NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—So, just how swingin’ was the New Brunswick music scene in the late 1960’s?
Swinging enough to produce a Billboard Hot 100 number one hit, 50 years ago this summer: Looking Glass’ “Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl),” the tale of sailors, barmaids and the sea.
Released in the spring of 1972, it peaked at number one in the nation in the third week of August, battling back and forth with Irish balladeer Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” that month.
A number one hit is not too shabby of a precursor to the more towering and bounteous “New Brunswick Music Scene,” as it became formally and nationally known in later decades.
“I always wondered why everyone thought that the town’s musical history began with the Melody Bar and the Court Tavern (neither of which we ever played as neither had started featuring music yet),” Looking Glass drummer Jeff Grob told New Brunswick Today in April.
“Music in New Brunswick didn’t start with us in the late ‘60s either,” he said. “Especially with music, everything comes from and builds upon something earlier.”
One could point to the 1920’s global superstar Rutgers alumnus Paul Robeson and New Brunswick-born pianist James P. Johnston, the songwriter of the decade’s anthemic “The Charleston,” as early dots on the city’s music timeline.
But “Brandy,” the hard-charging New Brunswick rock quartet Looking Glass, and the eclipsed 1960’s and 1970’s rock era as a whole have their own righteous places in Hub City music history.
Looking Glass has the requisite Hub City bonafides. The band featured three Rutgers 1970 graduates in Elliot Lurie, Pieter Sweval and Larry Gonsky. Jeff Grob was enrolled at Rider University at the time he linked up with the others, but he would also go on to graduate from Rutgers, in 1985, after spending the rest of the ‘70s reeling and rocking in Brandy’s wake, particularly with the early heavy metal band Starz.
In their New Brunswick days, Looking Glass had two distinct phases, as Grob described it. There was “Looking Glass 1,” a quintet featuring Lurie, Sweval, Gonsky and two others, that formed around 1967-68.
After an interim break-up period of about a year, Grob joined the re-formed “Looking Glass 2” in 1969 or 1970, which would go on to have the hit.
The band’s eponymous debut album with “Brandy” on it, released fifty years ago in the spring of 1972, included a back-jacket dedication to the people of New Brunswick.
“It was for everybody who supported us and followed us and encouraged us for all those years,” Grob said over the phone in April. “We had to say Thank You. And instead of naming 55 people, we’ll just say this album is dedicated to the people of New Brunswick.
“You know, we were really a people’s band,” he added. “It really was. We thought we represented the people of New Brunswick, and that was our way of saying thanks and saying so.”
Looking Glass spent the late 60’s and early 70’s playing all the venues available to them in the New Brunswick “scene,” though Grob wouldn’t necessarily call it that.
For one, there were fewer places to play then than what would emerge in the 1980’s. Fraternity dances, student events on campus at the Ledge (today known as the Student Activities Center) and another Rutgers building, Records Hall, which is currently being demolished.
Along with Art Dana’s Triangle Inn down Livingston Avenue at Route 1, these were the sustaining local venues a half-century ago.
Looking Glass 1 was “a pretty big band,” Grob said. “They were one of two of the bigger groups on campus. The other one was Lenny Kaye’s Zoo. So it was Lenny Kaye’s band The Zoo, and Looking Glass 1. And those were the two real popular bands on campus,” he said.
“And then there was a couple, maybe three or four other bands and that was it. There was really not like a lot of groups playing at all,” he said. “There was something, but it wasn’t the volume that people think of as a ‘scene.’”
One exquisite artifact of the 1960’s era is Lenny Kaye’s live album Crazy Like A Fox, recorded April 15, 1966 on campus at Records Hall. It features a 19-year-old Kaye, the future music journalist and Patti Smith Group guitarist, performing and crowd-playing under his stage name Link Cromwell.
Looking Glass 1 dissolved when Lurie and Gonsky wanted to make some money, Grob said. They formed a band called Fake Fun and “began playing a lot of cocktail lounge gigs and bars and stuff. Not in town really, kind of out of town, maybe East Brunswick or down Route 18 or something.”
Sweval went in another direction, and forged a band called Tracks. He was looking for a new drummer.
Grob was in high school in New Providence at the time, but he was experienced, having played three nights a week in bands since the age of 15. He was tipped to join up with Sweval by a mutual friend.
Tracks was a trio with a frontman, Grob on drums. Their intention was to be a heavier, blues-rock oriented band, kind of like Cream.
In the summer of 1969, Tracks wound up playing bi-weekly gigs down the Jersey Shore alongside a band called Child – fronted by a young Bruce Springsteen.
“It was a lot different than what you know of Bruce Springsteen now,” Grob said. “He used to play through a double stack of Marshall’s, he used to play a Gold Top Les Paul, he used to play like Jimmy Page,” Grob said. “They were f***’n heavy, right?”
Grob and Springsteen would cross paths a few times over the years.
After about a year, Tracks too dissolved when lead singer Skip Roberts left to join a New Brunswick band called Beans, “who had just signed a record deal,” Grob said.
At the same time, Lurie and Gonsky couldn’t take playing lounges anymore. According to Grob, Sweval ran into them one day and said, “‘You know, we should really get Looking Glass back together again,’ and Elliot said, ‘Yeah that’s a good idea. So that’s when I met Larry and Elliot.’”
“And the four of us, we said, ‘Ok, that’s a band. We got guitar, bass, drums and keyboards,’” respectively Lurie, Sweval, Grob and Gonsky. “And we thought that we could get gigs if we called ourselves Looking Glass, because it’s a known name and we can get work right away.”
The local gigging resumed under Looking Glass 2.
“We played probably every fraternity house on College Avenue. We played Records Hall, we played the Ledge. We played the Student Center. We played every SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] and Gay-Lib function you can imagine, by Willie the Silent and what have you. We played over on Cook and Douglass at Donaldson and Wood Lawn there. We played all that stuff,” Grob said.
“Pieter the bass player was very active politically in SDS,” Grob said of Sweval, who was a Mason Gross arts student at Rutgers and a devotee of the era’s Fluxus Movement. Sweval’s artwork appeared on the band’s show flyers, and in the New Brunswick underground newspaper All You Can Eat. Grob said he used to help distribute the paper “with my 1963 baby powder blue Volkswagen bus that I bought for $360 from the guy who ran the head shop on George Street.”
On campus, “If they had rallies, we would play at the rallies. We’d play Gay-Lib dances. We would basically play for anybody who’d ask. We weren’t fussy. We would just show up and play,” Grob said.
“Say a Rutgers organization wanted to have a fundraiser. They’d get the Ledge or they’d get Records Hall or something and rent it out, and charge two bucks to get in, and we’d play cause we were popular. Everybody would come and they’d keep the door and pay us.”
“That was kinda it. The other stuff was a lot of fraternities would have Saturday night dances, parties, and they’d hire us, and party. It wasn’t really more complicated than that,” he said.
“We played out of town somewhat at Lehigh and Lafayette universities. But there weren’t a lot of other places to play, there really weren’t. There were not a lot of music clubs in town that had music.”
A typical set list from a 1971 Ledge show, recollected by Grob, Lurie and friends in their best estimation, featured their original tracks like “Brandy,” “Catherine Street” and “Don’t It Make You Feel Good,” which Grob called a “a real ass-kicking, mother-f***’n Stones stomper, a big hit when we played the Ledge.”
Buffalo Springfield, the Rolling Stones, Sam and Dave, Jimi Hendrix and a handful of blues were covered too.
“We played everything. We played popular hits of the day and our stuff. And we’d mix it all up and as long as you’d get the crowd going, it didn’t really matter what you did,” Grob said.
Lurie and Sweval both had apartments in New Brunswick through their senior years at Rutgers. Lurie lived at 282 Redmond Street, at the corner of Redmond Street and Joyce Kilmer Avenue. Sweval lived on Catherine Street.
If you can’t place Catherine Street, it’s with good reason: it hasn’t existed since the 70’s.
“It’s now where the Johnson & Johnson headquarters are,” Grob said. “It was a block east of the railroad overpass bridge there, just north of George Street. That whole area used to be a neighborhood.”
Ground was broken on the Johnson & Johnson (J&J) project in 1979, and it opened in April 1983.
A 1984 New York Times article highlighting the downtown developments wrote that the J&J complex was “carved from what was once one of the most decayed areas of the city… Only the land across the street, where a $35 million Hyatt-Regency Hotel and conference center now stand, matched it for blight. Until recently, both sides were composites of ramshackle stores, tenements and saloons.”
Also in that article, a young woman was quoted as saying, apparently in earnest: “I remember what this city used to look like, and I think I’m in Paris.”
The last days of the neighborhood were preserved by Looking Glass on a track entitled “Catherine Street.” Written by Sweval, it plays third on the Looking Glass album, sandwiched between “Brandy” and “Don’t It Make You Feel Good.”
“When they decided to build the Johnson & Johnson headquarters, they took many blocks, wiped them out and built that thing, but that’s where Piet’s apartment was, Catherine Street.”
It “was probably a one or two block loop,” Grob said.
“And Piet’s apartment was next door to Mama Della’s House of Fun. We used to be practicing in his apartment on the fourth floor, and all the girls next door would be going ‘Yeah baby! You go ahead, you play your thang!’ It was one of those deals,” he said.
“The first floor of Mama Della’s next door was ostensibly a store front. They had some shelves and they had some cans of beans, some boxes of this and that, just so it looked like a store. But that wasn’t really what it was,” Grob said.
Mama Della was her name?
“Yeah, that’s what I heard it as. She was the proprietress.”
In their ode to the neighborhood, Sweval progressively builds a dramatic, beat scene—moonlight dancers, household tramps, chained-up dogs and the “goddamned heat”—before finding salvation through a climactic release and outro jam.
It was a big hit at the frats, Grob said in a 1983 Home News Tribune interview.
Grob knew the extent of the redevelopment by the time he returned in 1982 to pursue an architecture degree, from keeping in touch with his friend Arthur Milgrom, who ran the antique furniture store Aaron Ardvark & Sons at 159 and then 119 French Street.
“I talked to Arthur all the time. He was telling me what was going on with the early redevelopment of New Brunswick back in the mid to late-seventies, and how they wiped out the Hiram Market, they wiped out Catherine Street, they wiped out many sections of town, as part of their ultimate redevelopment of downtown New Brunswick.”
The J&J complex today includes a highrise, a parking garage, and a public park, leaving no scent of Catherine Street or Mama Della’s House of Fun. As Sweval sings it, “I guess you know how local stories all go.”
With graduation bearing down on Looking Glass in the spring of 1970, the three seniors faced the enduring question: now what?
“Elliot, Pieter and Larry, those guys were all a couple years older than me. In fact, they still are,” Grob said. “So we’re up there at Elliot’s house one day and they said you know, now that we’re graduated, we could put some time in to really make a serious effort doing music. Because we’d started writing stuff and making originals that we mixed in with the other things that we played. And we said, you know we could really start making a run at being an original band.
“Or we could get jobs or something. And we’re like nah, we’re not doing that.”
They made their run for it, moving to a 200-year-old stone farmhouse on 86 acres in Glen Gardner in Hunterdon County, owned by the aunt of musician Harry Chapin. They set up their studio in the dining room, and “didn’t do anything besides write songs and rehearse.”
Grob was still attending Rider, spending his time riding up and down Route 31, mostly just to school and back for band practice and writing sessions.
Looking Glass kept up with their Rutgers gigs, especially at Art Dana’s Triangle Inn, the little roadhouse bar at the southern end of Livingston Avenue, where it meets with Route 1.
“That was one of the few clubs in the area that had live music. Art was a nice guy, he took to us,” he said.
“We were living on food stamps and eating bologna sandwiches,” Grob said. “About the only paying gig we had steady was playing Art Dana’s place a couple times a month. That was enough to pay the rent and maybe get a little food once in a while, too.”
The Triangle Inn had its stage behind the bar. “It was no great shakes, it was just kind of a roadhouse place. But we played there a lot, and he basically kept us afloat until we got a record deal.”
Art Dana was particularly fond of one song, he told Home News Tribune reporter Chris Jordan in 2004:
“[Looking Glass] brought the nicest crowd I had ever seen,” said Dana… “They had a following of young, vibrant, beautiful people, some long-haired people, and they were educated. They were refined, but they loved music and they loved to dance.”…
“They played a song one night in the very beginning that I fell in love with,” Dana said. “I kept asking for it over and over to the point where it became like a joke. The crowd loved it also and they loved to dance to it. It was called ‘Brandy.’”Behind Bars: Art Dana celebrates 50 years in the business by Chris Jordan, Home News Tribune – Dec. 12, 2004
“Brandy” lived many lives in between the Triangle Inn stage and its launch to national prominence in 1972. Grob estimates there were seven cuts of the song before its release.
The first cut was from the farm in Glen Gardner, followed by two more recordings made at demo studios in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Looking Glass was signed with CBS at the time, which then sent them to Memphis to record another version with producer Steve Cropper.
“We did four sides with Cropper down in Memphis, and we came back and we listened to it, and it was good, but it wasn’t quite what we had in mind,” Grob said. “It was kinda laid back a little bit, it was kind of a Memphis groove. And we were like, ‘Wellll, ok, that didn’t work.’”
Looking Glass then spent the summer of 1971 living up in Woodstock, New York, and self-produced another “Brandy” version there on a four track, learning the ropes.
Next up was a poppy Top 40 producer named Sandy Linzer at Olmsted Studios on 40th Street in Manhattan. Linzer had produced “Rhythm of the Rain” by The Cascades, which opens with sounds of raindrops and finishes with thunder.
“And we cut it there. And after we had finished, Sandy said come back in a couple of days, I’m gonna put a little sweetener on it. And we go oh, well ok,” Grob said.
“Came back in a couple of days. We sit down in the studio in the playback room, and we’re sitting there in front of the speaker. And all of a sudden you hear like, [gentle wave noises], the sounds of the ocean. And then boo, boo boo! Seagulls and stuff. Ding ding, ding ding ding! A ship’s bell. Aah-ooo! Aah-ooo! Foghorn.
“And we’re going, what, the f***, is that?! And the track kinda dripped in. And we all looked at each other and went, ‘Uhhhhh, yeah no. That’s not working for us either.’ So that’s like version five or six.”
What was working though, he said, was the groove.
“Forget the ship’s bells and the sounds of the sea, but the groove is right,” he said. And since they’d gotten used to recording up in Woodstock, they asked CBS for a studio where they could work with the engineer and do it themselves.
“This is not rocket science, right? We took the basic track that we did at Olmsted Studios, wiped off everything else but the bass and the drums. The groove is from the ship’s bells and seagulls version. But the rest of the track we built ourselves, and then we did the whole album ourselves,” Grob said.
“So that’s the version of Brandy that you know.”
Looking Glass didn’t think it was a hit. They had heard “Brandy” plenty. They instead advocated for the aforementioned rocker “Don’t It Make You Feel Good” to be released first, in early 1972.
“Don’t It Make You Feel Good” sold 500 copies, Grob said. CBS patiently countered with “Well how about this other song? And we go well, ok,” he said.
“Meanwhile there’s a DJ down in Washington that started playing ‘Brandy’ off the album. His phones lit up, and the rest is what you know.”
That was around May and June of 1972. Grob reckons “Brandy” was on the charts for seven or eight weeks before it hit number one, in the third week of August. It would sell over three million copies.
Now this band of Rutgers ruffians had a number one hit. It was time to earn a buck. Their label, Epic Records, put them on tour opening for Jeff Beck, another Epic musician.
“His first gig was supposed to be at the Commack Arena on Long Island, but he canceled that. So our first gig, after releasing the album, was Carnegie Hall,” Grob said.
“Now you gotta remember, before that our last gig that we had played professionally, before we did the album, was Art Dana’s Triangle Inn. Our first gig after was Carnegie Hall. So we went from the Triangle Inn, to Carnegie Hall!” he said.
“I didn’t know s***! I had no clue of what I was about to get into! What did I know? I was as dumb as a stump. Talk about a mind warp,” he said.
“I wish I could play Carnegie Hall now, I’d know what to do. But back then I had no clue what to expect. I thought it was just a big club or something.”
The four Looking Glass members would tour for about two years after “Brandy.” They also put out a follow-up album, Subway Serenade, in June 1973. It had their second Top 40 hit, “Jimmy Loves Mary-Ann,” which reached #33.
In between the two albums, their old friend Bruce had released his debut “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.,” in January 1973.
“I ran into him one day,” Grob said. “He was standing outside the Port Authority in New York and I went up and said, ‘Hey Bruce, how ya doing,’ and he said, ‘Hey good.’ When you’re on a record label by the way, you can go up to the label, it has a big, huge cabinet that has all the current releases, and you can pick out any record you want and take it home with you. So I was ruffling through the records and I saw Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park and I go, ‘Oh look! Bruce made a record, how cool is that?’
“So I got one, I took it home, tore off the plastic, put it down on the turntable, dropped the needle. And you hear like, you know, accordion music, acoustic music. I go, what the f*** is this? Cause the last time I heard him play, he was playing like Led Zeppelin,” he said.
“And so I ran into him and he’s standing in front of the Port Authority. He was probably picking up some local color or something, getting some inspiration, and I go, ‘Hi, I got your first album.’ He’s like, ‘Oh yeah, I got yours, too.’ I said, ‘Thanks.’
“And I go, you know, your first album, it’s kinda different than what I remember. And he goes, ‘Ahh yeah, yeah I went to California…’ And I go, ‘Oh, oh, okay.’ And that was it,” Grob said laughing.
“He did leave Neptune [NJ] there for a while and he was out in California writing a bunch of tunes there and then he came back. And he got his record deal with CBS. So that’s when the change happened, from between playing what I was used to, pretty heavy stuff, double stack of Marshall’s, Gold Top Les Paul, crunchy, kick-you-right-in-the-balls music. To accordion, you know, ‘Oh Sandy…’ accordion and some acoustic guitars and that s***. And I went, ‘Oh. Ok. Good for you. Hope it works out for ya. [laughing]’”
In 1974, Elliot Lurie left Looking Glass to pursue solo projects, eventually becoming a music producer in the movie industry. The band continued on with a new guitarist and new singer, and toured the south mostly for about a year, “cause we had gigs, and you never turn down a paying gig,” Grob said.
Before long the sound and the band morphed into harder rock. Looking Glass rechristened themselves as Fallen Angels, featuring Grob, Sweval, Gonsky and others.
Larry Gonsky left in 1975 and Sweval and Grob pivoted again, becoming Starz. Starz was “an early heavy metal band,” Grob said. Their manager managed only one other group: KISS.
“One thing that we still kept doing was writing good songs, with good melodies and good singing and good playing,” Grob said. “Sludge rock it was not.”
Starz was “very famous, very influential, but not very rich,” he said. They share a bill with several genre-defining acts in the 2020 rock book by writer Doug Brod, called “They Just Seem a Little Weird: How KISS, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll.”
It was high time in rock and roll land for Grob, who by then was going by the stage name of Joe X. Dube. When Piet Sweval left Starz in 1978, Grob was the last man standing in the Looking Glass-Fallen Angels-Starz continuum.
“I did five albums on Capitol during the rest of the ‘70s with Starz,” Grob said. “I toured with anybody you can imagine. I was on tour with Aerosmith, and Ted Nugent, Blue Oyster Cult, and ZZ Top, and Rush a lot, and Bob Seger, you name it. I was playing theaters, coliseums and baseball stadiums for the second half of the seventies,” he said.
“Then I left. I stopped playing music, I quit. I needed to work, so I went to work as a construction worker, and I did that for a few years, but that’s hard,” he said, laughing. “So I said I gotta get another line of work. Long story short, I went back to school in ‘82 to get a degree as a landscape architect.”
His second tour in New Brunswick, at Rutgers from 1982 to 1985, were the prime coming-of-age years for the nascent New Brunswick music scene, spurred on by live rock at the Court Tavern and New Wave dance nights at the Melody Bar, Pinfield at the DJ booth.
New Jersey Hall of Fame rockers The Smithereens were active in town then, particularly at the Court.
But Grob’s participation in that scene was “zero,” he said.
“I was there for a very specific purpose: to be a knowledge sponge, and to soak up as much as I possibly could about being a landscape architect,” Grob said. “And since I was paying for it, and I was on my dime, I wanted to learn as much as I could.”
Grob on the 80’s scene, more bluntly: “In ‘82, I was back in New Brunswick, I could give a s*** about music. I could care less. I mean, can you imagine how famous I’d already been? What do I care about going to the f***’n Court Tavern? I mean really! Honest to God, I played at Carnegie Hall and Anaheim Stadium. You think I’m going down to that place? [laughing] No! No. And uh, no,” he said.
“I thought music was the devil. Because when you’re in music, you’re in, or you’re out. There’s no half-ass stuff in music in my opinion. I didn’t listen to anything for 10, 15 years. The only radio that I listened to was either the Yankees or talk radio. I didn’t play a record, I didn’t listen to music, I thought music was crap. Cause it ultimately kicked me right in the balls and said ‘F*** You!’
“So whatever was going on in town, I could have cared not less. I’m sure it was very nice, don’t get me wrong. But it wasn’t for me. I’d moved on, I definitely moved on… Music is a cruel lass, a cruel mistress,” he said in an affected tone.
Even so, his successful third act still includes plenty of work in New Brunswick. “I graduated in ‘85, I went to work for the company I still work at today, and I work on projects like designing downtown New Brunswick and Route 18.”
He’s lived in New Jersey all the while, and gradually returned to performing. His first baby-step back was playing guitar for five-year-olds in Sunday school. He reconnected with the Starz guys in the 2000’s and played gigs in the United Kingdom, California, Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere.
Now he likes playing blues at clubs for anybody who’ll listen. Lightnin’ Hopkins is a favorite, along with the Delta and Chicago cohorts.
“A lot of these guys I’ve also played with, you know. I’ve played with Albert King, I’ve played with Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, I’ve played with Hound Dog Taylor and I’ve done gigs with a lot of these guys,” he said.
“And I was just in awe, getting the chance to know Albert a little bit and play with him. It was just a real treat for me after just listening to their stuff for so long. I’ve seen them many, many times. And you know, holy smokes, for me it’s just amazing.”
Grob is still tight with Lurie and Gonsky. Gonsky became a music teacher in Morris Township schools in 1994, and continued through recent years.
Pieter Sweval passed away in 1990 at the age of 41. Art Dana passed in 2019 at the age of 85. The Triangle Inn was eventually demolished for Route 1 interchange improvements.
Grob conferred with Lurie over Looking Glass details ahead of this interview. “We were trying to figure out the timeline. ‘Cause you know, minds get fuzzy.” They try to meet up whenever Lurie comes back east, like when Lurie plays at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank.
“Elliot comes in right before Christmas and he does a benefit for the Red Bank or Monmouth County Foodbank. And Brian Kirk & the Jirks is the house band, and then they get three or four guys like Elliot to come in and do a couple songs. And a few years back when he starts doing this, Elliot says, ‘Hey Dube, I’m playing Red Bank, you wanna come down?’ I go, ‘Sure, I’ll play.’
“And really if you can’t play two songs, you stink. So when Elliot’s time on the show comes up, the drummer hops off, I hop on. It’s a full band with horns, Elliot sings ‘Jimmy Loves Mary-Anne’ and ‘Brandy,’ I’m playing along. I know the songs, cause you know, I wrote ‘em. And it’s cool. It’s a wonderful thing to do. I get to visit with Elliot and we hang out and we play, and the food bank makes some dough,” he said.
“He did it again this year, but because I’m recovering from having cancer, I just went down to Red Bank and I said hello. I didn’t play.”
Grob says that he is doing well and remains in high spirits.
Through all the years and concerts, and Grob’s on-off-on affair with music, there’s still that link from the 1960’s College Avenue stages in New Brunswick to the Count Basie stage in Red Bank and everywhere in between.
“We knew how to make people dance,” Grob said.
“We were pretty good at it, at the Ledge and fraternities. We were a dance band. Everybody could dance to our stuff. And that was important, so that you’d get asked back and get another gig.
“To this day, if people aren’t dancing then I’m not doing my job. I’m really not. If people are moving and having a good time, then so am I. That’s my premise. If people are moving and grooving, then I’m moving and grooving.”
Ben Kelly reports on music for New Brunswick Today. In 2022, he won the first place award for Best Arts & Entertainment Coverage for his coverage of the New Brunswick music scene, from the NJ Society of Professional Journalists.