“The shows were intense and always, always super-hot. We always made them turn the air conditioning off. That’s just our way. You’ve got to sweat. Those shows were high-compression gigs… if you were in there, you were working with us.”
The Replacements/The Rettmans – August 17, 1985
Joe Z. (City Gardens soundman): Randy had this band The Rettmans, and they opened the show. I was in charge of watching the dressing room, so nobody went up the stairs and bothered The Replacements. Before The Rettmans played, Randy said, “We’re going to do something interesting tonight: we’re going to play nothing but Replacements songs.” I thought, well, that’s going to be interesting. The Rettmans go up and play a Replacements song… and then another one. [Replacements frontman] Paul Westerberg comes down from the dressing room, walking real slow, scratching his head, looking at me. He peeked around the stairs and saw them playing, then goes back up. The Rettmans play a few more Replacements songs and then Paul comes down again, but now he’s all pissed off. He said to me, “What are those guys doing?” I said, “I don’t know; they’re playing Replacements songs.” He looked at me and said, “What the fuck am I supposed to play?!”
Ken Hinchey (City Gardens regular): Bob [Stinson, Replacements guitarist] was onstage wearing a housecoat, and when he bent over you could see everything hanging and dangling.
Randy Now: He used to wear a diaper a lot too, although he never did that at City Gardens. When they played down south, they would wear make-up, just to piss people off.
Ken Hinchey: During the “drunk shows,” they would take requests, and everyone would yell out songs. Paul Westerberg would yell out, “Give me a band that starts with a k!” Someone would yell, “The Knack!” and they’d play “My Sharona.” Most people yelled for Replacements songs or classic rock, but one time I yelled out “Ghostbusters!” Paul looked over at me and chuckled.
Bad Brains/Leeway – August 6th, 1989
Rob Vitale (Black Train Jack): Leeway had played CBGB and the next show was at City Gardens. [Leeway’s] Eddie came out with this sign that said, “Trenton or Bust.” And then the Bad Brains come on and out comes [Bad Brains frontman] HR with the same sign: Trenton or Bust.
Steven DiLodovico (author): Hottest show ever. EVER. To this day people still talk about how goddamn hot that show was.
Jamie Davis (City Gardens regular): Bad Brains only played about five songs because the power kept going out. It was so hot in there that the power would blow out. Leeway was amazing. The best part about Leeway was that the bouncers were all outside and everyone realized it, and everyone was stagediving like crazy through the whole Leeway set. There were so many people outside trying to get in, so that’s where all the bouncers were. Everyone was going nuts. Leeway blew them away, anyway. The Bad Brains came on late, played, like, two songs, said it was too hot, and stopped.
Descendents/Fright Wig – August 4, 1985
Milo Aukerman (Descendents vocalist): City Gardens was a very distinctive club, and we always looked forward to playing there. If nothing else, any tour we were on, we could always count on having a show there. Places like Philly, every time we would roll through there would be some new club. It would be something pulled together for a short time, and then a month later the club would be gone. There was never like a stable venue in that area except for City Gardens. Even in New York we would play a whole bunch of different places, but City Gardens was always there. I guess that’s why people remember it so fondly. ’85 was the first tour we had ever done in the U.S., and it was pretty dicey, in terms of booking shows and keeping cancellations from happening. [Drummer] Bill Stevenson was doing the booking, and he had learned the ropes from Black Flag. Black Flag set the standard for where you would play, what cities were cool, who the booking agents were, what clubs you would be able to play, and so on. We would go out, probably for two months, and try to hit the whole U.S. We were always guaranteed a good booking at City Gardens from Randy.
We would tour, go back home and try to regain our sanity, and then we’d go back out. We were in a tiny little van, doing all the driving ourselves, and usually sleeping on top of all of the amps that were stacked up in the back of the van. We had this platform that we built above the amps that we called “the stack,” and that was where we all slept. It was about a foot below the ceiling of the van. You kind of wriggled back into that and tried to get some sleep. I’m kind of a light sleeper, and I would be back in the van, thinking, “I really need to sleep, but I can’t sleep because I’m waiting for this van to flip over.” You figure if that van flipped over, you’re on the bottom, and what’s on top of you is several hundred pounds of equipment, which is kind of scary. I would try not to think about it. Between that and the fact that there was no air conditioning. We had one of these old vans with AC in the front, but that AC was not filtering to the back. I would open up the side window to get some air, but that just happened to be right next to the exhaust. So, it was this trade-off, like, “I’m dying back here, I need some air,” and then you open the window and go, “Okay, now I’m going to die for a different reason. I’m going to die from carbon monoxide poisoning.” It was always fun to make that decision: I need some air, but I may die of carbon monoxide poisoning. I’m just going to take that chance. We had another van with a vent on top, and that was better because it wasn’t near the exhaust, so you could get some air through that. However, we sheared off that vent when we drove through the Chicago airport one year. We had to duct-tape the hole, and it became a non-functional vent. Those first vans were crazy, little death traps that, luckily, we never died in.
X – August 1 1986
Henry Hose (City Gardens regular): Billy Zoom had just left the band, and Dave Alvin was touring with them playing guitar. [X bassist] John Doe, I have to say, is one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in my life… so humble, down-to-earth, and friendly. Exene [Cervenka, singer] and I got along pretty well, talking about books and stuff, and she gave me this book called Pissing in the Snow and other Ozark Folktales. She had finished it and gave it to me. Dave Alvin sat there the whole night in the dressing room with these reflective sunglasses on. I kept talking to him about guitars and he wasn’t responding. I said, “Are you awake?” And he’s like, “Yeah yeah, I’m listening, I’m listening.” Exene was waiting for a guy she was dating, and it ended up being [actor] Viggo Mortensen. He was coming down from New York on a motorcycle, and as soon as he got there, Exene just glowed. You could tell she was in love with him, and as soon as the show was over, they were in each other’s arms the rest of the night. We helped Viggo get his motorcycle on the back of the equipment truck.
Bruce Markoff (City Gardens regular): I was working at City Gardens from time to time, and this was one of the busy shows. A ton of people were calling who had never been to the place before. This is before cell phones, so people were calling from pay phones. This woman calls and she’s like, “I don’t even know where I’m at. I’m in Trenton, and I don’t know where I am.” She was freaked out. I said, “Well, what’s around you? Is there a gas station? Is there a bar, can you see anything?” She’s like, “I’m by this big warehouse building” and she starts to describe the outside of City Gardens. [Bouncers] Carl and Rich are listening to my side of the conversation, and the three of us are looking at each other, like… Carl looks out the front door toward that phone booth that was at the end of the building, shaking his head. I said to the caller, “When you look at the building, is there a guy there hanging out the front door waving to you?” And she’s like, “Oh my God.”
24-7 Spyz/Vision/Killing Time/Shades Apart – July 30, 1989
Dave Franklin (Vision, vocalist): In ’89 we had booked our In the Blink of an Eye tour. Johnny Stiff from New York City, who used to do all the punk and hardcore tours, was booking everybody. Our tour, Insted, Underdog… everybody’s tours were falling apart. Back then there was no internet and there were no cell phones. He booked everything in all these different venues and got in way over his head, and tours just collapsed all over the place. He booked the In the Blink of an Eye tour, so we made all of our “Tour ‘89” shirts and stuff. We printed twelve dozen of them for the entire tour.
A week before the tour was supposed to start, we played City Gardens. We set up the merchandise. The line came in the door, and went right to the Vision t shirts. We sold every shirt we had. We could have sold more. 144 shirts, gone. Then the show went off and it was absolute, total chaos. The 24-7 Spyz guys, who we had never met before, were up on the side of the stage when we played. They were like “HOLY SHIT, THESE GUYS ARE AWESOME!!!” Even the Killing Time guys were like, “That’s it, man, you guys got it. You’ve got 900 kids here going nuts.” Today, if you are a band that is touring and bringing 900 kids to a venue…you’re a huge band. You’re doing it, you’re making a living off it. Back then it was impossible because City Gardens was the only place that big that did those kinds of shows. The old Ritz was too big. You had to be the Bad Brains or the Cro-Mags to sell out those shows.
Pete Tabbot (Vision, guitarist): We had just committed to our first full-length tour, supporting our first album, which was to last most of the summer. We had a terrific buzz going and were psyched to tour the entire country, and we had made plans accordingly. We also invested all the money we could scramble into a summer’s worth of merchandise for the tour. Johnny Stiff, who was booking the tour, resigned, so we were left with just two shows. We played City Gardens around the time we had planned on leaving for our tour, and we completely sold out of merchandise.
It was kind of mind-boggling, actually, and it took a bit of the sting out of not only losing our first national tour, but also spending any money we had to promote the tour. We had a great show, but what I probably remember most was how absolutely sick 24-7 Spyz were live. The Spyz guys were completely off the hook, hanging from the rafters and slaying the club. What great performers and musicians. Our set was similarly chaotic, and Killing Time was amazing, too. All in all, this one amazing City Gardens show was somehow enough to console four 19- and 20-year-old kids who had put their entire summer, school, and jobs on hold to tour, only to have it fall apart. But good shows at City Gardens had that effect and potential. If you played or attended an epic show there, and I was lucky enough to do both numerous times, you tended to forget that the outside world existed, at least for a while.
On July 29, 1981, City Gardens was shut down by the City of Trenton.
Randy Now: At the Toots show, a reporter from the Trenton Times named Bonnie Rodden showed up—I remember the name because it sounds like Johnny Rotten—and she went to the city and complained the building was unsafe. The city came in and did a surprise inspection. All the shows we did were powered through an electrical wire that we sort of tied together from the front to the back. A ten-thousand-watt PA and with a 1,000 people in the club, and it’s all going through this little tiny wire. Like speaker wire you have on your stereo. No conduit or anything. We were also supposed to have so many toilets per hundred people, but the capacity was never figured out. We used to put 1,300 people in there. She complained, the inspectors came in, and the club was shut down… just like that. I had Nash the Slash scheduled and I ended up booking him into the Hamilton Bowling alley. He was not happy about it, but what could I do? When I talked to him on the telephone, I said, “Look, at least we got you a gig.” And he’s like, “Yeah, in a fucking bowling alley!” We got the word out and about 100 people showed up. To get the club open again, we had to work like crazy to put more bathrooms in, the exit signs had to be illuminated, and we had to upgrade the electrical system. It became the safest building in Trenton, but the city went out of its way to make an example of us.
Tom Christ: When the club was shut down, those were desperate times. We had no place to go! People went to other area clubs, but no one could wait for City Gardens to reopen.
Randy Now: I had a ton of great shows booked that got cancelled. It totally sucked.
Trish Barry (City Gardens regular): We all pitched in. We painted the bathrooms and everything. Tut told us that, because we worked at the club fixing it up for no pay, we would all have free entry for life. That lasted about one night.
Anthony Pelluso: The ladies’ room was really disgusting, but the men’s room was… something else. Something. Else. No doors on the stalls. Very prison-like. It had tremendous graffiti, but it always smelled like urine. It was brutal. I worked behind the bar in the back of the club. That was my excuse for using the ladies’ room. It was right there.
Amy Yates Wuelfing: The men’s room was right next to the stage, to the left. And if you were on that side of the stage—especially if it was hot— you could totally smell it. I think it was second only to CBGB in terms of sheer disgustingness. I always made sure to stand on the other side of the club from the men’s room. It was that bad.
Bart Mix (City Gardens bartender): My biggest concern was that I’m kind of short, and some of the urinals were kind of high. I did not want my junk touching those urinals, so I had to stand back and try to arc it in. It was disgusting. Some guys used to actually go in the sink.
Rich O’Brien: Dag Nasty cancelled because they wanted to play last. And for a lot of the audience, I think this was their first “punk” show. At least that’s how they acted.
Dave Smalley (Dag Nasty, vocalist): That sounds like a good show. I think what happened is that I quit in the beginning of July. The big tour was going to be that summer, but then I quit. I remember one of my regrets was missing that tour. I think that was Dag’s first tour with Pete Cortner singing. I remember hearing that Pete caught some grief because the album had just come out and all these people were like, “We really like this record.” But then the audience got somebody else singing! That’s not a diss on Pete; it’s just one of those things. I think he was having a bit of a hard time with it at first because some people were not particularly kind.
Jim Norton (City Gardens stage manager/security): I started to show up to the club early. If doors were open at six o’clock, I would get there an hour or two earlier to help the bands load in. I did it because it was punk rock, and who doesn’t want to hang out with Dag Nasty? Since you’d get thrown out for stagediving, what would people do? Well, you wait until the encore and then you go nuts. Now, bouncers are stupid, but they’re not that stupid. They’re not so stupid that they don’t see it coming. I have to say I always hoped that a band wouldn’t take an encore, that they would say, “Encores are for wussies, so we’re not doing it!” But they always did it. The Descendents did it, and by the end of their encore I was carting people out three at a time. I grabbed two kids in each arm and scooped them around with a third kid in the middle, pushing all four of us to the door. I did that a couple of times. Now, that says a lot about the generally friendly nature of the City Gardens patron, when you consider it. It was like, “Okay, I’m getting thrown out. It’s just part of the game.” For us it was like, “Yeah, I’m doing my job. I’m the bouncer and I’m throwing you out because you know you did something you weren’t supposed to do. But if the three of you did not want to be thrown out…” I’m not that big of a guy. You did not all have to be thrown out. That was, to me, the hallmark of my time there, at least from a security perspective: a very friendly, collegial vibe. This week I can throw someone out for diving, and next week I see him and shake his hand. Now, that may not have been everybody’s take on it, but it was mine. To this day, years and years later, I’ll run into people who’ll say, “Hey, you’re that guy from City Gardens. Dude, you totally threw me out for stagediving!” And I’ll be like, “Well, was I nice about it?” They always say, “Oh yeah, totally. It was cool.”
Jeff Weigand (Volcano Suns bassist): I really have no idea why they put us on the bill. I think sometimes the promoter would be a big fan and would want to see us, so he would add us to the line-up. That show was pretty intense. It was a big crowd of skinheads and hardcore guys up front, with lots of repressed homosexuality and groupthink... It was that whole “safety in numbers” thing I hated about hardcore. Anything slightly different that wasn’t loved by the group couldn’t be seen for what it was. Most of those hardcore kids were as bad as their parents in terms of the herd and wanting to be accepted and loved for their mediocrity. They looked different from their dull folks, but they were pretty much running at the same boring, unthinking level. I used to love shows like this with that us-against-them thing going on, which was much more interesting than a love fest. We usually played a lot better in terms of the aggression that was inherent to our music and attitude. The thing about the hardcore crowd is you have to attack and do it in a way that they don’t quite know what to do. It was like facing down a herd of wildebeests who might stampede you. When you walk right up to one of the lead wildebeests and smack him in the nose, they back down as a group, stunned into dumb retreat. That was pretty much that show. We didn’t want to be liked by such morons to be honest, and the last thing we wanted were followers. I never saw myself as a long-term musician. It wasn’t something I wanted to do forever, and it always sickens me to see folks still hanging around trying to squeeze out a few more drops from a long dead and decayed mop. I could mention names but won’t, since they are easy enough to see. To us, the band was a chance to fuck around with the order of things in rock music—a Dada project—and we knew if we carved out anything original, which I think we did, we wouldn’t be accepted. We pretty much disdained acceptance. Fuck that. Rock music, then and now, is a sleazy business. I have more respect for the porn industry. At least they present themselves as they are: a bunch of sleazeballs. When it was time to move on, call it a day, the timing seemed right. The band was talking to major labels and I thought, “Time to get out or you will become one of these people.” I quit and moved to Europe to work on my Ph.D.