Memories of Maxwell's, Where Nirvana, R.E.M. and Oasis Played Early Shows

The beloved Hoboken, New Jersey music venue closes its doors on July 31.
Phil Marino
The Bongos pose in front of Maxwell's.

In the words of original Maxwell’s owner Steve Fallon, “The legend is bigger than the room.”

On July 31, owner Todd Abramson, citing lack of parking and the changing populace of Hoboken, New Jersey, will close the famed club located at 1039 Washington Street for good. The club will go out the way it came in back in 1978 -- with sets by The Bongos and the band A, which featured Bongos members Richard Barone and Glenn Morrow. Morrow's band, The Individuals, is also scheduled to play. It's the latest -- and the last -- trip down memory lane for the venue, which has been welcoming back acts that had taken its stage over the years. Yo La Tengo, Steve Wynn and The Feelies were among those who returned to pay their respects to the tiny hall that nurtured and sustained the musical culture of the “Hoboken Sound.”

As legend has it: Barone and Morrow approached Fallon and asked if their group A could use the restaurant’s empty back room as a rehearsal space. He immediately saw possibilities with what he described as a blank canvas. “The back room didn't have anything," Barone tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It was this plain, white room. It was just like a store room. It didn't have any advertising like most bars had, and that's part of what made it special. It didn't impose itself on the artist or the audience. It didn't make you be a punk rocker. It didn't make you be anything. It was like whatever you want it to be.”

The Bongos were signed to RCA Records after a show they played at Maxwell’s, and word of the club and a burgeoning scene began to spread. It “started catching fire," Barone recalls. "Like a pop star.”

Barone and The Bongos were perhaps the club's greatest asset at the time. They lived across the street, but played often across the river in Manhattan, where they helped spread the word. "When we talked to other bands, we always said we were The Bongos from Hoboken.”

PHOTOS: A History of Grunge in Pictures 

For five years, the club utilized the band’s PA system for groups coming through -- among them New Order and X. “There were big names fairly early, and a lot of groups coming from England," Barone explains. "I think they figured out that Maxwell’s was a great place to do the first show. It was not 1,000 people, so they could test out the first show together. They didn't feel the pressure of playing a bigger venue the first night. Everybody wanted to play at Maxwell's, suddenly. It just clicked. It was magic.”

How magical? Barone proudly recalls the day R.E.M. graced the stage as the opening band for The Bongos.

“The band stayed at our apartment,” he remembers. “It was the first time they played Maxwell's, and before the show, I washed Michael Stipe's hair. He had leaves in his hair, and I said, 'Dude, I think you should wash your hair -- you have twigs in it! They were great guys.”

In no time, the club developed a reputation as the place to be -- and even Bruce Springsteen got into the act, using the restaurant as a stand-in for a Jersey Shore bar for his “Glory Days” video shoot.

“They wanted to come to Maxwell's because that was a happening bar,” says Barone. “We had gotten so much press, and we were interviewed by everyone so fast. There were two major television specials about the Hoboken pop scene and two documentaries made in the same year.”

Maxwell’s patron and local musician Larry Grogan described the scene as a populist community dedicated to the spirit of rock and roll.

VIDEO: R.E.M. Remembrances: 31 Chart Milestones of Their 31-Year Career 

“Maxwell's in the 80s was marked by a kind of real intimacy that can only happen in a place run, attended by and performed in by people that are on the same wavelength," says Grogan. "During the first wave of 'alternative' music, it was one of the coolest places I ever remember seeing music.”

On July 13, 1989, the club hosted another band on the brink of success: Nirvana. The band played shortly after the release of Bleach, when Chad Channing was still their drummer.

“I think the whole Lower East Side was there for Nirvana,” says Craig Montgomery, a Seattle-based sound man who toured with Nirvana. “They were really loud, so loud there was little chance of hearing the vocals. This would improve a little when the room filled. Asking them to turn down was not popular, so I tried to avoid it.”

Andy Peters (pictured at right), who began attending shows at Maxwell’s as a patron in 1984, was impressed by the “unpretentiousness” of the building, and even more excited that the shows were all-ages affairs. In 1989, he was afforded a dream opportunity to begin mixing sound for his favorite club-and jumped at the chance.

“All of the bands who were on college radio played there, often in tandem with a much larger show at one of the New York City venues [like Irving Plaza or CBGBs]. While I never got to see R.E.M. there, I did see many of their compatriots. I went to Pier Platters, the great record store down at the south end of the city, every day for a couple of weeks, waiting for tickets for Let's Active, the band fronted by R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter. ... The Feelies, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore, the dB's, Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, Wire, Black Flag, Hüsker Dü, Naked Raygun, Big Black, Throwing Muses, the Pixies, the Buzzcocks, Fugazi, Soul Asylum, the Replacements, Mudhoney, Hoodoo Gurus, Redd Kross, fIREHOSE, Luna -- you name the band, they came through Hoboken, set up gear on a tiny stage, walked through the crowd to get to that stage and played.”

And what were these seminal artists playing through? In 1989, Peters described the sound system as “rudimentary,” but was excited to learn. “The mixing console was an EV/TAPCO 12-channel thing with a channel EQ, one auxiliary send for stage monitors, two sends for effects -- which were a Delta Lab Effection II and a Yamaha reverb that generated more hiss than reverb -- and some lousy MXR graphic EQs for the house and the monitors. Amps were underpowered Yamahas. The monitors were the fiberglass Community boxes more commonly used for outside shows. The main PA was (on each side) a big metal horn with a JBL 2445 2" driver (flown from the ceiling), a Perkins bin with a 15" driver flown for mids, and another Perkins bin on the floor as a "subwoofer."

STORY: Pixies Release 'Bagboy,' First New Song in Nine Years

Still, he couldn’t wait to take on the job and the chance to “work with his heroes.” As a bonus, Ira Kaplan from Yo La Tengo trained the Stevens Institute of Technology graduate on the board.

“The experience was overwhelmingly positive,” says Peters, who got to mix several shows with Chris Stamey and Peter Holsapple of the dB's, and all of the bands on Dischord Records, including Jawbox, Shudder To Think, Girls Against Boys and Fugazi. “When Steve Earle was deep into his junkie-biker phase, he played a solo acoustic show with us, and his guitars sounded amazing. His guitar tech said, 'You wanna play it?' and he hands me a basically priceless Gibson Hummingbird, and, of course, right then I completely forgot how to play the instrument,” he laughs.

Peters' stories are impassioned, funny and pull no punches. He recalls how Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell put a hole in Maxwell's just-repaired roof with his microphone stand. One night, the Goo Goo Dolls ran screaming from the room because “high humidity snuffed out the pilot light of the heater that hung from the back of the stage and caused gas to fill the stage area." They never came back. 

There are more laugh-out-loud anecdotes, like the time the Screaming Trees played and bassist Van Conner started gesturing wildly from the stage. As Peters describes it: "I left the booth and worked my way to the stage with a bottle of beer to see what was up. When I got to the stage, I saw that his monitor wedge was on fire! I unplugged the speaker cable going to it, doused it with my beer, looked at Van, and shrugged. He laughed, shrugged and went back to playing.”

VIDEO: The Rolling Stones Bring Out the Hits -- and the Stars -- at Surprise Club Show

Indeed, there were lots of power problems over the years. “The British band Ride brought in a full lighting rig, and I told them that we didn't have enough power to run it,” he said. “Of course they ignored the local crew and did what they wanted, and after I ran down to the basement for the third time during the show to reset the breakers, they finally gave up on the light show.”

The final straw for the power was during a sound-check for Dinosaur Jr., when sounds and levels were set, and then Peters said, "Let's do a song ... Drummer Murph counts off four and on the downbeat, they all hit and BANG. Power goes out," Peters remembers. "I run down to the basement, and not only was the breaker tripped, it was flopping around in the box dead, having finally given up.”

Despite the tribulations, there were also triumphs.

Says Peters proudly: “I mixed possibly the best Alex Chilton show he'd done up to that point. Notoriously grumpy, Chilton was well known for bitching out sound guys from the stage in front of the audience, but the stars must have aligned that night because he was on and everyone knew it, and when he came back for an encore he thanked me from the stage. Two hundred necks got instant whiplash as everyone turned around to look in my direction.”

Peters worked at the venue until 1996, but has one regret: missing a set by Oasis, who played possibly their very first United States show in 1994. “I must have been on tour,” he posits.

Today, Peters lives in Arizona, but still has a connection to Maxwell’s as the sound man for The Feelies. And he recently returned to the club for a glorious stand of shows to say goodbye to the place that changed his life. "I honestly don't know where I'd be had Steve Fallon said 'no' when I asked about doing sound at the club."

It's a refrain no doubt uttered by scores of artists and indie icons -- from R.E.M. to the Replacements, Hüsker Dü to the Minutemen, Nirvana and Mudhoney, Archers of Loaf to Val Emmich. It's a good thing Maxwell's' booker didn't say no.  

Twitter: @MicheleAmabile

Photo of Andy Peters by Jim Testa