and sometimes because it was a little tough getting to the stage, myself or one of my employees would help bring the performer to the stage. So, I’m walking Lloyd Cole to the stage—and I’m not the biggest or most threatening looking guy in the world—and as I’m walking I hear someone quizzically say, “That’s his bodyguard?”
Steve Fallon, owner, 1978-1995: It sounds pretty corny but the R.E.M. show, the first time they played their first number, I just said, “This band’s gonna be huge.”
Richard Barone (The Bongos): One of my favorite shows—we knew them already because we had met them on tour—but when R.E.M. first played Maxwell’s that was pretty cool. They were staying at our apartment and Michael Stipe wrote out all the lyrics to their songs for us because we couldn’t understand them!
What Made Maxwell’s So Special
Lou Barlow: I played there more than any other club in my history of playing shows—from 1986-2012, I played there, on average, once a year (and some years as many as three times) in every band I’ve been in, and solo. It was almost always great—the pay was generous, the audience amazing, the atmosphere intimate, the sound good. The food was tasty too, great jukebox, a great place to meet friends and talk to fans.
King Mike (Screaming Females): For some reason, it is rare to have a music venue that actually treats bands as well as Maxwell’s did. I will miss every single thing about it.
Alice Genese (Gut Bank, Sexpod, Psychic TV): There was something about that space that really worked. I don’t know whether it was the floors or the ceilings or the walls or just the vibe, the love that people had…but there was something really special and I’m gonna miss that so much. I don’t know where I’d ever be able to find that again.
Ronnie Barnett: You could tell they really cared about music there. The opening bands were always carefully selected. The bills were never overcrowded. The set times were not too early or too late. The vibe and atmosphere was always perfect. There’s an emotional attachment to that place that we don’t have anywhere else. Not even in our hometown. Even though it’s not there anymore it is and will always, in our hearts, be our home.
Alice Genese: I don’t know if I would be who I am right now if there hadn’t been a place like Maxwell’s, if there weren’t people like Steve Fallon or Bill Ryan or Todd Abramson who helped foster young talent in a way that I think is rare to find… And especially as [young women]…we were embraced and welcomed and supported in a lot of ways, and I’m very, very grateful for that.
Janet Wygal: I really do feel like, without Maxwell’s I probably wouldn’t have had this long history of playing in bands. I think that it provided the fertile ground, but also the sort of acceptance that was [vital]. Because at that time indie rock was not a big field…and there weren’t that many places to play it. Also it was still pretty male dominated so you had to really want to do it if you were a woman—especially if you wanted to play bass or if you wanted to be a drummer. It was a very safe environment to do that sort of thing, and I feel really lucky to [have had that].
Tara Key: I do, despite it all, still believe that rock and roll can change your life. And I know for a fact that there must be legions of people that never played in a band, never picked up an instrument, but went in that room, saw music in that environment, with that curation and that sensitivity, that walked out of there with their lives changed.
The Palpable But Elusive Difference Between Maxwell’s and NYC Clubs
Richard Barone: I preferred seeing shows there whenever possible. If an artist I loved was playing in the city and then also at Maxwell’s, I would prefer to see them at Maxwell’s.
Brian Turner, WFMU: I think bands felt more appreciated because their diehard fans would go out of their way to make the trek from the PATH, and in turn their performances were enhanced. The place made patrons and artists feel appreciated in a huge way, which I don’t think can be said for too many other venues in the area… Maxwell’s had the food, the atmosphere, the style, and the welcoming vibe. The sound was ace, the room itself fantastic.
Paul Major (Endless Boogie): Some clubs have a “We’re in it for the money vibe.” Some places have heart and soul and are run with music as the central vibe. Maxwell’s was all about quality music. The people you met there were mostly lifer music freaks. Perfect.
Peter Holsapple (The dB’s): It was less concerned with “hip” and being pretentious than a lot of NYC clubs. It was really all about the bands playing there.
Alice Genese: When you knew that the band you wanted to see was playing Irving Plaza or whatever bigger club in Manhattan the next night and you were one of the 200 people that didn’t care that you had to travel a little further to get to Maxwell’s—I lived in New Jersey so for me it was awesome—you were getting something those other people weren’t getting.
Glenn Mercer (The Feelies): In New York you’d get people who, maybe seeing the band was their second reason for going out, not their first… With Maxwell’s you got the sense people were really into music—their attention was totally on the bands.
Peter Prescott (Mission of Burma): It’s an intangible thing. You could tell they cared about music. And I think the people that came to the shows maybe dug a little deeper too. There was that intangible bond between the bands and the club itself and the people who came. That’s there in some other clubs in my memory, but not too many… They really went the extra mile.
Todd Abramson: The bands, for better or worse, had to walk through the crowd to and from the stage, and [often] somebody would sit down to dinner and turn and see they were eating next to their favorite band, so little odd things like that that aren’t very common.
Steve Fallon: I think it was the close-knitted-ness. We didn’t allow for stalkers and photographers. I think the bands could actually really feel comfortable—we tried to make them feel comfortable. Whenever you went on tour with bands—I also managed bands—you’d walk into a club, no one would greet you, you’d kind of stand around for an hour, and then the cranky, hungover soundman would come and basically throw shit on the stage. So we really made an effort not to be that way… I think it all comes down to that they were returning to us what we were giving to them.
On Maxwell’s Closing
Jon Fried: After talking with Todd, his relief reduced the feeling of loss and it felt like it was time. As he said, he needs new floor tile to stare at.
Peter Holsapple: Steve Fallon and Todd Abramson put their hearts and souls into making Maxwell’s the beloved club that it was, and I thank them for that. I also understand why you finally put the brakes on something. The Hoboken of today is not the place where a club like Maxwell’s can operate successfully—I suspect only a sports bar would earn money nowadays.
Patrick Stickles: I’m so grateful that it was there. It’s done so many great things for me, that building, but that part’s gone, so I’m just focusing right now on the part that remains, the spirit of it. That will last forever. I knew all along that the space wouldn’t last forever. Spaces are temporal. Ideas and values and those sorts of things, those are eternal. They’re bigger than venues or venue owners or bands—they’re our culture, our shared history.
Peter Prescott: If you ask most people that came from the punk rock or post-punk era, “Are there any clubs that you cry about when they close?” most people would not say that there are too many. There are always great places you play but it’s hard to get emotionally invested in a club. It becomes, you know, another place that you’re at. But this one was different, and everybody knew it was different.
Richard Barone: It’s bittersweet but as much as I loved it, I also know that—it’s a little cliché but—nothing really can last forever… It had an amazing run, and sometimes stopping while you’re ahead is a good thing because you only leave the great memories and not the state of decline that some places do leave behind, you know, places that just sort of run out of steam. Maxwell’s never ran out of steam.
Todd Abramson: I had so many people via email and especially in person at the venue [in the last few months before it closed] just coming up and thanking me for keeping it together for so long. I had a lot of people talking about how they had some of the best times of their lives there… One of the reasons I made the decision to close when I did was so the place would exit when people still cared a lot about it.
Featured image © John Baumgartner. Photo of Antietam at Maxwell’s Hanukkah, 2008 © Dawn Sutter Madell. Photo of The Cucumbers at Maxwell’s, 1982 © Deena Shoshkes. Photo of The Individuals at Maxwell’s, 1981 © Glenn Morrow.