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

The Gaslight Anthem at the Court Tavern.
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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