No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens authors Amy Yates Wuelfing (a regular patron of City Gardens music venue in Trenton, NJ and contributor to B-Sides, Hard Times and Ghettoblaster) and Steven DiLodovico have worked to cover every aspect of the club-the punks and skinheads who inhabited it most nights, the dance nights (when they usually didn't!), the bands who played, the bouncers who protected them, the bartenders who saw it all (including a young Jon Stewart)-and everyone else who showed up.
Amy and Steven have done well over 100 interviews and along the way have talked to Henry Rollins (a one-time Trenton resident), Daily Show host and former City Gardens bartender Jon Stewart, Dean Ween, Ian MacKaye, GWAR, Al Jourgenson (Ministry), Gibby Haynes (Butthole Surfers), Harley from the Cro-Mags, City Gardens promoter Randy Now, plus bouncers, moshers and other miscreants...to name but a few!
Besides all the music, what so many people remember is how City Gardens changed their lives; it made many lives better and may have even saved a few. Attending those shows and dance nights made a lot of outsiders and odd socks feel like they were part of a community-accepted and free to express themselves. Over the years, patrons had different perceptions of, and relationships to, the club and what went on there. People who went there in the beginning saw things differently than those who started going in later years.
The club is still remembered fondly by local residents - even ones too young to have gone. Local Trenton rapper Wade Wilson summed it up by saying, "It's part of our heritage here in Trenton. When I started learning about City Gardens, and people would tell me about it, don't ask me why but somehow I felt some kind of kindred thing with the people who went and played there."
Two excerpts from the book have been posted on the literary website The Rumpus, including how a band almost burned the place down and started a riot, or did they?
Read the excepts here: http://therumpus.net/2009/03/how-did-it-comes-to-this/ (The Butthole Surfers gig)
and here: http://therumpus.net/2010/02/starting-the-new-year-off-with-a-bang/ (The Circle Jerks gig)
Greetings Amy and Steve! I am so blown away by your fascinating book about the music venue City Gardens that existed in Trenton, NJ from 1979 to 1994 as a musical and cultural oasis anyone and everyone who wanted to hear music, spoken word, and comedy from performers that were, for the most part, alternative to the mainstream. What spurred you to write a book specifically about City Gardens and to track down and interview all the artists, workers, and audience members you could?
Amy: I began about 15 years ago. It started out as a project to write the memoirs of City Gardens promoter Randy Now, then it just kept expanding in scope. The club was so important to so many people that I felt it was important to include those stories as well. City Gardens stopped doing shows with national acts in 1994, and then closed for good in 1999. I started working on the book around 1999 or 2000.
Steve: First, thank you for the kind words! As far as what spurred me personally to work on this book with Amy was easily the subject matter. I had such fond memories of City Gardens from my days there, and, seeing how all these nostalgic documents have been coming out in recent years, I kind of thought that City Gardens totally deserved to be recognized for its contributions to music history. Once I saw what Amy had already, I was totally in.
Your book really is an ‘oral history’ of that “cement box” (Description courtesy of Mickey Ween.) that was a haven for so many cult and known acts like Iggy Pop, Nine Inch Nails, Nirvana, the Ramones, R.E.M., the Beastie Boys, Jane’s Addiction, GWAR, Green Day, Ice T’s Body Count, the Afghan Whigs, Joan Jett, Sinead O’Connor, Ministry/Al Jourgensen, Black Flag/Henry Rollins, the Dead Kennedys/Jello Biafra…the list goes on - and on! You interviewed some of the artists above and I was wondering what your interview process was. Did you exchange e-mails, use Skype, and/or sit face-to-face/phone them and use a recording device?
Amy: Most were done either face-to-face, or on the phone with a recording device. None were email or Skype. I still remember chasing Grant Hart from Husker Du down the street on the Lower East Side in New York, with my digital recorder in my hand, asking questions and praying that the audio would be understandable when it was finished. Steve and I are old school, so the interviews were done old school too.
Steve: I am so behind in the world of technology that I seriously used a micro cassette recorder from the ‘90s. Do you have any idea how hard it was to find friggin’ micro cassettes in 2014?? I keep it analog. There were a lot of different ways I got/did interviews. The bulk of them were done over the phone using some Radio Shack crazy spy recording device that hooked right into a landline. There were 2 interviews I did where I went REAL old school: put an old office phone on speaker and sit the tape recorder next to it and prayed the person on the other end spoke loud enough that I’d be able to transcribe it! Some of the interviews I got at shows by using pure stalker methods. Always with my trusty analog tape recorder!
Your book compiles interviews from a veritable who’s who of the punk/hardcore/indie/alternative scene, with revealing bits about most performers from bandmates, those who worked at City Gardens, and some audience members. Who were you most excited to interview or find out more info about them? If you can name names, who did not want to interviewed?
Amy: Anyone that we tried to interview who turned us down isn’t missed, in my opinion. The book turned out exactly like it was supposed to. Not to be all ‘new age’, but things like this have a life of their own and do what they want to do. The person I was most nervous to interview was Jon Stewart, and after that was Peter Hook, who was in New Order and Joy Division. A close third was Milo from the Descendents. Everyone who agreed to talk was wonderful and very generous with their time.
Steve: I had a great time interviewing Ian MacKaye, but man I was nervous as hell. Ian, as an icon, is very intimidating. As a person he is REALLY intense, even over the phone he was really intense. He was incredibly nice and patient and he’s a fantastic interview. His head, his mind is like a steel trap. He tells stories so matter-of-factly and succinctly. He told me he had journals detailing EVERY show he’s EVER played in his life. His ENTIRE life. When we talked about the times he played at City Gardens he had it all laid out for me like BAM! He had the bill listed, how many tickets were sold, how much each band made, and hundreds of other insane details. What made this interview great for me, being such a huge fan, was that he even let me grill him for a good two hours about stuff that had nothing to do with City Gardens! I got a history of Embrace and Pailhead and some of the other stuff he did and I got to ask him all about Dischord and a lot of the other DC bands. There is a quote in the book from him about Fugazi demanding that the air conditioning always be turned off at their shows. His reasoning was that they’re in there working, sweating, and the audience should be too. I got chills hearing that.
As an interviewer myself, I know how difficult it can be sometimes to get an artist to open up. Was it like pulling teeth to go through some of these interviews, like maybe that taciturn Peter Murphy one…?
Amy: One of my favorite artists is Andy Warhol, and he was famously a nightmare to interview. Monosyllabic answers, answers that didn’t make sense. I think he wanted his art to speak for him and I believe some musicians are the same way. Peter Murphy was the exception, in that he was very brief. Everyone else you had a hard time getting them OFF the phone, LOL. I still do interviews for magazine features and articles, and every once in a while come across someone who is an ‘Andy Warhol.’ The key to me when you encounter someone like that is to ask either very specific questions about specific things, or to ask totally off the wall questions they never heard before. I think some artists get interview fatigue because they are asked the same questions over and over.
Steve: There were definitely interviews that you go into with high expectations and sometimes they just come out flat. Some people aren’t great storytellers, some people freeze up when they know they are being recorded, or they are very guarded with their answers, it’s just not their thing. But the willingness was almost always there; people were always very enthusiastic about City Gardens, even if they had bad times there! I think a huge thing in our favor was that when we interviewed people, we weren’t so much asking them to talk about themselves. We asked them to talk about this place and this music and a lot of times, without them even realizing it, they just opened up about themselves. And some people were just so easy. Dave Franklin of Vision was one of the best interviews I ever did. That guy has the best stories. He made it so easy because he really knows how to tell a story, he had so much love for Randy and City Gardens and hardcore. He was great.
What is rewarding about this book is that, while it captures a unique place and time in amber, it’s also universal in its ‘musical vibe’ – of appreciating an amazing show/performance. You both have been patrons of City Gardens; Amy, I think you started frequenting the club in 1984, and Steve, I think you started attending in 1986. What were your experiences like at City Gardens? What memorable bands did you see?
Amy: The Violent Femmes was a big one for me. They were one of my favorite bands, and they actually walked through the crowd playing their instruments to get to the stage. I was raised on arena rock – Van Halen and the like – so to be that close to the band was a big deal for me.
Steve: If you were ever part of any kind of ‘scene’ that was apart from whatever was deemed ‘mainstream’ at the time, there are definitely aspects of the City Gardens experience that you’ll vibe with. I’ve often said; if you went to shows during these years there is someone in this book that reminds you of someone you grew up with, no matter where you’re from. We’ve had people who weren’t even alive during the City Gardens years tell us how much they connected with some of these stories. The thing is, depending what you were into, the experiences there varied with each person. Even Amy and I have some very different ideas of what going to City Gardens shows was like. I’d never been to a 90 cent Dance Night. I’ve seen some of the roughest shows there. I saw way more violence than Amy did. So to me, that aspect was always a key factor in what City Gardens was to me. There are many people who never saw a fight there once; who never feared for their safety at all. That, in a microcosm, is City Gardens. So much different stuff happened there it is impossible to call any singular person’s view of it as ‘definitive.’
As gig-goers in the 80s and 90s, what did you enjoy most about City Gardens specifically? What set it apart from other musical venues of those time periods?
Amy: Before I could drive, I would listen to college radio and hear the local concert calendar. And it was always bands I loved, playing at City Gardens. Like to Steve, the place seemed mythical to me. As soon as I could drive I got a fake ID and started going there. The moment I walked in, I knew I had found ‘my people.’ Everyone was cool, but not pretentious. Guys didn’t talk to me, let alone hit on me. It was very chill, everyone did their own thing. You really felt it was a judgment free zone. For me, it stoked a lot of creativity. You felt like you could do anything there. You made a student film and wanted to show it there? Sure. You formed a band and wanted to play there? You could. I think the atmosphere changed when it became all-ages, as opposed to a 21+, but the place still meant a lot to people.
Steve: For me it was always the adventure. Anytime you saw a great band in a different venue it was a new experience. Shows were great back then, and you would often follow the same band from the Philly gig to the Trenton gig and end up at a CB’s matinee come Sunday afternoon. City Gardens was a far ride for me and that actually made a huge impression on me. Philly clubs were always like my back yard. City Gardens was a huge place an hour away that had these bands I never would have seen anywhere else. Plus, I made so many great friends there.
Your book really hits home for me because way back in the early 1990s I was living around Trenton and was a WTSR/WPRB-listening, music fanzine-creating, record-shopping, occasional gig-going ‘alternative’ music fan. I saw the Babes In Toyland and Lush, and The Senseless Things and Blur, shows at City Gardens, and I’m kicking myself in retrospect for not having known that Nirvana played there when I was so close by! Did you have any ‘D’oh!’ moments, where you missed a gig you wanted to go to at City Gardens?
Amy: I put that master list of shows together for the book. I had a “D’oh!” every 10 minutes. Seriously. When you look at the flyers and the bands that played - one right after the other – it became clear why I spent SO MUCH TIME THERE! Cripes. All those bands, all the time. I do kick myself for Nirvana and a few others.
Steve: For me it’s always the bands I was too young to see. I would have killed to see Black Flag or the Bad Brains in ’81 or ’82. I was lucky when I was in my heyday of going to shows: I hung out at a college radio station where we could always finagle a guest list so we never had to worry about money for shows and I had a lot of older friends who brought me up in the scene who had cars and could take me to places like City Gardens.
While a huge chunk of your book is devoted to responses taken straight from the artists’ mouths, you also give some chronological backstory to each phase of City Gardens’ evolution. Who wrote those segments of the book?
Amy: Me. Those were mostly from research and interviewing Randy Now, and also just giving the reader some context.
Steve: Mostly Amy. She would write something and I would add to it.
I enjoyed how you start each chapter with a Top Ten Songs of the Year list. There is such a stark contrast between those mainstream ‘radio hits’ lists and the artists who passed through City Gardens (Take, for instance, 1982 and Olivia Newton-John’s chart-topper “Physical” versus, uhhh, Ministry and Black Flag gigs.). Who thought of adding those Top Ten lists to the book?
Amy: A friend of mine, who is in the book, thought of that. His name is Joe Knotts. He suggested it and I thought it was genius.
City Gardens promoter extraordinaire Randy Now figures heavily in many of the interview passages as he was the driving force of City Gardens for all those years – getting bands like Bauhaus, The Exploited, Ween, the Butthole Surfers, Fishbone, New Order, PiL, and the Violent Femmes to play there. What was it like to interview him and reminisce about those good (and wild ‘n’ crazy) old days?
Amy: Randy is a good friend of mine, so I talk to him all the time. When we would talk, I had what I remembered about a show from the audience side, and he would give the ‘behind the scenes’ perspective. So it was two different stories!
Steve: Randy is a very interesting dude. He can be hard to interview because he’s got SO many stories, sometimes they all bleed together. And he meanders a lot (Ha ha!). But, man, that guy just has a brain for music. It’s in his blood. His knowledge, his experience… those are tales I could listen to all day.
You even got Jon Stewart to chime in at times for your book! I can’t believe he was a bartender at City Gardens starting in 1986… And Amy, you even got to be a guest on the Daily Show, from what I hear. What was that experience like for you?
Amy: The Daily Show experience was wonderful. Jon was so cool and down to earth, exactly what you see on TV. Even when we were chatting backstage, he really listens. He isn’t someone who just talks, he really asks great questions. And Gibby was great too. I had a fabulous time. Sometimes you hear stories of people who go on a TV show and feel let down – NOT ME! LOL. I loved it.
There are so many juicy details on various artists jam-packed into “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes” that I don’t know where to start, or if I should even give away any fun/crazy/oddball stuff! And there’s some wild, sometimes star-related, name-dropping, from Viggo Mortensen to Madonna (That’s a story onto itself.)… What interviewee was the most captivating to listen to for you?
Amy: Well, the people who are great storytellers are always the best. Two names leap to mind – and they are as different as night and day. One, Ben Vaughn. Ben has a national radio show now, and he has very clear memories and he can spin a yarn. Great stories about Bo Diddley, the Replacements, and what it was like to place gigs back then as an artist who wasn’t quite punk, not quite rock, but found a home at City Gardens. I could listen to Ben talk all day. The other was Al Jourgensen from Ministry. Tales of drugs, debauchery, smoking crack with Gibby, living on stale popcorn. In the same vein was Dave Brockey from GWAR, may he rest in peace. He literally made me laugh so hard I had tears coming out of my eyes.
Steve: Definitely Ian, for punk rock history. In a City Gardens capacity I had a great time interviewing Jim Norton, who spent many years working at the club in various capacities. He was security, he was a stage manager at one point, he played there in several bands and he really had some great, behind the scenes-type stories.
While the overall vibe of City Gardens is one of inclusiveness and celebration of a musical community, there is also a thread of violence (or the threat of violence) that runs through many of the stories/events told. Amy, you had a surprise run-in with Bruce of Flipper while you were trying to interview him in 1984, and Steve, you were at least witness to some violent confrontations. What is your view on this aspect of the club’s culture?
Amy: Like any bar anywhere in America – or the world – you have cool people and you have assholes. Flipper was firmly in the asshole column, in my opinion. Punk is really just another cross section of society, so you will have your share of thieves, junkies, idiots and so on. In my mind, it got worse as time went on and ‘punk’ got more mainstream and – strangely enough – began attracting the wrong element. People who were just into the rage and fighting.
Steve: Dangerous music attracts dangerous people. It’s that simple. The kinds of shows I went to, danger was a major attraction for any male adolescent with raging hormones and broken emotions. It was a natural pairing. I’m not saying any of it was right, but it was necessary.
While the text is key, you also have a pictorial rundown of performers in action on the stage. How did you procure those photos? I like the shot of Sinead O’Connor and also the one of Randy Now next to the sign that has become the title of your book. I think you should’ve added to your title the other sign in the photo: “Absolutely No Refunds”.
Amy: And “No Re-entry!” Photos were hard to come by – not many people took photos back then. It’s easy to remember that taking photos was expensive (film and developing), you were taking a chance because you could easily waste a roll of film that didn’t come out, and your camera might get broken. Luckily, we had Ken Salerno, Ron Gregorio and a few others. Ken especially was really generous with his photos.
Steve: We were fortunate to get a lot of pictures donated to us by people who just took shots while they were at shows. We also had the great fortune to be able to use the photos of Ken Salerno, who was pretty much the eye of City Gardens. That was huge for us, because those photos are brilliant.
OK, Steve, I’ve got a really specific question for you: You actually sat on the stage near Henry Rollins when he did a spoken word gig on February 17, 1993, and you said that he ragged on you for wearing a Morrissey t-shirt. Which shirt was it? Was it from the Kill Uncle or Your Arsenal tour? Just curious, as I have a Kill Uncle t-shirt.
Steve: Ha ha, that was a rough night. It was a black ‘Your Arsenal’ tour shirt I had gotten when Moz played the second Philly date at the Tower in 1992. And that’s not my only run-in with Rollins over a shirt! I don’t think it made it into the book, but in 1990 I went to see Rollins Band. Knowing Henry’s spoken word work very well, I knew he was both a Madonna fan and that at every gig he put Darryl Hannah’s name on the guest list because someday… Anyway, for whatever reason we had a bunch of these Madonna ‘Blonde Ambition’ tour shirts at the college radio station I hung at and I thought I’d bring one to give to Henry. I saw him at the far end of the main bar. The show was pretty empty, he was sitting by himself and I went up to him all nerdy and fanboy and told him I had a shirt for him ‘cause I knew he liked Madonna. He turned, gave me the thousand yard stare, totally looking right through me, and says (REALLY loud): “NO THANKS MAN, I HAVE ENOUGH SHIRTS.” And he turned his back on me. D’oh.
What valuable lessons have you learned from digging so deeply into the rich and riotous lives of the artists you’ve interviewed? I’ve learned, from you Amy, to “…never go to a drunk band’s dressing room…” (Wise words.), and from Jon Stewart, that “When the band needs beer, the band needs beer.” Hmmm…somehow I think those two statements are linked…
Amy: It’s important to remember that City Gardens was a total mom-and-pop operation. No corporate sponsorship, no Live Nation, no Clear Channel, no “Bud Light Presents…” It was truly anti-corporate. That made it perfect for punk, but it also made it hard to survive. So for me personally, I learned that if you want to do something, just do it. Don’t wait for validation from other people, just do what you feel you must. It doesn’t have to be big or fancy. We had to self-publish this book since no publisher wanted it, so it’s mom-and-pop all over again!
Steve: I’ve learned that those who came before us need to always be remembered. And thanked.