A Maxwell’s By Any Other Name

There’s been a lot of talk going around about what has become of the beloved space on 11th & Washington in Hoboken. Here’s my take.


When the legendary Hoboken rock club/restaurant Maxwell’s closed in the Summer of 2013, I was devastated like a lot of people. We drank, laughed, cried and reminisced through a block party that was more like an Irish wake on steroids. I felt it was the death blow to the personality of my beloved city that would cause me to finally pack up and leave. Settle in the deserts of New Mexico to sell art made of turquoise and animal hide to unsuspecting tourists. And then things got a little weird.

There was a time of uncertainty, since they announced the closing before having a buyer. Bills and rent still needed to be paid and because of that, a few events were hosted. Notably Justin Timberlake’s Target commercial. Several others would be staged there as well, making it hard to explain to people that the place had indeed closed. This hiccup in the timeline becomes a sticking point for critics later.

By the beginning of 2014, the place was officially handed over to new owners who had decided to (somewhat) keep the name, going back to it’s roots as Maxwell’s Tavern. That decision ignited the first wave of distain. Folks were angered by the audacity of the new owners to sully a sacred name. I was one of the few people at the time who felt that this place should always be called Maxwell’s. As a nod to the history beyond the music, beyond the Maxwell’s I knew and loved. It was Maxwell’s long before and should be Maxwell’s long after. Besides, I could imagine the same irritations among regulars back in 1978 when some upstarts wanted to change this factory watering hole into something completely different.

Growing up in this area, I’ve become fed up with plaques being mounted where ‘so-and-so’ was born or where ‘such-and-such’ battle was won while tearing down the place itself. Make all the jokes you want, but New Jersey played a crucial role in the shaping of this nation. Particularly the Bergen/Hudson County area. And what do we have to show for it? A bunch of bronze trophies like so many bowling champions.

The spot on which Maxwell’s has stood for the better part of a century may not have been historically important to the shaping of the nation, but it was important to the shaping of this city. From quenching the thirsts of weary factory workers in the early to mid 20th century to becoming one of America’s premier rock clubs later, there is no doubt about the cultural significance of this place.

The new owners of Maxwell’s appeared to want to reach back toward history while trying to build something new. Of course I was skeptical. The idea that some gaggle of outta towners would gut and transform this landmark while still trying to be a part of Hoboken was more than I could bear. It didn’t help that the new Maxwell’s Tavern had no music as part of their original plan.

The inevitable next wave of critics came in two flavors. On the one hand you had people unfamiliar with the history of Maxwell’s who thought the place had closed for renovations and simply reopened without music. These people also felt that they’d been duped by the big block party since — in their eyes — the place never actually closed. And they were pissed. On the other hand you had the longtime Hobokenites who were fully aware that the ownership had changed and convinced that it was to be nothing more than an Olive Garden without music. And they were pissed.

About six months or so into their run, the new owners realized that their business model of being an affordable family establishment wasn’t working. The restaurant was struggling and by 9:00pm would empty out because there was nothing to keep people there. At this point they did something that would eventually lead me to working with them. They reached out to the community for help. An overwhelming number of people replied with, “Bring back live music.”

Why was this gesture of reaching out to the community significant? Quite simply because they didn’t have to do it. They could’ve called in some board of expensive consultants and experts and the results would’ve been disastrous because we as a community know what’s best (or at least we should). So they listened to us and decided to bring back live music. I for one was thrilled. It was something I thought would make people happy. Sadly, that wasn’t entirely the case.

There was an idea among a very vocal group that only the Maxwell’s that stood from 1978-2013 should’ve been allowed to have music here. No other incarnation should be allowed to step on the toes of the legend. This made absolutely no sense to me. This same group of people angry at the thought of there being no music were now angry that there would be music. Why? Because it was different than the music of their youth? I don’t know. After all, the Maxwell’s everyone was pining over had changed many times over the course of 35 years.

Some of the changes were subtle. Like booking more poppy bands and having less of a punk/grunge image. The restaurant had become more family friendly by default since that was the new demographic in town. Occasionally the changes were drastic with horrific results. Such as the time it was sold in the 90s and turned into a brew pub. Thankfully that didn’t last long.

What really irked me when all this new shit hit the fan was that some of the most visceral of mudslinging came from those who had written Hoboken off years or even decades earlier. They’d come to one or two shows a year but otherwise showed little support for the legend they so woefully pined for now. Donning their rose-colored glasses and projecting an idealized memory of a club that could do no wrong onto a new venture that was doing nothing but wrong.

They had assumed that these new owners were insincere and out to trample on their memories. They held up one interview as a flag of war to prove their point. One of the owners made the unfortunate mistake of answering a reporter when asked about what had changed, what were they doing differently and so on. In any other context not clouded by idealism, his answers would’ve been innocuous enough. Unfortunately that was not the case.

The article was but a brief overview of the plans to come. While other publications and online media offered more in depth views, they didn’t seem to help. Even those who’d read the other articles would nitpick quotes to suit their own angry opinions. I should know, they did it with my own words.

In the midst of all of this, I did something nearly all of those critics refused to do. I met with the new owners. I didn’t want to make any rash judgements if I wasn’t willing to actually walk thru the doors rather than relying on hearsay. I couldn’t let my own idealism cloud my thinking, either. Maybe because I so desperately wanted to have a new place for bands to play. I’ve said many times that my loyalties have always been with the music, not the venue. If a venue appears to be right for bands, I will support it. If not, I won’t and I’ll keep looking.

And I’m glad I did because — despite whatever you may have read (or written) on the web about Maxwell’s Tavern — these guys are not out to destroy or replace the past. They’re building something brand new. Hoboken is a new city. It’s an evolving city. Which brings me to the last and in my opinion the most ridiculous collection of criticisms. People bitched that this was now more than just a music venue. And the proper response to that complaint is simply; Yes, it is more.

First, let’s dispel one rumor right away. Maxwell’s Tavern is no more or less a sports bar than any other place in town. Just because the old place didn’t have TVs doesn’t mean a thing. For better or worse, having a bank if TVs has become the nature of the bar business. Some critics attacked me for having the audacity to claim that a venue these days cannot thrive on staging live music alone. This was not a dig at the legend or history of Maxwell’s. It was an observation on Hoboken’s evolution.

Name any music venue in town and I will show you a sports bar. No offense intended (because labeling a place a ‘sports bar’ is somehow an insult these days). Pool, darts, buck hunter, TVs, etc. are all there to attract people just as drink specials and music are. Only the music tends to be an afterthought. Some places step up and bring the music to the forefront, but most do not.

In the case of Maxwell’s Tavern wanting to initially operate without live music, they ultimately discovered the right thing to do was to bring it back. And while those who wouldn’t take the time to learn for themselves spouted baseless insults, I got a first-hand look at the changes as they came to light. The new stage. The new lighting. The new sound system. The new attitude.

For the better part of 25 years, I’ve watched as the NYC/North Jersey music scene dwindled. Clubs and bars either closing or tearing out their stages to move on to other ventures. The numbers were always moving in a negative direction. This was the very first time the numbers moved in a positive direction. There was no one else offering to invest the time and money needed to build a new scene.

Maxwell’s Tavern is offering that and more. Understanding the changing demographic and combining that with a love for music, they are on their way to becoming a truly well-rounded venue. Music, art, comedy, private parties, sports, food, etc. If this place being more than the grungy rock box it was in the past is too much for you to bear, that’s too bad. You’re the one missing out.

It’s time to move on. Now, don’t be upset. What happened here for those 35 years was wonderful and nothing will ever compare to it or replace it. And please believe me when I say that no one is trying to replace it. What those of us working now are trying to do is build a new and different scene. Those who made it great in the past were young and hungry. The new bands coming up are also young and hungry. It’s always the young and hungry that make a scene.

As for us old fogies who pine for the good ol’ days; Let’s pass the baton while soaking up the energy of those now grasping at greatness. Will it be the same as when we were kids? No, but it will be fun and everyone is welcome to come join this leg of the journey. Even those of you who may not realize you want to yet.

And if you’re not ready because you don’t trust the new owners or whatever, all I ask is that you trust me. I’ve been an advocate for bands for the better part of three decades. I would be the first to let you know if this is all a waste of time. Trust me. And trust those working the room.

Dave Entwistle (Hoboken Music Awards, The Peoples Open Mic) has done more than anyone to keep the Hoboken music scene alive for over a decade. Curating the live music at Northern Soul, he built a level of trust with local bands that few bookers have. He is at the helm booking bands at Maxwell’s Tavern now.

Chris ‘Gibby’ Gibson (Upstart Studios) has been doing live sound and recording bands for as long as I can remember. Gibby helped in the design of the new sound system and continues to offer his expertise. And there are more changes coming. This, after all, is a work in progress. Stay tuned.

So, that’s it. A bit longwinded, but I had to get my side of it out there. Think of it as an icepack for the black eyes I took during this changeover.

OK then. See you there. Or not. Whatever you choose is fine with me.

Cheers!


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11 Responses to “A Maxwell’s By Any Other Name”

  1. Jackie Entwistle
    02/23/15 at 12:09 pm #

    What an enjoyable read from beginning to end. Looking forward to visiting Maxwell’s Tavern on my next visit.

  2. Gerry
    02/23/15 at 1:24 pm #

    Great post man! Great view of what has been going on with Maxwell’s–past, present, and future!
    ,

  3. Kenny
    02/23/15 at 1:30 pm #

    I’ll go back when Yo La Tengo does.

  4. Mike Fox
    02/23/15 at 2:06 pm #

    Great article. So happy to see live music having such a comeback in the area. Glad to have an opportunity to perform there this spring on May 8th (Mighty SPECTRUM Band), and to be part of Maxwell’s new beginning.

  5. Art Thomas
    02/23/15 at 2:46 pm #

    We went a few weeks ago (before a live show at Guitar Bar Jr.) and while I appreciate that they’re trying to make an “updated” music venue the feel was just completely gone.

    The TVs are Giant and cast the typical electric glow over everything. I’m a huge sports fan, but Maxwell’s was a place to get away from the ever-pervasive sports watching that happens everywhere.

    The brass railings, lighting and tiffany-style lights, wait station along with the general look and attitude of the wait staff made it feel too much like TGI Fridays and a cookie-cutter of all of the other places. At best it was like Black Bear 2. Going there made me more depressed for what was gone.

    The food was pretty good though, I’ll give them that. It’s not unique in any way. Gone are the interesting sandwiches and other dishes, in their place yet again is TGI Fridays with an Olive Garden bent, but still pretty good for what it was. The thing is that those of us without kids just want to go somewhere where there aren’t high chairs and a kids menu with crying (besides by those who broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend)

    We haven’t been for music yet, but the “yet” might never happen. It’s just too depressing to go into a space that used to be a haven from the typical and have it be just so…typical. Maybe they’ll do well with the stroller crowd and the frat boys, but the rest of us will still hold onto our memories while trying to find something similar elsewhere.

  6. albert ross
    02/23/15 at 4:25 pm #

    Sorry, but the TV screens distract. We just don’t go to bars with a wall of sports on TV. The front room was a place where you can hear the jukebox as well as a face to face conversation with friends.
    Full disclosure: I worked at Maxwell’s from 1984 to 1995.

  7. Randy
    02/23/15 at 7:54 pm #

    Nice article Steve!

  8. Stephen Bailey
    02/24/15 at 12:29 pm #

    Art,
    I appreciate your opinions about the rest of the place (the food, tvs, etc.) but how can you make a judgement about the music if you haven’t yet and don’t intend on going to a show? This was the whole point I was trying to make. No one should judge anything until experiencing it for themselves. And as far as finding places to go without high chairs and kids, that’s a tall order anywhere around here. Like it or not, Hoboken (and most of the NYC metro area) has changed. It’s safe now. It’s clean now. It attracts young families now. As a business owner in town I know what it’s like to have to deal with a changing demographic. It’s not always easy, but it’s either that or go out of business. And that’s just not an option any of us want to choose.

    Cheers!
    Stephen

  9. Stephen Bailey
    02/24/15 at 12:38 pm #

    Hey Albert,
    Thanks for your comment. I know it’s a culture shock with the new set up and it’s not going to appeal to everyone. But as I’ve been saying, the whole area has changed. The Hoboken of the 80s and 90s is not what we have now. For better or worse, the TVs are part of a growing arsenal needed to get people thru the doors. It’s the same all over. Besides, the TVs have no sound. Unlike other places in town, you won’t be blasted with the cacophony of whistles and whatnot. There may not be the old jukebox but at least they didn’t replace it with one of those god-awful internet units where anyone could pick any song from any artist. I’ve seen the best of dives get reduced to an all-out Jersey Shore dance party in a matter of minutes.

    Cheers!
    Stephen

  10. Stephen Bailey
    02/24/15 at 12:39 pm #

    Kenny,
    That would be awesome!

    Cheers!
    Stephen

  11. Paul A
    02/24/15 at 9:56 pm #

    I was really impressed with the last show I intended. I saw a vibrant scene that gave me much more hope for the Mile Square than the latest luxury condo hi-rise.

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