Hoboken in the early 80s as recalled through the mist by Glenn Morrow
What success the Individuals had I attribute to being the first young musician to walk through the door of a brand new club in Hoboken New Jersey in the summer of 1977. I was surprised that a corner bar near my apartment wanted to have live original rock music. Hoboken was a ghost town in those days, plagued by arson, crime and poverty, as was New York City. So called “urban blight” was in full effect before the age of gentrification. I had moved there to be near NYU where I was finishing college, renting six rooms for $65 a month on the top floor of a railroad apartment building. The shot and beer joint called Maxwell’s originally catered to the factory workers at the Maxwell Coffee plant that was directly across the street from where I lived. I used to point to the factory’s giant neon sign and say I lived right behind the “X.”
I walked in on two of the new owners. Steve Fallon and his brother-in-law were having an argument about the jukebox. Steve was determined not to have any Frank Sinatra but his brother –in-law thought this was sacrilegious in the town where old blue eyes was born. Fallon wanted to make a point; Maxwell’s was going to be a different kind of Hoboken bar.
Steve was willing to give everyone a shot if not two or three and made everyone feel like Maxwell’s was their club. Mostly he knew how to keep the party going and to make musicians feel like they were getting a fair shake. Steve offered to let my first band, simply called “a” to be the first band to play the club. It was a great opportunity. In short order I was booking the place for a free meal a week bringing over bands like the dBs the Fleshtones and the Necessaries that I knew from my day job as ad salesman at New York Rocker magazine.
When “a” suddenly disbanded, Maxwell’s was the place I worked up new material with a revolving cast of characters including former “a” /future Bongos Richard Barrone and Rob Norris, Peter Holsapple of the dBs and Jeffrey Lee Pierce who would soon start the Gun Club.
Drummer and engineer John Klett was the first permanent member of the group. His big beats brought coherence to whatever noise we made around him. Through a Village Voice ad we found Janet Wygal, a charismatic gal with screen star looks and a wisecracking personality. Her father had played with Louis Prima and her Mom had been a comedic foil for the Three Stooges.
And talk about pedigree! The next to answer the ad was the young guitarist Jon Light Klages. He was the grandson of Enoch Light the big band leader who had two # 1 albums on the Billboard charts in the early 1960s.We named our publishing company after the “brazen yellow horns” described on the back of one of his albums.
Janet had never played bass or been in a band, but she was more than game, cooking up some truly original bass parts that I still marvel at. (Check out her playing on “Walk By Your House”). Jon brought a level of chops and professionalism well beyond his 19 years. The way he attacked the strings went beyond technique. When Klett decided to move on we tried out every drummer we could find, eventually wooing Janet’s brother Doug who left his job as a record store manager in Toledo, Ohio to join the cause. He was the veteran drummer of many mid-west bands with a style built on the playing of Al Jackson and Charlie Watts. His skill behind the skins keeps him busy to this day and helped turn the Individuals into a solid live act. Doug really brought our sound into focus.
During off hours Maxwell’s became the Individuals’ practice space. We headlined there many a New Years Eve and encouraged people we liked to join the party. In no time the streets were awash with young musicians, dbs, Cucumbers and Bongos roamed the streets; Golden Palominos were drunk at the bar and you could always spot Tiny Lights, Phosphenes and the Human Switchboard around town. The Individuals were part of a tangled web of musicians; co-workers and roommates whose love lines and chord changes criss-crossed and coalesced into a tight community of like-minded folks. We were in love with the modern world and the sea of possibilities in three-chord rock and roll. We were the children of the Velvet Underground—mostly suburban kids lured to the metro area by the CBGBs scene. We soaked in the Warholian detachment of the Talking Heads and the transcendental guitar work of Television. On the far side of the Hudson we found a temporary haven in Hoboken.
I would argue that a unique indigenous strain of pop music sprang up from Maxwell’s and its early patrons. The sound was post-punk or “agit-pop” as I liked to call it--music to leave you happily agitated. Hoboken bands played trebly guitars at a punky speed with catchy enigmatic song structures--danceable stuff that aimed to move the mind and body. Major chords rubbed up against minor chords to keep a dark under current flowing right into the lyrical content. “Living a Lie” by the dBs, “The Bulrushes” by the Bongos and our very own “Swimming In The Streets.” all come to mind.
We felt like we could come up with new kinds of songs that had yet to be written but were still accessible to the general public. Everybody had a pack of Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards and the fantasy of being the next Beatles still held allure even if Hoboken bands tended to lean towards their weirder psychedelic songs like “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I’m Only Sleeping” from the British version of Revolver. The Bongos went so far as to cook up some hype for their band with press releases that said Hoboken was the new Liverpool.
While “a”, the Bongos and the Individuals got there first, the Feelies were the band many of us looked to for guidance and inspiration. After all, they were Jersey boys who had made it in the big city-- they were signed to Stiff Records! Their album Crazy Rhythms was comprised of eight originals and one cover that dove deep into simple chord changes for something that was truly revelatory and mysterious. We all got excited when the Feelies showed up to hang at Maxwells and began playing in various side projects before releasing The Good Earth on Fallon’s Coyote label. “My Three Sons (revolve around the earth)” was the Individuals’ tribute to the Feelies.
Another big influence were the dark iconic no wave bands of New York City. Art damaged groups like the Contortions with James Chance, DNA with Arto Lindsay and Teenage Jesus and the Jerks with Lydia Lunch raised the bar on urban angst. Arto’s freestyle rhythm guitar work inspired our playing on “Can’t Get Started” where Jon and I attempted to have two guitars play random chords in tandem, There’s also “White” whose lyrics I scribbled on a napkin one night at the club TR3 while Lydia Lunch dee-jayed.
For a while the Individuals and our Hoboken brothers and sisters were at the center of a real happening music scene. The Bongos got signed to RCA, the Feelies signed with Coyote and got picked up by A&M; the dBs got to record in England and made Repercussions with producer Scott Litt (who would go on to produce REM).
The Individuals got signed to Charles Ball’s Lust/Unlust label just as it was collapsing but we managed to get the EP Aquamarine out into the world. Gene Holder from the dBs produced all our stuff, learning as he went along. On Aquamarine we tried lots of experimentation like overdubbing Wygal sister Tricia as she tap danced onto 24 tracks for the intro to “Young and Dancing”. “The Argument” a holdover from the “a” repertoire. had lyrics that were a verbatim conversation I had with my girlfriend negotiating cooking duties. Aquamarine got picked by the Village Voice Pazz and Jop as one of the best of EPs of the year in 1981.
The album Fields funded by Plexus Records was a more streamlined affair with much pre-production and road honing of material. It was the first album to be recorded at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio in Winston Salem, NC. REM was recording their first EP there at the same time. The pictures on the cover of this re-issue were taken at an abandoned Drive in on Rt. 3 in the Meadowlands. We grabbed a drive–in speaker complete with post and cement base and drove it to Mitch’s where he hooked it up in his yard so we could listen to mixes in pure lo-fi sound.
Jon was the first to leave, deciding to go the solo route. He made an EP for the Coyote label and later he and Doug would back Richard Lloyd in a post-Television outfit before Jon headed west where he worked with Russ Tollman in California. The backing band on his EP included Maxwell’s soundman Ira Kaplan and Maxwell regulars Georgia Hubley and Dave Schramm. Ira and Georgia would keep Hoboken on the map into the next century as Yo La Tengo while Dave Schramm became the town’s #1 session guitarist recording regularly at Water Music on Grand Street .
A new line up of the Individuals with Gene Holder on bass and Tricia Wygal on keyboards continued on. We recorded the bones of an album that went unreleased. I was the next to leave, pretty much ending the group but Janet, Doug and Gene continued on as the Wygals recording an album for Rough Trade. Later Janet and Tricia teamed up in a group called Splendora and scored the theme song for the hit MTV show Daria.
In 1986 Tom Prendergast decided to start the Bar/None Records label. Along with Bill Ryan he ran the legendary Hoboken record shop Pier Platters (for many years the only place in the metro area where you could buy New Zealand seven inch singles! ). His first signing was my next band Rage To Live. I soon became his partner in the label.
186 Bar None releases later, leads us to the present where Gene Holder just opened a mastering place across the hall from the Bar None offices. We just got the rights back after all these years to the album Fields and the master tapes were located in Holland. Gene’s first mastering assignment is the album you hold in your hand. What goes around spins around and just as the compact disc fades from view the Individuals send these songs back into the world.
Most of the musicians that made that Maxwell scene so much fun are long gone from the town, chasing new opportunities or forced out by high rents and the need for more space to raise families. Most everyone is still making music. The next generation of rockers and artists has headed to Williamsburg, Brooklyn that parallel universe to Hoboken. I still show up at Maxwell’s, now the established home for three decades worth of rock n roll. With CBGBs and Max’s shuttered it’s the last of the’70s clubs that introduced punk and new wave to the world.
There used to be a painting hanging in Maxwell’s right next to the jukebox by the local fine artist Tim Daly. I think Steve Fallon took it with him when he moved to Rehoboth Beach DE. It’s a painting of the meadowlands, that vast expanse of marsh and industry that separates the Jersey suburbs from Hoboken and New York City. Something about the way nature at its most raw and beautiful butted up against factories, radio towers and train lines at their most utilitarian always fascinated me. Perhaps it was the leap of faith it took to cross over from the safety of the suburbs of America, across the meadowlands to something unknown and a little dangerous on the other side. A place where we could make something to call our own:
Walk me out in the technical fields
Just to see how my baby feels
Got these wires in my hand
Gonna stretch ‘em out across the land
We were busy working on our world
and it’ll be our world…
Certainly a lot of fine music got made in Hoboken in the 1980s.
I’d like to say something extraordinary happened back then. I can definitely attest to having an extraordinarily good time.