Jersey Beat, the seminal New Jersey music zine and website started by Jim Testa in 1982, turns 35 this year and will be celebrated with an anniversary show at Maxwell’s Tavern in Hoboken on Friday April 14th. It promises to be an incredible evening of music as many of the bands that featured prominently in the early days of Jersey Beat will be reuniting—including The Cucumbers, the original members of Gutbank and a special appearance by Dave Weckerman and Glenn Mercer of the Feelies. In addition, proceeds for the show will go to The Project Matters, an organization that give young musicians assistance with their careers.
A little history. After graduating from Rutgers a friend of Testa’s, Howard Wuelfing, moved to Washington D.C. and got involved in the local punk scene there and started a fanzine Dischords. Testa wanted to be a part of the zine and started covering the scene around Maxwell’s at the time and called his column Jersey Beat, a play on Mersey Beat. The zine ended but Testa had been bitten by the music journalism bug and Jersey Beat was born.
What started out as a small, 12 page mimeographed zine in the 80s eventually blossomed to an over 100 page tome with glossy covers in the 90s. Then the aughts happened and soon local record labels folded and could no longer take out ads. With great foresight Testa registered the domain JerseyBeat.com in 1997 and the website was born.
There is really no way to exaggerate the importance Testa and Jersey Beat has had and continues to have on the entire New Jersey music scene. The coverage of punk, hardcore, and alternative music is second-to-none and countless bands have benefited from their coverage in the zine and online. Testa’s influence on local music journalism is also keenly felt. His style of journalism is honest, fair and endlessly informative. After 35 years covering local music there is no other writer with the vast knowledge he has at his fingertips. In addition to the zine Testa has also been producing the Jersey Beat Podcast for 10 years highlighting great local music or interviewing musicians he admires.
We had a chance to chat with Testa on his 35 years at the helm of Jersey Beat.
You started Jersey Beat when you couldn’t get published anywhere else. Did you think you would still be running your own DIY zine 35 years later?
Never in a million years. For the 25 years I published the print zine, I never looked more than one issue ahead. I think that may be the secret of my longevity.
What is the main advantage of the website over the print fanzine? Drawback?
Publishing to the web has a lot of obvious advantages. It costs nearly nothing, it has an immediacy you can’t approach with print media, and you can potentially reach a huge audience. Plus there’s instant feedback. When you put a magazine out there (or a book, or a record, or any piece of art,) you never know who is seeing it or if anyone likes it.
The one drawback is something that anyone who makes things will understand – there is a huge satisfaction in holding something you created in your hands. I do miss that. Every issue of Jersey Beat meant weeks or months of hard work followed by that one sublime moment when the new one came back from the printer.
Do you miss the traditional magazine form Jersey Beat in any way?
You have been writing about music for over 35 years. What continues to inspire you?
It’s corny, but the music. And the people who make it. I still love listening to music, hearing it performed live, discovering new bands, and meeting interesting, creative people.
Which music journalists did you look up to when you first started writing?
That’s a pretty easy list. Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus (his “Mystery Train” was huge for me.)
He wasn’t a music journalist per se, but I was a huge fan of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson. And since I was trained as a newspaper reporter at Rutgers, two of my biggest heroes were Jimmy Breslin and Rex Reed (who did celebrity interviews for the Daily News.) He just passed away, so I want to give props to Jimmy Breslin. He’s really someone I always tried to emulate, he found the stories that the pack reporters missed. I’ll give you one way I emulated him. I went to SXSW for 20 straight years. Every year, I would make it a point to go off the beaten path and find one story that was outside the festival – an anti-SXSW punk show, or something on the UT campus, whatever. At my last SXSW, I took a bus out to the suburbs and saw a bunch of kids play a DIY show in a barn.
How would you describe the current state of indie music coming out of New Jersey?
Inexhaustible. NJ is a relatively small state and it’s impossible to talk about it in terms of one scene: There’s the older generation of musicians from the Eighties and Nineties still doing great work, the kids playing the Meat Locker and basement shows, everything that’s going on in Asbury Park, a punk scene, a metal scene, an open-mic folk sub-culture… I never worry about running out of things to write about.
Your anniversary show is at Maxwell’s Tavern (formally Maxwell’s) in Hoboken. How important was this venue in the early days of the zine?
I can honestly say that if I hadn’t wandered into Maxwell’s back in 1980, I never would have started Jersey Beat. I had been writing about film and theater for the Aquarian Weekly when I first got out of college. Of course the CBGB punk scene in the late 70’s was a huge inspiration, but I never got my foot in the door there. It was only when I started hanging out at Maxwell’s and met all the bands and writers who were regulars there did I start turning into a music writer.
Speaking of towns and venues, with so much music online and places to play live music seemingly on the decline, would you say are there still “scenes” in NJ in the traditional sense?
I sort of answered that already. Of course there are. There are always cliques and pools and eddies, groups of like-minded musicians who figure out that it’s easier to work together. I’m no longer a part of a lot of those scenes – I have no idea who’s playing basement shows in New Brunswick these days, for instance, and I am woefully under informed about NJ hip hop. There’s still a very strong community of musicians in Hoboken who have been around as long as I have. You see things like Mint 400 and Sniffling Indie Kids Records working together on shows. There’s still very much a New Brunswick music scene, and a huge scene in Asbury that you see come together every year at the Asbury Music Awards. If you ain’t hearing it, you aren’t listening hard enough.
When did your begin writing and releasing your own music?
I’ll give you the long answer. I played alto sax from 5th grade through high school in marching band and orchestra. When I went to college, I wanted to reinvent myself and never touched the sax again, but I taught myself rudimentary folk guitar. Around 1985, a good friend of mine from college moved from D.C. back to New Jersey and we started a band together
called The Love Pushers that lasted a few years. Then I stopped performing and focused on writing, although I always played guitar at home, even wrote a few songs. In 2000, I was at a DIY thing called the W.E. Festival and some friends basically pushed me on stage one night to perform. That gave me the bug again and I started playing out as a singer-writer. I released two records in 2004 and 2006, then kind of went on cruise control until I met the folks at Mama Coco’s Funky Kitchen a few years ago (that’s a Brooklyn scene, but a great community.) That jumpstarted me again and I’ve released a few things in the past couple of years, which you can find at jimtesta.bandcamp.com.
What can fans expect from the upcoming Best of Jersey Beat anthology?
I haven’t started really working on it yet, but I envision it as a collection of interviews and reviews. It’s only going to cover the print years, 1982-2007. Ideally I’d love to include a lot of photos and art (one thing I’m very proud of is some of the amazing cartoons and illustrations and covers we printed) but that gets expensive. So maybe the book will be mostly text and there’ll be a website that will have all the art. We’ll see.
You were born in Hoboken, attended Rutgers, and have been a Weehawken resident for most of your life. What makes New Jersey special?
The sandwiches. Some people say it’s the pizza. But it’s the sandwiches.
**Header photo: Dan Bracaglia
Copyright, You Don’t Know Jersey, LLC (2010-2016)