New Jersey has been home to vital and exciting scenes of musical production and enjoyment, says Dewar MacLeod early in his book “Making the Scene in the Garden State: Popular Music in New Jersey from Edison to Springsteen and Beyond.”
A history professor at William Paterson College in Wayne, MacLeod is a California transplant who in addition to specializing in American studies and foreign policy focuses on popular culture and is the author of the book “Kids of the Black Hole: Punk Rock in Postsuburban California.”
Released in 2019 by Rutgers University Press, “Making the Scene” explores the various New Jersey scenes and address the perennial question for New Jerseyans of how they affected culture.
It is also a daunting task.
As MacLeod, like others, points out, the state is shaped by its proximity to New York City and Philadelphia, the nation’s first and fourth largest markets.
And there has been a lot of musical scene making since the state was first colonized by Swedes in the 1600s.
But MacLeod notes early on, “My interest lies in the social history of the ways in which people produce and consume music.”
And keeping with the subtitle, he organizes the book around “scenes.”
“I use the term ‘scene’ to discuss a variety of types of historical groups of people around music,” he says before admitting that the “term itself is malleable, even slippery, used as it is by participants, journalists, and scholars, often in different ways.”
But after academically qualifying the term for several paragraphs and bringing in scholarly research, he shifts from semantics to anthropology and gets to the point. A scene helps “people create their sense of identity through their musical choices, choosing social groups and gathering together in audiences of collective identity.”
It also “has a degree of self-consciousness about collective identity; it pulls people and ideas together in spaces that create coherence; people in the scene actively participate in types of work and productivity; a scene is a road for working our rules, identities, tastes, and politics both internally and vis-a-vis the outside world; a scene registers transformation and historical memory, change, and continuity; the scene mediates between the person and the social, the private and the public, turning creativity into a cultural activity and cultural activity into social engagement.”
MacLeod follows by organizing the scenes into six chapters and a conclusion that chronologically follows developments around the state.
In the opening chapter, the first important date is 1877. The location is Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange. The writer calls it “the first place that people came together to record music” and an achievement “in the creation of modernity.”
As the writer reports, Edison was working on improving telephone communications when he sang into the mouth-piece and sensed that the perceived voice vibrations could be recorded and replayed.
While Edison originally saw the device as a means to record the human voice, his interest in experimentation eventually enlarged the potential of cylinder recordings, and one of his laboratories became a recording studio. MacLeod quotes one historian who says, it was here that “music began to the shift from live performance art to a technologically mediated art.”
The significance, writes MacLeod, is that “it was here that the first scene of performers who gathered to record was made, the first historical moment in which we can look at how the place of recording shaped the process of making music for the participants.”
However, it was a process where “there were no microphones or amplifiers. All sounds had to be poured into a cone-shaped horn, or series of horns, which funneled the sound waves down through the narrow opening to a diaphragm that vibrated a stylus needle that then etched a groove into the wax on the cylinder. The horn worked like a backward megaphone, so that the singer placed his or her face into the wide mouth of the horn. As one singer described the process, it was like ‘singing with a muzzle on.’ When a band or orchestra played, there might be several horns funneling the sound, but the singer then had to duck between the instrumental parts, with the band arranged in a circle around the horns.”
In addition to artists learning a new approach to performing, they had to learn to endure a grueling process that involved numerous takes to create a marketable product.
With scene one over the second opens in Camden, New Jersey. That is where the Victor Talking Machine Company’s innovators take advantage of consumers who had encountered Edison’s coin-in-the-slot recordings at fairs, resorts, and shops and were excited by both the invention and the desire to feel modern.
The idea for the company was born in 1887 when inventor Emile Berliner showed up to engineer Eldridge Johnson’s mechanical shop with plans for a recording disc that was easier to reproduce and store than the Edison-style cylindrical recordings.
The inventor and engineer soon joined forces and created Victor in 1901. They also purchased the rights to a painting of a terrier listening to a phonograph. Dubbed “His Master’s Voice,” the image “was to become perhaps the most successful corporate icon in marketing history,” writes MacLeod.
Unlike Edison, who had multiple enterprises and shifted his attention to developing and improving the electric light, Victor was focused on the music business and soon created a superior and better marketed product that revolutionized culture with recordings that could be played in the home.
The superior commercial product also created a new New Jersey music scene. And artists came to Victor as “recording artists” and “gathered with like-minded musicians and producers to create recorded music as a commodity, as art.”
Victor — allegedly named for “Victory” — firmly established itself in the culture scene when one the company’s agents arranged a recording of 10 arias by renowned opera singer Enrico Caruso, whose voice quality transcended most of the era’s recording imperfections and provided a rich and vibrant product.
The record, notes MacLeod, “transformed the world of recorded music taking it from the slightly (or very) seedy penny arcades to the refined domestic spaces of the middle-class parlor. If the phonograph had brought modernity – with all its radical transformative properties — into the life of average people, Caruso, more than any other person, restored some of the refinement to the daily lives of the growing middle class.”
As the chapter shows, Victor initially gained respectability and profits by emphasizing its classical and sacred music recordings.
Yet, MacLeod says the company also released an extraordinarily wide range of popular and niche music, with artists of every type traveling from all over the country to record for Victor.
Offerings included novelty and pop songs, African American music including recordings by Paul Robeson, the first jazz recording, and the first country record.
By the time it was transformed from Victor to RCA, the company with a scene in Camden that attracted international artists had created an important scene that would have a continuing impact on the music by moving the scene from concert halls to living rooms.
While these two early chapters on Edison and Victor put New Jersey at the forefront of development and production, the remaining examine several hot spots of interest.
Take “Jazz at the Cliffside” and its focus on Rudy Van Gelder. Teaneck optometrist by day and recording genius at night (until he went fulltime), Van Gelder is credited with creating two recording studios – the first in his parent’s home in Hackensack and the other in Englewood Cliffs – that became the post-war scene for jazz artistry.
Included among the jazz greats drawn to Van Gelder’s talent to capture the true sound and style of the artists were Miles Davis and John Coltrane, whose Van Gelder recording of “A Love Supreme” was released on Blue Note Records and is now part of music history.
Then in the chapter “Transylvania Bandstand and Rockin’ with the Cool Ghoul,” MacLeod focuses on the mid-1960 national explosion of dance shows based on the success and formula of “American Bandstand” from Philadelphia.
The scene is Newark, where the “Disc-o-Teen” local television show is hosted by the titular ghoul, Zacherley.
That’s actually John Zacherle who gained television fame as the first costumed host of late-night chiller-theater style broadcasts, first in Philadelphia, where his Shock Theater character was Roland, and then in New York where he used the name Zacherley.
Incidentally, it was in Philadelphia that Zacherle interacted with a fellow broadcaster, American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, who gave him the hip “cool ghoul” appellation.
Dressed in his trademark Victorian-style undertaker’s outfit, Zacherle oversaw the show that became a North Jersey dance scene attracting teens from Newark and a region ranging from Maplewood to Staten Island.
The show also attracted musicians attracted in part by the show’s annual Battle of the Band contest where the winner received a recording contract from Buddha Records.
But, as MacLeod reports, the scene started by the recording industry’s explosion of popular dance music abruptly ended with another industry explosion. The Beatles’ 1967 “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” turned the switch from music as something for dancing to something to think about, and dance parties were no longer cool.
“The Upstage Club and the Asbury Park Scene” chapter shows, however, that a certain shore town was getting chilly.
Interestingly, instead of focusing on the Stone Pony, MacLeod explores “the scene that preceded the ‘Glory Days’” — and looks at the scene that literally set the stage for Bruce Springsteen.
“The Upstage Club arose from the unlikely pairing of a married couple of hairdressers,” writes MacLeod.
One of the team is Tom Potter, an honorably discharged World War II veteran who worked in his family beauty salon as well as numerous other businesses. The other is his much younger third wife, Margaret Potter. Both are described as “unpredictable” and “adventurous.”
With their Asbury Park beauty parlor, rooftop garden, and open door, MacLeod says the building soon became a gathering space for artists of all types. But when Margaret started taking guitar lessons, it became a place for musicians to have jam sessions that continued all night.
Realizing that he may be able to start a business as well as move the musicians from his house, Tom Potter and a partner launched the Upstage Club in 1967 just as the hippie counter culture was blossoming — and attracting young audiences despite its ban on alcohol and drugs.
Eventually the work-in-progress business became, in the words of one regular, “a gathering place for the musicians of the community, a place where the ‘hip’ could go and not get hassled for their left-of-center views or the length of their hair.”
With its open atmosphere and its “awful good” sound system, the club attracted veteran musicians, rank amateurs, and newcomers.
The latter includes a young Springsteen, who showed up on February 23, 1969, and asked, “Is it okay if I play my guitar here tonight?”
The boss is on record saying the Upstage Club “was the coolest place I’ve ever seen in my life.” He also said he arrived “to stun” and did.
As with many urban scenes in the late 1960s, the Upstage Club began to fall victim to external social problems and upheavals: racial unrest, poverty, business closings, white flight, and so on.
There were also internal factors. The owners’ hard living ended the Potter marriage and a lapsed lease ended club ownership.
Bruce Springsteen brought the Upstage Club’s curtain down in 1970.
MacLeod says the next — yet “unlikely” — New Jersey scene was Hoboken, where a musical renaissance began in the late 1970s.
And in the “Drums Along the Hudson” section, he credits two factors for setting the stage.
One is the start of the punk rock movement and its extensive but loosely connected network.
The other is the impoverished city’s cheap property attracting immigrants and “bohemian types, priced out of New York, or simply looking for something a bit outside the denseness of Manhattan but still within striking distance via the PATH train.”
But he argues that it was one place that created the scene. “Although it is always dangerous to ascribe origins to one particular moment or place, perhaps the Hoboken scene begins with Maxwell’s — the tavern that became the home for dozens of local bands and an iconic stop for touring indie bands.”
The chapter is mainly a history of Maxwell’s and the bands that played there, including the Bongos and Yo Le Tengo. It gives recognition to a change in the scene, women taking “full citizenship in rock ’n’ roll.”
That included the band Gut Bank, a hard sounding band composed of three young women and one man that “pushed against the gender norms of the rock world, even the indie rock world.”
Unlike Asbury Park’s scene erased by decay, Hoboken’s was a victim of success.
In the quoted words of Bongos guitarist and songwriter Richard Barone, “As Hoboken grew, gentrified, and its rents increased, the innocence and unique characteristics fell away one by one” and as “blue-collar families were replaced with a new wave of aggressive professionals, artists and musicians were squeezed out to make room.”
In the final chapter, MacLeod takes stock of his work and admits that he has missed numerous other New Jersey scenes.
His missed scenes include the living room concerts, the vital bluegrass tradition at Albert Hall in the Pine Barrens, the Rutgers University New Jersey Folk Festival, and Jersey Shore cover bands.
My own includes Newark, New Brunswick, and Trenton’s jazz, Newark’s hip hop, Atlantic City’s Steel Pier’s concerts and dance happenings, Wildwood’s Philly rockers, and live radio dance events (including one from a diner that has been on the air for more than 40 years).
Hitting closer to the U.S. 1 region, MacLeod adds, “I was sorry not to write about the 1980s-1990s punk rock scene at City Gardens in Trenton in this book,” instead he refers readers to the book “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens” and the documentary “Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens.”
He also notes that “New Brunswick’s scene, particularly its tradition of basement shows, has also had a lasting and ongoing influence,” noting that there is the video documentary “Noisy Basements and Bars: New Brunswick, New Jersey’s Scene within a Scene.”
Since MacLeod is also a guitarist for the punk rock band Three Volatiles in Montclair, he “concludes this book with a brief tour around my neighborhood where many scenes proliferate and chronicles a moment that also will disappear for numerous reasons” — including a break in continuity brought on by our current COVID-19 health crisis (similar to what had happened to Trenton’s current music scene).
But as he puts it, “the music business seems to be in a continual crisis. Artists cannot make a living. Technology has replaced musicians. Streaming services pay an appallingly low amount to artists. Someone is making money, but it is not the musicians.”
However, he says, it really doesn’t matter, and scenes will continue to happen in New Jersey.
After all, as the book’s last line puts it, “All you really need is a bunch of kids that give a shit about where they are and what they are listening to.”
And that sounds like New Jersey.