Remembering Maxwell’s: Ted Leo, Screaming Females and the Feelies Eulogize Legendary Hoboken Rock Club
For New York City rock fans, the already-short list of reasons to visit New Jersey is about to get a little shorter.
No, Bruce Springsteen hasn’t put a moratorium on Meadowlands gigs, but for those who’d rather experience live music in small, dark, intimate rooms than in giant soulless concrete bowls, the news is far more tragic. At the end of the month, the beloved Hoboken rock club Maxwell’s will cease to exist, as co-owner Todd Abramson announced last month he and his partners won’t seek to renew the lease.
Opened in August 1978, Maxwell’s is routinely — and rightfully — mentioned alongside CBGBs and Max’s Kansas City, and like those exalted Manhattan nightspots, the tiny bar and restaurant on the corner of Washington and 11th has played host to countless legendary artists, among them the Buzzcocks, Sonic Youth, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Wire, R.E.M., Husker Du, the Replacements, Nirvana and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Since 2001, Yo La Tengo have staged their annual Hanukkah shows there, and when the Boss needed blue-collar-looking bars for his 1985 ‘Glory Days’ video, he tapped Maxwell’s as one of two locales, becoming a footnote in the club’s storied history.
Indeed, just about every important rock band since the dawn of punk has parked its van in front of Maxwell’s, and while the list of alum is lousy with national acts, the club has always been particularly welcoming of homegrown talent.
Among the earliest to perform there were local post-punk icons the Feelies, and as singer and guitarist Glenn Mercer tells Diffuser.fm, he knows the place like the back of his hand — literally, if we’re talking about the one he wears his wedding ring on.
“My most memorable moment at Maxwell’s was meeting my wife there, and a few years after that, having our wedding reception there,” Mercer tells Diffuser.fm, chatting by phone days after the Feelies bid the joint adieu with a run of three Fourth of July shows.
The Feelies are among the many Maxwell’s mainstays headed to Hoboken for farewell shows this month, and on July 21, Garden State punk troubadour Ted Leo drops in for what figures to be his final set.
Leo first took the Maxwell’s stage in the early ’90s, when he was fronting the mod-punk group Chisel, and he’s been going there even longer. Ask him to name his fondest Maxwell’s memory, and he’ll tell you all about the life-altering Fugazi show he caught back in ’88. A photo of the gig is featured on the cover of the D.C. group’s debut EP, but the picture burned into Leo’s brain may be even more vivid.
“That was an incredible experience,” Leo tells Diffuser.fm. “Their shows were so confrontational back then. The music was also like nothing most hardcore kids had ever heard. It was everything one got into punk rock for.”
Leo says part of what’s made Maxwell’s special is the top-notch sound, though he admits it wasn’t quite up to snuff one night in 1990, when he did something he’d never done before and hasn’t done since.
“I saw the Smashing Pumpkins there, and I left,” Leo says. “It was just too loud. It was stupidly loud.”
Speaking of loud, New Brunswick noise-pop trio Screaming Females play a matinee at Maxwell’s the day of Leo’s goodbye gig, and while singer and guitarist Marissa Paternoster was just a baby when Leo was raging along with Ian MacKaye and shielding his ears from Billy Corgan’s deafening riffs, she’s seen her share of unforgettable shows there.
“Brian Jonestown Massacre at Maxwell’s was pretty intense,” she tells Diffuser.fm. “It was right after [the 2004 documentary] ‘DIG!’ came out, and most of the audience was there to antagonize [BJM mastermind] Anton [Newcombe]. He kept getting off the stage to get drinks, yell at people and meander around the floor aimlessly. We left early, but I heard that the club had to cut the sound because they wouldn’t stop playing.”
More recently, Paternoster caught L.A. punk heroes X at Maxwell’s and “cried like a baby.”
“Aside from it’s great reputation and history, the staff is great, the sound is great, the club is nice, the food is good,” Paternoster says. “What’s not to like? It is a splendid little establishment, and I’m going to be really sad to see it go.”
Leo agrees, though he still remembers the mid-’90s period in which new owners temporarily put the kibosh on rock shows and tried to transform the place into a brewpub, and he says he’s glad to see the Maxwell’s go out with its reputation intact.
“I’d hate to see the name Maxwell’s associated with something less than what we’ve come to know it as,” Leo says.
Discussing his decision to close the club, Abramson has said that hassles related to Hoboken’s gentrification have gotten out of hand, and that it’s simply the right time to close up shop. It’s a phenomenon Leo has witnessed firsthand, and he says Hoboken is experiencing many of the same issues that have long plagued its hipper neighbor across the Hudson.
“If you haven’t already given up the ghost on Hoboken as a place that can support something cool like Maxwell’s, this unfortunately does seem like the death knell and another harbinger of the ever-changing nature of urban environments in the area,” Leo says.
“You look at the Bowery or the Lower East Side as recent as 15 years ago, and it’s a completely different place today than it was back then,” Leo adds, referring to the neighborhood that was once home to CBGBs. “People sometimes paint the Hudson River as some ocean that divides New Jersey from New York, but the same things are happening all over. It’s happening in Brooklyn, and it’s happening in Hoboken.”
Mercer also sees Maxwell’s closure as indicative of larger societal changes, and like Leo, he’d rather the club end on a high note than turn into a parody of itself. That said, he’ll miss the place he met his missus.
“I thought I’d come to terms with it, and then I started to read some of the blog posts people were writing about it, and I got pretty emotional about it,” Mercer says. “A few weeks had gone by prior [the Feelies' Fourth of July] shows, and I felt OK about it again, and then playing brought back a lot of memories and emotions.”
“When you consider the big picture of the music business in general, independence is really not rewarded in any way,” he adds. “The music stores — the mom-and-pop shops — are gone. It’s not surprising the clubs are disappearing as well.”
“It had a good run,” he says. “That’s for sure.”