Like independent disc-jockeys at small commercial radio stations, performance venues like the Court Tavern in New Brunswick may soon become a thing of the past, or at a minimum, an increasingly rare sight. Yet it’s the very existence of these kinds of original music nightclubs that draws people to places like New Brunswick or Asbury Park in the first place.
Lenny Kaye, the rock and roll historian, author, producer, impresario and longtime guitarist with punk rock poet Patti Smith, says the Court Tavern and other original music clubs like it that once flourished in New Brunswick in the late ’80s and early ’90s are vitally important to the city and surrounding towns, its people, and culture. Since rock and roll, blues, jazz, reggae, and folk musicians began playing there in the early 1980s, the Court Tavern has served as a proving ground for such bands as Glen Burtnik and the Slaves of New Brunswick, the Smithereens, the Rockin’ Bricks, the Bounce, the Boogles, the Trash Mavericks, and literally dozens of other groups.
“A place to hang is what you need,” Kaye says in a phone interview from his lower Manhattan apartment, gearing up for another short tour with Patti Smith. “It’s a place where you can be on a stage or off a stage, and all your friends are surrounding you. New Brunswick has nurtured many scenes over the years, but it’s critical to have a place to play, to have a focus for all that energy.”
Kaye, raised in North Brunswick, attended Rutgers College as a history major and graduated in 1967. In the early ’70s, while working as a rock journalist in New York City, he met Patti Smith. He began accompanying her on guitar at small poetry readings on the lower East side. Soon after, a bass player, keyboardist, and drummer were added and the Patti Smith Group was formed. They signed with Arista Records and created some of the most important rock music of the latter half of the last century, becoming an international touring act in the process.
In 2002, the Court Tavern was in danger of being torn down to make room for a courtyard for an enormous apartment and condominium complex proposed to be built next door. That building, One Spring Street, now dominates the New Brunswick skyline as the tallest building in the Hub City.”
Today the Court Tavern has gotten into a difficult situation with a mortgage company in California, and owner Bobby Albert and his wife, Eileen, are seeking a way out of a bad mortgage. Ten days before Christmas in 2009 when word got out that the Court might close for unpaid back taxes to the city of New Brunswick, people came out of the woodwork to donate approximately $26,000 in back taxes that were owed the city, in order to keep the Court Tavern open.
“My wife, Eileen, put out a massive E-mail on December 14, and in less than 14 hours, we had well over $26,000 in cash that people handed us,” Albert says. “Some of these people we knew very well and some we didn’t know very well,” he says. “There were people standing in a line with envelopes with money to hand to me. Talk about a Christmas miracle.”
In essence, Albert says, the mortgage company’s terms are what’s creating financial hardship for the Court Tavern, and the city taxes kept getting put on the back burner.
A benefit concert on Friday, April 30, at the State Theater will allow owners Bob and Eileen Albert to pay back the money that concerned fans loaned to the venue, but the real problems won’t get straightened out until the Court finds another mortgage processor, Albert says. “The genesis of this benefit concert took place in December. When Patti Smith found out about the situation, she suggested a benefit concert.” The event will be hosted by former WRSU-FM DJ Matt Pinfield and his morning show co-host at WRXP, Leslie Fram.
“Aside from being a place to hang out,” Kaye says, “the Court is also a place to experiment, to try things out, to play to an appreciative audience of people and also to be an appreciative audience and be there and support your friends. That’s really what I like to do, is go out and see my friends play. I know when I look around at the crowd and see my friends there, I feel nourished. The Court has been there for 30 years now, so it’s part of the heritage of New Brunswick, especially for the downtown, which has seen so much change over those three decades and so many places that made New Brunswick what it is — instead of just an offshoot of Johnson and Johnson. It’s great that the Court maintains this sense of tradition.”
Owner Robert Albert, Jr. was raised in south Edison and became involved with his father in helping to run the family business shortly after graduating from Marquette University with a degree in journalism in 1981. The Court Tavern opened in March, 1961, across the street from the New Brunswick train statio. They opened the current location on August 24, 1981, at 124 Church Street.
“My dad wasn’t happy with what the city and Devco were offering him to relocate his business, so he held out, delayed the start of construction on the Ferren deck for almost a year,” Albert recalls, noting John Lynch, also a state senator, was mayor of the city at that time.
Albert’s father was known to many on the New Brunswick rock scene as a someone who supported the rock ‘n’ roll music his son brought in to the venue; the older Albert would often poke his head in on bands performing downstairs or upstairs at the venue.
After graduating from college, Albert says, “back then, in the early 1980s, this part of town was perceived as being really bad, this was a part of town people didn’t go. So the old Court Tavern was basically a daytime bar, and my father earned a pretty good living operating it.
“The summer going into my senior year in college, I tended bar at the Corner Tavern on Somerset Street and got to know local musicians. The one thing they all complained about was that there was no place to play. So when I decided to help my dad, I decided the new Court would be a place where we would have bands.”
At the Corner Tavern, which still hosts occasional live bands, Albert got to know musicians like Bob White, Danny Petroni of DP and the Greys, Tina Maschi of Frozen Concentrate, and others.
“New Brunswick is not just some sleepy little college town. Rutgers is the 7th or 8th largest state university in the country, and there wasn’t at that time any real venue for people to play,” he says.
The first band to play at the Court Tavern was Bob White and the White Boys, in October, 1981, Albert says. Through the years, bands like Stretch, DP and the Greys, Frozen Concentrate, the Deed, J.P. Gotrock, Crossfire Choir [who signed with Geffen Records], the Smitherens [who signed with Capitol Records], and dozens of other acts drew crowds big and small to the downstairs and upstairs rooms at the Court.
Even trombonist and arranger Frank Lacy, now a star in the world of jazz, who attended Rutgers’ prestigious jazz performance school at Mason Gross, cut his teeth at the Court Tavern.
The music, mostly Wednesday through Saturday nights, with the occasional Sunday afternoon local benefit thrown in, continued through the 1980s and ‘90s and into the new millennium, until April, 2001, when a developer, Omar Boraie, wanted to build a 30-story residential tower next door. That complex, now built, is known as One Spring Street. “Specifically,” Albert says, “they wanted to widen this part of Spring Street, and it was going to be a cosmetic thing, so they wanted to move us and the two buildings next to us on Spring.”
Meanwhile, Albert Sr., who died in 1997, may have been turning in his grave as the Court faced another relocation challenge. Hundreds of live music fans flooded the City Council chambers and spoke out against any plan to relocate the Court Tavern, much the same way as they came out of the woodwork, from all over the state, last December, to see that the Court Tavern’s back taxes were paid.
Albert says that when his father died, he had no idea how badly the books were kept. “He left a real mess. It’s a tough thing: on the one hand, he worked here until he could no longer physically work here, but there were some taxes then that weren’t paid and there were liens against my parents’ old house in Highland Park that we didn’t know about.”
On top of all that, construction began in 2002 for One Spring Street and the Court Tavern was encased in scaffolding for four years. Meanwhile, the Melody Bar on French Street, another place for original music, also closed as did the Bowl-a-Drome. And several other venues that once had live music stopped having bands.
“During those four years of construction, we just took a massive hit,” Albert says. “Now, we’re basically the last man standing, and it’s hard to sustain a scene with just one bar.”
Tony Shanahan, who went to high school with Albert and is the bass player with Patti Smith and other bands on the New Brunswick scene through the years, likens the Court Tavern to lower Manhattan’s CBGB club, which closed in October, 2006, and says the Court is just as valuable to the New Brunswick arts community as are the nearby State Theater, George Street Playhouse, and Crossroads Theater.
Shanahan, raised in Milltown, says that for a time in the 1980s, New Brunswick and surrounding towns had a flourishing live music scene, noting there was the Court, the Melody, the Corner Tavern, the Old Bay, the Red Fox on Route 27, the Tin Lizzie Garage further down on Route 27 in Kingston, and Patrix was also open at the corner of Handy and Throop Streets in New Brunswick.
“To me, some competition creates a scene, and if there’s just one bar, there is no scene. Look at CBGB’s: we always felt places like that would be around forever, and now it’s gone. Patti Smith closed CBGB’s on a Sunday night. The day after it closed, the New York Times had it on their front page. With everything else that was going on in the world at that time, the New York Times thought it important enough to put it on their front page. And to me, the Court is like the CBGB’s of New Brunswick; some people don’t get it, but I always have.”
Court Tavern Benefit Concert, Friday, April 30, 8 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Performers include Patti Smith, the Slaves of New Brunswick, and the Smithereens. $25 to $42. 732-246-7469.