Remembering The Court Tavern, New Brunswick's Storied Rock Dive

gaslightanthem_courttavern.jpg
via Facebook
The Gaslight Anthem at the Court Tavern.
When word first started leaking out on Facebook that New Brunswick, N.J.'s Court Tavern had closed, an early response was, "Again? Is this a yearly occurrence now?" It wasn't as if the Court hadn't been in trouble before. A decade ago, management successfully fended off developers who wanted to build a high-rise on the land; thanks to local support, it remained stubbornly in place in the shadow of a gleaming 23-story structure. In 2009, the Court put out the word that it owed $26,000 in taxes; generous regulars and a gala benefit show headlined by the Smithereens and the Patti Smith Group, both of whom had New Brunswick roots, raised the money. At the end of 2011, club owner Bobby Albert gave an interview reflecting on 30 years of being located at 124 Church Street. The damned place seemed indestructible.

Sadly, confirmation came all too quickly. According to the Courier News, the Court closed "indefinitely" on Wednesday, January 18. (The booking agent had not been warned. Nor had local hardcore legends Ensign, who were scheduled to play a big show on Friday night.) The Court's website was subsequently updated with a statement: "As of January 17, 2012, The Court Tavern is indefately [sic] CLOSED. This is a very sad day for the music culture. Check the site or on facebook [sic] for updates. IT WILL BE MISSED !!!!!!!!!!!!!!" (The venue's Facebook group—as well as its MySpace and Tumblr—remain unchanged.)

The property is listed for sale on real estate website Loopnet—asking price $1.25 million—so the general consensus seems to be that "indefinitely" means "forever." If this is correct, the Court now takes its place next to the Melody Bar, the Roxy, Budapest Cocktail Lounge, Bowl-O-Drome, and Patrix on the list of now-shuttered music clubs that had once set up shop in New Brunswick.

Located about an hour south of New York City and just a block away from the New Brunswick train station, the Court existed as a venue since 1981. Its opening happened to coincide with a burst of energy on the New Brunswick music scene, and bands started playing the downstairs basement in short order. Early adopters included the Smithereens, who started in nearby in Scotch Plans and whose guitarist owned a record store in town; Opium Vala, whose lead singer, Matt Pinfield, was then a DJ on local college station WRSU; and the Blases, a fun power pop band that made its first video in the Court's basement. Later on, new local bands like Lord John and Spiral Jetty played to packed, drunken crowds, and groups from throughout the state, as well as from Philadelphia and New York City, came down to play. Hoboken's Tiny Lights was a particular favorite, and the Feelies played there just before resuming their career in the mid-1980s. Pretty much everyone who was anyone in Central Jersey, up to such modern-day standard-bearers as Vivian Girls and Screaming Females, appeared on a Court Tavern bill at least once.


Screaming Females play Court Tavern in November 2011

Touring bands stopped through as well. Many of these shows have long since entered the realm of legend. Pavement delivered its first show as a band at the Court, in front of about 40 people; the Butthole Surfers played a chaotic set to a way-overbooked room, and may or may not have blown up a toilet in the men's room; Mudhoney hit the Court on one of its first tours; the Jesus Lizard quietly drank with the locals before getting onstage and terrorizing the place.

There's no sugarcoating it: the Court Tavern was a dive, a dark, ramshackle beer joint. You walked through the door, showed your ID (rare was the night you could sneak in underage), walked through the upstairs bar, paid the surly doorman at the top of the staircase, and descended into a tiny basement with a low ceiling, another bar, and a small stage with a mural in back. It was completely unpretentious, and its various slogans ("Home of The Stars," "Cruel But Fair," "Home of the Floating Chromosome") matched its self-deprecating character. On a bad night, you might leave drunk and depressed; on a good night, no club felt quite as comfortable and homey. Perhaps that's why several generations of local and national bands found a place there.

With the Court's sudden demise, what's left in New Jersey? There's always Maxwell's, which thrives despite its own near-death experience in the late 1990s. Further down the Parkway, Asbury Lanes continues to bring in both local and national acts, and the Brighton Bar survives in Long Branch. But for New Brunswick, one thing is certain: An era has ended.

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20 comments
Nballai
Nballai

my mom and i used to work there in the 70's when it was just a bar. the upstairs was turned into a resturant open for lunch only. what a shame what the court has turned into since the son took over ownership. used to be a great place for the older peeps.

Brunswick real estate
Brunswick real estate

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Eleanor
Eleanor

Had many good times at the Court it will be missed....

jay pounders
jay pounders

As the lead singer/guitarist of Crossfire Choir, I can tell you that our best shows were at the Court.  RIP.

EW77
EW77

My best memories of Rutgers involved either throwing a few back at the upstairs bar or watching great music in the Court's basement.  I can't speak to what the club's management was like, but I was involved in New Brunswick city politics and planning for my last few years in town.  The closing of these venues is not a coincidence and some of the moves I saw by Mayor Cahill (in office since 1991) and Company during my time in Hub City was downright disgusting.  In some of the meetings I attended, City staffers would regularly refer to groups of citizens as "those people" and exercised an agenda of divisiveness in order to meet their ends.  Why is the music scene relegated to underground basement shows?  Because Cahill wants it that way and enjoys selling the City to the highest bidder.  Over a decade ago, City Council even tried to close a public council meeting because the Court supporters filled City Hall to capacity.  Citizens and culture suffer while those up top continue lining their pockets with backroom deals.

Wilthomer
Wilthomer

"surly doorman at the top of the staircase", well put! Nice to see mention of Lord John and Tiny Lights, two bands who transcended the Court's archtype "scum rock" bookings.  I'd like to wax nostlagic about it but it was a dank hole that just got more dank and disgusting as time went by it just got worse. The handful of past few times I went there over the years it was just a typical NJ old man bar but the old men were former Rutger's students or the clubs aging punk rock consengenti, who were, in several instances, stuck up cooler-than-thou assh*les.

Dm
Dm

Don't forget Bob White and the White Boys (or was it Mike White?) upstairs and all those great Solar Circus shows in the early 90s.

Ivy Vale
Ivy Vale

What's sad is that it was allowed to deteriorate over the years to the point of becoming hazardous.  It should have been patched up and shown the love it got in return.

BTW, how can you write an article about the New Brunswick music scene and not mention The Grip Weeds?

Mike Appelstein
Mike Appelstein

Yeah, there were a bunch of bands I neglected to mention (Mad Daddys, Crossfire Choir, Genocide, Destroy All Bands, Thursday, Grip Weeds, Frozen Concentrate, etc., etc.) - but that's just a sign of how diverse and wide-ranging the NB scene was/is.

Nelsonsotoimthe1
Nelsonsotoimthe1

Hard to believe with such a university like Rutgers around that the music scene declines the way it does? What's left for a college town?

jtheripper
jtheripper

I'm glad I had the opportunity to play there one last time (jan 6,12) that place always will have special meaning to me.Sorry to see it go.

Eric C Gladstone
Eric C Gladstone

As the author knows, I misspent a good part of my youth in this bar (onstage and off), and while it may not have been the best business venture either, many more impressive establishments haven't lasted 30 years. Other significant bands who played many early shows include Ween and Monster Magnet, and Flaming Lips on one of their first national tours. It was a dump, but it was our dump.

Brendenjemisonart
Brendenjemisonart

In the mid Eighties and early Nineties I was in the band True Detectives and we played the Court Tavern innumerable times, best show for me was opening for Serial Killers from Philly who pulled a wild fake stabbing stunt.

leaky
leaky

This headline should read "Court Tavern closes due to perpetual mis-management"

Hoping...
Hoping...

The owners aren't talking so I'm not sure what happened but a place like that should still be there. I would hope that someone or a group of someones would take it over and run it like Maxwell's does with a good mix of national and local acts. 

You can't go wrong with being the only venue between NYC and Philly. Parking is not an issue. The NJ Turnpike is five minutes away and there's a major train line a block away. There's still a viable music scene in New Brunswick (the reason why there are so many basement shows in New Brunswick is because there aren't any places to play) and a major university with 38,000 students and all you have to do is reach out to them. 

Clean it up, maximize the space, have a kitchen that'll serve food at night, mix national acts and local acts (like they used to!) and you'll have a place people will go to. 

TheBsides NycRadio
TheBsides NycRadio

Very Sad. I enjoyed most of my twenties in New Brunswick clubs and The Court was a big part of it. Sad day. X's

spoonman
spoonman

It is sad indeed, that a place such as New Brunswick that once served as a cultivating scene for music has now been stripped and completely sterilized. Thank you for the mention of Budapest Cocktail Lounge.

Faghag
Faghag

This is truly a sad day in the history of the great music scene that once flourished in New Brunswick. As a musician who played all of the above mentioned venues in the city, the Court has finally been squeezed out by big business (it's not called J&J Town for nothing). I guess Bob Albert held on as long as he could. I spent many a magical, sweat-filled nights in this joint.Another piece of history gone from Hub City.

Bailey
Bailey

You hit the nail right on the head, J&J.There must be bigger plans for that corner thanthe court had to offer.

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