Legacy of Brutality: Remembering City Gardens

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 03.06.14 in Features

From 1979 until it closed in the mid ’90s, the Trenton, New Jersey, club City Gardens served as an unlikely home for punk, hardcore and then-burgeoning indie rock. Its location, in a desolate part of New Jersey, and its reputation for barely contained chaos all contributed to the club’s legendary status — documented through a series of interviews by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico in their new book, No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens.

Anyone who speaks about the club does so in reverential tones — and for good reason. The club was home to early shows by bands like Bad Brains, Dead Kennedys, Black Flag, Husker Du, the Violent Femmes, R.E.M., New Order, Ministry and hundreds more. Jon Stewart was a bartender. James Murphy was one of the bouncers. The club — especially in its early days — had an all-are-welcome mentality and was characterized by the idiosyncratic booking of radio DJ and club promoter Randy Now, who had a fondness for pairing bands that were sonically dissimilar, but had a kind of intangible aesthetic overlap. Sometimes the pairings worked. Other times, they were disastrous, as was the case in the Faith No More/Ministry double bill recounted in the excerpt below.

On the advent of the book’s release, we spoke with its authors about their experiences at City Gardens. You can pre-order No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens here.

First things first — how did you hear about City Gardens?

Amy Yates Wuelfing: I was living outside of Philadelphia, about two miles from City Gardens. I listened to Randy Now’s radio show. I was maybe 15 or 16, and he was always promoting his upcoming shows at City Gardens — at that time, it was things like the Minutemen and Husker Du. I was underage, but I was like, “I’ve gotta check this out.” So I got a barely passable fake ID and went over there. Before that, I went to, like arena rock shows, where you get used to seeing bands from, like, two football fields away. And then to see those bands five feet away from you, that just got me hooked. There was no barrier between audience and band.

Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn

Henry Rollins and Greg Ginn. Photo by Ron Gregorio.

Steven DiLodovico: I was really big into early Slayer, Metallica, Celtic Frost — anything that was over-the-top, crazy aggressive. I started learning about hardcore probably about ’85 or ’86, and I went backward with it to where it started. I learned about Negative Approach and early Bad Brains and Black Flag — really did a history check on everything, and that’s when I started going to the later wave of hardcore shows. The first time [my friends and I] went there, we were sold. It was a big place — it was the first big place to see shows like that. It seemed very professional to me. We were used to seeing shows in VFW halls, where half the time you wouldn’t even have PAs.

‘‘I remember a dude down on his knees just getting walloped by some SHARPies [Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice]. I think they smashed out every window in the car.’’

What do you think made that club so special?

Yates Wuelfing: A lot of it was Randy Now. People really trusted Randy. He had very eclectic taste in music — he loved punk, he loved hardcore, he loved ska, he loved reggae. Chances are, if Randy booked something it was something you wanted to hear. So if it was a Wednesday night and you were just hanging out and there was nothing good on TV, you would say, “Ah, I’ll go to City Gardens, I’m sure there’s something good going on there.” A lot of people stumbled upon bands that they normally never would have seen.

DiLodovico: The things that Randy Now did, the bills he put together — if you tried to put those bills together now in 2014, you’d never get the hundreds of kids he would draw week after week. My whole exposure to ska and reggae came from City Gardens. I’d see these flyers and be like, “Oh it’s six bucks next Sunday? I got nothing to do. Let’s take a ride.” By going there, you were exposed to a lot of stuff that maybe you wouldn’t take the chance to listen to. One of the shows I always talk about was seeing Jane’s Addiction in 1988, because that was not something I would have gone to see. I really had no idea who they were or what they sounded like — we’d go to shows for the hell of it. Looking at the crowd, I was like, “OK, I’m not gonna be into this. This is gonna be a bunch of weirdos.” And they came out and just blew me away. I’ve been a fan ever since.

As time went on — especially as the lineups shifted more and more toward hardcore — the club gained a reputation for being a pretty violent place. Did you ever witness any of that?

DiLodovico: You know, a lot of people liked to joke about City Gardens being in a horrible neighborhood, but I was always more scared of what was gonna go on inside the place than ever worrying about the neighborhood outside. And for all of us, that was the attractiveness of the entire scene — the fact that you might not make it home that night. There were many nights where we were pretty sure, “OK, this is it, we’re not making it home in one piece.” That to me is the allure, that’s what brought so many of these crazy fringe people into the scene. Because the music was dangerous. There was a show in maybe 1990 or ’91 where some white-power skinheads had shown up, and they got chased out into the parking lot and all kinds of hell ensued. I just sat on the edge of the fray and watched it. Three or four guys tried to make it back to their car, and I remember the car being smashed out. I remember a dude down on his knees just getting walloped by some SHARPies [Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice]. I think they smashed out every window in the car, they slashed every tire. My last vision of it was the car spinning on the rims, kicking up gravel and sparks trying to get the hell out of there. It was one of the most violent things I’d ever seen.

Jon Stewart and Frank "Tut" Nalbone

Jon Stewart and City Gardens owner Frank “Tut” Nalbone. Photo by Rich O’Brien.

Reading the book now, what do you hope people take away from it?

Yates Wuelfing: The one thing I hope people take away from the book is “go out there and meet people and interact with people.” The internet has changed so much. Music back then was so much harder to get, so people appreciated it more. You didn’t have iTunes or Spotify, where you could just go get whatever you wanted to hear on demand — you really had to fight for it. I think in that respect, everyone takes it for granted now. People don’t appreciate [this music] for the art form that it is. I think people have lost an appreciation for what goes into creating. The blood sweat and tears that go into it.

You see people at concerts now, and they’re absorbed in their phone or they’re taking pictures — they’re not really watching. I think people are more interested in documenting what they’re doing than actually doing it. And so I’d say, try to connect with people one on one — that’s what’s going to impact you the most. I’m not friends with many people I went to high school with. But all the people I went to City Gardens with, decades later, I still see them all the time, I still talk to them all the time. It’s those connections that make you feel like you’re part of something.

DiLodovico: I really hope that it generates a respect for history and what came before you. If you’re into any kind of scene — be it music, art, literature, whatever — if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t accept what’s handed to you by the mainstream, and you’re willing to look for your own thing, I hope that you’re the person that this book speaks to.

Even the book itself — the book is not being published by a publisher. The people of City Gardens funded this book. There’s nobody behind this except the 350 Kickstarter donors who wanted to see this book become reality. That’s what I hope people take away from it: that you can still do your own thing. You don’t have to follow the rules. You don’t have to do what you’re told. You can still find your own way. That still exists today.

Exclusive excerpt from No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens.

April 4th, 1986: Faith No More opens for Ministry

Randy Now (promoter): Faith No More were a new band, and this is back when they still had original lead singer Chuck Mosley, before Mike Patton joined. I loved them. We Care A Lot has just come out and I really wanted to give them a break, so I gave them a slot opening for Ministry in front of 700 people. This would be a whole lot of people in New Jersey watching a band from San Francisco that no one had ever heard of.

Chuck Mosley (Faith No More lead singer): I remember that night pretty clearly.

Rich O’Brien (City Gardens security): This was before Ministry’s Land of Rape and Honey, and they were best known for songs like “Everyday is Halloween,” so there were a lot of synthesizers onstage and Faith No More didn’t have a lot room. I think Faith No More’s drums weren’t even on the drum riser, they were in front of it.

Randy Now: Ministry had a brand new $50,000 piece of equipment on stage, an Emulator, which was given to him for signing with Sire. That’s $50,000 back in 1986, imagine what that translates to now.

Rich O’Brien: Before Faith No More played, they hung in their van, which was parked right outside the door. I hung back there with them for a while and they were definitely drinking, not out of control, but drinking.

Chuck Mosley: I might have had one or two shots, and maybe a beer, but that’s not enough to get me drunk. I am clumsy by nature. I could have be completely sober and still be falling all over the place. I wasn’t intoxicated. I’ve been accused of being intoxicated a lot, and I’m not saying I never have been, but I remember that show pretty clearly. I had a couple of beers at the most that night. I probably sound stoned to you right now, right? I haven’t even smoked any weed today. This is just how I am. People have always been accusing me of being intoxicated when I wasn’t.

Rich O’Brien: Right before they went on stage, I remember Chuck guzzling a beer, just chugging it down. And it looked to me like he might have been drunk, but if I had to perform in front of 500 people I’d be drinking too.


Ministry. Photo by Ron Kearnest.

Chuck Mosley: Ministry had all this gear set up on the stage already. They literally had their monitors right by my feet and the mic stand. They had everything set up really tight, the whole stage was congested. I am an uncoordinated klutz; I have home movies of when I was a little kid and I’m be falling down, and tripping over myself, and bumping my head all the time. I was very accident-prone. So I was doing what I normally did when we played, I was really into it, jumping around and stuff.

Amy Yates Wuelfing (City Gardens patron): At first they were bumping into Ministry’s equipment, but it looked innocent enough, like it was just happening because Chuck was really animated onstage and they had so little room in which to play. But then it started to seem more deliberate.

Chuck Mosley: Ministry had some computer thing set up as part of their act and I did everything I could to avoid it. I probably did come pretty close, though… But I didn’t smash anything, I didn’t destroy anything, I didn’t break anything. I didn’t even kick it. The one thing I might have done was spill some beer or water on something that was at my feet and that would be the extent of it.

Al Jourgensen (Ministry vocals): It was actually a Fairlight synthesizer. We weren’t sure how it was going to last on tour, and it certainly didn’t last with Faith No More spilling beer on it. They spilled beer on it and it didn’t last too long after that. Either way, good for them. I got no problem with Faith No More. Actually I’m thinking that they were kinda cool, and they were, because they tortured us and we tortured them back.

Amy Yates Wuelfing: Randy got on the PA and very calmly said, “Guys, you’re fucking up. You’re fucking up up there. Get off the stage or were throwing you off.”

Rich O’Brien: Within five minutes of Randy saying that, Chuck drank a beer and threw it up in the air — just sort of straight up — but when it came down it landed in the crowd and smashed all over the dance floor.

‘‘Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails was Revolting Cocks’ roadie. We used to throw firecrackers in his bunk and call him Techno Kid. We used to just torture that poor bastard.’’

Chuck Mosley: I definitely wasn’t throwing beer bottles at the audience; I’ve never done that, ever. Now, I’ve deflected plenty of beer bottles thrown at me, but I never threw any at the crowd at a show. I’ve never tried to hurt anybody. I’ve been hit in the head by flying bottles myself plenty of times. It’s not fun.

Rich O’Brien: And that’s when everything went nuts. About a minute later, the music just stops and there’s a whole crowd up on stage.

Amy Yates Wuelfing: I was about halfway back in the audience and I saw a huge bouncer or security person pick Chuck up by the waistband of his pants — he didn’t have a shirt on — and toss him like a paper airplane. The crowd wasn’t sure what to make of it. Is this a comedy routine? Is this really happening? Everyone just looked at each other like, “What the…?”

Chuck Mosley: Right out of the blue, it was maybe our third song, and they just kicked us right off the stage. The security guys came up and started throwing all our gear out the door and told us we had to get out of there. So, we packed up our stuff and went back to the hotel.

Rich O’Brien: There were City Gardens’ security there, but also Ministry’s road crew, and they just went up on stage, grabbed them, and threw them out the door. They all spilled out into the parking lot and that’s when I went out there with them. Since I had been hanging out with the band earlier, I tried to step in and make peace, but it just wasn’t happening.

Al Jourgensen: We got the Fairlight fixed after that night, we took it to some computer geek in Pennsylvania and he was able to fix it, and we kept on going. That’s actually how I met Trent Reznor. I accidentally spilled beer on my four-track machine on a Revolting Cocks tour in Cleveland and broke it, and we couldn’t get fixed in time for the show. The people at the club said they knew this local kid who had the exact same four track. We brought him over and rented the gear from him, and then we said, “We’re just taking this.” And Trent said, “No, you’re not taking this. You already destroyed one and you’re not going to destroy mine.” So he came on the road with us. Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails was Revolting Cocks’ roadie. We used to throw firecrackers in his bunk and call him Techno Kid. We used to just torture that poor bastard.

Rich O’Brien: One funny thing was Randy yelling, “You’ll never play here again!” and a year later they opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Chuck Mosley: Stuff gets so blown out of proportion over the years. I’ve read stuff about myself on the internet that’s ridiculous. I’ve read that I supposedly pulled a gun in Heathrow Airport one time. I’ve read all kinds of stuff that I’ve done that I actually have never done. It’s always stuff that makes me look very cool in the eyes of the fans, but it’s also made it very hard for me to work. In reality, I’m a calm family man.