There are bars with music and there are legendary bars with music. Maxwell’s, in Hoboken NJ, will be one of the legendary ones for just another two months. I lived in Hoboken in 1981, when Maxwell’s, just three years old, wasn’t yet venerated. At that time it was too new and too exciting, regularly booking the same bands that were playing CBGB, across the river, and serving as something of a home club for Yo La Tengo and the Feelies, among others. During my Hoboken days I remember going to see bands at Maxwell’s, drinking beer at Maxwell’s, having brunch at Maxwell’s, but I don’t remember at this point what bands I saw at that point. At that point the point wasn’t the names, but the music, which was still lively and energized by punk, hugely broadly do it yourself, full of folks making their own legends (and sometimes succeeding) making rock or what became known as Alt-Country, in a movement that changed the tastes of the nation.
The first show that I remember going to see at Maxwell’s by design involved commuting across the Hudson River via the PATH train to see the legendary British punk band the Mekons, whose amazing country record (and that does not do it justice) was called Fear and Whiskey in the UK and had just been released in the US (with some extra tracks) as Original Sin. The room with the music at Maxwells was small then (and is still the same small), an irregular box with a myriad of obtuse and acute angles on the perimeter, plus columns in the middle, kind of the shape of a game controller, only you’re on the inside. There were some chairs and boxes for sitting around the edges, a bar in the back, and the band was crammed into a nook at the other end of this rhomboid box, crushed amidst whatever speakers and amplifiers were stacked up there to help them make noise. The Mekons that night had at least seven people jammed on the stage, and it seemed like 20, playing the usual guitar, bass and drums, with Sally Timms on vocals, and also a fiddle player and an accordion player and a few others who banged on things this and that and who sang along, too, at the sing-songy parts.
The room was packed with expectation on June 20, 1986. The Mekons had always been a political band, but arch, funny, engaged, enraged, also aware they they were playing music ferchrissakes. Their first single, released at the height of punk mania, was called “Never Been in a Riot.” Unlike the Clash.
Their music in 1977 was brittle, angular, clangy, totally amateur. They couldn’t play. A legend arose that if you learned to play your instrument the Mekons kicked you out. The Mekons were masters of the ethos of the naif, the beginner, but over the years their chops improved and their ambitions grew. Jon Langford developed as a guitarist and songwriter. He fell in love with Hank Williams and he steered the band toward the fabulous hybrid they developed in Fear and Whiskey. It’s country, but not afraid of reggae and afropop, in places, homespun but raging with anger about the injustices of the Reagan/Thatcher years and the darkness at the heart of the soul. And that isn’t the half of it. Love songs, sex songs, passion, history, politics, metaphor, but most of all joyous strange music that often sounded trad., music from the ages, but was played by a big rock ensemble with passion and craft. It was was wholly original, like nothing exactly you’ve ever heard before, but full of the spirit that courses through your soul, maybe like marrow. At least on your good days.
This was quite suddenly a band at the top of their game, at the top of anyone’s game, Fear and Whiskey representing the first of a string of maybe five albums (Fear and Whiskey, The Edge of the World, The Mekons Honky Tonkin’, So Good It Hurts, Rock and Roll) that are as first rate as any such sequence in rock history. This was a band for whom the motives seemed to be purely moral, large of heart, full of sensual pleasures that come from making great rocking music with your friends. That sweaty woozy hot night at Maxwell’s I had the unalloyed joy of being in a packed room full of people who were becoming members of the band that was up on stage, the audience pushing them hard, the band embracing their fans and embracing the push, and making music back at us! Encouraging us! By the end we felt like we’d been invited onto the tour bus for the rest of our lives, and while we get off here and there, the many times I’ve seen the Mekons live since, as soon as the band comes on stage, it’s like you’ve never really been away. We’re all serious friends, here to laugh and to grouse together. Together.
Maxwell’s owner announced this week that the club was closing. In this obit in the New York Times owner, Todd Abrahmson, said that they could probably make the business work for another year or two, but that the changes in Hoboken’s demographics make the club’s demise inevitable. “If you think of Willie Mays playing outfield for the New York Mets — I didn’t want us to wind up like that,” he said.
Abrahamson now books the Bell House in Brooklyn, which happens to be on my street, a few blocks down the hill in Park Slope, and where I saw the Mekons play last year. Somewhere I have a file with a recording of that show, but what I was really excited to find was a recording of that show at Maxwell’s back in 1986 at archive.org. Not like being there, but a swell souvenir and not a waste of your time.