06 January 2009

Flashes Of You Were Everywhere

It's not something I freely advertise, but I once actually considered living in Hoboken, New Jersey.

It was only for an afternoon, granted, and I was under some duress at the time, as my Brooklyn sublet was coming to an end and I needed to find some place, any place. As long as it was in the Greater New York area, I reasoned, it couldn't be that bad, so one sunny afternoon I boarded the PATH train for the journey under the Hudson, to have a look around at what might lie on the mysterious other side.

I'd actually been to New Jersey before - not just driving through, as I'd done many times, though that's all many New Yorkers ever see of the Garden State. Way back in 1986 some friends and I drove out to Rutgers to see the Ramones (it was free, too!), and twice I'd been to downtown Jersey City, back in the days when Uncle Joe's still hosted shows.

But both of those trips had been in midwinter, so my JC sightseeing had been limited to the walk from the PATH station on one occasion and from the car, parked all of one block away, on the other. And frankly, if you've been downtown Jersey City, I think you'll agree that's plenty.

This time, however, it was a beautiful summer's day, and I was going to the more poetically named (I assume it has something to do with poetry; why else would you name your town "Hoboken?") and picturesque town situated right on the river, offering more spectacular views of Manhattan than you'd be likely to get most places in New York itself. Why, it's practically the same as living in Manhattan, people kept telling me. You can even get there on the subway.

Well, sort of. The PATH bears enough of a superficial resemblance to the subway - it even accepts MetroCards - to possibly fool the non-discerning rider, but it's not the same thing. Granted, I have an unnatural degree of sympathy for the New York City subway, even when, as at present, the MTA goes berserk and all but shuts down the L train late nights and weekends for nearly a month (one creepy-crawly shuttle between Bedford Avenue and Union Square every 16-20 minutes, leaving mobs of befuddled and disgruntled hipsters practically spilling off the platforms), but even at its worst the subway has a certain je ne sais quoi that PATH trains completely and utterly lack. Put it this way: if the subway traveled to Bizzaro World, it would come out the other end as a PATH train. There's just something, if not wrong, then not quite right about it.

But I knew nothing of this on that summer day I first ventured out to Hoboken. As far as I was concerned, the PATH was just an extension (and a cheaper one at that!) of the subway that was going to take me on an adventure to a new, strange, and possibly very delightful land. My train arrived almost immediately, there were plenty of empty seats - in fact I had a whole car nearly to myself - and in no more than ten minutes I was climbing the stairs into the dazzling sunshine of beautiful downtown Hoboken.

It was beautiful, too. I took a right turn and headed down to the river, where the view was indeed spectacular. Children played, fishermen fished, and the whole scene was so tranquil and harmonious that the illusion of Manhattan being almost within touching distance seemed especially profound.

I wandered along Frank Sinatra Drive - another plus for Hoboken; most towns insist on naming their streets after boring dead people or letters and numbers - and through the parklike setting of Stevens Institute of Technology before getting down to the serious business of checking out neighborhoods to see if they felt like the kinds of places I might like to live.

Apparently Hoboken was somewhat of a slum at one time, but today it's anything but, at least on the north end of town along Washington Street and environs. The red flat-fronted brick apartment buildings, mostly four stories high, looked like an almost Disney-esque replication of old-timey urban America. They bore a certain kinship to New York City tenements of a similar vintage, but maintained their own unique style - one immediately noticeable distinction being that they lacked the ubiquitous fire escapes of Manhattan. Another difference was that whole blocks, or strings of blocks, had maintained a more or less uniform architecture, unlike the chaotic mishmash you encounter on so many New York blocks. It was pleasing to the eye, true, but almost too pleasing. By the time I'd walked a mile or two it was all looking a bit samey, even though styles did change - but in a gradual and uniform way - as I passed from one neighborhood to another.

Still, I kept telling myself, I could live here. In some ways it's even nicer than New York, quieter, cleaner, and, if my trip on the PATH had been any indication, just as convenient to Manhattan as Brooklyn. My trip on the PATH hadn't, however, been a reliable indicator, as nearly every subsequent trip would demonstrate. Not only was almost anywhere of interest in Hoboken a 10 or 20 block walk from the (only) PATH station, but once there, I might wait another 20 or 30 minutes for a train that would still take me no further than the West Side, which was not always where I wanted to be.

But I'm getting ahead of myself here; in fact, my main reason for focusing on the PATH being like the subway without actually being the subway is to illustrate how the same is true of Hoboken: it's like New York, enough so to fool many people into thinking it's practically the same thing, but there's always a subtly jarring, slightly discordant note letting you know that it's not and never will be.

Since that time I've traveled to Hoboken on perhaps half a dozen occasions, each time hoping - even expecting - to discover some of the charms that had eluded me on previous visits. I'm still impressed by the architecture, still, in my childlike way, thrilled at the idea of being in a whole different state, still wide-eyed, wondering, and wanting to ask every stranger I meet, "What's it all about, Hoboken?"

But let's be honest: the only thing that has gotten me across the river and into Hoboken in recent months has been the prospect of some bands I knew or liked playing at Maxwell's. Maxwell's, for those of you who don't keep up with these things, is or was supposed to be some kind of rock and punk rock mecca dating way back into the 90s or possibly even earlier. Lookout bands who played there on tour came home raving about how great it was, better, supposedly, than anything in New York. I'd been hearing the hype for years from JIM JERSEY BEAT as well, not to mention many of the Queens pop punkers, so I was surprised to be distinctly underwhelmed by the place.

There wasn't anything particularly wrong about it; it just seemed like a typical rock club-cum-restaurant and bar, nothing more nor less. I didn't appreciate the crowd that gathered in the restaurant-bar side of things; they weren't vile or disgusting by any means, just more like what I'd expect to find in some cornfed Midwestern university town. In the music room itself, the sound was spotty at best, due, I guessed, more to lackadaisical sound men than any deficiencies in the equipment itself. And the two previous times I was there, the air conditioning was kept on so high that it was necessary to go outside to get warm, and I use the term "warm" loosely, since it was only in the low 60s. Why, you quite reasonably ask, was the air conditioning on at all then? Well, we asked the same question, also quite reasonably, of the Maxwell's staff. "We always have it on and we're not going to turn it off," was the gist of their reply.

So it was with some trepidation that I set out for Maxwell's once more on Saturday night. With the temperature in the high 20s or low 30s, I reasoned, they at least wouldn't have the air conditioning on, and in this I was correct. The sound was better than usual, too, but - it's always something - the sound person had one microphone at a noticeably lower volume than the other. A reasonably setup when you've got a lead singer and a backup, but several of tonight's bands had dual singers, one of whom got to be heard loud and clear and the other, not so much.

I was there mainly to see the DOPAMINES from Cincinnati, Ohio, and the boys didn't disappoint, except possibly by playing a song or two too few in their 20-minute set. Still, there's nothing wrong with a band refusing to overstay its welcome, and they left me looking forward to seeing them again, something that many bands distinctly fail to do. I'm thinking specifically of SHELLSHAG, who closed out the evening's proceedings.

A very impressive outfit they are, too, with the two of them producing a bigger and fuller sound than I've seen coming out of many three- and even four-pieces. And although I'm not usually a fan of bassless, quirky duos, they completely won me over. I completely overlooked their half-artsy, half-hippie costumes, even the jingle bells attached to JEN SHAG's waist and ankles (in fact I might not have even noticed the latter if CHELSEA hadn't pointed them out, and I completely understood why the crowd was going crackers for them.

Until, that is, they kept on playing when it was time not to play anymore. Maybe I was wrong, because most of the audience seemed willing to hear more songs, but in any show there comes a time where it either ends or I'm checking my watch, and I don't even wear a watch. And Shellshag passed this point and still played two or three more songs. And they were good songs, too, and the crowd cheered, and cheered more when they closed with the ritual destruction of the instruments (I know, you're thinking "Do bands still think there's something remotely original about this?" but actually, they put enough of a twist into it that they (just about) pulled it off). But will I jump at my next chance to see Shellshag with the same alacrity that I'll rush to the next Dopamines show? Eh, probably not. Less is almost always more in underground music.

There were other bands, notably FULL OF FANCY, who are garnering quite a following among the local pop-punkers, and TENEMENT, who I caught just a few songs by, who had long hair and were compared by some who know about these things to DINOSAUR, JR. (not the sort of comparison likely to elicit any excitement from yours truly). I guess there were more bands, too, before I arrived, including the aforementioned Jim Jersey Beat doing his folk (actually, I guess it's now called anti-folk) thing, but frankly, by the time I psyched myself up to leave Manhattan, there was no way I was going to catch the first two or three acts.

I had steeled myself for yet another new adventure: taking the bus, which stops right outside Maxwell's, back to New York instead of walking the mile or so to the PATH station (somehow leaving New York via bus is far more disturbing to my equilibrium than doing so by the more natural means of underground train), but I was rescued from that uncertain fate by the illustrious MATT LAME, who chauffeured me straight back to Brooklyn, enabling me to bypass the L train clusterfuck as well, and leaving me vowing to cross no more rivers, even to Manhattan, for a while.

Oh, but hey, Hoboken, you weren't so bad this time. I actually pretty much enjoyed myself. In New Jersey, no less!


Jersey Beat said...

Maxwell's, for those of you who don't keep up with these things, is or was supposed to be some kind of rock and punk rock mecca dating way back into the 90s or possibly even earlier.

I hope this is Larry being sardonic. Maxwells has been there since 1978. REM, Husker Du, Replacements, and a few other "good" bands played there through the 80's.

Larry Livermore said...

Well, 1978 is possibly even earlier than the 90s, isn't it?

I thought the place was pretty old, but it was late and I was too lazy to look up the exact date. Thanks, Jim!

chelsea said...

I'm glad you got home safe & sound, Larry.

"Way back in 1986 some friends and I drove out to Rutgers to see the Ramones"

I wonder if we'll get you to come to New Brunswick again someday...maybe I'll have to set up a Delay, Max Levine, Dopamines show!

Sweet Emotion! said...


Sorry. Had to say it.