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Bye, bye, Johnny Dirt

Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot
Photo Credit: Cliffview Pilot

A TRIBUTE: He was New Jersey’s most notable concert promoter after John Scher, as legendary as the immortal alternative music club he ran. He sold “Dirt Bags” for a buck apiece that you pinned to your shirt — unless you wanted the “Executive Dirt Bag,” which, he said, cost “fi dollaz.” He was DIY-ing before it was an anagram. The mad genius Johnny Dirt is dead at 66.

John “Johnny Dirt” Schroeder

The Dirt Club was New Jersey’s genuinely urban answer to the Mudd Club — a hip, happening place, but not in the way of Studio 54 or Belmar’s Montego Bay. It was Hoboken before gentrification — literally a basement, the same kind you or I had growing up, if we were from Hudson or Essex counties.

The only difference was we got to see bands like the Fall, the Smithereens (Thursday nights), Wall of Voodoo, Private Sector, Adrenaline OD and the Trash Mavericks.

It was a local bar that drew people not only from all parts of the state but from other countries to the sketchiest corner of otherwise unremarkable Bloomfield.

Finding it was easy: Take exit 148 off the Parkway and you’re there. The Dirt was a mecca of the unusual, a joint where you’d be more likely to hear the Cramps or Bush Tetras than you would Duran Duran or Adam Ant.

More recent (FACEBOOK photo)

Yet while Dirt himself loved the weirdest of the weird, particularly the hardcore bands, he always cut that with power-poppers like the Colors or metalic punks like 999 (they had an underground hit with “Homicide”), the retro-rockabilly Rockats, or the bridge between Tiny Tim and Pee Wee Herman: Jonathan Richman.

Steve Jones played there with his post-Sex Pistols band. So did the Ventures (but not the Raybeats — go figure). As did a personal favorite: funk minimalists Delta Five (“You,” “Try”).

The eclectic, unpretentious vibe paved the way for Aldo’s, the Loop, Hitsville, the Meadowbrook, the Green Parrot and all the other clubs tailored to the anti-poser crowd, people who liked their music the way they liked their dates: loud, hard and fast.

Except for Bruce Ciccone’s Loop, in Passaic Park, the Dirt outlasted all the rest: a full decade. In a flavor-of-the-month culture, that was saying a lot.

( From “The Dirt Show,” the Modulators: )

Credit John Schroeder, a man who lived his role to the hilt — part preacher, part huckster, part ringmaster, one who gave any band willing to play for peanuts not only the stage but appearances on “The Dirt Show,” a program that had relatively slick production values for public access TV. He also was one of the pioneers of do-it-yourself record producing: While some revered “Live at CBGBs,” loyalists on this side of the Hudson had “The Dirt Compilation.” He and his wife even lived above the club.

Regulars will remember the smashed brick wall with the huge murals painted by Bill Massie, one featuring a pointing Uncle Sam declaring: “I want YOU for the Dirt Club.” Then there were those narrow spaces around the bar that were always clogged with people.

The Doctorz at the Dirt

And those damned poles in front of the stage.

There was also Dirt hawking not only his Dirt Bags but also slime — which gave rise to his infamous Dirtstocks along “the mighty banks of the Passaic River” in Newark, a clever play to bring attention to the waterway’s awful pollution. When even jumping in didn’t get the attention he sought, Dirt tried renaming it “Slimestock.”

Remember those wild t-shirts? Or the long ash on his cigarettes?

Better yet: How about the times Dirt would literally pull the plug on a band he didn’t like? Kept people on their toes.

“Johnny was certainly one-of-a-kind. Generous and patient with young acts. Lots of fun after the show,” said Christopher Otazo, who performed there.

“Johnny Dirt gave me my first show when I was 14!” said Steve Zing Grecco, who played with the group Mourning Noise. “He would let me come to the club to see bands as long as I didnt drink.”

The only truly sad note to this tale is that the man died a week ago. Word only just got back from his home in North Carolina, just outside Charlotte.

Still, as that word spreads today, many will look back and smile. They’ll remember “Mrs. Dirt,” Marnie. They’ll remember what song they heard there for the first time. Most of all, they’ll remember the piper who drew all colors of the alternative rainbow — including black and white. Not many people you can say that about.

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