The Wooden Soldiers’ 1987 debut EP, “Hippies, Punks and Rubber Men,” inspired me to return to writing about the local music scene in 1988 shortly before I was given this column by Jay Lustig at East Coast Rocker. In celebration of the record’s 30th anniversary, here is a recollection of its impact.
The first independent record I ever heard by a New Brunswick band was The Wooden Soldiers’ “Hippies, Punks, and Rubber Men.” It was 1987, and I was living with friends in a frat house at Rutgers while working in an office there. It was cheaper than renting an apartment and buying my own beer.
A couple of my friends were fans of The Wooden Soldiers, a phenomenal alt-roots band that predated that term by a few years with a lyrical, ragged jangle that stuffed Bob Dylan & the Band, The Flying Burrito Brothers and The Velvet Underground into an blender. The edgy but poetic results delivered something akin to R.E.M. and The Feelies, two influential indie bands that played New Brunswick, as well as Hoboken, in the early ’80s.
My friends took me to see The Wooden Soldiers at the Court Tavern, I believe in October 1986. They played with another great New Brunswick band, Spiral Jetty, and they eventually would become labelmates on North Jersey-based Absolute A Go Go Records, which gained notoriety a few years later for signing Phish.
About a year after my first Wooden Soldiers concert, a friend got a copy of their seven-song debut EP, released on vinyl before CD became the go-to medium. I remember being so impressed with every song on “Hippies, Punks and Rubber Men” — especially “Henry David Thoreau,” a “Big Yellow Taxi”-like satire about the loss of freedom and nature. I was psyched that a local band I really liked had put out exceptional vinyl with an artistic album cover. And I was even more psyched that when I saw them again and bought my own copy, the Court Tavern was so packed that it took five minutes to get from the stage to the bathroom 50 feet away.
The Wooden Soldiers had two strong singer-songwriters-guitarists as co-frontmen, Paul Rieder, the band’s Dylan, and Greg Di Gesu, their Lou Reed. It was the strength of Rieder’s “Henry David Thoreau” that made me want to write about music again, along with “Commercial Avenue,” a funky, Latin-tinged nod to the street that would become part of New Brunswick lore as breeding ground for the basement and house show scene. A couple of months after I bought “Hippies, Punks and Rubber Men,” I was doing that zombie walk through Port Authority en route from the Commercial Avenue apartment I now was renting to a dreaded public relations job on Madison Avenue when I stumbled upon East Coast Rocker at a newsstand. The rest, as they say, is history.
It’s been 30 years since The Wooden Soldiers released “Hippie, Punks, and Rubber Men.” The anniversary is Oct. 10 and to celebrate, the band will be getting back together in April as part of a show in New Brunswick that also will celebrate the 30th anniversary of Makin Waves, which first featured them in 1988. They will be coming in from Upstate New York, North Carolina and Atlanta to play this show with drummer Matt Guzda and both original bassist Paul Marangelo and his replacement, Claude Coleman Jr., who went on to play with Ween and form Amandla.
Here’s to Wooden Soldiers and all the other great New Brunswick bands that packed the Court Tavern, as well as the Melody Bar and the Roxy, from 1986 to 1994. May today’s many fantastic but cliquey Hub City bands and its misguided, apathetic authorities respect and preserve that fragile history by unifying into the kind of cohesive scene it was then and by fostering more viable venues in which that talent can presented.
Bob Makin is the reporter for MyCentralJersey.com/entertainment and a former managing editor and still a contributor to The Aquarian Weekly, which launched this column in 1988 as East Coast Rocker. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Makin Waves at facebook.com/makinwavescolumn.