[Editor’s note: Jersey Beat is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, and commemorating the occasion with a concert at Maxwell’s Tavern in Hoboken, April 14. Since founder and editor Jim Testa knows the story better than anyone else, and is an NJArts.net contributor, I asked if we could republish his jerseybeat.com post on the show and the history of the site, and he graciously agreed. – Jay Lustig]
It all started with a pun.
When my buddy Howard Wuelfing and I graduated from Rutgers, Howard eloped and moved to Washington, D.C., and I went home to Weehawken. Howard became very involved with the early D.C. punk scene (which is how I wound up writing a song for the Slickee Boys … but that’s a whole other story). Howard started a fanzine, first called Descenes and then later Dischords, and had friends from around the country submit scene reports. (This was years before Maximum Rock N Roll, mind you.) So the writer from L.A. would talk about seeing the Descendents play in his friend’s backyard and the guy from Minneapolis would rave about watching Hüsker Dü in a basement.
I wanted in, and I had started hanging out at Maxwell’s, so I decided to do a column about the nascent NJ scene, and called it “Jersey Beat” — a pun on Mersey Beat, the term British music journalists in the ’60s coined to describe the sound coming from Liverpool and other towns along the Mersey River (like, y’know, the Beatles). A few years later, Howard’s marriage ended and with it the zine, but I was having so much fun being “the fanzine guy” at Maxwell’s (I used to leave a stack of every issue on the cigarette machine at the door) that I decided to just start my own zine. It was 1982, DIY was in the air, I wanted to be a music writer and couldn’t get published anywhere else … so why not?
And that’s how Jersey Beat was born. In the beginning, every issue was about 12 pages, printed by a old hippie on an offset press in between cranking out wedding invitations and business cards. I’d get the pages, bring them home, collate them, staple them, and voilà! A fanzine! There were no computers in 1982, remember. I had a manual typewriter, a pair of scissors, a jar of rubber cement, and a lot of imagination. (Press-off letters provided the headlines.)
In 1982, word was just beginning to get out about the scene at Maxwell’s, more so in NYC (thanks to publications like New York Rocker and the Soho Weekly News that employed Hoboken regulars like Glenn Morrow and Ira Kaplan). But Jersey had a scene of its own. The drinking age was still 18, and there were clubs and live music all over the place — the Showplace in Dover, the Dirt Club and the Jetty in Bloomfield, Patrix and the Court Tavern in New Brunswick. … So for our first issue, for reasons that make no sense to me now, I decided to put a skinny-tie New Wave band called the Jitterz on the cover of our first issue. They’ve long disappeared into the mists of rock ‘n’ roll oblivion, but I did better with the second issue, which featured the biggest stars of the Maxwell’s scene, the Bongos.
When I wasn’t bouncing around to the sound of pop rock at Maxwell’s, I was banging my head to the latest new sound to hit the east coast, something called hardcore that had migrated from California and soon found a short-lived home in a club a few blocks from Maxwell’s called Mile Square City. Bikers used to like to drink there late at night, so the promoter started and ended the hardcore shows early, and that’s where I met bands like Adrenalin O.D. (who’d be NJ’s premier HC band well into the ’90s), Even Worse and Pleased Youth. At least until the Saturday night when either the bikers showed up early or the punk show ran late; whatever, the two factions started an old-fashioned bottle-smashing, furniture-crashing brawl that smashed up the place and ended live music at Mile Square City.
Thanks to my day job in insurance, I was on the cutting edge of the personal computer revolution as it happened. And every time the computers at work got upgraded, so did the quality of the zine. Soon I learned I could have photos professionally dot-screened so they’d look as good as they did in professional magazines and newspapers. As the zine’s notoriety grew, I started attracting a few advertisers and could add pages, content and more features. Friends and local musicians joined the staff. And then one day I went to see my old hippie printer and found that his store had burned to the ground.
That was a rough couple of issues. Photocopier technology was not what it is now. We did a couple of issues that looked like crap. Then Jack Rabid, who started his zine The Big Takeover a few months before I published the first Jersey Beat, told me about a plant in Long Island City called Linco Printing. They had this marvelous machine that could print eight newsprint pages at a time, fold and collate and staple the whole shebang, and spit it out as a finished magazine. For a few more bucks, you could even add a color cover on glossy heavy paper. As long as I did multiples of 8 pages, we were gold.
The punk rock boom of the ’90s (launched by Nirvana, followed by Green Day and the Offspring) meant that a lot of the silly little bands I had been writing about for years were suddenly starting to make money. The same for their labels. And God bless ’em, the people at Lookout and Epitaph and SST and Twin/Tone were very generous about pouring some of their newfound wealth back into the scene. Advertising took off and our little fanzine ballooned to 128 pages with a glossy cover, and stayed that way until we stopped publishing in 2007.
See, a funny thing happened in the ’00s. Record labels stopped making money hand over fist. The pop punk boom (which Jersey Beat had covered extensively; I’m sure I hold the world record for interviewing Screeching Weasel and the Queers) waned. But even more than the decline in advertising, the death of independent distribution is what really killed our print zine. In the boom years of the ’80s and ’90s, it was easy to send hundreds of zines to both mom ‘n’ pop and chain record stores. (Tower Records’ magazine wing played a huge role in the story of 80’s fanzinedom; they had stores all over the country and actually paid you honestly and on time.) But all those distributors either went bankrupt (often taking huge amounts of not-paid-for inventory with them) or were bought up by bigger companies who had no interest in zines. By our final issues, I was giving away way more copies than I was selling. And most of the copies I was selling was through mail order — which, thanks to rising postal rates, actually lost me money.
Jersey Beat had hopped on the web almost as soon as it was possible, back in the days of dial-up modems and tiny graphics and text-based sites. We registered the JerseyBeat.com domain in 1997 — we were one of the first fanzines to do so — and once the print issues stopped, we revamped the site to be a full-fledged online music magazine. And that’s where we are now.
On April 14, we’re going to return to Maxwell’s (now known at Maxwell’s Tavern), and many of the people who helped inspire me to start the zine back in 1982 will be there to perform and celebrate: Richard Barone of the Bongos, Glenn Morrow of the Individuals (who went on to a pretty nice career as the owner of Bar/None Records), Glenn Mercer and Dave Weckerman of the Feelies, the original lineup of the Cucumbers, three founding members of Gutbank (Alice Genese, Karyn Kuhl, and Bob Bert), John and Toni Baumgartner of Speed The Plough, Joe and Cindi Merklee of Balloon Squad, and many more.
Thirty-five years after it all started, it’s a miracle we’re all still around; beyond miraculous that we’re all not only still making music, but also fast friends. It will be a night of nostalgia, to be sure. But it will also be a chance to hear some of the music that rocked Maxwell’s fabled walls way back then, by artists who — in my humble opinion — have only gotten better with age.
I’m also excited to announce that I’m beginning work on a “Best of Jersey Beat” anthology to be published by Don Giovanni Records, which has already published two books by our old friend Larry Livermore of Lookout Records fame.
Concert proceeds will benefit The Project Matters, a local NJ charity that mentors and supports young musicians.
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