As NJ Music Scene Comes Back to Life, The Court Tavern Stays Silent

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As the New Jersey music scene comes back to life, and “The Hub” takes center stage in New Brunswick, whither its neighbor, the Court Tavern?

The rock and roll club’s present owner, Michael Barrood, purchased the bar in a 2012 sheriff’s auction for $270,000 after its previous owners for 50 years, the Albert family, had to sell.

The club has subsequently closed and reopened several times under Barrood between 2012 and 2019, and it has been closed indefinitely since 2019. 

On several occasions this year, Barrood declined to discuss plans he may have for the city landmark. 

In May, he said via text message that he did not wish to make a statement and to ask him again in a couple of months. In July, he answered “Nothing yet” to a follow-up inquiry. In October, a third follow-up went unanswered. 

The Court Tavern sports a new roof installed earlier this year, as seen in this October 2021 photo.

Meanwhile, many music clubs across the state, including the Saint, the Wonder Bar, the Stone Pony and House of Independents in Asbury Park, the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville, the Stanhope House in Stanhope, Crossroads in Garwood and Dingbatz in Clifton have reopened to eager musicians and crowds. 

Not to say it’s been easy – the pandemic also felled a few clubs, including Roxy & Dukes Roadhouse in Dunellen and the Brighton Bar in Long Branch – but it’s been done.

In this city, the coffee/vinyl/vintage/performance space Chamber 43 opened on George Street in February and hosts raucous performances weekly, staging the underground music scene in a viable, aboveground space. 

Underground shows are also back in New Brunswick, with a fresh batch of showhouse nicknames and “DM for the addy” (message me for the address) instructions. 

And DJs and performers are also keeping the music alive, in the George Street pedestrian plazas, at restaurants across the city, and at community events under NBPAC and Hub City Music Festival banners.

All of which points to a vital music scene bubbling up from the doldrums of the pandemic. 

Yet talk to any veterans of this New Brunswick scene, and the descent from being able to see live bands seven nights a week only 20 years ago to where it is now, with the Court Tavern the last of the major clubs left standing and in a precarious state itself, is a precipitous, abhorrent fall. 

“The fact that the only place to play is Highland Park, if you told me, if I’d looked in a crystal ball and saw what was gonna happen,” said Doug Vizthum, the longtime Court Tavern employee and musician, gathering himself over the phone, “I woulda been like, get the fuck out. It can’t be like this. You can’t tell me that Highland Park has the only rock club in the whole region.”

That club would be Pino’s Gift Basket Shoppe and Wine Cellar, which has done a more than adequate job presenting live rock and roll music before and through the pandemic.

But it ain’t the Court Tavern, a New Brunswick landmark from long before even the Albert’s began their run. 

The original Court Tavern at 149 Church Street, diagonal from the current building, in a 1977 Home News Tribune photo

Bob Albert Sr. acquired the Court Tavern, then at 149 Church Street, with a partner in 1961. He told a Home News Tribune reporter in 1977 that the bar dated to 1902, having continued operations through the speakeasy era.

The city’s nationally renowned music scene took off soon after the Court was forced to move across the street to 124 Church Street in August 1981. That was during the first of two eminent domain fights for the tavern, the second coming in 2001, both of which drastically altered the makeup of New Brunswick’s 5th Ward.

The shift in venue in 1981 was coupled with Bob Sr. summoning his son Bob Jr. to help run the family business, which he did for the next 30 years. The beloved “Old Man,” Bob Sr., passed away in 1997 at the age of 69.

The Albert’s combined stewardship of the Court Tavern was perhaps the most critical component in New Brunswick becoming a destination for rock and roll music.

Legions of bands and punks rolled in over the years, with the Court always abiding throughout the various ebbs and flows of the local scene. 

Vizthum, known in the community as “Sluggo,” was part of the furniture at the Court Tavern. He worked a variety of roles there starting around 1984, primarily show booking and promoting but also bouncing and tending bar, through 2012, ”when it ended.”

A guitarist and singer, he performed there countless times with his bands Bad Karma, Lunar Ensemble, Pleased Youth and Mr. PayDay, three of which remain active and putting out new music or retrospectives. 

To say he knows every nook and cranny of the Court Tavern might be putting it lightly.

He also booked a handful of Court shows under Barrood in the years after the sale in 2012. 

Now, disheartened and pissed off at what’s become of the Court Tavern is Vizthum, and he squares its downfall directly onto Barrood’s shoulders. 

“He should have never bought this place. He had no idea what he was doing,” Vizthum said. “All he saw were the lines of people trying to get into that place when it was open… He wanted the name ‘The Court Tavern,’ but he didn’t want to have anything to do with the Court Tavern.”

Vizthum speaks – “I don’t give a shit what that guy thinks of me, to be frank. I mean what is he gonna do, not let me play the Court Tavern again?” Photo: Home News Tribune, 2001

The Court Tavern was not without its peculiarities and heartaches under the Albert’s. It was run like a pirate ship, Vizthum said. “We ran things differently than everybody else, and somehow it managed to chug along that whole time.” 

With Bob Albert no longer running the show after 2012, the ship has sunk. 

Albert closed his tavern for the last time in January 2012 in what the Home News Tribune called “the end of an era” (a term that’s been applied a few times to the Hub City music scene). 

In March of that year it was auctioned to Barrood, and it reopened after some renovations in November 2012. But plenty more was taken out than the standard physical updates.

“[Barrood] sacked all the original people that worked there, didn’t bring any of them back,” Vizthum said. “He fucked over so many of my friends.”

Even when Vizthum was later invited back to book shows by a manager that was “really good for maybe about two months,” “[Barrood] turned around and he fucked that up too. They’ve made a mess of this.”

There are the repeated closings to back that up, as reported here and elsewhere in 2015, 2017 and 2019. The last dispatch on any of the Court’s social media channels was in March 2019, a full year before the pandemic cratered the whole scene

It begs the question, if Barrood couldn’t operate the rock and roll club pre-pandemic, how can he make it work now? 

The Barrood family owns property and businesses all over the city and has for decades. Michael Barrood himself is a Landlord Rep on the city’s Rent Leveling Board, which hears and decides on applications for rental increases and complaints of wrongful increase, among other items. Appointments to this board are made by the mayor and the city council, rather than in a public election.

The fact that Barrood was able to purchase the Court Tavern in 2012 for just $270,000 (it also owed $44,000 in back taxes to the city) led some scene members to raise a dubious eyebrow. 

An OPRA (Open Public Records Act) request submitted to Middlesex County in October to probe the details of that auction, including who ran it and who was able to place bids, did not turn up new information.

“Unfortunately, insofar as the auction sale you reference dates back to 2012, many of the records from the sale have been destroyed pursuant to the applicable records retention schedules,” the Middlesex County OPRA Center responded, though it did confirm the $270,000 sale amount and purchasing party.

For comparison’s sake on the price however, when Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital purchased the city’s beloved Melody Bar in July 2001, it paid 85% more, a reported $500,000 total, than what Barrood would pay for the Court Tavern a decade later. 

The iconic Melody Bar on French Street was subsequently demolished in 2004. The Court Tavern property is now valued at $933,500, per its listing on the property information site njparcels.com

That site also indicates the Court was sold in 1995 for $242,000, and thus appreciated by just $28,000 over the next 17 years, considering Barrood’s auction price of $270,000. And has appreciated by $660,500 in the nine years since.

A pretty good deal for Barrood, one might say. And yet.

“He’s ruining that place even though it was handed to him on a silver platter,” Vizthum said.

“He should sell,” Vizthum added. “But the problem is they’ll sell it and they’ll level it, or they’ll do something weird. It’s a shame, that that place with all this history is gonna end up getting bulldozed in the end because of this [guy].”

Vizthum is witness to both what it took to keep the Court afloat for decades and to how it’s fallen off in short order.

Barrood just “could never get a foot on it,” he said. 

“He’s one of those guys who could never understand that the summer was when you had to toughen up, you had to make it through the summer. We had good summers every once in a while too. We had the Smithereens do a residency over the summer. You had to be resourceful,” Vizthum said.

Bob Albert Jr. in a 2001 Home News Tribune photo, after the Court Tavern was saved from condemnation. “We’re going to hose this place down like a circus elephant,” he said.

“I mean [Barrood] every year would close and get rid of his staff. Because he couldn’t handle the fact. He just wasn’t making the money he needed to make and he couldn’t tough it up, cause he wasn’t that type of guy. He saw that things weren’t going the way he wanted, then he’d pull the plug,” Vizthum said. 

“Bob [Albert Jr.] toughed it out every time. For 30 years Bob toughed it out,” Vizthum said. “This guy could never do it, and that’s the difference.”

That’s no surprise to anyone who knew Bob Jr., and Bob Sr. before him, who purchased the Court Tavern in 1961 for $50,000 at its original location of 149 Church Street. 

The bar moved across the street in Summer 1981 to make way for the rarest of new constructions in New Brunswick, a parking garage, the since demolished Ferren Parking Deck and mall, a site now home to the infamous “Wasteland.” 

Grand designs to transform the four-acre Wasteland into the “New Jersey Innovation and Technology Hub,” or “The Hub” for short, were celebrated at a groundbreaking ceremony on October 15. The big number attached to the project is $665 million.

Among the 21 ceremonial shovel wielders were Governor Phil Murphy, Mayor Jim Cahill and representatives from many of the site’s prestigious future tenants, including Rutgers and Princeton universities, several healthcare and government entities, and the New Brunswick Development Corporation (DEVCO), the head developer of the project.

There is a catch, though: there’s still no actual site plan in place to build the Hub, despite the accumulation of all that red dirt.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, New Brunswick Today reporter Charlie Kratovil asked Daniel Dominguez, the city’s Director, Department of Planning, Community and Economic Development, if there was a site plan yet. A site plan needs to through an approval process through several city agencies before construction can start.

“I don’t know,” Dominguez answered. “I have to go check my files but I don’t think so.”

That’s the guy in charge of planning the site. At the groundbreaking ceremony.

Additionally, New Brunswick Today has confirmed that the Wasteland grounds remain contaminated by an underground oil leak from the old county jail on Kirkpatrick Street. That intricate remediation process must also continue before buildings can spring up.

As for the beautiful renderings of the “Hub,” with innovators and job creators bustling about beneath the twinkling lights, the Court Tavern is taverna non grata, omitted from partaking in the Hub City’s latest downtown rebirth. Though that’s another old tale for the Court. 

“If you looked at [past] plans for the New Brunswick Tomorrow, you never saw the Court Tavern as part of it,” Vizthum said. “It was like blown off the map. They never had any intention, they always wanted to run [Bob] out. He was the thorn in the side of New Brunswick forever.”

“The Hub.” Not pictured: The Court Tavern, replaced in this rendering by what looks like a new building across from the existing two-story, red beam garage second from left.

Absent any actionable plans, this latest ceremonial groundbreaking may have more in common in its immediate future with the infamous downtown New Brunswick Stem Cell Institute, for which a groundbreaking was also celebrated just weeks before statewide elections, in October 2007.

That ceremonial groundbreaking, attended by then Governor Jon Corzine, was as far as that project ever went. (Four months later, a Nature magazine article said the groundbreaking ceremony “might have been premature.”)

So anyway, it’s possible the Wasteland will be here a bit longer, and the Hub might have to wait. 

Perhaps that explains the lack of urgency on Barrood’s part to make a move with his tavern, and he can keep sitting on it, whereas some other owner might have already re-opened its doors to a readymade music scene.

But as the building languishes, is it that hard of a decision for him to consider?

He can try again to re-open the Court Tavern, with all the difficulties he’s encountered, and this time with the additional burdens of this pandemic era. Maybe he adores the place and all its history, and maybe he’s equipped to give it another shot.

Or, he could sell it for a million bucks to the city’s preferred developers, who for forty years and counting have been thirsting to knock it down, twice condemning it as blighted land in need of development.

If or when that happens, it would just be more New Brunswick history erased, the arts and cultural history that the city has never cared for anyway, a final curtain to fall on the rugged Hub City music scene of old. 

“We’ll always have Paris…” a commenter wrote about those bygone days on a recent Court Tavern Facebook group post, channeling Humphrey Bogart.

Another line that comes to mind, from Court Tavern stalwarts the Smithereens: “The house that we used to live in, falling apart.”

“[The Court] was one of a kind, when it comes down to it,” Vizthum said. “It was the one place to nurture talent. Which we don’t have anymore.

”There’s nothing in New Brunswick besides the underground shows and let’s face it, those are people’s houses, they’re not really venues. They’re not a real venue. I mean some of the houses are really good, some of them have decent sound, whatever, that’s great but it’s not a real club. It’s a house. It’s somebody’s house. It’s a basement show,” Vizthum said.

“And it’s cool, thank god New Brunswick has that. I’m sure there’s like a whole scene that’s bubbling under the surface that has no place to go besides the basement.”

The underground music scene remains vibrant here in fall 2021. But rock and roll clubs in the Hub City, once home to so many? There’s only one. 

Closed since 2019, as spoiled as the Wasteland soil since 2012.

The Court Tavern. Does it rise again? Or does it go like the rest, banished to the archives?

“It was a community, really when you come down to it,” Vizthum said. “Believe me, when the Court was gone, people were really sad. When Bobby had to give it up for whatever reason it happened, it was never the same.”

 

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

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