When Maxwell’s, the legendary Hoboken rock club and restaurant, closes its doors for good at the end of July, it will be largely remembered for the legendary artists who graced its stage. Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Bruce Springsteen, and many lesser-known musicians with cult followings.
To the club’s fans, it was about more than the big acts.
“I saw Glenn Tillbrook [of the Brit-pop band Squeeze] play an acoustic set once, and in the middle of the show, he led the entire audience outside onto Washington Street, walked down to the Elks Club, played a song on the steps, and went around the entire block and then right back into the club,” said Tim Ghegan, who says he has been to around 1,000 shows at Maxwell’s and who moved to Hoboken in 1990. (A photo of the Tillbrook journey made the cover of the following weekend’s Hoboken Reporter.)
Jack Silbert of Hoboken recalled that in 2001, hometown indie heroes Yo La Tengo took the stage at their New Year’s Eve show to the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” dressed as gorillas. The group was also known for traditionally booking the club for the eight nights of Hanukkah (Ghegan has been to 60 of those 72 nights).
And rock critic Dawn Eden remembered moments even earlier in the club’s 35-year history, such as when she interviewed crooner Jonathan Richman there.
“Maxwell’s is where I went to see They Might Be Giants with my mom in early 1985, before they were on MTV,” she said. “They were using posters with lyrics so the crowd could sing along.”
“Some people are saying, ‘Oh, well, they didn’t change with the times.’ ” – Todd Abramson
That’s what Todd Abramson, one of the club’s co-owners and its longtime booker, said in an interview of Thursday. He said the city is no longer welcoming to visitors, and not enough of today’s residents are interested in what Maxwell’s has to offer.
“When deciding what to do with Maxwell’s, or any business, you can’t just look at the present and the past; you have to look at the future,” said Abramson. “Adding everything up, the feeling amongst us was Hoboken simply wasn’t conducive to the nature of our business anymore.”
Abramson spoke first about parking. Maxwell’s is located on busy Washington Street, on the corner of 11th, two blocks from the waterfront. Like many parts of Hoboken, parking is not easy there on a weekend night. The city offers several public garages downtown that are well used by visitors. The privately run uptown Park on Park garage was recently demolished to make way for residential development.
Abramson said that the city’s longstanding parking difficulties had become too wearisome to deal with, and that the city’s reputation for confusing street signage hinders visitation.
“If you notice, the spaces where you’re allowed to park for four hours, [the signs] don’t say ‘Four Hour Parking’ in big letters, then in small letters ‘Unless You Have a Permit.’ It says ‘Permit Parking Only’ and then in small letters it lets people know that you can park [for four hours],” he said.
He acknowledged that the signs are nothing new, but said he felt the city wasn’t doing enough to make improvements. (See related story on cover about Hoboken’s new parking director.)
“Those signs were not put in by this administration, but that doesn’t mean you can’t correct a mistake,” he said.
Abramson said that he had voiced his concerns with administration officials for years, and “the meetings seemed to go okay, but nothing ever got done.”
Mayor Dawn Zimmer said last week that she was sorry to see Maxwell’s go, and that she had worked hard to convince Abramson and his partners to reconsider. Abramson said that when the city caught wind of the rumors that Maxwell’s would close, the city offered the club a shuttle bus from a downtown parking lot and a loading zone outside for bands to move their gear more easily.
Still, he said, a culturally-shifting populace had become as much as a hindrance as parking.
Higher rent, more TVs
Hoboken was always a grittier alternative to New York City, said Abramson – friendly to blue collar families and starving artists alike. But the transformation from the old Hoboken into an expensive haven full of young commuters has made it hard for Maxwell’s to sustain both its bank accounts and its relevance in the nightlife scene.
Maxwell’s has always been family-friendly, he said, but the huge increase of young families in Hoboken has put a cramp on business.
“On a Friday night at 7 p.m. we might have a fairly full restaurant with a lot of families, but at one in the morning, there’s nobody there because the type of local people who would be hanging out drinking late night aren’t around anymore so much, at least for our type of bar,” he said.
But many of Hoboken’s bars are booming, especially those downtown which sport multiple televisions and play chart-topping pop hits.
“And a lot of them do very well, so that’s obviously what people want, and if that’s what people want, they should offer it to them,” said Abramson. “It’s just not conducive to my type of business.”
He did say he thought that some downtown bars had given Hoboken’s nightlife “a bad reputation.”
“If I want to continue what I’m doing, I need to find a spot where there are more people interested in what I want to do,” he said.
Abramson noted that many longtime customers had moved to Jersey City, but denied rumors that Maxwell’s would make a move there. He was quoted in The Daily News that he might open an establishment there, but said it would be a disservice to the Maxwell’s memory to use the name again.
When the club closes, he said, it’s closed for good.
Into the sunset
Abramson’s favorite show in the club’s 35-year run hasn’t even happened yet. On July 7, Maxwell’s will welcome the Flamin’ Groovies, a 1960s surf and garage rock band only recently reunited for a worldwide tour. The show will complete a trifecta of teenage dreams for Abramson, who has previously booked his other two favorite bands, The Trashmen and The Sonics.
“The fact that I booked three of my all-time favorite bands from my early teens, two of which had already broken up in the ’60s, just blows my mind,” he said.
And then, of course, there will be closing night. It will eerily similar to opening night in 1978, when a Hoboken band simply called “A” took the stage. Members of that band, some who still live in town, will play Maxwell’s final show.
Abramson said he has no regrets, that it’s been a good run, and that realities are realities. But, in true rock n’ roll fashion, he said that you simply have to know when to call it quits.
“Some people are saying, ‘Oh, well, they didn’t change with the times,’ he said. “And to those people, I say, ‘You’re right, because we didn’t want to.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org