by Michael Pollock
Out and About Magazine, December 2005
When Newark’s Stone Balloon shuts its doors for the final time on Saturday, Dec. 17, it will take with it the memories of more than 33 years of musical performances. But the stories, it seems, have a life of their own.
Founder and former owner Bill Stevenson remembers that sweltering August night in 1974 when a young Bruce Springsteen wouldn’t leave the stage. Elvin Steinberg, who took over the bar in 1985, recalls bumping into Ray Charles in his upstairs dressing room after Charles’ appearance that same year. Current general manager Tim Tully can still picture the 100-plus kids on the roof of what is now the Learning Station, all hoping to get a glimpse of Metallica when they played in 1989.
Today’s customers, many of them UD students, are too young to recall any of these shows. For them the Balloon has come to symbolize Thursday Mug Nights, long lines, overflowing toilets, and DJ dance parties. The thrill of discovering a new band on stage is long gone.
Current owner Jim Baeurle, 42, remembers when Train played the Balloon two years ago. Though it was a sold-out show, Baeurle says only 12 of the tickets were sold to students. “It’s a different kid that goes to the university now,” he states. “It’s a tougher school to get into, and [the students] don’t go out as much. When I went here we’d be at the Balloon three or four nights a week.”
Baeurle will be tearing down the Balloon and replacing it with condos. He says one of the main reasons he decided to close the bar is the lack of support for live music. “It’s dramatically less than what it was 10 years ago,” he says. “When I grew up, you followed a local band wherever they played, because you felt like you needed to support that band. That’s completely evaporated now.”
Baeurle says the immediacy made possible by downloading has also hurt business. “There are so many other ways to get music now,” he says. “People might like a song but they don’t want to invest anything in the band. They don’t even want the album—they just like one song. I can’t tell you how many albums I bought based on one song where I ended up falling in love with the band.”
Mastering the Middle Man
If Baeurle had been running the Balloon in the ’70s and ‘80s, he wouldn’t have had to worry about the fate of live music. It was flourishing, and the Balloon was the best place in Delaware to find it. National acts like Cheap Trick, Hall and Oates, Todd Rundgren, Robert Palmer, Dr. John, Blood, Sweat and Tears, the Average White Band, Canned Heat, and David Crosby all paid visits, while local bands like Jack of Diamonds, Dakota, and Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers cut their teeth in front of packed crowds.
By the mid-‘80s, owner Bill Stevenson, who had run the bar since it opened in February 1972, was facing money troubles. He sold the Balloon to a group of local investors who attempted to transform it into a cabaret-style venue. The makeover didn’t go over well with customers and soon the owners were looking for a way out. They sold the bar to Elvin Steinberg, who quickly restored the Balloon’s reputation for cutting-edge music. “Elvin Steinberg saved the Balloon,” says Stevenson, now 57, who had a major falling out with the investors.
Among the acts Steinberg booked during his tenure: Ray Charles, Joe Jackson, Iggy Pop, Metallica, Joe Walsh, and Violent Femmes. Steinberg also was responsible for bringing in Love Seed Mama Jump, an energetic rock band that quickly won over audiences. A key to Steinberg’s success during this time was his mastering of the middle agent structure. Middle agents would acquire tour schedules and identify gaps between dates, allowing smaller venues in nearby cities to score big names. For bands, it’s a chance to squeeze in an extra show and make more money.
In his new book, Stone Balloon: The Early Years, Bill Stevenson tells the story of how he almost got the Rolling Stones to play the bar because of this strategy. The band was looking for a nearby location to play a few songs the night before their Philadelphia concert in September 1981 and had contacted the Stone Balloon. Much like the Metallica show years later, there was to be no advertising or mention of the Stones’ appearance, or the gig was off. The night of the show, Stevenson arrived at JFK Stadium early to meet the band. They were preparing for the following night’s performance, but a wind storm had kicked up, making their sound check impossible. Stevenson hung around for four-and-a-half hours trying to persuade the band to forget about their sound system and come to Newark. At 11:30 p.m., he realized it was a lost cause. “Every time I see something about the Rolling Stones, I think of what could have happened,” he writes.
A Step Up from Other Places
Stevenson writes that the Stones selected the Balloon because of the bar’s reputation as a first-rate rock club. It’s the Balloon’s definitive characteristic over four decades of presenting live music. “There’s not a better gig in terms of crowd participation,” says Jefe, lead singer and guitarist in Burnt Sienna, a local cover band that started playing the bar in 1997. “A lot of places you’ll play, people are only into it at their own leisure. But at the Balloon, they know what to do from the get-go.”
Tommy Conwell, a former DJ on WYSP whose group, the Young Rumblers, was a popular crowd-draw in the late ‘80s, remembers how well the Balloon treated its bands. “Playing the Balloon was a big deal for a band like us,” he says. “It was a step up from most of the places we had played.”
To show his appreciation for the local artists that have played the bar, Baeurle has invited Conwell and all five of the original Rumblers for a headlining performance on the Balloon’s last night. The death of the club represents not only the loss of a local institution, but a loss for the area’s live music scene.
Baeurle expects smaller Newark venues like East End Café and Deer Park Tavern to pick up the slack, but admits it won’t be the same on Main Street.
“There’s definitely a void now,” he says. —The Stone Balloon will hold a three-night farewell beginning with its final Mug Night on Thursday, Dec. 15. A “Newark Locals Goodbye” featuring a book signing with Bill Stevenson and a performance by Club Phred will be held on Friday, Dec. 16. On Dec. 17, the Stone Balloon closes its doors for the final time with “The End of the World as We Know It,” featuring performances by the Snap and headlined by Tommy Conwell and the Young Rumblers. Tickets for Thursday and Friday are required and will be sold at the door. Tickets for Dec. 17 can be purchased through Ticketmaster.
Behind the Balloon
- Former owner Bill Stevenson booked Bruce Springsteen to play the Balloon in 1974 after being blown away by The Boss’s performance at New Jersey’s Stone Pony (though Stevenson says the bar itself was a dump). Springsteen was paid just $2,500—considered then to be a huge figure—for a show that lasted five hours and well past closing time.
- Meatloaf, who weighed more than 300 pounds during his heavier days, required the use of oxygen tanks during several Balloon performances because of his breathing problems.
- As he recalls in his book, Stone Balloon: The Early Years, owner Bill Stevenson had plans to seduce Pat Benatar when she played the club in 1980. Benatar, however, ended up getting engaged to one of her band members the night of her performance.
- An unknown Jane’s Addiction opened for Iggy Pop during a show in the late ‘80s, but got booted after urinating on a wall and stage-diving in their underwear during Iggy’s set. They hold the distinction of being the only band that’s ever been kicked out of the Balloon.
- During Metallica’s legendary 1989 show, a crowd surge knocked down the metal railings near the stage, leaving exposed nails near the pit. Remembers Tim Tully, who was a doorman at the time: “We had to send all the bouncers and bartenders down there so nobody would get impaled.”
- Before Eddie Murphy’s musical performance in the early ‘90s, former owner Elvin Steinberg was surprised to see him hanging out inside the Balloon. After a closer look, Steinberg realized it was actually Eddie’s brother Charlie (of Chapelle’s Show), who was busy playing pinball.
- Hootie and the Blowfish played the Balloon to an audience of about 20 people and were paid just $600. George Clinton and his P-Funk band were notorious for stealing.