by Jim Testa
In 1980, an unemployed college graduate with very little
idea of what he wanted to do with his life wandered into
a small bar in Hoboken to see a band called the Bongos.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
My story is not unique, but it is uniquely my own. I had
puttered around with the idea of working at a newspaper
in college; I was damn good at grinding out the Rutgers
Daily Targum when I was its managing editor. But the more
I learned about the realities of the newspaper businesss
(cub reporters back then spent most of their time on the
phone, asking the relatives of the recently deceased “how
they felt” about losing a loved one in an auto accident
or grisly crime,) the less I wanted to get involved. Through
a friend at college, I made a connection at the Aquarian
Weekly, and did a fair amount of freelancing there, writing
about movies and theater. For a minute, I fancied myself
the next Rex Reed; but making the jump from profiling B-list
movie stars (I interviewed Pia Zadora and Dom DeLuise in
my prime) and penning $15 reviews for a suburban alternative
weekly to an actual full-time paying job in that field seemed
And then I discovered Maxwell’s. It wasn’t
dark and dangerouos and fairly forbidding like CBGB. It
didn’t have velvet ropes and snooty doormen like Danceteria
and the Mudd Club. It was like this magic little alternate
reality were everyone knew everyone else, and everyone there
Somehow, I met and starting chatting with Ira Kaplan, whose
column I devoured every week in the Soho Weekly News. And
Ira introduced me to the Bongos, whom I interviewed for
my friend Howard Wuelfing’s fanzine. One I started
giving out free copies of that zine at Maxwell’s,
suddenly I was one of the fabulous people too – a
music writer, no less. Ira and his girlfriend Georgia invited
me to come by on Sundays and play softball with “the
gang” at an empty field across town. The weekly pickup
games included people like Dave Schramm, Dave’s bandmate
Fred Brockman (the best home run hitter in our little group,)
Peter Holsapple, Bob Bert, Georgia’s sister Emily,
and a guy named Will Rosenthal.
When my friend Howard’s fanzine folded, I took my
scene report column (which I had cleverly called “Jersey
Beat,” a pun on Liverpool’s “Mersey Beat”
scene) and spun it off into its own fanzine. I wrote it
on a manual typewriter, cut and pasted the stories and pictures
onto typewriter paper, and had it run off at a printing
shop that did business cards and stationery. Then I brought
the pages home and stapled them together myself. I interviewed
more bands and went to a lot of shows. I got to know the
Feelies and the dB’s, danced to the Fleshtones, and
celebrated New Year’s Eve with Husker Du.
Ira wound up marrying Georgia, Emily married Will; Ira,
Georgia, and Dave started a band together called Yo La Tengo.
One weekend, Bob handed me a record from his new band and
asked me if I would review it. It was Sonic Youth’s
“Confusion Is Sex” EP. We played softball well
into the fall, but eventually the earlier sunsets and colder
temperatures forced us indoors, so we’d spend Sunday
nights at Bowlmor Lanes in the Village. There, bowling,
I met an older guy named Bill Ryan, who wound up opening
a record store in Hoboken called Pier Platters.
In 1984, my friend Howard moved from D.C. back to New Jersey
and we started a band called the Love Pushers, with Jersey
Beat writer Jim DeRogatis on drums and an upstart Mod kid
from Maywood named Mick London on lead guitar. Our first
show was at Maxwell’s opening for Half Japanese. We
recorded some demos at Water Music, with Donna Croughn from
Tiny Lights on violin. Later we recorded a Christmas compilation
cover of Big Star’s “Jesus Christ,” with
Speed The Plough’s Toni Paruta on sax. We played our
last show at Maxwell’s too. It just made sense to
do it that way.
My little fanzine made its way through the indie underground
of the Eighties and by the end of the decade, I started
getting invited to music festivals like the CMJ Music Marathon
and SXSW. In the Nineties, I started writing “Constant
Listener,” a weekly music column for the local daily
newspaper, the Jersey Journal, which lasted until the dawn
of the Aughts. When Green Day dragged punk into the mainstream,
writers who knew the genre were suddenly in demand and doors
I never dreamed of opened; I did features and reviews for
Request, Sam Goody’s excellent house magazine, interviewed
Bad Religion for Guitar World, and – thanks to Request’s
Keith Moerer and my old friend Jim DeRogatis – even
wrote for Rolling Stone. All the while I kept churning out
Jersey Beat as regularly as I could; I got to meet and become
friends with my heroes and favorite bands, too many to list.
I have slept on floors and couches and met musicians and
made friends all across this country, in more cities than
I can remember. I’ve shared a tour van with the Pink
Lincolns in Florida, rocked to the Queers in Eugene, Oregon,
dined on the Mission District’s best burritos with
Pansy Division in San Francisco, watched a Cubs game at
Wrigley Field with Ben Weasel, discussed Kerouac with Mike
Watt, traded quips with Dr. Frank , shared a stage with
Ted Leo, and seen the Wrens play a Hoboken loft naked.
None of that happens if I didn’t walk into Maxwell’s
to see the Bongos back in 1980.
I still remember the first time Steve Fallon said hello
to me by name. That felt like a major accomplishment at
the time. We wound up having many long talks and share amazing
memories. Todd Abramson allowed me the privilege to book
Maxwell’s myself on many unforgettable nights, with
bands like the Wrens, Milwaukees, and Ted Leo, the Ergs!
and Cropduster, Tris McCall and Val Emmich, right up through
Wyldlife and the Front Bottoms. Steve and Todd had the vision
to imagine a place that would treat musicians with respect
and hospitality, pay them fairly and treat them with dignity.
That was rare back in the Eighties and Nineties; it’s
virtually unheard of today. That is why they’ll be
missed. It’s been said by many people – I’ve
quoted quite a few of them, in the stories I’ve written
in this last month – but it’s true. For so many
of us lucky to have shared its magic, Maxwell’s didn’t
feel like a rock club or a restaurant; it felt like home.
I owe a great many people a great many things, include
my long-suffering and infinitely patient parents (may they
rest in peace,) my wonderful family, supportive friends,
the small army of writers, photographers, and artists who
have contributed to Jersey Beat through the years, and a
long list of employers willing to look the other way when
I had my mind on music instead of work.
But I would not be the person I am, or have lived this life,
if it weren’t for Maxwell’s.
Maxwell's Coverage On NJ.com
is an independently published music fanzine
covering punk, alternative, ska, techno and garage
music, focusing on New Jersey and the Tri-State
area. For the past 25 years, the Jersey Beat music
fanzine has been the authority on the latest upcoming
bands and a resource for all those interested in
rock and roll.