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Sietsema's Fond Farewell to Nightlife Legend Maxwell's

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Mofungo, circa 1988 (left to right): Elliott Sharp, Chris Nelson, Robert Sietsema, Willie Klein

I was a bassist in a band called Mofungo from 1979 to 1993. We were headquartered in the East Village, and played a style of music called Swerve or Skronk, or sometimes just Noise. We'd been inspired by bands like the Contortions and DNA, and gigged with acts that included Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Nico, the Minutemen, the Fall, and Pavement, among many others. We did probably 150 gigs and eight albums during that period, and performed at places around town that eventually became notorious: CBGB, Peppermint Lounge, Mudd Club, Tier 3, the Ritz (now Webster Hall), Studio 8, and Limelight. But whether in the New York area, or on the road, there were no gigs we relished more than those at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey.

The place was hidden behind a fusty old Irish bar near the northern frontier of Hoboken, a long walk and PATH ride from the East Village, but we often made the pilgrimage, even when we weren't playing there. The founder of the club was music legend Steve Fallon, a lifelong Hoboken booster who succeeded in getting all sorts of musicians to actually move to Hoboken by the force of his personality. He really treated bands right, giving them drink tickets and a full meal in the front barroom. Maxwell's flame-grilled hamburgers were particularly large and delicious, and we always had them with cheese and thick slices of bacon. The steak fries were just average. Eventually Todd Abramson, the club booker and a former Yo La Tengo roommate, bought the rock club and carried on the tradition, with Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth as a co-owner.

The place got its name from the Maxwell House factory just down 14th Street from the bar, brooding over the river. When you left the club after a gig around 3 a.m. or so, you could often smell the coffee roasting. Now the factory has been turned into condos, and the club itself will be a thing of the past come the end of July. (The last scheduled concert is July 23, but you can be sure there will be some sort of massive farewell show.) Sniff, sniff!

The rock club was tucked behind the barroom in a space that held 200—small enough that even up-and-coming acts could make it seem full. There was a tiny raised platform at one end—I wouldn't call it a stage—the bands performed on, two or sometimes three bands per night. The sound system was good and loud, and the sound guys cared about the bands they worked with. In the early 80s, Mofungo played around 15 gigs there. The pay was generous, without all the deductions you'd get at CBGB, and we often made $300 or so.

In the early 80s, you could see influential British bands like the Buzzcocks, the Slits, and the Fall there. See them? You almost sat in their laps. Such was the underground reputation of the club that, as the 80s wore on, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen shot videos at Maxwell's, and Nirvana, Sleater-Kinney, Dinosaur Jr., and the Replacements all performed there. Just this April, Rolling Stone magazine declared Maxwell's the number three rock club in the nation. But too late to save it.

Of course, the band most associated with the club is Yo La Tengo. In 2011, they asked Mofungo to regroup and open for them at one of their famous Hanukkah shows, and we readily complied. It was a weird thrill taking the stage before the packed room 25 years after our previous appearance. And you can be sure I wolfed down one of those free hamburgers beforehand.
—Robert Sietsema
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1039 Washington St Hoboken, NJ 07030