Friday, August 14, 2015

No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of City Gardens

I'm not sure what was the first show I saw at City Gardens, the legendary Trenton, NJ punk/rock club, but I do recall rolling up the windows and locking the doors as we made our way through what looked like a recently demilitarized zone filled with abandoned buildings, broken down storefronts and garbage-filled lots.

And this was during broad daylight, when the area looked its "best".

Little did we know that one of those garbage-filled lots with an abandoned-looking building was the rock mecca we were in search of and that – despite the crass nickname "Shitty Garbage" – it would become a home away from home for the next decade.

An old car dealership sitting in the middle of a not-so-great Trenton neighborhood (as opposed to all those great Trenton neighborhoods circa 1984), City Gardens was basically a concrete block whose dank, dark insides had shrewdly been cleared of anything that could be broken before promoter Randy Now began booking the legendary bands that ceaselessly toured the country during those halcyon days.

Black Flag. Bauhaus. Dead Kennedys. Minutemen. ALL. Sloppy Seconds. Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Motorhead (well, almost). Husker Du. Replacements. Ministry. Nirvana. PiL. Joan Jett. Dickies. Social Distortion. Lords of the New Church. Green Day. Afghan Whigs. Hoodoo Gurus. DOA. TSOL. Meatmen. Fear. Violent Femmes. Rollins Band. Slayer. Danzig. GWAR. Tesco Vee's Hate Police. Ramones, oh yes, the Ramones (a City Gardens record 20+ times!). They all plowed through the crowd and hit the City Gardens stage, sometimes in front of a crowd of 50, though 5000 people will tell you they were there "that time when..."

While CBGB gets the Alan Rickman headlined biopic (can a bar get a biopic?) leave it to the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction essence of City Gardens to be captured in the exhaustive oral history 'No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens' which I devoured on the beach over a recent holiday weekend.

Sure, it seems sorta incongruous to be sitting on the Jersey shore beach reading about the place where Jello Biafra kicked me in the head during a Dead Kennedys show, but incongruity was a benchmark of the shows Randy (a mailman that Biafra accurately describes as looking like "a catfish") would book on a regular basis. Metal met punk met ska met rockabilly met dance met grunge on a regular basis thanks to Now's eclectic bills and love of music, and while I always leaned towards attending a show at one of the closer Philly clubs like Khyber Pass, Chestnut Cabaret or JC Dobbs, there were times when a band would skip the City of Brotherly Shove and make its way to Trenton instead, requiring that hideous car ride and equally bleak surroundings.

Reading the book took me right back to my high school days when I was first introduced to "punk" via some friends who let me borrow records like the NY Dolls' debut, the Misfits' seminal 'Walk Among Us' and several so benign it's hard to believe it was considered "alternative" slabs of vinyl like The Alarm's initial EP and even 'Subterranean Jungle' from the Ramones.

Within seven months of graduating from high school I was a DJ at the legendary Philly college radio station WKDU, slowly finding my way musically and drooling over the City Gardens bills we'd promote on the airwaves. (One of the funniest stories in the book prominently features friends from 'KDU and I laughed as hard reading it on the beach as I did when it was first told to me three decades ago.)

While it can't capture every legendary show that took place within its walls (I was shocked the 'Frankenchrist'-era DKs/Raw Power show didn't make the cut), I was nevertheless pleased that 'No Slam Dancing...' accurately captured how the vibe of the club changed over the years we were semi-regulars at its shows.

What started as just a cool place to venture to and see amazing (and, on some nights, not so amazing) gigs, eventually became a venue where you could cut the tension with a knife. By the time I stopped making the trek – a 1994 show headlined by the Afghan Whigs on the day Kurt Cobain died stands out as the last time I went there – you had to have your head on a constant swivel, always conscious of the moment when some knucklehead was going to decide "you" were the lucky recipient of a well-timed punch in the back of the head or headfirst shove into the pit.

Some Memorable City Gardens Shows:

Dead Kennedys 'Frankenchrist' Tour: We got there super early for this one and established a foothold at the front of the stage, even if it meant suffering through the hideous Italian thrash band Raw Power. Biafra dove off the stage and planted a boot squarely in my forehead during the show and I think I still have bruises on my thighs from being squashed against the stage for hours on end. It was all worth it.

Green Day, January 1993: Freezing cold January day and one of the band's first ever East Coast shows. I remember standing amidst a sea of much younger pop punk fans and realizing just how fricking old I was.

Fear, 1993: One of the scariest shows I ever attended (Lunachicks at Philly's Khyber Pass also springs to mind). Some lone hippie seemed to attract the most attention but we eventually retreated as far from the floor as possible so as not to be involved in the inevitable melee.

Sloppy Seconds, circa 1992: I'm a big time fan of these Indianapolis punk poppers and we share a love of trashy movies and junk rock. They stayed at our house in NJ after the show but what I remember most is the City Gardens stage creaking under the weight of Sloppy vocalist BA and then-guitarist Danny Thompson. Junk Rock Rules!!

Afghan Whigs, April 1994: I'm pretty sure this was the last time I ever set foot inside the doors of City Gardens. News broke that day that Kurt Cobain had killed himself (or been killed by one of The Mentors in a murder for hire orchestrated by Courtney Love, depending upon who you want to believe). 18 months later I'd moved to Pittsburgh and was going to shows at places like Graffiti and Bloomfield Bridge Tavern.

Lords of the New Church, May 1985: You tend to remember things when the mayor of Philadelphia drops a bomb on a city block in an attempt to eradicate a radical group called MOVE. We could actually see the flames from the radio station parking lot but it didn't impede my one and only chance to see the former Dead Boy and one time Martha Quinn paramour.

The Ramones, Winter 1989: This wasn't so much memorable for the show itself as it was for the pre-show. For some reason, my parents insisted that I bring my friends from WKDU to our suburban NJ house for a pre-Ramones meal (my parents' house was on the way from Philly to Trenton).  I don't actually remember the show at City Gardens but I vividly recall the show on Princeton Drive as my parents fawned over my ex-girlfriend while they completely ignored my then-girlfriend. – Dan Taylor

No Slam Dancing is available from Amazon.

And check out the trailer for RIOT ON THE DANCE FLOOR, a documentary about City Gardens...

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