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Jersey Beat

Way back in the 80’s and in the early 90’s I would trade zines with Jersey Beat editor Jim Testa and after all these years later I found him on Facebook and I knew an interview was in order with him and here is :

MC: Where were you born and what part on North Jersey did you grow up in? What sort of kid were you and what were some of the things you liked to do for fun when you were growing up?

JT: I was born in Hoboken and grew up in Weehawken, where I still live today.  I was a quiet, smart, nerdy kid.  I read voraciously, especially mysteries and science-fiction; played chess. I read a lot of comic books; watched TV.  I was never into sports growing up but my friends and I used to like riding our bikes and playing make-believe adventure games. Do kids still play “solider” or do they just play video games now?

MC: Did you have many close friends and what did you want to be growing up?

JT: I always had one or two close friends; I never ran in a big pack or considered myself popular.   By the time I was in high school, I knew I was going to be some kind of writer.

MC: How would you describe yourself to somebody who has never met you?

JT: Friendly, loyal, opinionated, and wise.  I work very hard at being wise.  My favorite Star Wars character is Yoda.

(Also sarcastic and hopefully, funny.) 

MC: When did music start to become a part of your life and was it one person or a combination of several that did this and what were some of the early bands that your ears first heard?

JT: Hmmm, interesting question.  My dad loved music and played his Sinatra records and Broadway cast albums at home every Sunday, in that time between when we got home from church and sat down to our big Italian Sunday dinner.  I played saxophone from 5th grade all the way through high school in marching band and orchestra, but I was never very good at it and I didn’t really love playing. I wasn’t one of those kids who practiced alone in his bedroom for hours.  I think I just did it so I could be part of something, since I wasn’t athletic and  on any teams  (my high school disbanded the chess team after my freshman year.) 

Music really didn’t become a passion until I got into college and made some new friends.  I really didn’t even consider writing about music until several years after college. When I first graduated, I wrote about film and theater for an alternative weekly called The Aquarian.   If there was a tipping point, it was my discovery of punk in the late 70’s.  Once I heard the Ramones, nothing was ever really the same.

MC: As you were growing up did you go into to NY to visit often or follow or play any sports at all?

JT: My parents started allowing me to go into NYC by myself or with a friend in 8th Grade.  We’d mostly go to movies, browse bookstores and chess shops, and get a cheap meal.  I wish I could say we’d spend all day in record stores but that really wasn’t true when I was 14.   I didn’t have any interest in sports at all until I was in college. That’s when the Yankees started getting good again after decades of mediocrity.  The first team I was really excited about was the ’76-‘77’-’78-era Yankees, with Catfish and Reggie and Thurman, Willie Randolph and Craig Nettles and Bucky Dent.  When I started hanging out at Maxwell’s around 1980, those guys (esp. Ira Kaplan) were huge Mets fans and then the ’86 Mets came along and I fell in love with them.  And also that was the era of the Bill Parcells/Phil Simms Giants.  My dad was always a diehard Giants fan, even when they were terrible, and I got into watching the games with him in ’86 and I’ve been a fan ever since.

MC: What sort of person were you in high school? Were you really starting to get into music at this point and if so what were some bands that you really liked? Do you remember the 1st concert that you saw and if so who was it and where was it?

JT: I was a total nerd in high school; long before being a nerd was cool or fashionable.  I took photos for the yearbook; I wrote for the school newspaper, I played saxophone in the marching band.  There were a few current artists I liked – Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” basically got me through senior year – but I wasn’t “into” music at that point at all. That all came later.  The first concert I saw was the Beach Boys at a football stadium in Jersey City, NJ. 

MC: Describe your time at Rutgers College.

JT: Rutgers was the best thing that ever happened to me.  I started writing at the Rutgers Targum, the daily student newspaper, as soon as freshman year began and that immediately give me a whole group of friends who were older and knew how things worked at the school. That was invaluable.  I spent far more time putting out the Targum (I was eventually Managing Editor,) than I did in class or studying.  It was a first class education in every way.  One of the friends I made there, Howard Wuelfing, is still one of my best friends. He played a big role in getting me into out-of-the-mainstream music, things like the Stooges, NY Dolls, Big Star.  So I was all primed and ready for punk rock when it finally came along.  In fact I interviewed Joey and Johnny Ramone at CBGB’s my senior year of college for the paper.  That interview later got reprinted in a Washington DC alt-weekly called the Unicorn Times and was my first professional by-line.

MC: Now how did you come to discover the punk rock or hardcore music scene? What did you think of this style of music early on? Did you like it right away or was it something you needed to get used to in time?

JT: Well, you have to remember that I was there as it was all happening.  You can pretty much draw a straight line from the Velvet Underground to the Stooges and NY Dolls to the Ramones, Patti Smith, Television, etc.   Patti Smith played New Brunswick in 1975 and I went with my friend Howard; that was a life-changing event.  A year later, the Ramones released their first album.  I was on board with that music from the get-go; it was like I had been waiting for it my whole life.

MC: What were some of the early venue’s that you went to see shows at? What was it like going to see a show at CBGB’s for the 1st time? Was it one of those early Sunday matinee shows?

JT: NYC was a very different place in the 70’s.  I remember my first trip to CBGB very well and it was terrifying.  I was used to Times Square, which also very seedy but at least it was well lit and crowded.  The Bowery in those days was a dead zone. NYC was nearly bankrupt.  There was a heroin epidemic and junkies were mugging people left and right.  They didn’t use the word “homeless people” in 1977; the Bowery was Skid Row, full of bums and vagrants and junkies and prostitutes.  The only thing you never saw in that neighborhood was a cop. It was great in a way because clubs like CBGB and Hurrah and Max’s Kansas City could pretty much get away with anything and the cops didn’t care.  

The Sunday Hardcore Matinees came along in the Eighties and I was a regular at those too, although by that time I was already quite a bit older than everyone else there.  It’s hard to imagine that today, since hardcore 2014 is so dominated by musicians in their forties and fifties. But back in 1984, almost everybody at the shows and in the bands was teenagers.  And it was violent, very violent.  Kids today have no idea what a real moshpit is.  Some poor kid would leave CBGB every single Sunday in an ambulance. There were sociopathic skinheads who would come to the shows just to beat people up.  It was a very different scene.  Exciting, yes, but it was all testosterone and adrenalin and sweaty bald teenage boys beating the bejeezus out of each other.

MC: Did you ever go into a mosh pit or stage dive at all at any shows you have been to over the last decades ha ha?

JT: I have ventured into many a mosh pit, usually with a camera in my hand, hoping and praying not to get hurt.  Fortunately for me, back at CBGB, there was an unspoken code that you didn’t fuck with the zine guys and the photographers. In fact most of the best NY/HC photographers were women and they could get amazing moshpit shots because the kids respected their position in the scene. I don’t know if that’s still true today.  Just for the record, I have never stage-dived or crowd-surfed myself.  I was too big a chicken then, and nowadays I’m just way too old. 

MC: When did you discover the world of fanzines and what were some of the 1st ones you brought? What were some of the early record stores that you went to, to buy music? Are any of them still in business today?

JT: Crawdaddy and Trouser Press were the first fanzines I remember.  Bringing up my friend Howard again, after college he eloped and moved to Washington DC with his wife, and they started a fanzine called Discords, which was the first zine I wrote for.  There were a lot of kids in New Jersey and NYC doing fanzines in the early 80’s that I traded with.  The only one I can think of that is still around is Jack Rabid’s Big Takeover  (which started out as a mimeographed one-sheet he ran off in his high-school.)

When I was in college, there was a great record store in New Brunswick called  Cheap Thrills where I spent every spare dime I had.  (Brandon Stosuy, an editor at Pitchfork today, worked there as a kid.)  Bleecker Bob’s was the first record store in the city I started going to regularly once the whole punk thing started.  There was a terrific record store in Hoboken called Pier Platters.  After it closed, I started making regular trips to Princeton Record Exchange, which has a great selection of both new and used records and CD’s.    Thankfully it’s still around.

MC: Now take me through the steps of how you came to start writing for the fanzine “Discords”, which was based out in Washington DC. Are you still in touch with that editor even these days? Did you ever go down to Wash DC to visit him or did he ever

JT: Well, I’ve already talked about this a little bit. Howard Wuelfing and I worked at the Targum together.  For junior and senior year, nine of us (mostly Targum people) rented a house together so we were also housemates.  After graduation, Howard married his girlfriend and moved to D.C.  It was very cheap to visit in those days – you could fly to D.C. or Boston on a budget airline called People’s Express for $19 – so I was down there quite a bit.   Howard’s wife worked at a publication called The Chronicle of Higher Education, which was a non-profit newsletter for colleges, and after hours, Howard would sneak in there and typeset his fanzine, so it was very professional looking.  He had it printed on newsprint so it looked like a broadsheet newspaper.  Discords had scene reports from all over the country (this was years before Maximum Rock N Roll came along) and I did one, mostly about the Maxwell’s scene in Hoboken and also some NJ hardcore bands like Adrenalin OD, and it was called “Jersey Beat.”  I interviewed the Bongos, who were the first important Hoboken band of the 80’s, for a cover story. I think Discords came out about once every other month.  Unfortunately, Howard and his wife broke up and that was the end of Discords, but I was enjoying the column so much that I decided to spin it off and started my own fanzine, and that was how Jersey Beat was born. The first issue came out in late March, 1982.

MC: Before we go any further I’d like to get your opinion on 2 bigger fanzines that were around back in the 80’s and what you thought of them: Flipside and Maximum Rock N Roll so fire away with your thoughts:

JT: Well, the two were quite different. Flipside was from L.A. and geared toward older punks, most of whom were Sixties survivors.  MRR was from Berkeley and while its publisher/editor Tim Yohannon was from the same generation as Al Flipside, MRR focused on the younger kids who would eventually start Gilman Street and give rise to the punk scene that gave us bands like Operation Ivy and Green Day.  Al Flipside was an old hippie who was all about sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll; Tim Yohannon was an idealist who had a very precise idea of what “punk” should be.    Both served their purposes, although I think MRR really had far more influence.  Back before there was an Internet, the letters and columns in MRR were as close to a national (even worldwide) “community” of punk as you could imagine.  Stuff that got written there reverberated through local scenes and could affect the careers of bands and labels.   I read both, but I always felt more a member of Team Flipside than Team MRR.

MC: Now in 1982 you released your 1st issue. Did you know when you wanted to start your own zine that “Jersey Beat” was going to be the name?

JT: Like I explained, I started writing a scene report column and it turned into a fanzine.  Looking back, it probably would have been wiser to change the name to something a little less regional and specific, like Punk Beat or Rock Beat.   For a long time, I think a lot of people assumed we only wrote about Jersey bands, even though Jersey Beat was the first publication to notice acts like Screeching Weasel from Chicago, or Ween from Pennsylvania.  We were one of the first fanzines anywhere to mention Green Day. So, except for really early on, it was never just Jersey music, but that misperception did tend to haunt us. But still, I really wouldn’t change anything. 

MC: Now how long did it take (ballpark figure I know it was a long time ago) from the idea of starting your own zine did your 1st issue come out? How many copies did you print of it and how did you go about spreading the word of it? Did you make flyers like I did and pass them around in mail you mailed out? I assume you also sold some at shows, being that it was 1982 and there was not a ton of fanzines around, was selling the zine tough or hard?

JT: Luckily because of working in production at the Rutgers Targum, I had all the skills it took to produce a magazine, even though I literally had nothing to work with but a manual typewriter, a pair of scissors, some scratch-off letters for headlines, and rubber cement.  We called it “DIY” for a reason back then, and “cut-and-paste” really meant cut and paste.  I don’t remember exactly how long it took to put the first issue together, but I don’t think it was more than a couple of weeks.  I went to a business printer that did stationery and business cards with my rudimentary paste-ups, and he ran off the pages on an offset printer. Then I’d bring them home and collate and staple the zines myself.

We always gave Discords out for free (I would leave a big stack on the cigarette machine that was right inside the front door at Maxwell’s) so I gave away the first few issues of Jersey Beat too.   I’d drop them off at record stores for people to just pick up, and given them away at shows. And then of course there was a big mail underground then too. You’d read the Zine Reviews in MRR and Flipside and whatever and mail your zine to anything that sounded interesting, and usually they’d mail their zine back to you.  Thank god postage was still really cheap in 1982.  I didn’t start selling Jersey Beat until Ted Gottfriend opened See Hear, a zine store in the East Village. (Yes, there used to be a store in NYC that only sold fanzines.) He convinced me to start charging for the zine and over the years, he sold a lot of copies there.  As the zine got bigger, I started using distributors like Tower. There were actually several excellent zine distributors in the Eighties who would buy your zine in bulk and send them out to mom & pop record stores and book stores all over the country.  And then actually pay you. Also when I would get a review in MRR or some other fanzine, people would send me a buck and order through the mail, and I started a mailing list, so they’d get a flyer every time a new issue came out.  It built slowly and organically over time but I wound up with dozens of pen pals all over the country (I even got to sleep on a lot of their floors for free when I started making enough money at my day job to do some traveling.) 

MC: Looking back, was doing a fanzine what you thought it was going to be and by this I mean the print fanzine? During the print phase, what was the hardest thing about putting together an issue and did you have many other people help you out with it back with those early issues?

JT: When I started, I just assumed Jersey Beat would be a local thing and maybe make me some new friends and earn me a little respect in the close-knit Maxwell’s scene. I never dreamed how many amazing friends I would make (literally around the world) or the opportunities it would open for me.

As far as staff, I always had other writers who would contribute to the zine.  Other than that, I did everything myself, from the layouts to the production to the distribution, and then later as the zine became better known (and the punk rock economy started picking up,) to selling ads.  In the really early days, it was a labor of love, although collating, folding, and stapling was always quite a chore.  Eventually I started using a printer who could create the whole zine – collated, folded, stapled, with a glossy color cover.  Then it was just a matter of finding a friend with a big enough car to pick up 1,000 zines and bring them back to my parents’ basement, where I’d start mailing and shipping them out. 

MC: Did you feel as more and more issues came out, that putting an issue together became a bit easier with each issue you put out? Did you have a steady staff of people who wrote for your zine or did people come and go?

JT: The more you do anything, I think, the easier it becomes.  Also you have to remember that Jersey Beat coincided with the birth and evolution of the personal computer.  So in 1982 I was typing on a manual typewriter.  A few years later, I had a computer at work, and by the early Nineties, I had a laser printer at home and I could print out an entire page with having to paste anything together.    If I were still doing the print zine today, I’d be creating a PDF at home and emailing that to a printer.

As for the staff, over the years, there were always a few people who stayed with the zine for a while and others who came and went fairly quickly.  Right now, I have three reviewers  – Paul Silver, Rich Quinlan, and Joe Wawrzyniak – who have been writing for me for so long that I’ve lost count, but they’ve all been with me for at least 15 years. I don’t know if I could keep going without any of them. But I’m also always recruiting new writers, so the staff has ranged from teenagers to people in their 50’s and 60’s.  Sometimes people will come to me and ask to write; sometimes I’ll approach them and suggest they give it a try.  It’s been particularly inspiring when I can encourage someone to write for Jersey Beat and then they go on and actually make a career of it elsewhere.

MC: Early on did you have any goals for the zine or anything you wanted to accomplish at all? Did you think in a million years when you started all that back in 1982 that in 2014 you would still be doing it ha ha? Have there been times that you have wanted to quit, but it just never got that far?

JT: To the first question about goals, absolutely not.  I never thought farther than one issue ahead.  When the music economy tanked in the 00’s and doing the print zine became more and more of a chore (no distribution, no advertising, higher postage costs,) I always knew that I would migrate it to the web.   There have probably been times when I’ve wondered why I still do this, but at this point I don’t know what I’d do without it.  Its gone way beyond something I do and become who I am.

MC: Now the early issues, were they just on xerox paper and then later on you went to newsprint? For say the first 10 issues, around what was your circulation and with each issue being released, did your circulation go up and well as mail flowing into your mailbox?

JT: The first year or two, the issues looked pretty nice because, as I said earlier, I used a professional offset printer who printed the zine like you would stationery or a business newsletter back then.  Then that guy went out of business and I tried several different places to photocopy the zine, and I wasn’t happy with any of them. Fortunately, Jack Rabid of The Big Takeover told me about a place in Long Island City called Linco Printing that was dirt-cheap and did web-press, which is the process of printing on newsprint and then folding/cutting/collating/stapling it into a magazine.  I stayed there until I stopped doing print in 2007.  The circulation grew slowly but steadily from the initial runs of 50-75 copies until eventually I got to 1,000.

MC: Now the early issues, did they mainly cover stuff that was going on in NJ? What was the set-up of the zine like and around how many issues did you put out each year and how much did you sell it for?

JT: The early issues were pretty much all New Jersey.   They were pretty small too; I think the first few issues were 8 pages.  There were interviews, scene report things (Lyle Hysen of the band Even Worse did a report on the NY/HC scene in Issue 1.)  There was a gossip column where I’d talk about clubs opening and closing, college radio shows, bands forming and breaking up things like that. And then it slowly evolved over time. Mickey Melchiondo (aka Dean Ween) did a demo tape review column for a few issues when he was only 15.  Ben Weasel actually wrote a TV column for a bit.  We had a phony advice columnist called Ask The Anarchist that was pretty funny.   I never tried to take things too seriously, I always said I wanted my zine to be somewhere in between Rolling Stone and Tiger Beat.

MC: Was it hard getting ads in your zine early on and did things get better as more issues came out? Did you ever do any tape trading at all? Has any bands every threatened you due to a bad review over the years?

JT: The first few ads were pity ads, just people throwing me a few bucks to help me get out the zine. Steve Fallon from Maxwell’s, a great guy named Patrick Clarke who booked a club called Silver Dollar Saloon (and who sadly became the first person I knew to die of AIDS.)  As the punk rock underground of small labels and fanzines started to grow, advertising became available from labels like SST, TwinTone, Epitaph,  and NJ’s Buy Our Records (home of AOD.)  The longer Jersey Beat stuck around and the more it became known, the easier it was to get ads.  And then around 1989, I started going to CMJ and SXSW and made a lot of contacts in person, which lead to better ads and promos.   In the mid-Nineties, after Green Day had “Dookie,” the punk rock economy exploded, and I was drowning in ads.  That only lasted a few years but it was the Golden Age of Fanzines there for a while.

MC: Now what were some of the bands that you were really getting into at this time and by time I am saying from 1982 till 1992? What are some of your favorite memories from this time period from doing the zine?

JT: Well, I always say that there were two reasons I started Jersey Beat, the Bongos and Adrenalin OD.  The first was an indie pop group from Hoboken, the second was one of the first Jersey hardcore bands from the suburbs.  Over the years, we’d follow that direction. There were pop zines and there were plenty of hardcore zines, but Jersey Beat was one of the few that covered all kinds of music (before anyone said “alternative” or “indie,” we called it “college rock,” because it was music you could only hear on college radio. Of course that all changed with Nirvana and Green Day.)  There was also a huge garage-rock revival in NYC in the mid-Eighties and Jersey Beat was all over that too.  I have so many great memories but I guess the ones that stand out are those amazing nights with my friends at Maxwell’s, getting sloshed on John Courage Ale and discovering bands like R.E.M., the Replacements, and Husker Du.

MC: Do you have a favorite and a least favorite issue that you put out?

JT: That’s kind of like asking a parent to name their favorite or least favorite child.   There is one issue I remember, it was when we first made the transition to the web-press/newsprint format, and we had interviews with Agnostic Front, Underdog, and Craig Setari.  I am pretty sure that was the most popular issue ever, it sold out the fastest.  I think I have one copy left.

 MC: Did you ever cover much metal in your zine and what did you think of the whole crossover things that happened in like 1986 and 1987 with such bands as COC, DRI, Agnostic Front, Leeway, Murphy’s Law and labels like Combat Core and In-Effect?

JT: Well, the metal/hardcore crossover was a huge debate in the scene back in the Eighties.  I liked some of those bands – Murphy’s Law was always awesome because they were so funny.  I did a great interview with Jimmy Gestapo and then for a while after that, he and Todd Youth tended bar at a club called the Continental and I didn’t pay for a drink there for years.   I liked Leeway because I thought their frontman was really charismatic.  I used to see the early White Zombie (when they lived in NYC,) Helmet, and Quicksand at CBGB  all the time. The more metal that music got, though, the less I tended to like it (although we always had writers on the staff who gobbled that stuff up.)  By the time Anthrax started to represent themselves as the kings of  NY/HC, I had pretty much moved on.

MC: Have you ever played in a band before or sang or even wanted to play guitar, bass or be a drummer? Has any label ever asked you to be an A/R person for them? Have you ever managed any bands?

JT: I never touched a saxophone after high school graduation, but I taught myself how to play guitar (a little) in college.  Four of us from Jersey Beat – myself, Howard Wuelfing, Jim DeRogatis, and Mick Hale (then known as Mick London) – had a band called the Love Pushers from about 1985-86.  We played Maxwell’s a few times (our first gig there  was opening for Half Japanese) and a few other clubs  We opened for Run DMC at a political rally in Princeton,  and recorded some demos (two of which appeared on compilation albums released by a NYC garage label called Midnight Records.)   After the Love Pushers broke up, I stuck to being a writer until around 2000, when I more or less got pushed on stage at a music festival in North Carolina called W.E. Fest.  After that, I started performing as a solo/acoustic singer-songwriter, which I still do occasionally today. I wound up releasing two EP’s in the ‘00’s and I’m hoping to do a third one soon.  You can find a little of my music at http://jimtesta.bandcamp.com/ 

MC: How many print issues did you end up putting out and when you released your last print issue, did you know it was going to be your last print issue and what made you decide to stop doing the print version and just go on-line?

JT: The last print issue was #77 in 2007, so we had a 25-year run.  Not bad.  I had hoped to do one more issue and kept compiling material for over two years, but I never managed to put it out. There were several reasons for that. For one thing, the entire independent distribution network had collapsed. Pier Platters and See Hear had gone out of business, Tower Records (which was also a major magazine distributor) went bankrupt. I was giving almost every zine away.  Postage costs had risen to the point where I was selling the zine for $2 but it cost that much to mail one copy.  (If I were still doing the same size zine today, it would cost $5 to mail one copy.)  Also, the punk rock bubble was over.  Labels were cutting back.  Even the big indies like Epitaph and Victory weren’t advertising in zines anymore but turning to cheaper and more effective Internet advertising.   If I have one regret, it’s that I never got that last issue out.  I actually had Marissa Paternoster of Screaming Females design a cover for it, which is sitting in a folder at home.  Nobody ever got to see it.

MC: Do you have actual copies of every print issue you put out and are any extras around that could be for sale? Have you ever gone on sites like Ebay and saw an issue selling for a pretty penny?

JT: Even I don’t have a complete archive.  I moved a few years ago and after I settled in my new apartment, I went through all the zines and tried to put together a complete set, and I was missing a couple of issues. I have at least one copy of almost every issue but there aren’t any for sale.  I have seen copies of old Jersey Beats on eBay but never for ridiculous prices.   I wish there was something like an eBay want ads.  I’d advertise and see if anyone has the issues I’m missing.

MC: So now in 2007, you went on-line, which is way different than putting an actual issue out. Did it almost feel like starting over again in some ways? Do you miss doing the print zine at all? Was there any band or bands that have now since broke up that you really wanted to interview never had a chance to back then?

JT: Jersey Beat was one of the first fanzines to have a website.  In the early days of dial-up modems, it was really more of an  online ad to help sell the print zine, but by the early ‘00’s it was taking longer and longer to get the print issues out, so we started having original content online.  The one big change was that when I folded the print zine, I had a friend who did web-design set up a more professional template so JerseyBeat.com actually started looking like a professional website.  Since then we’ve done one revision, and the next step will eventually be to move the website to Web 2.0 using Wordpress or something like that, so it can be more interactive.  Any designers out there want to help me set that up for free?

MC: Out of all your interviews you have done, is there a couple that just stick out in your head right away and if so which bands?

JT: Some of the interviews I did with Ben Weasel were pretty epic. My first interview with Mike Watt was awesome.    Quicksand liked the interview I did after their first album so much that they used it as the press kit for their second album.  More recently I just did a long interview with folk-rock legend Peter Stampfel that I’m very proud of. 

MC: Did you think back in the day that Green Day would go on to become as big as they are now? How about some bands you thought that would have become big, but never did for some reason or another?

JT: Nobody thought Green Day would become as big as they did.  It’s a little known fact that Reprise’s first print order for “Dookie” was only 15,000 copies.  Larry Livermore of Lookout! Records warned them that they were selling 50,000+ on his label without any advertising or promotion so Reprise increased it a little but they were still caught off guard.  And then “Dookie” sold 8 million copies worldwide in its first year.   I saw R.E.M. play Maxwell’s back when the only thing they had released was a 7” of “Radio Free Europe.”  Did I like them?  Yes.  Did I think they would become one of the dominant bands of their generation? No way!

There are a million bands that I thought would become, if not Beyonce/Kanye/Paul McCartney “big,” at least big enough to have hit records and play big venues.  Starting with the Ramones, of course.  We all thought they were going to take over the world.  Now they play Ramones songs at baseball and football games, but back in the day, those records didn’t sell at all, they just had a loyal core audience of intense fans. (And of course they wound up influencing bands who did sell millions of records, like the Clash and Blink-182.)  I really thought the Bongos would be big back when I was going to see them at Maxwell’s. They had a modest amount of touring success and recorded for RCA, but never really broke out. 

One pat on the back I will give myself is that Jersey Beat covered a lot of bands who went on to have successful careers before anyone else noticed them:  Screeching Weasel, Ted Leo, Ween, the Wrens, the Bouncing Souls. None of those bands broke any sales records, but they have all had long and influential careers. 

MC: Tell me a little bit about what you write when you have stuff printed in Jersey Journal and The Star Ledger.

JT: I do a weekly column for the Jersey Journal about local music – band interviews, upcoming show previews, special event coverage.  I used to freelance occasionally and review concerts for the Star Ledger, but sadly budget cutbacks ended that and at the end of this summer, the paper will undergo a major shift in focus and staff and pretty much lose all of its arts coverage. I also freelance for a print magazine called Ghetto Blaster and lately I’ve started writing about television for two websites, AntennaFree.tv and BasedOnNothing.net.

MC: You also wrote for Rolling Stone. How did this come about and what other publications have you wrote for or did articles with over the years?

JT: This requires a bit of a history lesson. There used to be a big record-store chain called Sam Goody’s, and it published its own house magazine called Request.  At one time, Request was the second most read music magazine in the country after Rolling Stone.  It was published in Minneapolis.   My close friend, Jersey Beat contributor, and onetime bandmate Jim DeRogatis moved from Hoboken to Minneapolis in the late 80’s and got a job there, and through him I got a foot in the door.  Pretty soon I was doing feature stories for Request’s editor, Keith Moerer.  Then Rolling Stone hired Keith as its new editor, replacing David Fricke, to try and make the magazine a little less baby-boomer-centric and more up-to-date.  Keith gave me a few assignments and then he was allowed to hire Jim as his assistant editor.  So they were trying to reinvent Rolling Stone – which was basically like trying to push a glacier uphill with a spoon -  and I got to write a few features, reviews, and the first Internet articles that ever appeared in the magazine.  Then there was a big blow up with Jan Wenner and Jim got fired.  Keith was let go shortly thereafter and absolutely nothing had changed.  The first issue of RS that Keith oversaw as editor had the story of Jerry Garcia’s death on the cover.   The cover of Keith’s last issue was “Jerry Garcia – Still Dead One Year Later.”  I am not making that up.  Anyway since I was “damaged goods” and considered part of the Moerer/DeRogatis team, I never heard from Rolling Stone again.  In the mid-Nineties, though, at the height of the punk boom, I did get to write for Guitar World for a few years. (They needed someone who could tell Greg Graffin from Gregg Allman.)   That was fun. Guitar players LOVE to be interviewed for guitar magazines.  They would get way more excited about being in Guitar World than in Rolling Stone or Request.

MC: Do you have a favorite band and if so who are they and why are they your favorite band?

JT: Favorite all-time band:  The Ramones
Favorite band that’s still around: The Queers

I never got to know the Ramones but their music changed my life and I never get tired of listening to their albums, from the early crude three-chord stuff like “Blitzkrieg Bop” to the more complex pop they were doing at the end of their career.

I discovered The Queers in the early Nineties and became good friends with Joe King. I’ve seen them way, way more than any other band ever.   I’ve seen the Queers perform in 11 different states (NY, NJ, MA, NH, MD, FL, IL, CA, WA, TX, PA.)  They’re a band that always makes me happy.   

MC: Do you still manage to get to go to a lot of shows these days and what has been some of your favorite shows you have seen over the years? Have you ever gone overseas to see a show?

JT: I have been all over the U.S. but I’ve never been to a foreign country, except for a week-long visit to Montreal, around the time of the first Gulf War.  (I remember that because crossing the border was more of a hassle than it would have been otherwise.)  I still go to more shows than the average person and way more than anyone my age should, but less than I used to.  

I could fill a book with my favorite shows.  A few that come to mind: Bob Dylan & The Band’s “Before The Flood” show and  Neil Young’s “Rust Never Sleeps” tour, both at MSG;  first time I saw Patti Smith in New Brunswick; Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band inaugurating Brendan Byrne Arena; Jeff Mangum at Loew’s Jersey City;  the final show at Maxwell’s with the Individuals, Bongos, and “a;” Adrenalin OD playing one of the final shows at CBGB opening for Flipper and the Dead Boys.  Last March there was a tribute to Lou Reed at SXSW curated by Richard Barone (of the Bongos) and Alejandro Escovedo that was probably one of the best nights of live music I’ve ever seen.

MC: So what is the url of your website and what will people find on there if they log onto it and often is the site updated?

JT: The site is www.jerseybeat.com and people will find dozens of reviews of current releases, some from new (and especially NJ) artists they may not have heard of, but also contemporary bands you might find on Pitchfork.com like Parquet Courts or the Antlers.  Right now there is a feature on home recording by the owner of Mint 400 Records; a feature about Mulberry Sound Recordings, a DIY label in NJ; several interviews, including my long one with Peter Stampfel;    two Broadway show reviews; a column focusing on metal and heavy rock; and lots more.  If you like music, you should find something you’ll find interesting.

MC: What are your thoughts on the music scene these days? Do you see the demise of CD’s in a few years and that everything will just be downloadable on the internet? Are you a fan of You Tube and have you gone on and watched many videos? Speaking of, what did you think of MTV back in the day?

JT: BIG questions.  I think we can see the CD becoming, if not obsolete, a niche product the way vinyl is today.   Digital and “the cloud” seem like the future. 

I have friends – including some famous music journalists – who use You Tube all the time as a way to listen to and discover new music. I’ll follow a link to a video on You Tube now and then but it’s not a primary way I check out new music.   I have a Spotify and an eMusic subscription, which I use to listen to and download music that I want to hear but don’t get sent to review.

MTV – HUGE question.  MTV became so ubiquitous and so powerful so quickly that there was always a lot to complain about (even though, like everyone else in the 80’s, I watched it voraciously.)  In the early days, it only paid lip service to underground music, with a few specialty shows late at night; and for the first few years, it was, if not racist, completely uninterested in black music   (that all changed with Michael Jackson, and then “Yo! MTV Raps.”)  There’s so much hip hop on MTV now that people forget that in the first few years, you could go a couple of days and not see a black artist except maybe Tina Turner or Diana Ross.

Then of course the ratings for music videos slipped and the station changed over to reality TV, starting with “The Real World” and devolving into crap like “Jersey Shore” (which, I am proud to say, I have never watched) and “Teen Mom 2.”    (Guilty Pleasure:  I do watch “Teen Wolf.” In fact, I write about it every week for BasedOnNothing.net.)

MC: What keeps you wanting to do this seeing as you have been doing this for 30 years plus now? Have you ever done a “word search” on yourself or “jersey beat” just to see what pops up?

JT: I still enjoy it. I still like going to shows (although I am not as big a fan of staying out till 2 am as I once was,) I still listen to music, and look forward to talking and writing about it. I have to admit; lately I am really enjoying writing about television.  It’s something new and it feels fresh and I have a lot to say.  But I don’t think I will ever stop being a rock critic or a music journalist or whatever you want to call it. 

I really don’t make a habit of Googling myself or Jersey Beat.  The one thing that amuses me when I do is how much of my stuff (writing and photos) turn up on the net without attribution or permission.  Musicians have a very legitimate complaint about their art being devalued and being shared for free online, but it’s just as true for writers and photographers, sadly.

MC: What do you think of yourself as a writer and what advice would you give to somebody that possibly would be thinking of becoming a music writer?

JT: Can I pass on that first question?  I just saw an Internet meme that sums that up pretty well. Somebody once asked the 90-year old cellist Pablo Casals why he still practiced every day, and he said, “Because I think I’m getting close.”  That’s what it’s like to be a writer. Even if you think you’re good, you’re always learning things and getting better.  (Unless you’re Robert Christgau and you think you know everything. But then people just stop reading you.)

There are only two pieces of advice about writing and they’re as old as writing itself: Read everything you can read, and write as much as you can write.  It’s just as important to learn from good writers as it is to be critical of bad writers.   You use your head to take what’s in your heart and share it with other people.  That’s true whether you’re writing fiction or music criticism or anything else.  And one other thing, don’t be afraid to try. 

MC: If somebody was to come to North Jersey or NY what places would you tell them is a must visit?

JT: Are we talking tourism here or music?  You don’t need me to tell you that the view is breathtaking from the top of the Empire State Building, or that the George Washington Bridge is one of the most beautiful man-made structures in the world.  We’ve lost so many landmarks over the last few years – Maxwell’s, CBGB. I’d say go shopping at Princeton Record Exchange, than see a show at the Court Tavern in New Brunswick, then hit one of the dive bars like Lucky 7 or The Lamp Post in downtown Jersey City.  In NYC, get a pastrami sandwich at Katz’ Deli and then stroll up Ludlow Street and check out Piano’s and the Cake Shop, then get on the subway to Bedford Avenue in Williamsburg and check out Pete’s Candy Store, Spike Hill, Grand Victory,  and the Trash Bar, and then maybe hit up some of the newer DIY venues like Shea Stadium, Death By Audio, then head out to Bushwick and go really underground at places like Palisades and Silent Barn.  And while you’re there, count the number of trust funders with beards and skinny jeans you see eating brunch.  

MC: Do you think sites like Reverbnation and My Space hurt or helps bands in the long run?

JT: Well, MySpace is a prime example of how fluid the Internet age can be.  Bands took years to build up their MySpace audience and add photos and songs, and now no one uses the site anymore.  However I do think that free sites like Reverbnation, YouTube, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud are amazing tools that help bands get there music out there, either for free or affordably.   In one way, it’s really leveled the playing the field. On the other hand, you kind of wonder what kind of world we’re in for when you stop and think that the two biggest stars created by YouTube are Justin Bieber and Rebecca Black.

MC: When you’re listening to a band and you’re getting ready to review a record what is some of things that you’re looking to hear? What are some music genres that you just can’t stand?

JT: The first thing is always originality. What is this band doing that I haven’t heard before?  Or, if they are doing something genre-specific (blues, power-pop, grunge, whatever,) what are they adding to make it distinctively their own?  I really like catchy melodies and clever lyrics, but I also want the music to make me feel or think about something. 

I like to think that I can listen to anything if it’s well done, but there are two genres that I really don’t like:  One is that new brand of pop-punk (except it’s really melodic hardcore) with an offkey singer and emo lyrics.  And I just can’t get into most grind/deathmetal/speedmetal/whatever with those Satanic singers who sound like they gargle with Drano and just make guttural noises instead of singing.

MC: What are your thoughts on bootlegs and have you ever brought any over the years?

JT: I disapprove, and yes I have.  Bootlegs aren’t any different that uploading an album to a torrent site; it’s stealing.  And yet I have to admit that in my day, I’ve bought a few bootleg albums. The most famous was Bob Dylan’s “Great White Wonder,” which was later officially released as “The Basement Tapes,” as well as a few live things over the years.

MC: So what are some things you like to do when you’re not doing Jersey Beat related stuff?

JT: I am a big baseball fan, I root for both the Yankees and Mets, so when I have nothing else to do in the summer, I’m probably watching a game.  I also really like football and root for the Giants. (My least favorite time of year is that dead zone between the Super Bowl and Spring Training when there’s nothing on TV but golf.)  I love to read, magazines and a shitload of websites these days, but a good book whenever I can find the time. Lately I’ve been reading a lot of music biographies, because I tend to get those for free to review. And I really like to cook.  I am addicted to the Food Network and cooking shows and I’m always trying out new techniques and recipes.

MC: What are your thoughts of Facebook and have you re-connected with many people from back in the day on here, maybe some you have not had contact with in decades?

JT: Facebook has its pluses and minuses but reconnecting with old friends is definitely one of the best benefits.  I’ve had a ton of people from my past – friends, musicians, former Jersey Beat writers – find me on Facebook so we could be reacquainted and catch up.   Then once you become “friends” on Facebook, your timelines mesh and you can see what they’re posting and photos of their kids and all that kind of stuff, and they can see whenever I post about a new article I’ve written or something.

MC: What piece of advice would you give to a band just starting out?

JT: Have fun.   I’ve never known a band that’s “made it” (however you define that term) who didn’t love what they were doing. On the other hand, I’ve known a ton of bands who got locked into the grind of trying to get signed, trying to get a tour manager, trying to reach that brass ring – and not only didn’t they ever achieve success, but they wound up not enjoying themselves.   If you can’t be in a band simply because you love making music and that’s all you want to do, you’re in it for the wrong reasons.   

MC: If and when Jersey Beat finally folds, what would you like it to be remembered by?

JT: No one has ever asked me that before.  I’d like to be remembered as someone who was fair, who was honest, who always spoke their mind, and hopefully, as an inspiration. If I got you to write, if I got you to think, if I got you to listen to a band you’d never heard before, that would be fine.

MC: Jim this novel of an interview is done, any last words to wrap this up?

JT: If you found any of this even remotely interesting, then I hope you stop by and check out jerseybeat.com (and come by regularly, since we add new content all the time,) and also check out my radio show and podcast.

Rock N Roll Gas Station – a weekly radio show on which I play new stuff I like and some old favorites.  For show times and playlists, visit rnrgasstation.blogspot.com

The Jersey Beat Podcast – interviews with music makers and curated picks from my personal collection. Subscribe on iTunes or visit jerseybeatpodcast.blogspot.com