Doors opened at 8, but really a few minutes past, the other week in Hoboken, and the audience — mostly young, mostly male — drifted into Maxwell’s discordantly, with the unsure babble of those anticipating a blowout but gearing up for a funeral.
Maxwell’s has been tough to talk about these days, to really talk about, though it’s hard to open any culture section without finding the same perfunctory obituary. This particular evening was night two of Titus Andronicus’s three-show goodbye to the venue, where they’ve closed out more than a few tours and played more than a few of their first shows.
It’s not totally crazy, then, to assume something big was going down, and when I talked with frontman Patrick Stickles the week before the Monday date, he promised, “There ain’t gonna be a minute of that set that isn’t special. The whole thing’s going to be thrilling special insanity.” He refused to elaborate. It was thrilling special insanity.
In retrospect, the most glaring aspect he neglected to mention was how many thrilling special minutes there would be, exactly: Each night’s set nearly stretched to a staggering three hours, not counting special guests. Monday, it was Screaming Females, meaning a double bill of Jersey punk royalty ringing out their alma mater.
During that interview, Stickles also told me that it didn’t matter that Maxwell’s was in New Jersey, that it might as well have been in New York, thanks to the city dwellers who flood its shows and the narrow river just keeping it from melting into a sleepless city and especially the PATH trains which do their best to make up the difference. But to some extent he knew that that wasn’t totally true, on more than just a geographic level: Otherwise, Titus Andronicus wouldn’t have closed their last night with “Glory Days.”
. . .
Tonight, Maxwell’s will close for good, celebrating the end of their run with a block party, and, of course, music (though no specific artists have been announced). The club’s appeal to New Jersey audiences is twofold: (1) the sheer number of iconic New Jersey bands — the Feelies, Yo La Tengo, the Bongos and so on, ad nauseum — which have been seeded there, but (2) its accessibility. As much history and nostalgia as it’s built up, Maxwell’s isn’t just for old timers; in contrast, it’s stayed so energetic because of the youthful audience its all-ages status pulls in, a medley of suburban kids looking for somewhere to fit in.
“To have Maxwell’s so close to home, in our state, it was easy for us to get to, it was comfortable, it wasn’t huge, it wasn’t intimidating or scary,” erstwhile Screaming Female Marissa Paternoster said. “‘Cause otherwise we would have gone to New York, and that was a little bit of a project when we were younger, and kind of overwhelming.”
Maxwell’s bridged the gaps which may have otherwise formed a disjointed experience, smoothing the path for a number of musicians. For Stickles, it was the combination of a professional concert and intimate venue he didn’t otherwise know was possible; for Paternoster, it was the comfort and ease of being local. And as many huge acts as agent Todd Abramson booked, fledgling Jersey bands still got a chance on his tiny stage. It became a benchmark, a means of testing the water, before trying to break into the more hard-boiled New York crowd, but also a dream.
“I picked up an instrument because I wanted to play at Maxwell’s,” says Tris McCall, the New Jersey Star Ledger music critic and musician in his own right. “That was your goal, you wanted to play at Maxwell’s. And without Maxwell’s, I don’t know what the goal becomes. I guess the goal becomes something on the other side of the river, just by necessity. The goal’s gonna end up in Bushwick just because we don’t have it here anymore.”
Abramson has made it clear the issue isn’t monetary, but a wrong place, wrong time sort of deal. Hoboken has changed. “You wanna be the town with Cake Boss or you wanna be the town with Maxwell’s?” says McCall. “Ultimately the town made the decision that Cake Boss outweighed Maxwell’s.”
In essence, Hobokenites are no longer the type who will come down to a small bar on Washington to see local acts, or even generally care about the larger ones: Jabs at the unappreciative frat-bro population of the town rain heavily from critics.
Onstage, Stickles wove a detailed and painful vision of a replacement sports bar; privately, he fumed at the eroded taste of the general public. “There’s no demand anymore for the most cutting-edge alternative music. People only wanna hear, I dunno, I don’t even know what they wanna hear,” he spat acidly. “The only thing they’re interested in is finding an alternative to is thinking.”
But as easy as it is to bemoan the dearth of neighborhood stalwarts, to do so ignores the audience which does consistently return. Safe to say suburban teens will never be able to stem the pain of existence’s banality without an alternative scene to turn to. The immediate locals may be gone, but the regional demand for Maxwell’s is as high as ever.
Popular legend has it that most of the venue’s traffic is NYC hipsters, overflowing from the PATH, with a sprinkling of aggressive Garden State drivers with nowhere to park. Standing in a crowd, it’s impossible to sniff out a New Yorker versus a New Jerseyian, and gauge the accuracy of such estimations. But a possible hint at the balance came during Titus’s Tuesday rendition of “A More Perfect Union,” right after a verse which scraped along a small gully of near-silence (“’cause if I come in on a donkey, let me go out on a gurney”); suddenly, the sentiment was finished with an inaudible, collective roar felt in the floorboards: “I want to realize too late I never should have left New Jersey.” You could only hear it if you already knew the line.
. . .
It’s easy to sense the fatigue radiating off Paternoster and Stickles, two of the artists who’ve been elected captains of the New Jersey music contingent through no fault of their own besides being relatively young and successful: Constant interviews about the venue have beaten a horse they never wanted to see die, when all they really have to say is that it’s sad.
Nevertheless, newspapers come to them, blogs, alternative weeklies, asking about the venue, their memories, the future, all stabbing at the source of the grief without ever quite hitting their target. The significance of Maxwell’s closing is not within Maxwell’s itself, strange as it may be to say.
Nostalgia is flimsy, insubstantial thing by definition, so much so it can’t even be called an emotion so much as a mood. Good memories alone aren’t enough to generate the response Maxwell’s been getting, as much praise as it deserves: what could be a fond farewell instead smacks of bitterness. Maxwell’s isn’t being mourned just because of its nostalgic largesse. It’s being mourned because it’s of a dying breed.
Especially lately, the New Jersey arts scene has been, if you’ll excuse the language, taking a ride through the shitter. It’s not just Maxwell’s. The Fast Lane — the Asbury Park club responsible for Springsteen and Bon Jovi’s earliest performances (including their first together) — was demolished in early July to expand a bowling alley. In June, LiveNation quietly took over the booking of Montclair’s Wellmont Theater from the Bowery Presents group.
Across the state, the handful of local outlets that exist for alternative arts and culture are shuttering. Paternoster, who still resides in-state, feels it keenly. “It would be awesome if there were all-ages spaces scattered all around our state, the most densely populated state in the country that probably has thousands of people who are interested in going to see live music, but they can’t because there’s nowhere to go.”
By most counts, it’s not possible to open a Maxwell’s in New Jersey these days anyway, suffocated by the tight ordinances and laws which regulate the communities.
“Cities are small, and there’s always a policeman looking over your shoulder; we’ve been dealing with this for a long time. Anything you try to start here, there’s hoops you gotta jump through,” says McCall. “In Bushwick … no one’s really there to look over their shoulder, you can have a party in an abandoned warehouse where you can make a big racket and no one’s going to mind. Whereas in New Jersey in a lot of the towns in Hudson County, there’s not a lot of towns where you can do that. People’ll call the cops on you, that’s the problem.”
It’s no secret that the traditional migratory pattern of a successful New Jersey band is from whatever New Jersey suburb they started in to Brooklyn; Stickles happily labels his band a member of the “Williamsburg industrial scene.”
New York is more glamorous. Just look at the festivals: the sleek headliners of Governor’s Ball versus Warped Tour’s pop-punk. Will Rigby of the dB’s called Maxwell’s “working class” in New York Magazine’s oral history, echoing McCall’s estimation that the whole state’s music scene is more blue collar than New York’s.
That’s not to say there’s necessarily a classist resentment, or rivalry; on the contrary, New York’s monopoly on cultural centers forces an endearment from Tristate subscribers.
“New York is my city,” Paternoster said. “I mean, it’s the closest major metropolitan area to where I live, there’s no city that even comes close to the size of New York in New Jersey or has the artistic cultural history that New York has. And that’s sad: I wish there a destination city in New Jersey. I wish Jersey City, or even like Elizabeth — Elizabeth’s a huge city — I wish those places could have art spaces, I wish that there were artists living there, people making stuff, being creative, but it’s just not the case because our state lives in the shadow of quote-unquote the greatest city in the world.”
And she concedes she might be being a little harsh, a conciliatory token to her home, where yes, there are little cafes and small museums dotting the landscape, but they lack what Maxwell’s did best: accessibility.
“There are still a lot of lovely places to go in New Jersey if you wanna got see art or music, but it’s not really for the kids. It’s not for the people who are just starting to find their way as artists. People who have just begun painting and want to show their work, people who have just begun playing in their rock ‘n roll band and they wanna play for people, it’s so difficult for them to access those places.”
. . .
Is this issue unique to New Jersey? Hardly; it’s endemic. The story of local music is the story of local business: it requires a weighing of values, a collective judgment of what to support. Cake Boss, or Maxwell’s? Mom and pop, or Papa John’s? Suburbs all over the country suffer from a similar bland failing to protect what makes them unique.
Remember the Bronze from Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where everyone hung out and a different cool band was playing every night? Yeah, that always struck me as one of the most unrealistic parts of that show. If Sunnydale, population 38,500 and literally situated at the mouth of hell, can have a lively coffeehouse scene, what the hell is wrong with my town?
“Why won’t cities facilitate creating space for musicians and artists and writers and activists to convene and make stuff happen?” Paternoster asks. “Like, what damage is that going to do your community, it’s going to make it better. But they don’t want that, they want Starbucks, they want Target, they want Walmart, they want bullshit. They want money.”
One of the greatest challenges an unassuming bar like Maxwell’s can mount to a flashier counterpart is personality. Idiosyncrasy breeds character; character becomes a character; local flavor grows into family. But when that character exits left, so do the people who consider it family.
Yo La Tengo has perhaps the strongest bond with the club, and in the aforementioned New York Mag piece, founding member Ira Kaplan recalls moving to Hoboken with wife and drummer Georgia Hubley “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.” Later in the history, he fills in the dangling question: When Maxwell’s is gone, is there any draw?
“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.”
Maxwell’s defined Hoboken for a few decades, as much as Hoboken defined it: People knew Hoboken for Maxwell’s, and Maxwell’s grew in flux with the artistic community there (and vice versa). Now it’s tapered off, so too has the club.
The issue isn’t that the club’s time has passed; it’s that it hasn’t. It’s nauseatingly cheesy to say that on that Monday, Maxwell’s was full of young Patrick Stickles, young Marissa Paternosters, young Tris McCalls — but cheese aside, it’s probably true. Some of them might make it, but they’ll have to finish growing up in some other club.
. . .
Another song, another false ending to a dream show, long after the words “last song” had been spoken (for the first and second and maybe third, but who’s counting, time): this one, “No Future Pt. III: Escape From No Future.” Before that there was “Fear & Loathing In Mahwah, NJ,” and a spate of newer songs winding up into a cover of “My Best Friend’s Girl,” and afterward there’d be “The Battle Of Hampton Roads,” but in that moment the song was “No Future, Pt. III.”
And there was the club, filled to max capacity, 200 sweaty, battered people chanting, “You’ll always be a loser, you’ll always be a loser …” which snaps back to a different coast, but a similar scene. Sub Pop claimed the loser label as its own; 25 years down the road, they’re still thriving, suggesting that not all is lost.
There will always be losers — i.e., people who crave alternative culture — and there will always be something to fill that need, on Washington Street in Hoboken or elsewhere. Whether there will be enough of that something is a different question, but Stickles prefers not to weep. There’s not no future.
“A new venue as legendary as Maxwell’s probably opened last night a block from your house, you know?” he said. “So how are you going to cry that there’s no such thing as Maxwell’s anymore when there’s new history being written right under your nose every day? Why cry for stuff that’s never going to come back when that’s the attention you could be using to enjoy stuff that is happening now?”
The New Jersey Star Ledger made a documentary about the end of Maxwell’s. You can watch it below.