Magical Melody Memories

I’ve never been big on reunions. I’m perfectly glad we don’t have a tradition of high school reunions in the UK, where I always assumed I would stay in touch with those school friends I liked and be able to avoid those I didn’t. (Thanks in part to the iJamming! Pub, this is exactly how things have panned out.)

But The Melody was different. The people who frequented the seemingly unassuming bar on French Street in the central New Jersey town of New Brunswick, did so out of a mutual love for good music and a desire to avoid the mainstream. They were your truly “alternative” crowd back at a time when the word actually meant something, when a professed love for The Cure or Depeche Mode carried with it the label “queer” or “freak,” when Ministry were still putting out 12” singles on Wax Trax, when new British music still traveled across the Atlantic via import vinyl, not the Internet. Whether they frequented The Melody thrice a week for a decade (like my wife, Posie, who regularly drove 80 miles round trip), or once a month for just a few years (as in my case), they all fondly recall the bar for some of the best nights of their lives. Put it this way: I’m not the only to have met their spouse at The Melody. We’re not the only ones who vowed to name our daughter Melody. And clearly, we weren’t the only ones for whom friendships made there have proven some of the most enduring of our lives.

Left: A miniature Melody resided on stage at the Loop. Right: iJamming! Pubber Jeff Hack was one of many former Melody workers to wear an old souvenir tee-shirt.

The Melody closed in 2001, as development worked its way down French Street and bull-dozered the old buildings one by one. But like any number of live venues and nightclubs you’d know from infamy or memory, The Melody had lost its luster a while before that. Few would deny that its heyday was from the mid-eighties into the early nineties, in large part due to the magnetism of DJ Matt Pinfield, who manned the booth Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and played an incredible array of largely British indie music, usually months before even the most commercial cuts got then-crucial exposure MTV’s 120 Minutes. Matt, who also held down DJ gigs on New Brunswick college station WRSU and the once legendary Jersey Shore modern rock station WHTG, worked his own way onto 120 Minutes as a VJ, and became something of a celebrity in the process. Those who enjoyed his company in the booth or the bar of The Melody never thought of him any other way.

The magic was most certainly not all about Matt. There were regular gigs upstairs, there were DJs on other nights of the week who were better than most you’d hear in indie clubs back in Britain, there were friendly bouncers, bartenders who always knew the meaning of the buy-back – not that drinks were expensive to begin with – and there were theme parties and album release parties and many a local gig after-party. New Brunswick was a major college town in a densely populated state, and its Rutgers University occasionally played host to a major concert; in case you’re wondering, I first found my way to the Melody after an Echo and The Bunnymen concert at Rutgers, in 1989; I had never experienced a bar like it in all my London youth. The turnover of informed college kids ensured that the town also played host to a great record store – Another Music In A Different Kitchen – and a couple of live music clubs, including The Court Tavern, where I saw The Rezillos just a few years back. Then there was The Roxy, right across French Street, which offered a gothic-industrial counter-point to the Melody’s Anglocentric new wave dance party. Admission to both bars was free, and I spent many a great night walking back and forth between the two. In that sense, I was perhaps unusual, for most French Street club-goers laid a claim to one over the other, and few of my long-term friends ever left the Melody before the shutters came down.

Left: Former Melody DJ Matt Pinfield was represented via the stage slide show. Right: Almost everyone at the Reunion saw pictures of themselves looking almost 20 years younger on the big screen. Our good friend Gary Kaplan is on the left of this one, taken, I think, at the Court Tavern during what was probably a pre-Melody cocktail bash.

An impressive number of those former regulars came together Saturday evening at the Loop Lounge in Passaic for a one-off Melody Reunion party. Organized with great gusto by Frank Gibson, perhaps the maddest of all the mad Melody dancers, it could so easily have been a disaster. For one thing, the Loop is not the Melody, though to give it its due, it’s survived longer, in a tougher part of a much tougher New Jersey town, and is owned by a genuine music fan, Bruce, whose support for the Melody Reunion was crucial. For another thing, everyone is 10-20 years older than when they last got on the Melody dance floor, and though absence may make the heart grow fonder, it rarely makes your once youthful friends more beautiful.

My pulled muscle prevented me shaking a leg like I used to at the Melody, but during a mid-evening burst of Pop Will Eat Itself and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, I experienced a brief positive epiphany. Looking around, I realized that this room full of middle-aged dancing fools were not embarrassing themselves. The people who frequented the French Street bar always looked good on the dancefloor, and time has not changed a step. But nor did they look that old. Admittedly, under-35s were banned from the event, which saved us the disconcerting presence of fledgelings in fishnets and boys in asymmetrical haircuts, but some of the people who came out Saturday evening should have been carded anyway, they looked so healthy. There was magic in the Melody’s water that permeated the regulars’ DNA. Call it a lust for life.

Left: iJamming! Pubbers Jeff Hack and Kevin Butler at the Melody Reunion; like many in the room, they were both formerly in bands. Right: Frank Gibson in the booth with former Melody DJ Lisa; Frank organized the party and was Master of Ceremonies. His t-shirt explains itself on the dance floor.

Sadly, one can’t attend a nightclub reunion and not lament those given a poor pour by the barman up above. I know it was upsetting for Posie to see, among the photos projected on the wall, those of her former best friend Margaret, who died of cancer in her 20s, and Ethan, who took his own life in 1996 for reasons his friends are still left pondering. It was sad for the both of us to see pictures of Todd, who went on to be a doorman for our Communion nights at the Limelight and succumbed to AIDS-related illnesses in the mid-nineties. But, compared to any possible Communion reunion, these numbers were still good: there were more survivors than casualties, more people with positive convictions about life than were ever convicted, and if there were any old grudges, they were certainly not aired in public.

One person was conspicuous by his absence: Matt Pinfield himself. The next day, he posted a typically complicated explanation online and via e-mail, assuring us he’d be there for the next one. That might take place a year from now, but it won’t be the same. It can’t be. Matt missed the big one. And we missed him. I don’t believe anyone who knows Matt would have dared attend the Loop purely because he had promised to DJ, but his charisma in the booth would surely have provided the icing on the cake.

Left: Like many at the party, Jill Lichtenstadter still lives in New Jersey (though we hadn’t seen her for years). Right: But some, like DJ Shaggy, came by plane for the occasion, in his case all the way from Oregon.

It might also have served to raise the dance floor energy level, which never really peaked. This might have been because of the party’s inversion of usual club hours. To accommodate those of us with babysitters and age-adjusted body clocks, the Reunion started at 5pm, and handed over to the regular Loop DJs at 11pm; as such, the dancefloor was no more or less full when Posie and I got there at 7pm than when we left around midnight. In fact, two songs I most expected to hear – ‘She Bangs The Drums,’ which Matt most certainly played the night I met Posie, and ‘A Wish Away’ by his favorite band, The Wonder Stuff – were aired before we even got there, during what must have been a very happy happy hour.

Most acts were represented by their one big dancefloor hit: Deee-Lite by ‘Groove Is In The Heart,’ Joy Division by ‘Love Will tear Us Apart,’ The Shamen by ‘Move Any Mountain/Pro-Gen,’ and so on. The exception seemed to be The Smiths, whose perpetual appeal to a percentage of American youth should never be underestimated; also, proving that I’m not the only one who relies on it to move any dancefloor, I heard ‘Step On’ twice. Bizarrely, neither New Order nor Echo & The Bunnymen were played until the Loop’s regulars took over the decks, but I was perfectly happy that on this occasion, they should make away for acts like The Wolfgang Press, The Chameleons or indeed, The 25th Of May, whose ‘What’s Going On’ from 1991 best symbolized a time when otherwise little-known, heavily-politicized acts from the north of England ruled a certain New Jersey dance floor.

Left: Glen and her husband, who went out at The Melody in the old days, broke up, and then got married four years ago. Right: Posie with former Melody bouncer Eric. The poster behind them is of Pinfield: Naughtymind. Yours Truly is off in the corner.

(Thanks to those former Melody DJs who showed up to spin (CDs): Ed Wong did a fantastic job of cheerleading from the booth, Pete Santiago appeared to remember me from my first night at the Meldoy, and though I never knew Andrew Prescott or Lisa, their taste was typically excellent. Pat Pierson was not a Melody regular, he deserves kudos for taking over on behalf of the Loop and keeping the theme going as long and as best he could.)

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