By Glenn McDonald
In the beginning, there was a sound called college rock.
It was the dark days of the 1980s, before the revolution sparked by Nirvana changed all manner of pop culture designations. The underground sound later branded as alternative music didn’t really have a name back then. But in certain circles it was referred to as “college rock” — an essentially descriptive moniker in that the music circulated almost exclusively by way of college radio stations and record stores. This was old-school college radio, in which student DJs and the records they brought to the stations mostly dictated formats and playlists.
R.E.M. is typically cited as the quintessential college rock band, but there was a sideways kind of aristocracy in those days. The Replacements, of course. Sonic Youth. For a mopier U.K. vibe, you had the Smiths and the Cure. For a more anthemic U.K. style, there was an energetic Irish outfit called U2. A more esoteric U.S. outfit was Camper Van Beethoven, whose hyper-eclectic sound captured the spirit of non-format college radio, swinging from rock to ska to psychedelia, sometimes within the same song.
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In those analog days, college radio shouldered the broadcast duties while the bands toured like (10,000) maniacs across a loose network of friendly venues in the United States and Canada. The big cities and college towns all had their landing spots, but some of the most impotant venues were squirreled away in the unlikeliest of places.
Enter Maxwell’s, Hoboken, N.J.’s second-biggest musical claim to fame (native son Frank Sinatra being the first, of course). In its mid-’80s heyday, the tiny nightclub was a required stop for pretty much every college rock band of the era. Capacity was around 200 people in the small back-room performance space, and Maxwell’s earned a reputation as a friendly and intimate alternative to the New York clubs just a few clicks away.
|The onstage footage in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” video was filmed at Maxwell’s in May 1985.|
Original owner Steve Fallon opened Maxwell’s as a music spot in 1978, refurbishing the old tavern that had for years served as a watering spot for local factory workers. The club, at the corner of Washington and 11th Street, was a block from General Foods’ Maxwell House Coffee factory on the Hudson River.
Hoboken was a hardcore manufacturing town for the most part, but a wily creative class had drifted in over the years, attracted by cheap rental properties and proximity to New York. When Fallon started booking bands in earnest in the 1980s, musicians who had previously played up against the wall by the front door moved into the cleared-out back room.
Maxwell’s quickly earned a rep as a venue that treated musicians well. For one thing, Fallon made a point of employing Maxwell’s restaurant facilities to feed the bands that came through town — even the opening acts. Bands also got a bigger-than-usual cut of the door, too, and loyal musicians made sure Maxwell’s stayed on their tour itineraries.
Local heroes the Bongos anchored a Hoboken scene that would later include New Jersey and New York bands such as the Feelies, the Fleshtones and longtime Maxwell’s stalwarts Yo La Tengo (whose guitarist and vocalist, Ira Kaplan, was once the club’s soundman). New Jersey’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll son paid tribute too—the onstage footage in Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” video was filmed at Maxwell’s in May 1985.
As the Hoboken scene grew, and as the sound called college rock became an industry called alternative rock, the crowds poured over the river from New York to catch the parade of must-see bands. Acts that took the stage in those early days included R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, the Meat Puppets, the dBs, Sonic Youth, the Minutemen, the Psychedelic Furs, Fugazi and the Replacements.
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Meanwhile, Hoboken was undergoing radical shifts of its own. The gradual process of gentrification went into overdrive in the early 1990s. Rents skyrocketed. The town was changing fast.
Maxwell’s held firm, though, hosting the next wave of bands that broke big in the early 1990s. Nirvana played a famous show there in support of 1989 debut album Bleach. The wave that followed included the new era’s most high-profile acts including Soundgarden, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Hole, Mudhoney and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Mounting financial pressures forced Fallon to sell the club in 1995. The new owner installed a microbrewery to serve the area’s increasingly upscale citizenry. It seemed that Maxwell’s—the little Hoboken club that that had ushered college rock through its adolescence and into the intense and turbulent alt-rock ’90s—had concluded its run.
But no, not quite yet. Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley and musician Dave Post, both Hoboken residents, teamed up with Maxwell’s longtime manager to buy the club back in 1998. Renovations followed, and Maxwell’s returned as Hoboken’s premier live music establishment, with its original mission restored.
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“Indie rock” is now the polite term for the bands that Maxwell’s has hosted for the last decade and a half. The venue has earned lasting affection from bands and fans alike, and even the righteous New York establishment across the Hudson has adopted the New Jersey venue as its own. Maxwell’s regularly makes the best-of lists in votes tallied by gatekeepers like The New York Times and the Village Voice. Since 2000, several bands have recorded videos and live albums at the indie-rock mecca.
And the bands that Maxwell’s nurtured in the early days have maintained their loyalty. Yo La Tengo debuted at Maxwell’s in 1984 and has hosted several semi-annual Hanukkah shows at the club since 2001. More recent Garden State success stories such as Titus Andronicus have made evenings at Maxwell’s a regular occasion.
Maxwell’s announced in July 2013 that it was shutting its doors once and for all. A few farewell shows were booked with familiar names including the Feelies, the Bongos, the Individuals, and reunited 1980s college radio darlings Mission of Burma. A giant block party was held in place of a vigil, and the festivities appeared to mark the final chapter of a venerable venue.
But once again, not yet. Only weeks after the party, Maxwell’s re-opened its doors again as a bar and restaurant only. Today, the plan is to keep Maxwell’s open in this modest capacity until a new buyer steps in. And if you happen to pass by the corner of Washington and 11th St. in Hoboken, you still might hear some music spilling out into that intersection. In recent months, the venue has hosted a number of modest events, including a CD release party, a small holiday concert and a Sunday evening hootenanny.
So don’t count Maxwell’s out just yet.