The venerable Algerian-French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, stated best, “Without culture and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation of art is a gift to the future.” The vitality that the freedoms fueled by art and culture bring, the bonding between people that they encourage, and the awe they can evoke in human beings of disparate ethnicities and upbringing.
On April 19th, the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy sponsored an event bringing together a small but eager group of Jersey City and Indie Rock fans to WFMU’s event space, Monty Hall, in lower business district on Montgomery. Here a panel of well established and admired participants of Jersey City music scene grouped together to discuss and opine about their past experiences in their careers, associated with the culture of the metropolitan town of Jersey City.
This is the inaugural event of it’s kind for the Conservancy.
“One of our missions is to talk about the…independent music history of Jersey City and Hoboken is an important part of why we’re here tonight,” Rob Farren, Board Member of Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy stated.
Todd Abramson was the moderator for the evening. With his decades of living and working the Jersey City live events scene, he’d possibly seen it all from his days at Maxwells and currently at WFMU.
“There is not a single true work of art that has not in the end added to the inner freedom of each person who has known and loved it.” – Albert Camus.
In the late 1990’s the municipality of Jersey City saw a rebirth of new development and community passions. The enthusiasm brought new innovative thought into planning, and welcomed capital to the, then, struggling city by the river.
And of course, all the good came with ‘growing pains’ and Jersey City quickly felt the full wrath of progress. When progress comes along to a city, many ‘older’ ways of living actually and symbolically are sometimes destroyed, decimated, and in many cases, a shadow of it’s former self.
Culture is defined as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”. And as cities have existed on this blue Earth, the questions always pop up about how to grow, maintain, and diversify a city’s homegrown identity and offerings to the masses.
It’s certainly a subject that is studied hard and long. And it won’t be solved in an evening. However, each ‘penny’ served and disseminated in a collective fashion, then, the power of discussion could lead to thought out actions.
The night included several general issues and subjects posed by the moderator. However, the main crux of the discussions was to focus mainly in the environment or eco-system that was Maxwell’s in Hoboken. Maxwell’s arguably was the epicenter of Hoboken and Hudson County NJ’s new and innovative music scene starting in the 80’s. The corner former storefront near the Maxwell Coffee manufacturing plant in Hoboken, hosted many of the icons of indie rock, including bands like The Replacements, Pixies, Meat Puppets, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Smashing Pumpkins, Living Colour, The Psychedelic Furs.
The first ever band to play at Maxwell’s was the band named ‘a’. And in that band, a spry young kid named Glenn Morrow was a member (now owner and founder of Bar None Records). “One day somebody mentioned that a place around the corner wanted to have live music”. And Morrow remembered that he “Had only material for couple of songs” back then (when he was booked to play at Maxwell’s). “I opened up after my car was stolen.”
Of course there’s much going on in the current Jersey City scene, with new venues and clubs hosting bands, alike. However, for a cultural ‘movement’, a city always has the specter of being overtaken by the ‘gentrification’ ghost – successfully taking over and vaccinating the very cultural movement into something wholly different.
And the panel surely agreed that it was one of the natural things that happen when a city grows and matures in the years forward. Bob Bert replied to the question of gentrification and whether this was a direct correlation of Maxwell’s. “Just because of the times” he answered and continued that it’s not a direct relationship with the success of Maxwell’s but instead in reverse. The town was maturing and Maxwell’s was swept into that affect.
What of the impact of Steve Fallon’s (owner of Maxwell’s) to the local music scene? Was he a critical genesis of what was going on in the city?
“Because of Steve and Maxwell’s…talent that came through was incredible. It was a ‘playhouse’ for bands like REM, The Replacements, etc,” said Glenn Morrow. “It was a sleep over. Hoboken and Maxwell’s became a cultural hub. CBGB’s in comparison was a central location in the 60’s but Maxwell’s kept going.”
“I think the part of the answer was that..(for example) for Rye Coalition, there was only Maxwell’s… where it was the only place to see live bands.” Ralph Cuseglio (Rye Coalition) stated. “Maxwell’s was the only gig, in town in a sense.”
“As a kid I was going to Maxwell’s all the time,” said Rhyme & Reason owner, Emmy Black. “Before I moved here 12 years ago, I remember getting stuck in Newark [PENN station], all the time [after seeing shows]. Folk Implosion at Maxwell’s was my first show… and since when I was young, I was passionate about music.” Black also indicated that the scene in New Jersey’s indie rock scene was at Maxwell’s and Hudson County.
The times during the ‘reign’ of Maxwell’s as an indie rock live music institution, the ecosystem of Hoboken filled curiosities and market with other indie music vendors. And that included the venerable record store, Pier Platters, which was well known to be ahead of the curve in great new music.
“[Pier Platters] Had all the latest singles,” recounted Morrrow.
“Susanne was there and being rude to the customers,” added Bob Bert with a smile. “Example in 1986…I worked there and bought a 7″ and bought into the band and got hired [by Pussy Galore]. In the earlier days, buy the latest singles from Pier Platters.” Bert also added with a joyful smirk that he’d bought and sold some classic collectables for a good amount of change.
“[Bar None Records] started in the back room of Pier Platters… [and] it was the center of what’s cool in the music scene,” Morrow stated. “I remember the first PJ Harvey, etc. [from Pier Platters].. and [Pier Platters] was a place to see a whole variety of people hanging out”.
“There was Bleeker Bob’s in NYC (record store) but there wasn’t, until Kim’s Records, where” new and weird and unique music for the fans to be exposed to the public to check out, stated Glenn Morrow.
Everyone has a sense of civic or loyalty to the place one has been associated, for so long. And it’s not been a different experience for the panelist.
“Everywhere we went we’d repeat that our band was from Jersey City,” said Ralph Cuseglio. “There’s something about JC being in the shadow of NYC. And this is where Maxwell’s was critical back then.” Cuseglio added that Maxwell’s fed into that attitude of ‘defending jersey origins’ growing larger, where the loyalty of and to the scene was growing larger. “We’re grateful for Maxwell’s & Pier Platters for we were exposed to so many other talent and different kinds of music.”
“Maxwell’s was the clubhouse. In a way all of them were in the same place as bands. [And also] There are the two businesses: large labels, and then this whole indie world that goes from split 7″ vinyl to Arcade Fire,” said Morrow.
“People did look down on Jersey scene, especially from NYC. If a band said that a NJ band saying that their from NYC. Why would you do that??” It was kind of an attitude and uniqueness,” said Cuseglio.
“I’d always play in NYC bands. Loved playing at Maxwell’s because it was a block away,” added Bert.
“I worked at New York Rocker and Ira Caplan worked there…they all moved to Hoboken, after a while. They’d go to Maxwell’s and see the bands. Back then the rents were super cheap, and people read the magazine and just move to Hoboken. At one point there were so many band (in Hoboken).”
Hopeful road for the future, with more opportunities.
“What’s happening in JC is exciting,” commenting on the question of his impressions in what’s happening in Jersey City. “Hoboken is culturally a ‘dead stump’ [compared to the Jersey City scene]… I don’t pretend to understand the politics in JC, but we think we’ll see even more (music) in Jersey City [in the future].”
Cuseglio continued, “Long ago The NYT did a story about Jersey City and its cultural evolution. It’s amazing to see the new venues (that are popping up in the city” There was only Maxwell’s before, but…It was a big deal to play Maxwell’s. Some asked ‘When will we see a proper music venue in Jersey City?’ It’s mind blowing to see the new venues in Jersey City.”
Throughout the night the reminiscing about the past was fluid and relevant. Although it’s not fair to want real actionable solutions to maintaining of the indie scene (or growth of it), there was much positivity and optimism evident from the discussion. The fans of the past, seemed to us, that there could still exist a good core of advocates where new crops of music opportunities can form in the city.
A point to remember is that conservancy starts with passion. The passion stokes the fire in that cauldron. And maybe, just maybe, through continued discussion and collaborations, there can be continued strengthening, nurturing, and evolution of the Jersey City & Hoboken indie music scene for many decades to come.
And as Albert Camus said: “Without culture and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle. This is why any authentic creation of art is a gift to the future.”
We at CHF thinks culture and art are bound by a tenuous thread. But what a beautiful ‘thread’ it can be, for it drives new thinking, expressions, and certainly new and grand business opportunities for a town.
Kudos. Let’s keep going forward, hand-in-hand.
Emmy Black is the owner and co-founder of Rhyme & Reason Records and has been a New Jersey music advocate and propeller of great music, since 2015. Her passion for the scene is driven by the original desire to be part of the music and the finding great bands out into the masses. RARR represents artist, among others: Pronoun, Walter Salas-Huamara, Black Wail, Kid In The Attic.
Glenn Morrow is the owner and founder of Bar None Records located in Hoboken, NJ. He’s been fixture in the music scene since the earlier decades of Hoboken and the current scene of Jersey City. He’s affectionately know as part of his band ‘a’, which had the badge of playing the first ever official gig at Maxwell’s. Bar None represents, among others: Breakfast In Fur, The Feelies, Yo La Tengo.
Ralph Cuseglio is most known by his membership in the band called ‘Rye Coalition’. The band has a mad-dog following in the area, with near cultic passions. On May 5, the band will be playing one of Jersey City’s new and large venues, ‘White Eagle Hall’. He is known as one of the most fervent advocate for the Jersey City music scene. He is also an associate professor at Monmouth University and a successful doctor in the field of psychotherapy.
Bob Bert is best known as the original member and drummer for the band ‘Sonic Youth’ in the 1980’s, playing with the band for 3 albums. He has become a cultural fixture in the local area, with his speaking events and cultural opinions. Bert is still active and has played with bands: Pussy Galore, Bewitched, The Chrome Cranks, the Knoxville Girls, Action Swingers, Five Dollar Priest, Lydia Lunch’s Retrovirus, and the Wolfmanhattan Project. He’s about to release his book ‘I’m Just A Drummer’ (forwarded by Lydia LUnch) published by HoZac Books, which is a part memoir and histrionics of his experiences.
Moderator for the evening, Todd Abramson, was hired at Maxwell’s to take over the booking of the acts in the mid-1980s. With partners, Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth and Dave Post of the Amazing Incredibles, he took over Maxwell’s in 1998. In 2013, the venue was sold to another owner. In 2018, Maxwell’s as an institution, finally closed permanently. Todd however, continues with his work and local music contributions at WFMU and their venue space, Monty Hall.
The Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy is a tax-exempt 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to promoting preservation and educating citizens about Jersey City’s architectural, cultural, and historical treasures. JC Landmarks has held walking and bus tours to share the history of Jersey City with visitors and residents. It has advocated for landmark preservation at the local and state levels. It has partnered with neighborhood associations, students, artists, churches, and individuals and organizations throughout our diverse city. The Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy believes that preservation is not simply about saving historic buildings and structures: preservation weaves these treasures into the vibrant economic and cultural fabric of our great city.