20 Years After Its Sudden Closure, New Brunswick Still Remembers The Melody Bar

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Twenty years ago, on March 20, 2001, patrons showed up outside the Melody Bar at 106 French Street, expecting to dance nostalgic to the 1980’s tunes that Tuesdays nights at the club were known for.

But instead of dancing, they were left milling about the street upon finding the notorious notice above on the Melody’s shuttered front door.

Two days later, news of the bar’s closing made the front page of the Home News Tribune, under the headline “Melody Bar silenced indefinitely”

The Melody Bar at 106 French Street in the 1990s

“There was no farewell night or celebration for the club, which has been presenting alternative rock and dance music for 20 years,” wrote Home News Tribune staff writer Chris Jordan. “It’s 20th anniversary would have been this month.”

The Melody’s sudden death was a harsh blow to the city’s nightlife, which had taken a few punches in recent years.

Not only the fact of the Melody’s closing, but how, further embittered a music scene that was subsequently forced underground in the ensuing decade.

For those that experienced the Melody first-hand, its passing can still feel like a life cut short, an open wound that hasn’t properly healed.

In its early years, the Melody helped transform the city from desolate to destination, extinguishing the 1970’s reputation “that if you came into [New Brunswick], you’d be mugged and you couldn’t park your car because it would get broken into.” 

Over the course of its two decades and for generations of club-goers, even internationally, the Melody never relinquished its reputation for cutting edge music and spectacle.

But for those that came of age in its wake, the Melody is a mere whisper of a mysterious former scene, if it’s mentioned at all.

The old 100 block of French Street. The Melody is second from right, as captured by photographer George Red Ellis.

One reason for that dissonance is that the Melody was torn down, and there’s no memorial marking its place. Its current site – a nondescript patch of grass, empty and sandwiched between just another Hub City parking deck and the Health Sciences & Technology High School – is simultaneously both an apt and unsatisfying scene.

The former site of the Melody remains vacant today.

Thus on the 20th anniversary of its closing, New Brunswick Today is revisiting the written history of the Melody through primary sources: articles and commentary published by the Home News Tribune, from 1981 through 2004.

This review comes in three parts: Part one covers the New Wave, 1981 to 1989. Part two will cover the 1990s, and part three will cover 2000 to 2004, when the bar was razed. 

Our coverage starts in August 1981, five months into the Melody’s new format, after decades of it serving as a neighborhood tavern in the city’s Hungarian district.

A pioneering spirit has overtaken the Melody Bar on French Street and transformed the once-staid neighborhood tavern into a lively club that specializes in gourmet dishes and imported beers while retaining much of the place’s Old World heritage.

The spirit at work belongs to the Melody’s new owners, Cal Levine and Jeannette and Steve Flaks. All three recently renounced the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the New York City fashion industry to take a chance on making it as restaurateurs and barkeeps in a diverse and growing urban area. So far, the venture has proven worthwhile.

“The bar was closed for a total of one-and-a-half hours,” recalled Levine of the latest chapter in the 100-year history of the building’s history. The 90-minute break marked the transfer from the old owners, who catered to the working men and women of the city’s Fifth Ward, and the present proprietors, whose clientele inclines more toward pastel colored hair than blue-collar shirts.

Since that day in March, some stunning changes have taken place at the bar. A Saturday brunch, featuring French and northern Italian dishes preceded by strawberries and champagne at $1 per glass, has been instituted. The weekday lunch menus bespeak the varied cuisines of China and Europe. And, six nights a week, the glass-block bar is surrounded by a small sea of young men and women bouncing to the hyperkinetic beats of the latest new wave music…

August 17, 1981 – “Owners new to business put new beat into bar” by John T. Ward, Home News staff writer

The Melody was to undergo major internal renovations beginning in late August – dance floors, a new ladies bathroom and lounge, another bar – but in its first five months, it had already “blossomed into the most talked-about nightspot in the city,” according to the article. 

“You should have seen this place,” Levine said. “The walls hadn’t been painted in forty years. See that glass case? You couldn’t see through the windows, they were so covered with nicotine…” 

The Melody was a frequent topic in the “Rock Beat” column authored by Pete Tomlinson:

Like prehistoric creatures oozing from the slime, several New Brunswick bars are slowly turning their limited floor space into show cases for original live entertainment. Noteworthy among these are the notorious Melody Bar on French Street, packing them in (to say the least) on semi-regular Sundays with the Boogles and Heartbeats…

May 13, 1982 – “Rock Beat” by Pete Tomlinson

The Melody has begun presenting local bands on a weekly basis, thus enhancing its status as a premier Hub City hotspot. Unfortunately, the Melody does veer towards the claustrophobic on occasion, but a well-stocked bar goes a long way towards curing this affliction.

July 8, 1982 – “Rock Beat” by Pete Tomlinson

In New Brunswick, the Court Tavern is still presenting all sorts of bands six nights a week, which, if nothing else, should tell you something about the sheer volume of original area talent. The Melody Bar continues to permit some of the same talent to occupy their stage – excuse me, steps – on an occasional basis, and is still the coolest hangout in town…

Upcoming shows of note: the forever-unpredictable Jigs & the Pigs at the Melody Sunday; worth the crush if only to “dig” Jim Boyle’s unique guitar thrashing; a lefty, no less! And then there’s Jigs himself – the entertainer, the humanitarian, the legend, the man. An awesome sight…

September 2, 1982 – “Rock Beat” by Pete Tomlinson

Night found me at the Melody Bar, bumming change for a beer; my once-prized credit line seemed to have evaporated. Suddenly, James Brown’s “There Was A Time” came over the sound system, and for four minutes or so, my plight was forgotten. Everyone around me was grinning and shuffling to the music (not much room for dancing in the Melody); someone shoved a beer into my hand. After a time, the wailing of the Godfather of Soul was replaced by some semi-forgotten Isley Brothers burner, and then by the original Bar-Kays’ great “Soul Finger.” Was I having a great time? Maybe; but I didn’t see what was so newsworthy. Reluctantly, I left for the Court Tavern…

February 17, 1983 – “Rock Beat” by Pete Tomlinson

The Melody Bar (on French Street) continues to attract scenesters by virtue of its superior atmosphere, and presents live music on an occasional basis (the ubiquitous Matt Pinfield spins records on Thursdays).

April 7, 1983 – “Rock Beat” by Pete Tomlinson

The Melody was also a popular spot for area poets, according to coverage at the time.

“It’s a lot less boring in New Brunswick than it was 10 years ago. It used to be that in New Brunswick no one did anything. But about two years ago there were people on the street at night, music, art and an explosion of talent that wasn’t there before,” poet Jack Wiler told reporter Janet Gardner at a Melody poetry event in October 1983.

The Melody Bar in the last three years has become a gathering spot for trendy young people, and the Roxy Bar across the street seems to have picked up the influence of the Melody and has begun to offer live rock music…

In May, Lenny Sapiro, owner of two George Street apparel stores, opened a new shop, Uncle Freud’s, next door to the Melody. It sells the kind of gear – 1950’s New York City firemen’s raincoats and baggy pants that are resistant to chemical warfare and can be shaped into a backpack – that the patrons of the Melody might find appealing…

Sapiro fancies that French Street can be “the SoHo of New Brunswick,” referring to New York City’s “south of Houston Street” district that mixes industrial spaces with avant-garde clothing and stylish restaurants.

July 1, 1984 – “French Street’s revitalization taking random, eclectic course” by Peter Parisi, Home News staff

In January 1985, things were looking up for the local club scene, according to an column by Kathleen Dzielak, who rang in the New Year at the Melody, writing that its “new upstairs room is beautiful and a wonderful time was had by all who attended this first-rate affair.”

Later that year, reporter Michael Trotman wrote about the burgeoning scene in the Hub City, focusing on four different clubs that each had their own flair.

The four clubs each promised a different kind of experience, musical and social.

“You go to the Melody to maybe pick someone up,” thinks Daniel Burstyn, 21, four years of New Brunswick nightclubbing under his belt. “You go to the Court to hang out.”

At Patrix you can throw yourself against a stranger on the dance floor.

At the Roxy you can see a man dance on a chair on the bar. Even the musicians watch…

The Roxy’s location is a convenient one. Melody-goers often wander across the street to listen to the Roxy bands through the walls and decide whether they’re worth the $2 admission price. Usually, they are…

The Melody has no band tonight but, as always, it’s free. A big, old-fashioned rectangular bar in the front, a small dance floor in the back, and walls that change their looks every few months, the Melody’s elaborate looks and state-of-the-art dance music draw a packed crowd on Fridays. 

They draw a packed crowd on Saturdays. 

And yes, the Melody is fairly busy on Thursdays and Sundays as well. 

Even Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays aren’t bad.

This is a popular place.

And the crowd is hard to peg: button downs mix with tee shirts, short hair with Mohawks, skin-tight checkered pants with blue jeans.

May 23, 1985 – “Hanging out in New Brunswick, rock’s ‘new’ new Athens” by Michael Trotman
A rendering of a night outside the Melody Bar on French Street

The same day, Andy Seiler reported that the music scene was good for business, interviewing Flaks and other club owners about the boon to their business.

What do years of rock and roll do to a city?

“They turn everybody into a superstar,” jokes Bob Albert in a tone that suggests that superstardom exists more in these people’s heads than in any measurable form. “The thing about it is that everyone’s a superstar now. They’re a musician, or a poet, or else they manage a band.”…

Each [bar owner] looks at their own place as something a little different than the others. “We’re just a neighborhood bar that happens to have bands,” says Albert of the Court Tavern. “I think at one time we had the same clientele as the Melody, but not anymore. The Melody has a real big trade with Rutgers. We get more non-college people, you know, townies.”

“We just wanted this to be a place where you could let it all hang out,” says Steve Flaks, co-owner of the Melody, who denies the Rutgers connection. “We get lawyers, plumbers and even judges, believe it or not. We get punkers and we get La Coste freaks…”

There’s plenty of competition for the music fan’s dollar, and Flaks, for one, thinks that’s just dandy.

“There is enough business in this town for everyone,” said Flaks, who, with Cal Levine, owns the Melody… “We always felt that if New Brunswick had more places, than more people would be attracted to the city.”

Flaks can afford to talk like that. His bar’s doing the best business for miles around.

“When we bought this place, Cal and I thought we’d be working 60 hours a week apiece, but that we’d have a good time. We had no idea how successful it would be. But I’ll tell you a secret. We knew if we got the girls, we’d get the guys. That’s why we have a nice ladies’ room (currently painted in shades of pink). We knew that we did not want this to be a jock bar; that’s why there’s no pool table, that’s why there are no beer signs on the wall, that’s why there are flowers on the tables. We did not want people who would just want to sit and watch Monday Night Football.”…

By the time you read this, the Melody should have opened a second floor, with more tables and a more sedate ambiance – and bands playing more often.

May 23, 1985 – “Behind the scenes: Owners say business is good” by Andy Seiler 

The new second floor was described in a Michael Trotman column later that year.

A remodeling of an upstairs apartment into a smart and cozy lounge has led to an interesting route to an eight-week experiment in turning the room over to jazz once weekly. The bar downstairs still has its share of quasi-new wavers and attitudinizers. But the upstairs scene in the room dubbed “Room At The Top” is an unexpected and easy blend of rockers and jazz fans…

Room at The Top began in June, when the room above the popular French Street bar was opened. It is not a big space, but it is nicely done up. Just off the upstairs corridor, the room opens by two large sliding doors. There is a small bar built of the Melody’s trademark backlit glass block. There are about 30 cafe-type tables with an odd lot of chairs, every other one matching. The bandstand is no more than a riser against the wall fronting French Street, but visually the room’s intent is to house modest entertainments in civilized but unaffected surroundings. Its exposed beams and four simple slashes of neon lighting assert enough of the Melody’s well-known character to keep the space from being stodgy.

September 12, 1985 – “Melody Bar has ‘Room at the Top’ for cozy jazz lounge” by Michael Trotman

In addition to the music, the Melody was becoming known as a venue with cutting-edge art.

According to a March 1986 article by Kathleen Dzielak, the alcohol problem and subsequent recovery of Rutgers Mason Gross School of the Arts alum Mike Howard provided part of the inspiration for one of his Melody Bar paintings, which featured a mean-looking ’56 Ford beneath the message, “Don’t Drink And Drive.”

“Although Howard used to paint some of his pictures directly on the Melody Bar walls, he recently began doing them on removable canvas. His first job cost the Melody $150 and a six-pack of beer,” wrote Dzielak.

“They can’t afford me anymore,” Howard joked.

New Brunswick’s Melody Bar was the setting earlier this week for the filming of a scene in an independent movie by Woodbridge resident George Gibson.

Gibson, 29, said he has frequented the French Street establishment in the past and decided it would make the ideal setting for an eight-minute bar scene in his upcoming 90-minute film…

Local rock n’ rollers will be interested to know that the Melody bar scenes contain appearances by Jigs & the Pigs, performing their recently-released recording of “These Boots Are Made for Walking.” The movie’s soundtrack also will feature music by Null Set and former Boogle Steve Jones. Melody Bar patrons served as extras during the scene’s three-day shooting.

May 9, 1986 – “Film producer shoots ‘Ill Will’ footage at The Melody Bar” by Kathleen Dzielak

In 1987, former Melody co-owner Chris Butler bought and resurrected the Roxy, of 95 French Street. It had closed the year before due to trouble with a biker gang that adopted it as a home bar. The Roxy would close for good in 1995 and Butler went on to work for the Mayor’s Office before he passed away in February 2020.

In an alternate history, the Roxy could have been won by Cal Levine and Steve Flaks: they attempted to buy it at its bankruptcy auction, but were outbid by Butler.

“I could have bought the license for a lot less if they didn’t keep bidding it up,” Butler told Kathleen Dzielak.

Some artists might aspire to see their works on the walls of the Guggenheim or the Louvre. But when the walls of a certain bar went begging for decoration, Hoboken artist Beth Lucas jumped at the chance to become part of what she calls the “nightclub culture” of New Brunswick…

For Lucas, being named the second artist-in-residence in the Melody’s six-year history was as good as securing space in a gallery – maybe better…

Although Lucas and [her boyfriend Charlie] Walsh have fairly free creative reign, they often are asked to execute Levine’s own artistic vision. “Sometimes he gives me an idea, and I give him the images,” said Lucas. “It works out really well.”

[Upstairs], the room known as the Melody Bar Club, has been transformed by Lucas into a Day-Glo prehistoric jungle land, ruled by a giant tyrannosaurus with a taste for beer.

Levine looked gleeful as he showed off the giant mural. “Isn’t this great? A dinosaur drinking a bottle of Bud! At night, when the neon lights bring out the iridescence of the paint, the entire room takes on a glow of its own.”

Downstairs, one of Lucas’ most colorful, and most talked-about, Melody Bar murals to date is a bar-length work peopled with what seems to be a significant selection of party-goers. Close inspection reveals self-caricatures of Lucas and Walsh, heads tilted together in the corner by the pinball machine, and a portrait of Andy Warhol in the mural’s center.

Off to the side, pop artist Keith Haring is depicted rubbing his chin.

“That’s because he’s Warhol’s heir apparent,” explained Levine. “All of this was done as a tribute to the Warhol spirit, and I think Beth has really captured that for us.”

June 5, 1987 – “Melody’s trendy artist-in-residence transforms walls into splashy palette of topical, evocative forms” by Kathleen Dzielak

On December 13, 1987, the Melody raised $650 for the city-based Hyacinth Foundation AIDS Project. New Jersey had the fifth-highest number of reported AIDS cases in the U.S., with 3,014 reported, the article states.

In 1988, it was a new jukebox that was the talk of the scene.

The Melody Bar has a new jukebox.

So what’s so interesting about another jukebox in a bar?

“It’s New Brunswick’s first free classic rock ‘n’ roll jukebox, in that it covers 35 years of music, said bar co-owner Cal Levine.

“It’s an archive to be added to, it’s an ongoing thing. If you don’t see the song you want, you can request it and hear it the following week.”

Club disc jockey Matt Pinfield explained, “It’s not the jukebox that’s so interesting, it’s what’s going into it and the fact that it’s free…”

The jukebox has space for 80 45-rpm records. “I want to change the records in the jukebox as often as some people take showers,” Pinfield said.

“At least once a week, I want to replace 20 of the singles. Not necessarily the artist, but the singles.

“You’ve got to admit, most jukeboxes get stale and uninteresting after a while.”

Pinfield, who is no slouch when it comes to music trivia, DJs at the bar three nights a week. “I will keep things from getting stale,” he said.

“If you care about music, if you’re a music connoisseur, you can come to the bar a little earlier than usual and listen.”

August 5, 1988 – “Rock is free, easy on Melody’s new jukebox” by Richard Skelly, Home News correspondent

Despite the community-driven momentum helping build the music scene, changes in the city and the increase to the drinking age hurt the growth. (The state moved its drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1983.)

While New Brunswick has undergone a real-estate renaissance in the last eight years, the area’s club scene has steadily gone downhill. [Steve] Kaplan, who owns Cheap Thrills [record store], and others in town recall a time in the early 1980s when the city’s nightlife was flourishing.

Today, options for live music are rather limited. Now there is just a handful of clubs in town that present live music, several of them on a sporadic basis.

“The thing to remember is that the scene that was here in the early ‘80s was so dependent on the college community,” said Pete Tomlinson. Much of that community is now under age…

“The town needs more places, not necessarily bigger places. You look at it in retrospect and you don’t realize how well we had it,” said Tomlinson.

“Nowadays,” he said, “new bands gear up for one big debut at the Court Tavern, and if they’re good they have to wait a couple of months to play there again. Whereas, if there were a couple of places to play, then bands could develop more naturally. If we had a somewhat broader spectrum, we’d be better off…”

Melody Bar disc jockey Matt Pinfield is another participant-observer in the New Brunswick’s music scene. He thinks there are more good musicians in New Brunswick now than there were in the early 1980s.

According to Pinfield, a different dynamic was operating in the early 1980s in New Brunswick. Alas, the club scene that brought out the Smithereens lasted only a few years.

“The live club scene was new and fresh,” he said. “Because WRSU was supporting the local musicians, bands realized they could get an audience together before they set foot in a club. There was a lot of optimism going on.”

September 18, 1988 – “Hub City clubgoers have live-music blues” by Richard Skelly, Home News correspondent

In addition to music, film, and radio, the Melody continued to be an epicenter for visual art, as its walls became an attraction in and of themselves.

An April 1989 article mentioned that John Michael Jones, a 22-year-old student at Mason Gross, “is about to start on a complete redesign of the Melody, creating a ‘festival feeling’ in the bar.”

“A bar in the evening is active, loud, fast-moving,” Jones told the Home News’ Catharine Way.

“I want it to be full and interesting… big and colorful. I want to paint big faces, big hands, people dancing, holding a beer bottle… I want you to notice big things when you come in… I want a Picasso figure next to a Rembrandt figure – a big mishmash that works perfectly.”

Jones, who calls his work semi-realistic and semi-expressionistic, said his design for the Melody will reflect “something that isn’t quite right, like a normal person with their arm around a punkster, to confuse reality.”

To see innovative art you don’t have to go to Soho dressed in your trendiest….

At the Melody Bar on New Brunswick’s French Street, the changing art scene began almost as an accident, but now it’s part of the bar’s new-wave persona.

“We started with painterly wall painting” to clean up the walls, Cal Levine said of the former Hungarian neighborhood bar he bought in 1981. But with the help of local artist Mike Howard, “it started extending out; the walls became the medium.” Since then he’s had a series of “resident artistes” who redecorate the bar’s main area, dance floor and upstairs lounge twice a year or so.

“We must have an inch of paint on some of these walls,” Levine said with a laugh…

The décor also influences the mood of the bar. “The walls become part of the utilized space,” he said. “The smoke (from cigarettes) floats across, the pinspots hit the art… The art starts controlling the temperament of the place.”

Over the years the temperament has varied…

At the moment it’s “a hodgepodge – a state of planned disrepair,” he said. One wall has flying records and musical notes and people dancing, and upstairs there’s a dinosaur drinking a can of Bud. But within a couple of weeks, that will change.

April 30, 1989 – “Discovering art in unexpected places” by Catharine Way, Home News staff writer

By the time the 1980’s came to a close, several local artists and musicians had made their mark at the Melody, including Glenn Burtnik and Matt Pinfield.

Burtnik would go on to join the band Styx, while Pinfield made a career on the radio.

A November 1989 article mentioned Pinfield’s absence from his usual Wednesday night gig at the Melody for an international trip.

“Pinfield has gone overseas for a brief tour with Wonderstuff, a London-based alternative rock ‘n’ roll band,” reported Home News staff writer Richard Skelly.

“Pinfield flew across the pond last Sunday, and was to spend four days on the road with the band, acting as an emcee and singing with it as it makes stops in theaters around England.”

There’s a rock ‘n’ roll haven this side of the Hudson, and a group of Central New Jersey musicians are willing to prove it.

Call them, with all due apologies to Tama Janowitz, the “Slaves of New Brunswick.”

“I really do consider myself to be a slave of New Brunswick,” said guitarist/songwriter/singer Glen Burtnick. He and fellow musicians Tony Shanahan and Matt Pinfield are about to launch a new weekly series of jam sessions at the Melody Bar on French Street in the city. The first “Slaves of New Brunswick” night will take place Wednesday.

“We’re taking it upon ourselves to make something happen, to bring a little rock ‘n’ roll back to town,” said Shanahan, whose band The Boogles helped usher in the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll in New Brunswick during the first half of this decade.

Burtnick, who will be appearing tonight at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park and at Live Tonight in Hoboken tomorrow, said he is looking forward to the opportunity to perform alongside other musicians in a casual, impromptu setting. The idea is to create a performing atmosphere different from that at the shows he and his band are doing this weekend. 

Fun, rather than competition, is the motivating factor behind “Slaves of New Brunswick” nights at the Melody, the musicians agreed… 

In order to keep things organized, Pinfield said musicians interested in jamming should stop by the club early on Wednesday nights so a performing schedule can be put together. “We’re trying to avoid marathon ‘Louie Louie’ sessions,” Pinfield joked.

November 17, 1989 – “‘Slaves of New Brunswick’ at the Melody” by Kathleen Dzielak

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a three-part series. Check back for part two, which will focus on Melody news from 1990 to 1999.

Music Reporter at New Brunswick Today | bkelly@nb.today

Ben Kelly is reporting on the music scene for New Brunswick.