James Mastro, guitarist for the rock band the Bongos, had just graduated from high school when he heard about a corner bar in Hoboken that was luring musicians to the square-mile New Jersey city west of the Hudson River.
Mastro came to Hoboken in the early 1980s and joined the Bongos, the group that evolved from ‘a,’ the first band to play at Maxwell’s. He even lived above the venue at 11th and Washington Street for two years when he first moved there from northwest New Jersey.
“It was definitely kind of what drew me to the town,” Mastro, 53, said in an interview from The Guitar Bar, a Hoboken music-repair shop he owns. “In a weird way, it was easier to tell my parents I was moving to Hoboken than to New York.”
After 35 years of hosting bands in its 200-capacity back room, Maxwell’s, an icon of the New York-area music scene, closes its doors tomorrow. As Hoboken evolved from a working-class neighborhood to a haven for musicians to a home for bar-hopping Wall Street professionals, club co-owner Todd Abramson said the new residents weren’t as interested in seeing concerts at Maxwell’s.
Hoboken’s parking regulations geared toward residents, a hassle for customers as well as band members, also played a part in the decision to close, Abramson said. And after more and more clubs opened to serve the city’s growing 20-something crowd, the bar scene came to resemble spring break in Florida, and “that’s a turnoff for some people,” he said.
“I just felt long-term that this business was getting more and more difficult to operate in Hoboken,” Abramson said.
The club goes the way of other venerable New York City-area rock venues that have closed, including CBGB, the Mudd Club and Max’s Kansas City. CBGB, which beckoned generations of punks on the Bowery with its graffiti-covered white awning, is now a John Varvatos clothing store.
Maxwell’s opened in 1978 in a former shot-and-beer joint that catered to workers in the nearby Maxwell House coffee factory. Over the years, it hosted bands such as R.E.M., Nirvana, the Replacements and New Jersey natives the Feelies. Parts of Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” music video were filmed there in 1985. In the 1990s, Maxwell’s was named the “Best Club in New York -- Even Though It’s in New Jersey” by the New Yorker magazine.
“It was just a great little club,” Mastro said. “If you saw someone walking around town in a leather jacket, you knew you’d see them later in Maxwell’s because there weren’t too many people dressing like that around here.”
Yo La Tengo, an independent rock band formed in Hoboken, became known for staging Hanukkah shows there annually for nine years. Ira Kaplan, singer and founding member of the band, said the club was known as a place where performers were treated well and music came first.
“Maxwell’s was less about trying to make a scene, and it was just a place to hear great music,” said Kaplan, 56. “It had the feeling of being more of an adjunct to our basements.”
At Maxwell’s, there was no backstage, and musicians had to wade through the crowd to get on stage. Band members would mill about with fans and eat at tables in the restaurant before and after their shows. Abramson said he always tried to take good care of the musicians, including giving them free meals.
“There’s definitely a sense of loss,” Kaplan said, “and New Jersey is going to miss it.”
Tim Gehan, 50, said he saw more than 500 shows at Maxwell’s, including about 70 Yo La Tengo gigs. The first artists he saw there were country rockers Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in September 1990, the same month he moved to Hoboken.
“I remember that show like it was yesterday,” he said.
It was a weeknight and it was pouring rain, and there were fewer than 50 people at the show, Gehan said. Half of them were soaking wet, including the artists, he said.
“After about three songs, one of them said, ‘If you guys would be more comfortable sitting on the floor, go ahead and do it.’ And everybody sat down on the floor,” Gehan said. “It was just two guys and a guitar. I was just like, ‘I love this place.’”
Maxwell’s final concert will be an afternoon block party for the community as well as indoor performances. The show will feature the Bongos, the Individuals and ‘a,’ according to Mastro.
There are still opportunities to see live music in Hoboken, the birthplace of Frank Sinatra. Local bars, such as Pilsener Haus, feature regular performances by local bands. The city hosts an outdoor concert series in the summer and last week, Hoboken’s waterfront was a stop on Bob Dylan’s “Americanarama” tour, which also featured Wilco and My Morning Jacket.
The city, portrayed as a blue-collar shipping port in the Oscar-winning 1954 film “On the Waterfront” starring Marlon Brando, saw its maritime industry crumble in the 1970s as companies moved to bigger ports with deeper waters.
In recent years, builders have converted warehouses into luxury condominiums. At Toll Brothers Inc. (TOL)’s 1100 Maxwell Place development near the club, a 210-unit building under construction with a 2014 completion date is already 40 percent sold. A two-bedroom condo ranges from the high $800,000s to more than $1.3 million.
The city is not the same as it was in the 1980s, said Abramson, the Maxwell’s co-owner and a veteran music booking agent. He said he will continue booking shows at Brooklyn’s Bell House and is considering opening a new club in Jersey City, Hoboken’s neighbor, which has a growing music scene.
People who live nearby Maxwell’s these days “are not necessarily people who want to spend the night at a rock club,” Yo La Tengo’s Kaplan said. “They’re as likely to be dismayed that there’s a rock-and-roll club on their corner.”
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