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Maxwell's, The Beloved New Jersey Venue, Closes

Maxwell's, in Hoboken, N.J., hosted Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana and the Replacements, to name a few.
George Kopp
Maxwell's, in Hoboken, N.J., hosted Bruce Springsteen, Nirvana and the Replacements, to name a few.

The rock club Maxwell's is a tiny space that's hosted some of the biggest names in music for more than 30 years. R.E.M., Nirvana and many more bands have squeezed onto Maxwell's stage in Hoboken, N.J. Native son Bruce Springsteen recorded the music video for "Glory Days" there. So musicians and fans on both sides of the Hudson River were shocked when the club's owner announced that Maxwell's is closing its doors this summer.

From the street, Maxwell's looks like a typical neighborhood tavern. But walk through the restaurant, past the wooden bar, and you'll find yourself in a narrow black room with a stage at the far end. Officially, the club holds 200 people. But when the show is sold out, it can feel like a lot more.

On Friday night in July, the Feelies packed Maxwell's. The acclaimed New Jersey band has been playing there since the early 1980s.

Stan Demeski is the Feelies' drummer. "This is my favorite place to play," he says. "I mean, I've played in a lot of places. And most places don't treat you very well. Maxwell's always treated you well."

"Bands have always been fed dinner here — whether it was a sold-out show, or whether there were gonna be 10 people that night," says Todd Abramson, who's worked at Maxwell's for most of his adult life. He's been the club's co-owner and booker since 1998. And he says musicians who could've played much larger venues across the river in Manhattan chose Maxwell's instead.

"Because when the band first came here, perhaps they weren't that well-known yet," he says. "But we treated them well. And they remembered that. And then the next tour, when they were playing larger rooms, they say, 'Let's go back to that place; they really took care of us.' "

That's true of the Feelies today. And it was true a quarter century ago, when bands like R.E.M. and the Replacements played here regularly — even after they'd "made it."

Maxwell's sound system is nothing special. The heating and air conditioning are barely up to the task. There's no green room — not even a separate bathroom for musicians. But the club's fans like that there isn't much separating them from the music.

John Baumgartner has been coming to Maxwell's for 30 years. "Bands — no matter how big and popular they may be," he says, "bands come offstage, and they just fold into the crowd and talk to their fans."

Maxwell's also made it possible for some of those fans to get onstage themselves. Yo La Tengo guitarist and singer Ira Kaplan started working at the club as a sound man.

"I actually didn't know how to do sound," he says. "You could easily look at that as a drawback to the club, that they would hire a sound man that literally did not know how to do the job. But it spoke to the character of this place."

Kaplan says Maxwell's helped Yo La Tengo get off the ground when the band played its very first gigs here. "I think only a place like Maxwell's — where we had a personal connection, and it was so much based on personal relationships — would've been as supportive."

Kaplan still lives in Hoboken with his wife, Georgia Hubley, who plays drums and sings in Yo La Tengo. In 2001, the band launched a long-running series of benefit concerts at Maxwell's during the eight nights of Hanukkah, where they backed up special guests including Ray Davies of The Kinks, David Byrne and the late Alex Chilton of Big Star.

But there won't be any Hanukkah shows this year because Maxwell's is closing. Rising rents in Hoboken have driven a lot of the club's fans out of the neighborhood. Parking is more difficult than ever. And Abramson says he didn't want the club to overstay its welcome.

"It seems like people still love us," he says. "And maybe if this had happened a couple years from now, people would be saying, 'Oh, it's about time they pulled the plug on that place. It used to be great.' And I didn't want to see that happening."

Abramson hopes to open another club in New Jersey by next year. Maxwell's will close with a final show and block party on July 31.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.
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