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So it came to pass that Maxwell’s in Hoboken closed on July 31st. This was difficult for me to digest, even after ample time had gone by since it was officially announced. For more than three decades, Maxwell’s had been part of my life – it had been my musical second home (it opened as a music venue in 1978). A lot of emotions and memories had churned inside me since the announcement; certainly being able to share it, along with so many incredible and wonderful people through the Maxwell’s page on Facebook had been therapeutic, to say the least.
I’m not sure I can articulate all I’ve felt when I think about it, but I’ll try, even though it will probably come out in fragments.
Going back to the beginning – music aside – Maxwell’s was a haven. My girlfriend and I would drive up on random weeknights (parking seemed easier then) just to have dinner, hang out and unwind. On a spur-of-the-moment Saturday in the summer of ’86, we decided to see The Fleshtones. While at the gig, I physically bumped into an old drummer friend who had told me he’d just left his band – I asked him if he wanted to join the then-forming Punch Line, which he agreed to instantly. Another major piece of musical history for me. The countless number of bands I saw over the years: The Bongos, R.E.M., The dB’s, Tiny Lights, The Posies – the list goes on. One of the best musical recollections I have is Lloyd Cole’s 4-week acoustic “residency” in late 1993, during one of the most bitter, cold winters I can remember. That first show was just the few of us that went together and a handful of others. Lloyd played his heart out; the most memorable moment was him introducing “a song that I wrote this afternoon and played for my son. As if he could give a shit.” It was his later-to-be-released masterpiece, “Like Lovers Do”. The intimacy of the room made it all the more special. Years ago, you could have Sunday brunch; I took my then-15 year old cousin, Michelle, just so she could have her first taste of Maxwell’s.
And that’s the recurring word for Maxwell’s: special. In many, many ways, Maxwell’s was our equivalent to the Marquee Club in London, during the ‘60’s. We saw bands that were ours (so to speak) that later became bands for the ages, although I’m sure most people would agree that all the bands were for all time. Of course, there was that period in the mid-‘90’s when I didn’t go – the post-Steve Fallon era; when Maxwell’s became a microbrewery and a forgotten commodity by me. But I made my return in the late ‘90’s on a whim one Thursday night with my wife, just for an evening out and a good dinner. When The Punch Line reformed in 2004, our first meeting together again was at Maxwell’s. And it became our central point – to have dinner, drinks, talk, conduct band business, laugh. The only thing we never did (in either incarnation) was play at Maxwell’s – we never were (or I wasn’t) able to say that we’d played the same stage as The Bongos, R.E.M., The dB’s, etc. But that was fine – that dream would remain pure since Maxwell’s would always be there… But we were there, no matter what. Seeing The Undertones in April ’05 and talking to Damian O’Neill (one of my heroes) before the show. I took a friend of mine as his farewell to the United States to Maxwell’s. I met someone and began dating her at Maxwell’s. I also fell in love with someone at Maxwell’s. We should have been watching the show, but instead, couldn’t keep our eyes off one another – smiling and being in the moment. That night at Maxwell’s brought me as close to Heaven on Earth as I could possibly get. Until later… Nonetheless, every word; every memory – every thought I have of Maxwell’s is one of joy – happiness – and it’s somewhat difficult to hold back tears.
When word officially came at the beginning of June that the club was to close its doors on July 31st, after the initial shock and cries of “noooooooooo!” resonated, the testimonials, remembrances and loving epitaphs came pouring in from all sides – this was a story like no other I could think of. Not even CBGB’s.
One of my friends, Pete Johnson, Weehauken resident and guitarist with numerous bands, including Shyneboxx, The Orchids and The Outcrowd remembers: “I went to Maxwell’s the first time for the record release nights for The Feelies Only Life record. If I remember correctly, it was either 1987 or ‘88. The Feelies played Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the record release on that Tuesday. I went Thursday and Friday. The shows were great, they did some unbelievable covers. I got to wait in the bathroom line with Clem Burke. By Saturday, I was looking for a Hoboken apartment. By the following year, my band was playing Maxwell’s. I even wrote a concept record about playing at Maxwell’s (and clubs like it). I debuted it there, with Dennis Diken (of The Smithereens) on drums and guest appearances by Andy Shernoff of The Dictators and Steve Wynn of The Dream Syndicate.”
Indeed. And well said, Pete. A perfect summary. For me, it’s another chapter in the book of my life that now closes. Just as R.E.M. called it a day in 2011 and just as I will leave Staten Island in October for the last time. Life rolls on; things change, people adapt, grow and move in a different direction. Nothing lasts forever. Sometimes sad, but true. And I (or we) never played Maxwell’s. Now it was never going to happen. I didn’t feel jealousy – maybe some regret that we didn’t try hard enough to get a gig there, but okay. It seemed a shame that I wouldn’t know what it was like to be on that stage, even though I’d visualized it many times.
In any case, July 31st arrived with much anticipation and some dread; the knowledge that I would make that last walk to the PATH for that final ride into Hoboken and my last trek up Washington Street. But there would be an unexpected twist to my story…
The festivities began with a block party on 11th Street, next to Maxwell’s. The media outlets were there in full force; several d.j.’s spun vinyl and it was an exciting, electric atmosphere, considering the occasion. I found many of my friends there; all shared the hugs and tears. As one of the incredible people I spoke with said, “Maxwell’s has been our place. And now…”, as he choked back emotion. Agreed. It was a very family-like vibe at the block party – we were all of one mind and feeling. I kept moving in and out of the club; it was tight and packed everywhere. The emotions and anticipation kept building and building. And then it was showtime.
Delicate Steve was the act for the first set, beginning at 7. There would be three shows – all separate; crowds from one show would be ushered out at the end of the set and the next crowd would be brought in. Tickets were, obviously, unavailable. I didn’t have a ticket for Delicate Steve or for The Individuals, who would be on at 8. In fact, I didn’t have a ticket at all. To attempt to get one would have been futile, to put it mildly. But… through the kindness and generosity of Frank Giannini, the drummer of The Bongos and a dear friend, I was guest listed for the final set. That final show would be The Bongos and “a”; if you don’t know who “a” are, it’s Glenn Morrow, who later started The Individuals, Rage To Live and became owner of Bar None Records, on guitar and vocals; Richard Barone, Frank Giannini and Rob Norris who, of course, are The Bongos (along with the wonderful James Mastro). “a” was the first band to ever play at Maxwell’s and, fittingly, should be the last.
While I waited, I talked to many friends and musicians who I hadn’t seen in a while. One of the happiest moments was seeing Nick Celeste, the incredible guitarist and singer. A hug, a conversation and some laughs seemed to sum up the mood. He told me he would be joining The Bongos on stage during the show – I smiled; hearing that made me very happy…
The Bongos and “a” sets would be at 9 p.m. As the crowd for The Individuals filed out, I made my way to the front. “a” came on to cheers from the already-emotional crowd; Glenn Morrow put it, “It’s 1978 and we live next door…” “a” was terrific and not what I would have expected. It was very “new wave” (please forgive the use of that term, but I am thinking in context of when the songs were written and “a” existed) – taut, herky-jerky with clever chord changes, not-standard time signatures and subject matter that would be fitting of a young person in ’78. Songs about being unemployed, the Maxwell House coffee factory, “hot” girls and Hoboken – it was very of its time and I loved it. The highlight speaks for itself: “Death Of A Surf Guitarist” – “a rock opera in three movements…”
When The Bongos came out, so did the tidal wave of emotions, as Richard Barone introduced themselves in that familiar way: “Hi, we’re The Bongos from Hoboken, New Jersey”. An eruption of cheers as the band went into “In The Congo”. The highlights of the main set were plenty: for “Glow In The Dark”, the first single the band released in 1980, they were joined by Dennis Kelley, who played on the original track. Nick Celeste (who has been part of Richard Barone’s Cool Blue Halo project) came on stage to join in for a beautiful, delicate version of “Sweet Blue Cage”. Richard announced “My Wildest Dreams”, which came from the unreleased Phantom Train album – the song would, ironically, be released the next day, followed by the album itself in October. This brought another round of cheers; the band delivered both the new song and another album track, “Roman Circus”. The main set ended; the first encore came with several Bongos classics and concluded with an out-of-sight, explosive “Sunshine Superman”. Summary: I’ve seen The Bongos numerous times over these last 30-plus years and frankly, this may have been the most powerful that I’d ever seen or heard them. This night, they took it to a whole different stratosphere.
There were also two highly poignant moments, which cannot be understated: as Richard Barone spoke about what Maxwell’s meant to him, the band and everyone, the emotional level rose to a greater height. You could see several people with tears streaming. And when James Mastro talked about Faye Hunter’s recent passing; saying how she was loved and missed – I lost it completely.
It was time for guests: first up, Glenn Mercer from The Feelies and Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo for The Velvet Underground’s “Rock And Roll”. Next, Maxwell’s original owner Steve Fallon and current owner Todd Abramson were next brought to the stage for not only the well-earned, well-deserved ovations/applause/thanks, but to join in on “Kicks”.
And then came the final song of the night – the last song to ever be played at Maxwell’s was (fittingly) a Big Star song – “Thank You, Friends”. It couldn’t be any other. And for this ultimate farewell, the last people to be on that sacred stage would be the four members of The Bongos, Todd Abramson, Glenn Mercer, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo, Nick Celeste, once again, and… yours truly. Rob Ross, ex-guitarist/singer of The Punch Line.
Frank had texted me in the morning that the band were planning on covering “Thank You, Friends” as the last song, people would be asked to come up on stage and that I join them. So I knew. But I hadn’t said anything to anyone, because until it becomes reality, you just don’t think it’s possible.
As those closing notes faded, there was nothing more than deafening applause ringing in my ears and blurred vision as my eyes filled with tears while I tried to look out at the audience from the stage. A tearful hug from Richard and Frank as we all left the stage together; for me, a night I will never forget; not for the rest of my life. Not in my wildest dreams. It happened. I was on stage at Maxwell’s. With The Bongos. Singing along on a Big Star song. For the very last time anyone would play at Maxwell’s. That’s history. That’s special. Nothing will change that nor take it away. That was the dream. Come true. And it happened. To me.
I called a car to pick me up; there was no way I could make it home by public transportation without inevitably staying up all night. While waiting, someone came up to me and asked, “Excuse me – you were on stage for the finale, weren’t you?” I replied “yes?” and he said, “I need your name; I’m with the New York Times.” So I told him – he asked if I was in a band and I said “ex-singer and guitarist with The Punch Line” and a surge of nostalgic pride coursed through me. As I rode through Hoboken, for what may be the last time, tears kept coming. They were simply tears of happiness, some sadness and disbelief at what I had just been part of. Every emotion that I’d kept to myself came out. 31 years for me came to an end in a way I could not have believed.
So, to Steve Fallon and Todd Abramson, thank you for these many, many years. You are both incredible people and I am forever grateful for the lifetime of memories. To the wonderful folks I met and had a chance to share Maxwell’s stories with, thank you. To my dear, close friends who were at the show, I’m glad we were there for this together. To Alirio Guerrero and Nick Celeste – much, much love. To The Bongos – Richard Barone, Frank Giannini, Rob Norris and James Mastro – thank you for the music, the shows, the influence and inspiration – for all you’ve given me. Thank you for the gift – I love you guys; I really do. But I think you knew that anyway.
July 31st, I intended to be at that last night. Was it a wake? Was it a celebration? Probably a bit of both. And that final, tearful memory will still be a happy one. At our place.
(taken August 31st, 2012 before The dB’s show)
Closing night photos by Rob Ross
Photo of finale courtesy of Rob Norris
2012 photo by Liz Ross