"Last call everrrr!" a bartender hollered minutes before Maxwell’s, the Hoboken club that booked and nurtured bands including R.E.M. and Nirvana, closed its doors for the last time early Thursday morning. A block party raged outside the music hub the preceding afternoon as a soundcheck teased what would be the evening’s standout: a reunion 35 years in the making.
The first band to play Maxwell’s – "a" – recently reformed for its first performance since July 1978, to celebrate the venue’s decades-long run. "It turned out that 'a’ was not only the simplest name, but also the beginning of the alphabet," Richard Barone told Rolling Stone. It also signalled the birth of live music at Maxwell’s, at a time when the place lacked a stage. Until last night, the foursome – led by Barone and fellow guitarist Glenn Morrow and backed by bassist Rob Norris and drummer Frank Giannini – had existed for only six months in the late Seventies before splintering into the Bongos and the Individuals.
Before "a" performed, an unannounced appearance from Delicate Steve toward the end of the Individuals’ early set excited the crowd. Guest visits followed from Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan and the club’s first owner, Steve Fallon, who joined on tambourine.
The Best Clubs in America: Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J.
Shortly after 9, "a" kicked into an hour-long set of mod-meets-Monkees tunes, including "Girl Gone Wrong" and "Tell Me All of Your Secrets," kidding each other between songs about their age and livelihood.
"We were basically unemployed, trying to make it as musicians," Morrow told the audience before playing a recession anthem,"The Electricians."
"And that was just last week!" Norris quipped.
Later, Barone donned a necktie for his return to the stage with the Bongos, whose Fifties riffs and heavy dance beats on songs like "In the Congo," "Three Wise Men" and a cover of Paul Revere and the Raiders’ "Kicks" rocked until after midnight. They teased a new album of unheard music they recorded in 1986 and will finally release in October.
Outside Maxwell’s, the horde grew in size and sweat, though the indoor festivities stayed confined to the 200 people who bought their tickets early.
Reached at his home by phone, J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. recalled a disarming and encouraging crowd the night in 1986 they opened for Steve Albini’s Big Black.
"It’s just the first place we ever felt welcomed as a band," he said, adding that he met Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore that night. "It wasn’t so easy for us to find any fans. So that was like the most sympathetic audience we’d ever played."
"It’s always strange to lose a dependable haunt, even if one hasn’t set foot in the joint for years and years," Ian MacKaye, formerly of Fugazi, told Rolling Stone by email. "However, the closing of Maxwell's and other venues shouldn’t be thought of as the end of an era or the death of a scene. Music will never die."
Maxwell’s co-owner Todd Abramson decided to shutter the club earlier this year, citing an uneasy adjustment to the city’s population and parking hassles. Early on, the place offered an alternative to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, which raged across the Hudson River in Manhattan. "Hoboken has changed a lot," said drummer Dave Weckerman, who played three sold-out shows with the Feelies in July. "When I first came here in 1980 it was kind of dangerous," he added drily. "Now it’s all wealthy white people."
Barone, who also teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, told Rolling Stone he agreed with the timing of the decision.
"It started out indie, and it stayed that way," he said from the basement that long served as an unofficial backstage, minutes before closing time. "I love this place. But I also know when something closes that something else opens."