Maxwell’s Owner Todd Abramson on Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., and The Smashing Pumpkins

The National opened up for Yo La Tengo in December 2010

Maxwell’s will be closing at the end of July. Ever since moving to Hoboken in 2000, I’ve seen some great shows there including The National, Yo La Tengo, and Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. I caught up with co-owner/booker Todd Abramson on some experiences with bands such as Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr., and The Smashing Pumpkins.

I saw the The National in 2005 when they were promoting Alligator. You then clued me in that they were opening for Yo La Tengo in 2010. That concert was the best moment of the year, and my daughter was born that summer—so thanks for that!

Todd Abramson: That’s not a question. You’re welcome.

How did you initially become the co-owner of Maxwell’s?

Todd Abramson: Well, I was a co-owner for 15 months with Steve Fallon in the mid 90s—him and his family weren’t really seeing eye to eye, they didn’t have the same interests and rather than have the place shut down, he and I managed to buy out his family.

Can you describe a typical workday?

Todd Abramson: Well you know that’s changed over the years, it used to be almost all done on the phone now sometimes there’s still a phone conversation, but now it’s done online.

There are advantages and disadvantages, you can work on this stuff at 7:00 in the morning, 2:00 in the morning, responding to emails, writing people. Some agents out there are who are pretty much responding to you at all hours and others like keeping to their workdays.

The days vary. Some are very intensive, and others are kind of slow. There’ve been days when I would have two or three shows I was hoping to get fall through, and I’d say, “OK, this is a bad day—let me stop now because it’s not going to get any better.”

It’s not physical like sports—there’s momentum still—with good days and bad days and if I was having a bad day, it’s better to just cut bait early than get more frustrated.

How do you book bands?  Do you inquire, or do they come to you?

Todd Abramson: It’s always been a combination.

When Nirvana played here in ‘89, did you have any idea how big they’d become?

Todd Abramson: I was at the first of the two shows they did, and to me they didn’t distinguish themselves at all, but when Nevermind came out, I was like “Whoah, something happened here.”

Could you feel the awkwardness between J. Mascis and Lou Barlow of Dinosaur Jr.?

Todd Abramson: I sensed the awkwardness between J. Mascis and me. There was one time he was downstairs and he had stolen a box of raisins.

A little box or one of those big ones?

Todd Abramson: You know, the kind of box you’d have in a restaurant. And I think I said, “If you wanted raisins (as I’ve said to numerous thieves down there), you just had to ask me.

No major deal, but then this (if I remember correctly) was during their two week tour— his agent, Steve Kaul, I spoke to him and when the tour ended, and Steve asked how the tour (of the 10-12 dates they did) was, and he [Mascis] said. “There was an incident with Todd and raisins.”

How about the tension between Kim Deal and Frank Black Francis of the Pixies?

Todd Abramson: No. I don’t know that any tension existed back then, but I didn’t get that close to them to where I would have discovered it.

How drunk were the Replacements?

Todd Abramson: I don’t remember. I wasn’t working here at the time.

Anything memorable about the Smashing Pumpkins show?

Todd Abramson: That was funny they played here twice too, the first time, they played with Superchunk and Urge Overkill and nobody was touring together, so I put them together and there was little bit of controversy over who was going to play when.

Urge Overkill—they were was more into the rock star thing so they wanted to close, which is fine. Superchunk was more salt of the earth, so they were happy to play in the middle.

I booked Smashing Pumpkins to play first and their Sub Pop 45″ came out and they already had a high powered agency behind them.

“Why do we have to play first?”, they asked.

So I had to come up with something, “The other two bands have played here before and you haven’t,” and the agent said, “Oh, that’s a great answer, you should be a lawyer.”

Has Springsteen ever expressed interest in playing here ever since the Glory Days video?

Todd Abramson: Yeah, it was one shot deal. He was going to come to a Dick Dale show once. It was a two night stand, but he had to cancel the second night and that was the night he was going to come.

Is there one show that stands out to you? Can you describe it?

Todd Abramson: I mean I wouldn’t limit it to one show.

Any fiascos or disasters?

Todd Abramson: Plenty.

When I saw the Walkmen here, I told the bassist that they sounded really good, but it was a little short. He was really apologetic and seemed to feel bad. Is that typical to have awkward fan/musician interaction?

Todd Abramson: It’s probably more prevalent here than elsewhere, because that was one of the blessings and curses of Maxwell’s.

More on the blessing side for fans, more on the curse side—depending on the band. A lot thought it was brilliant—there’s no backstage (there’s a downstairs area), you have to walk through the crowd, bands eat in the dining room often next to their fans, so that’s one of the things that made this place pretty special.

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