Evolution of a Town. Evolution of its Music. My Non-Role in the mid-90’s New Brunswick, NJ Music Scene

A note about this piece: This is the unedited version of an essay I prepared for a writer and an old college friend, who is starting down the long journey of trying to document the New Jersey and New York City indie music scene of the 90’s. Counting the number of bricks on the Great Wall of China might be an easier task, but, nonetheless, here is my contribution…

Before I get going, just let me say this: It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way.

At some point in the mid-90s, I slouched at my dorm room desk, armed with a dial-up connection to AOL, and knew that the last thing I wanted to do with my life was sit in front of a computer all day. There were way too many things going on in the world that made my mind wander, and understanding how to make computers work just wasn’t one of them. I wanted to be a musician but was talentless, despite over ten years of musical theory and countless hours practice with various lower brass instruments. I figured there weren’t any rock bands looking for a baritone horn player, anyway. So I resorted to pre-med, since I thought that becoming a doctor would allow me to make enough money without feeling guilty – I would be helping save lives, after all. My mother always said that doctors and lawyers made more money than anyone else (this was pre-hedge fund and pre-priviate equity, mind you) but being a lawyer just felt sleazy, while being a doctor felt like I could justify tooling around town in my Mercedes SUV without feeling too bad about myself. The downside of my chosen path of study, however, was that I wasn’t really any good at natural sciences either. It was time for Plan B and, unfortunately, technology was the only practical topic that could keep my interest for more than five minutes.

Fast-forward about 12 years: Sitting in the ball room at the Four Seasons Hotel in Las Vegas, I am the center of attention at a large conference as, earlier that morning, I had just been named one of the top 25 technology executives in the country. I didn’t tell anyone about this, but people eventually found out. As a result, I had to humbly endure accolades from lots of people that I didn’t really know and even more people that didn’t really care about. Having to survive one more afternoon of boring banquet-style lunch and even more boring conversation, I was barely paying attention to those around me when, suddenly, I heard a guy two seats away mention that he went to Rutgers University.

This was my cue to enter and I quickly made a new friend out of “Sacramento Guy”: poorly dressed, thinning hair and a slight lisp, but it made no difference. He was my rose in this desert of horrific quibbles about how the hotel’s bed linens had an inferior thread count for a property of this status.

Sacramento Guy was a bit older than me, but we spoke the same language. He reminisced about the Grease Trucks and late night Fat Cats after the bars closed. He spoke about Greasy Tony’s, a mythical pizza joint which I never experienced first hand, as it had been paved over to make way for a high-rise university housing complex. And finally, he spoke of the Melody Bar, a symbol of everything that the New Brunswick, New Jersey music scene once was. Sacramento Guy had been there and he actually knew the real thing – he wasn’t one of these sheep who simply blurted out useless trivia like “Did you know Matt Pinfield used to DJ there?” (who didn’t know that?) or lifeless accounts like, “I saw the Bouncing Souls there one night, they were AWESOME.” (who hadn’t seen that?) No, Sacramento Guy actually understood what the Melody Bar was and what it meant, not only to the New Brunswick music scene, but to to the larger movement that it and its bands had eventually ignited. We talked about punk. And ska. And Emo before it was Emo and before anyone knew it was Emo. And although they had no fucking clue as to what we were talking about, our ten other lunch companions were fairly intrigued by stories of random Friday night punk shows and tales of my friend Steve getting his head bashed into a loudspeaker during a Mephiskapheles and Toasters show at the Livingston Student Center in 1995. When I shared my involvement in the music scene and how it dominated so many years of my life, I could see a look of surprise in some of their faces, as they wondered how I could go from buying $1 Millers at dirty dive bars on Tuesday nights to the ball room at the Four Seasons, all in such a small amount of time.

“What happened to the music scene?”, one guy asked.

“Why did you decide to go into your current line of work?”, asked another.

I explained how The Melody bar, for example, had been run out of town by its neighboring behemoth of a hospital and its massive expansion plans, along with the majority of the other businesses who sat on the fringe the downtown area, recently made anew with trendy restaurants and expensive housing. I explained that music was a tough business and that I had worked my ass off to, virtually, go nowhere and make nothing. I had to choose a career, and music production wasn’t a good choice.

“Sounds like you gentrified – both you and the city.”, the last guy responded.

This was a pretty fascinating interpretation. How could I have gentrified? The city may have gone through its own phase of gentrification – he was right – but people don’t gentrify.

Or do they?

Had my more humble roots been displaced for a new me – someone who was was more concerned about living in the better neighborhood than I was about following my music-led heart? I contemplated this for a while and realized that I had not, in fact, been a victim of this so-called “self-gentrification”, not because I hadn’t changed, but because I had not really been true to my roots to begin with. The truth was, looking back, I was deeply embedded into the heart of the New Brunswick music scene, but I wasn’t true to it. I was a spy. A mole. An outsider who spent my week posing as one of the locals, but who would diligently put myself to work conspiring towards its eventual undoing.

I guess I need to explain.

The Early Years

Sometime in the spring of my freshman year, I took a job with a large music promoter in New York City. I had immediately taken a liking to it, working meaningless tasks around local venues on show nights. Everything from dressing room prep to selling T-shirts to unloading boxes – nothing was beneath me. I was good at what I did and people noticed it enough that I was offered real work from real promoters, most of which I had to turn down due to my studies. Good things came out of that, though: I learned a lot about the business; I got to experience the dirtier side of late-night New York; and I had a met a co-worker who insisted that she was not my girlfriend, even though she would let me fuck her in her NYU dorm room countless nights a week. In the meantime, I had been working with a Rutgers University-sponsored group, known as RCPC Concerts, whose charter was to put on diverse, “large act” concert programming for the University community. At that point in time, RCPC Concerts had a budget of over $120K and its parent organization, RCPC, had a total budget exceeding $500K. I would eventually head up both RCPC Concerts and RCPC, a role that put me in charge of the largest budget in the University, as well as the largest overall student organization, for several years.

Over the course of five years, I had been the producer of over 25 shows with aggregate budgets exceeded $350,000 and was involved in some part of the production aspect of many others (both with my on-campus and off-campus jobs). For me, music was a passion, but, more importantly, it was my business. For about two years, I was considered the go-to-guy on campus for anyone who wanted to play, wanted some money to perform or needed help putting something big together on University grounds. On a daily basis, my email and voice mail would be overflowing with messages from local bands, promoters, middle agents and production companies looking to get a piece of the big pot that I controlled.

In theory, you would think that this would be a great thing. Any big-time music producer wannabe (like myself at the time) would salivate for the type of budget that I had. And the $120K wasn’t all of it – I had the opportunity to directly tap into funds from other organizations within RCPC, as well as co-sponsorship monies with outside groups. You would think that, with that type of money behind us, we would have been the group for which the thriving New Brunswick music scene would have turned to to help foster the incredible local talent that walked the city streets and played in its various bars and basements on the weekends. Unfortunately, this was not at all the case and there was a strong rift for many years between a good part of the general student population, local New Brunswick artists, local venues and our organization. For years, the general feeling among the community was that RCPC Concerts was too focused on putting together two or three mediocre, mainstream acts each year and didn’t use its funds to support the local music scene.

And for the most part, this was true.

The reasons for this, however, run deep and complex, rooted somewhere within the machine that really ran RCPC and the University, together coupled with a dramatic change in the local and college music production market around the mid-90s. I’ll do my best to explain…

The Business of Large-Scale, University Concert Production

To begin, the charter of the organization was to use its funds solely for the student-led production of major concerts. This means that the students own the planning and production of the concert from end-to-end, no different from what a professional concert production company would do. This is a excellent experience for the students who are involved. To the contrary, many other large universities attract first-rate acts by simply renting out their venues to concert production companies and the university simply becomes another stop on the band’s tour. At Rutgers, however, there isn’t a first-class theater or arena available for concerts, as the RAC (the basketball area) and Rutgers Stadium (where the football team plays) are both under the tight control of the Rutgers Athletic Department, who had perennially declined to allow these venues to be used for concerts. When a University has a venue to “rent out” to a production company, it usually means there is very little risk and all upside – the university gets a cut of the ticket revenue and the students get to see a first-class act on campus. In the Rutgers model, however, the RCPC budget is responsible for all costs: Artists fees, audio, lighting, staging, advertising, police and security, etc. With top artists costing $25K and above, and production fees often exceeding $15K, it is difficult to make substantial ticket revenue when your largest venue holds only 1500 people, unless you jack the ticket prices up to the $35+ range, which is considered to be a disservice to the general student population. So what RCPC was left with was typically $20K-$25K acts in the larger venue (the College Avenue Gym, capacity of 1500) and maximum $12K in the smaller venue (the Rutgers Student Center MPR, capacity of 500). The box office return for either of these venues is small, and it’s difficult to produce any sort of profit, which means that you have to budget your shows wisely: Spend too much in the fall and you have nothing left for spring semester or for the big Rutgersfest in April; If you didn’t spend enough early, you start getting lots of shit from fellow students and advisers for not spending students’ money wisely. What usually happens here is that you can pull off one big show in the fall or spring and one or two other medium size shows – the rest goes to Rutgersfest in April. And although $120K sounds like a lot of money to spend, the Rutgers production model makes it easy to blow through that quickly. The net result of this is that you have to severely limit the amount of shows you have each year (2 big shows is realistic) and the acts that you book are are pretty sure to piss off at least half of the 45,000 student population. That’s assuming you’re actually trying to accommodate for the entire student population, which is impossible. The bottom line is this: The economics of the production model employed by the university just didn’t work.

Which brings me to the next problem: For most of the early and mid-1990s, there was a top-down racist policy among the Rutgers College administration when it came to R&B, rap and hip-hop. Even years prior to the college and insurance industry crack-down on many artists (I’ll get into this later), Rutgers College refused to approve any true rap or hip-hop act for years. Time and time again, myself, my predecessors and my successors proposed first-rate rap acts to the University administration, only to be immediately shot down. On various occasions, I was read lyrics from the group I proposed, only to be asked nonsense like, “Do you think this sends a positive message to the student body?”. On another occasion, a Rutgers College dean told me that a rap group would attract “a certain type of person” that would cause unwanted trouble (ummm, would this certain type of person be black?). The results of this were quite clear: For years, much of the University’s substantial minority population was ignored when it came to spending the aggregate millions of dollars of student fees allocated for major concerts, mainly because the final word was in the hands of a couple of forty-something white guys.

Finally, one of the biggest issues we had to deal with at the time, had to do with kids getting their heads bashed in. Listen, I don’t like kids to get hurt, but there is a big difference between a kid getting his face popped in a street fight and a kid taking an elbow to the nose in a mosh pit. I won’t digress and get into a cultural history of moshing and crowd surfing, but trust me, it had been going on a long time before the first guy decided he was going to sue a concert venue because things got a bit too rough in the crowd. Unfortunately, insurance companies were just starting to really pay attention to this and, as a result, the cost of insurance riders required to hold concerts around the country began to skyrocket. The University, as well as thousands of small venues, began to see this as a real risk and, regardless of whether the risk was true or perceived, the risk assessment process which “cleared” bands to play in our venues became cumbersome, ridiculous and, ultimately, a total roadblock. At a national level, the insurance industry was keeping precise records of incidents that occurred at every concert.

Kid get kicked in the face at a Mighty Mighty Bosstones concert in Boise? One demerit for the Bosstones.

Police called in to break up an out-of-control pit in California? The bands and the venues would be duly recorded.

At one point, it got taken to such an extreme, that it didn’t matter whether a band was associated with an “incident” – if you played the type of music that might come within a mile of mosh pit, you were banned. As a result of this it became nearly impossible to produce larger-scale punk or hardcore shows on campus for many years. This might not be a big deal if we were going to school in Kansas City, but New Brunswick had indisputably established itself as an east-coast punk and hardcore mecca over the years. Stronger than any other musical force in town, the punk and hardcore scene was woven into the fabric of the city and taking punk bands off the menu was equivalent to banning Mozart at Julliard.

Given all of this, I soon learned that my job was not so much about concert production as it was about learning to work the system and trying to get as much out of it as I could. And, although I was good at what I did when it came time to actually put a show together, the greatest value that I provided to my peers and constituents was my ability to navigate through the ins and outs of the machine in order to, ultimately, just put a band on stage. I could get an audience with the dean in no time. The chief of police would enjoy bullshitting with me about our then-crappy football team. I could source a 48-channel board, a flatbed generator and a stage with 12 hours notice. When I finally got through all the bullshit required to actually get the music playing, I liked what I did and I did it well.

Outside of the Ivory Tower

When I wasn’t busy doing important things, like figuring out what brand of throat-coat tea Paula Cole wanted in her dressing room (true), I was deeply distracted by the local music that surrounded me. The amazing thing about New Brunswick was the fact that the music scene didn’t need the University at all, it only needed the kids for whom it attracted. The scene didn’t really revolve around the university and it managed to progress just fine on its own. To the thousands of bands who passed through its city limits over the years, the fact that New Brunswick was home to Rutgers University was an afterthought, if they even knew so at all. Furthermore, although it was only thirty-five miles from the capital of the world, the 1990’s New Brunswick did not play second fiddle to New York City scene, particularly when it came to punk and hardcore. A quick car ride or New Jersey Transit train could have whisked music fans to CBGB in a matter of minutes, but for tons of regular kids and bands from around the country, New Brunswick was often a destination in itself.

There are far better accounts written about the history and influences of the New Brunswick music scene and I won’t pretend that I can do it any justice at all. But this town that bred such bands as Bouncing Souls, Lifetime and Thursday became a magnate and breeding-ground for influential punk, ska, hardcore and emo musicians who would often mature from their Hub City roots and move on to partake in significant acts on a wider, more national stage. The Melody Bar was just one of the “commercial” venues which helped put these acts on display, but the basement shows that were scattered throughout the town’s dilapidated houses were what truly fueled its musical fire. This would often be considered the “underground” scene in many cities but, in New Brunswick, this was the scene – and it opened my eyes to a whole other world of music that existed far beyond the radio or anything available at the local Sam Goody (may God rest its soul). This scene fascinated me and, although I felt it was my job to keep my eye on every band and every type of music that crossed my path, I remember seeing Ensign during a basement show in 1996 and almost leaving in tears. It was that good.

That being said, the local scene was not everything to us and the bigger acts that passed through the various NJ, New York City and Philly venues often attracted the attention of me and my friends. And with those shows came so many memories. There were countless shows at CB’s, Wetlands, Coney Island High, Birch Hill, The Pony, The Troc and a million other grungy places that either don’t exist anymore or are only shells of what they once were. For some strange reason, some of the oddest things in the world stick out in my head like they happened yesterday: My friend Scott and I going into the (then-untrendy) Meatpacking district to see Inspecter 7 play at a short-lived hole-in-the-wall called The Cooler (literally, the downstairs cooler of a former meat processing shop); Hanging in the bus with the guys from Lagwagon in a mid-90’s Warped Tour (before the Warped Tour featured bands that sang songs like, “Hey there, Delilah”); An hour of drunken bullshitting with Toby, the lead singer from H20, on some corner of the Village on a night in 1996; …and enough stories like that to fill an encyclopedia set’s worth of volumes. Bands like NOFX, Bad Religion, Pennywise, Sick of it All, The Bouncing Souls, Suicide Machines, H20, Less Than Jake, Unwritten Law and 7 Seconds consumed much of our attention.

Punk and hardcore weren’t alone, though. There were countless numbers of New Brunswick mainstays which spent year after year playing every bar and local show they could get a slot in. Bands like Boss Jim Gettys, Bionic Rhoda, Drag Pack and Evelyn Forever were fixtures.

The point is this: I wasn’t a foreigner to the local music around me. I didn’t wake up one day and decide that bringing Third Eye Blind to campus would change the world. But the position I was put in was a difficult one and it was extremely challenging to put any real time or money behind something more locally-focused, when there was so much pressure to deliver something bigger. Sure, I would throw local bands a bone now and then: A battle of the bands here, an opening slot for Smash Mouth there. I paid Midtown $500 to open a show for me once – then the most amount of money they had ever been paid for a single gig. I realize now, of course, all of that was fairly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Lost Opportunity

I know I could have made a bigger impact on the music scene during my time in New Brunswick and, looking back, there were a few things that I know I should have done differently.

To start, I should have instituted a program in which we immediately used, say, 5% or 10% of our budget to directly fund local bands and local shows – even if they weren’t taking place within one of our venues. Although the guidelines that controlled how I spent this money forbid such funding, there were numerous loopholes that would have allowed me to do so. $30K a year injected into the local music scene would have done wonders. Maybe it would have stopped a band from breaking up because its guitarist couldn’t find an extra $100 to pay his rent. Maybe it could have brought more bands closer to the general student population. I dunno. But I know we could have done more.

I should have also taken a stronger stance in regards to the racist attitude put forward by the administration. I should have blown the cover off of it and taken it more public. I should have gotten the rap fans and the punk fans and the hardcore fans and the whites and the blacks and the skinheads and the straight-edgers – and everyone else who was getting the shaft at the time – and used the community to rally behind their music and demand that their money be spent fairly and equally on music that they liked.

And finally, I shouldn’t have been a pawn in the administration’s game over the course of the years. There were many times that I was the student face behind some of the shady things that they were spearheading. For example, after a police officer received minor injuries from a student carrying a knife at a Livingston College Student Center event, all large university events essentially went into “lockdown” for a period of time. As a result, I co-authored the University’s first policy on metal detector use at “large” events, which mandated that each student be scanned by a metal detector before entering a concert. The move received local and national attention and was scrutinized by everyone from local programming organizations to the ACLU. I wasn’t happy with this policy – it cost student organizations a lot of money and I thought it was a violation of student rights. I did go on record, however, in both The Daily Targum and The Star Ledger, saying that this was a step in the right direction for the University. I knew that, although people wouldn’t like it, this was the only way for us to move forward with large-scale events again.

I am probably too hard on myself, however. After all, we did have a chance to put on a number of good shows and, despite the mainstream nature of them, they were almost always sold out. The experience that myself and hundreds of students gained was invaluable – both in and out of the music industry – and the friends I made along the way really gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. I got to see the very commercial side of music: the ridiculous things that bands actually do ask for in their dressing room; the horror of dealing with tour managers; the sleaziness of agents; onerous, 25-page production contracts. It was all fun, though, and I would never take it back.

Epilogue

Looking back, my time in New Brunswick was filled with memories that I will never forget – both music and non-music related. And, although I was mentally and physically drained by a business I started halfway through my college career, the music was always playing and my love for the local band scene never faded. The people I hung out with for the next four years were all involved with the local scene in some way. I met my five-year, live-in ex-girlfriend through RCPC concerts (I had her tend to Soul Asylum’s dressing room in 1996). The experience I gained producing concerts and working with people undoubtedly paved the way for my professional successes later in life. I will never forget those days.

Last year, I was sitting at The Half King (a NYC bar owned by “Perfect Storm” author, Sebastian Junger), sharing a beer and a burger with Brand New’s tour manager, Tom Gates. Tom and I had a bit of “shop talk” about the current state of emo and punk music and, quite frankly, I was a bit teary-eyed. I missed being part of the business and I missed being consumed by something that so many other people found valuable and fulfilling. And although I had been successful in my own line of work, I couldn’t help but think that I’d like to jump back into “the biz” one day. But I know that’s a long shot – a very long shot – so I don’t like to think too much about stuff like that anymore, as it just makes me upset.

…which is probably why it took me four weeks to finally start reading Ronen Kauffman’s “New Brunswick, New Jersey, Goodbye: Bands, Dirty Basements and the Search For Self”. It wasn’t that I didn’t have the time to read it – I spend half of my life in airports, after all. But I guess I was afraid of what I was going to find inside. I was hoping that I would discover a story I couldn’t relate to, or that pissed me off because of its inaccuracies. What I found, instead, was a memoir filled with the true spirit of what the New Brunswick music scene was all about in the mid 90’s: the grit, the sweat, the good times, the crappy houses, the basement shows and the entire cast of unforgettable characters that went along with it. Informally told, as if it was a long bar story being shared over a few beers, it captures what New Brunswick was, and pretty much hits it spot on. The legacy that this period leaves behind will, undoubtedly, be told in the music itself. But, Kaufman’s memoir documents the story behind that music and will stand out, for years to come, as the quintessential nostalgia piece for those of us who were there. I read it in a single sitting and reveled in many of the people, places and experiences that we had in common. And although it contained two hundred pages and a seemingly-endless amount of tales, it only led me to one conclusion:

I miss it all.

Final days of The Melody Bar, New Brunswick, NJ:

5 responses to “Evolution of a Town. Evolution of its Music. My Non-Role in the mid-90’s New Brunswick, NJ Music Scene

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  5. All good things must come to an end. The melody, The Roxy, Plum St, and Budda are all gone. The Court even closed for a minute and the Corner Tavern’s basement is shut. The scene lives on in basements, at the Old Bay and sometimes the Harvest Moon. The town is in flux. Its hard to say if what’s going on is cool or not. You should know, New Brunswick is a fucked up place, but I think things will get better. There are some good people trying to break the establishment’s crony cycle. Check out http://www.NewBrunswicktoday.com if you want to catch up on New Brunswick.

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