Did You Ever Hear About the Time Madonna Almost Came to City Gardens?

A young    Jim Norton    (far right, Circle Jerks shirt) dealing with the chaos that was City Gardens. Photo by    Ken Salerno

A young Jim Norton (far right, Circle Jerks shirt) dealing with the chaos that was City Gardens. Photo by Ken Salerno

Jim Norton: (City Gardens security/stage manager): I’m telling you this story about the Roseland ballroom first for a reason. Around September or October of 1994, I was tour managing Rancid while they opened for The Offspring. The Offspring had blown up already, they had sold four million records in the US. Green Day had blown up already, and record labels were looking for the next Green Day or the next Offspring. The big money was on Rancid.

Rancid were friends with Sick of It All. They were lining up a tour with Sick of It All opening for Rancid. Offspring’s tour manager was completely incompetent. He was not qualified to manage that tour. He had never toured the U.S. and, if he had, he had certainly never done it as a tour manager. He was essentially a guy who had driven the bus a few times in Europe, and they liked him. Sick of It All was huge in Europe at the time, playing 5,000- to 8,000-capacity shows in small hockey arenas. This guy really wanted to get close to and friendly with Sick of It All, because he wanted to convince them that they should hire him to tour manage them in Europe.

Souls. Rancid. SOIA City Gardens.jpg

The night before they played City Gardens, Rancid and Offspring played at Roseland Ballroom in New York. Roseland has a very tight downstairs, where the dressing room is. They’d been fined by fire marshals before, so they really, really wanted to keep people out of the hallways and have as few people downstairs as possible. I’d seen them go bananas keeping people out of there. For three weeks, right from the beginning of the tour, I had been telling Rancid that New York was going to be tough and it was going to suck. I said I was going to call in advance and have them set up a V.I.P. area, which they often did at the Roseland, behind the stage. The whole point was: don’t have Sick of It All and their 77 friends downstairs. It cannot happen that way.

I roll up to the gig with Rancid, and there is The Offspring’s tour manager handing out all-access passes to Sick of It All by the handful— like 30 or 40 at a time—and they all say “Rancid” on them. They are Offspring tour passes, and he writes “Rancid” and checks “all access.” So he has, effectively, just dropped this whole problem in my lap.

Rancid goes on stage, and the entire side and back is lined with Sick of It All, their friends, their crew, their crew’s cousins… everybody was there. No exaggeration, it had to be like 40 people on and around the stage. I knew that there was going to be a hassle.

I had already, within moments of hearing the news that Madonna was going to be there, had a security protocol in line. She did not know that Madonna was going to get the same security treatment as Joey Ramone! Because at City Gardens, there is no one bigger than Joey Ramone.

Rancid finishes and leaves the stage. The roadie and the T-shirt guy and I are all moving the gear, and I turn around to see that it’s a ghost town. There’s nobody on stage and nobody in that V.I.P. area that I had had set up, so I know there’s only one place they can be: downstairs. I know that somebody, somewhere, is going bananas because there are 50 people in that tiny hallway. I go down and hear the manager of Rancid saying, “And this is Matt Freeman. He’s the bass player...” Now, Matt Freeman is a take-no-guff, chain-smoking guy whose dad was an Oakland cop during the riots, and he has taken on a bit of that world-weariness himself. He’s not one to suffer fools gladly. Then I hear Matt Freeman say, “It’s very nice to meet you,” and something to the effect of “I’m a fan of your music.” I’m thinking, “That doesn’t sound like the Matt Freeman I’ve been working for.” I pop down to the lower level and look toward the dressing rooms, and I see all these New York tough guys standing against the walls withtheir  hands at their sides, staring at the floor like 7th grade boys at their first dance. Something doesn’t fit.

By this time I’m mad because these people were clogging the hallway and they had passes with Rancid’s name on it. The people who ran the club were looking at me like, “Well, what are you going to do about this? This is not cool.” The Offspring’s manager says to me, very calmly, “And this is Jim Norton, our tour manager.” He’s saying this to someone standing in a doorway immediately to my right. I turn, not really paying much attention, and say; “Hey, how ya doing?” kind of brusquely. I’m pissed. My attention is focused immediately back to the hallway, and I say, “All right everybody, you can’t hang out in this hallway. I’m really sorry. I set up a V.I.P. area upstairs, but you got all-access passes like they were birthday invitations, so I guess you’re my problem now. At least get into the dressing rooms. Just get the hell out of the hallway.” And for whatever reason, it worked. All the New York tough guys I was terrified of slunk back into the room.

Matt Freeman walks in, sits down, and says, “Kind of crazy, right?” and I say, “Yeah.” And then, after a moment, I say, “Was that Madonna I just blew off?” and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “That was pretty fucking cool.” And Matt said, “It was really cool, actually.” We had a good laugh. All I remember is a short blonde woman whose dress made me think, that dress is way too nice for this gig.


The next day Rancid was playing at City Gardens, opening for The Offspring. During soundcheck, Matt Freeman is back to his old, loveable self, and I see him come walking out of the office shaking his head, probably smoking a cigarette. I said, “What’s up?” and he doesn’t want to talk about it. I call Rancid’s manager, and I hear that Madonna wants to come to City Gardens and see Rancid tonight. She wanted to sign them to Maverick Records.

Over the next hour or two, I have conversations with Madonna’s management office. It turns out that the tall, grey guy I ignored, along with Madonna was her manger, Freddy DeMann. He was also the manager of Michael Jackson during the Thriller period, among other pop luminaries. I call the woman at Maverick thinking, why the hell do I have to talk to you at all? You’re a record company. She was obviously concerned [about Madonna]. I said, “Are you worried something’s going to happen to Madonna at some dive of a punk rock club in Trenton New Jersey?” She said, “Yeah, kind of.” I said, “Okay, let me ask you this… How is she getting down here?” The woman tells me that Armand, her driver, is driving her down from New York. I told her to get Armand to page me when he reached a certain point and that I would call him back. I told her, “Armand is going to pull up to the back corner of the building where there will be six or seven security people waiting. I will be outside.

Freddy De Mann

Freddy De Mann

[Ed. – Jim Norton goes on to recite detailed and meticulously planned security process to get Madonna into the building safely and without anyone noticing]. When the show ends, we will reverse the process [to get her out].”

The woman at Maverick Records was exceedingly relieved to hear this. I had already, within moments of hearing the news that Madonna was going to be there, had a security protocol in line. She did not know that Madonna was going to get the same security treatment as Joey Ramone! Because at City Gardens, there is no one bigger than Joey Ramone. Whether it’s Joey Ramone or Madonna or the Pope, there’s only so much we can do for you.

The Maverick woman says, “I am so glad you’re the person we’re dealing with. Freddy told me that I didn’t have to worry with you because you are a seasoned veteran and a true professional.” This is from Freddy DeMann! The guy I didn’t speak to, walked past, and totally blew off. For all he knows, I went into that room and shot heroin into my neck! From one incident of being pissed off at the Offspring’s tour manager and blowing off Madonna, because I didn’t know she was Madonna, I am now entrusted with Madonna’s personal safety at City Gardens, of all places.

They were relieved because they thought they were going to be dealing with some kid… well, I was 25 years old, so basically I was some kid. I just happened to be the kid who stuck his arm into Joey Ramone’s gelatinous stomach. So now I call up the management company, ready to do the whole dance again, except now I feel a whole better about it because I’ve just impressed some record company lackey.

Madonna couldn’t make it. She was filming either Dick Tracy or Evita at the time. I can’t remember which one it was. She had a wardrobe appointment that night. Like everybody from New York, Madonna thought Trenton was five minutes through the tunnel because it’s Jersey, and Jersey is small. When she found out it was not going to be running down there for an hour and running back, she realized she would have to cancel the entire wardrobe session for that night. To cancel and reschedule it was going to cost her $50,000. She was not coming, but she was going to send her main A&R guy, Guy Oseary. Guy Oseary looks a hell of a lot better on the guest list than “Madonna plus one.”

Madonna and Guy Oseary

Madonna and Guy Oseary

If forty Sick of It All people had shown up in New York, then at least sixty of them came to Trenton. Since it was City Gardens, I didn’t give a shit. I said, “We’re sharing that dressing room. Keep in mind that, when you give a pass that says “all access,” it includes the dressing rooms. Go take a look at that dressing room and you decide how many Sick of It All people you want in there.” Apparently, that number was 60, because that’s how many he handed out. I don’t give a shit. It’s his fucking problem, not mine.

Rancid played, and there were about fifty people on stage. City Gardens’ stage was not that sturdy; it was kind of bouncy with fifty people on it. In fact, it was pretty bouncy with 12 people on it. People were doing their “Yo dance” over in the corner, shaking their fists and making it look like an Onyx video, and the amps were rocking back and forth in a dangerous way. At one point, [Rancid guitarist] Lars’ amp lost its head. That was fun. But there was nothing to do about it because they were all bros of the band. They had all-access passes, and they’re scaring the shit out of me. There are sixty of them!

Afterwards, I leave the stage area and go to the dressing room. It is packed… with wall-to-wall stupid. There is not a combined IQ of 150 in that room. Walking through, I see Offspring, who have sold four million records and are playing small clubs at $10 ticket when they could be charging $25, pinned against the back wall. They were pushed back to the far wall in their own dressing room, with nobody to fend for them, because their own tour manager was busy kissing ass to Sick of It All.

I asked if they wanted me to clear the room out. They said, “Nah, it’s not a big deal.” I said, “Well, it’s kind of a big deal to me.” These Offspring guys are totally cool. They are not “rock stars” at all. They were being way cooler to Rancid than they needed to be. So, I try to clear the room.

The first people I go to are the four members of Sick of It All, because they’re in a band. I said to them, “I don’t mean to be a douchebag, but The Offspring have to go on in twenty minutes and this place is packed. Would you do me a favor and take it downstairs? You can come right back up once Offspring hits the stage.” They were very agreeable, giving the “Yo” wave to the Offspring as they went out the door, like, “Have a good show.”

Then the next job was going after all the girlfriends. I tried to be nice. I said “please” and “can you do me a favor” and all that kind of stuff. Finally, I get them to go. Then the random hangers-on… the guys who are like, “I drove so-and-so’s girlfriend here.” I’d say, “That’s fantastic, but both so-and-so and his girlfriend have gone downstairs. Therefore…” And they would respond with, “But I have an all-access pass.” “I know you have an all-access pass. We went through this before.” I repeat the same thing about forty times. Eventually I’m get most of them to leave. Then I got down to the real problems, and there were quite a few of those.

One guy in particular, who was not dealt a good hand [in life], flat-out could not comprehend what I was saying. He was not being tough or mean. He was simply confused. “I know you’re with Sick of It All, but Sick of It All has gone. Please, go downstairs, I’m clearing everybody out. Everybody. The only people who are going to be left in this dressing room are people who perform music on stage or who are going to perform music on stage. Even I’m even going to leave. I promise you. And when the Offspring goes on stage, you can come right back up.” He says, “I’m with Sick of It All, though…” I felt bad, but, eventually, I started to lose my cool.

Then there were the last two idiots in the room, sitting in the corner watching the whole thing. I walked over and said, “What the fuck, guys? You just saw me go through that whole thing with that guy. Get the fuck out.” They’re like, “You don’t have to be an asshole about it…” Yeah, you just watched me kick fifty people out of here, and I’m the fucking asshole.

Now the only people left are The Offspring, who are sitting at one end of the dressing room, and Rancid, who are sitting at the long folding table. Their manager is sitting next to them, and one final idiot. He was wearing a black army jacket and big Timberland boots with a goatee, walking that line of am I hip hop or hardcore or both? I roll up on this dude and say, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Why are you still fucking sitting here?” And he’s like, “But…” and I said, “But nothing!” I go fucking bananas. I’m screaming in his face. He holds his hands up like, whoa, whoa, and impressed with myself because that’s the second time in two days the scared shitless, chubby kid from Jersey has totally yelled down some bad-ass New York tough guy. He gets up and walks out the door.

Then I turned to Jeff Goldman [Rancid’s manager] and said, “I’m a man of my word. You and I are going to be the last two people out of here. When we walk out of here, the only people left will be the people who play music on stage tonight.”

I turn back to Rancid and say, “Guys, I’m sorry it had to go that way,” and I say to The Offspring, “Thank you very much for sharing your dressing room with us. Thank you very much for being so nice on tour. You guys are awesome.”

Downstairs, in the little hallway between the front showroom and the back bar, I see Jeff Goldman talking to the guy I just yelled and screamed at, and in whose face I pointed my finger, and who I called all kinds of names. Jeff looks at me and says, “Jim, this Guy Oseary from Maverick Records.” Of course, my jaw dropped, and I asked him why he didn’t tell me that in the first place. Guy said, “I tried, but you wouldn’t let me!” I was so fucking embarrassed, but he was like, “No, it was totally cool, brother! Totally cool. You got the job done. I’ve never seen someone go off like that. That was fucking awesome!” We ended up being friendly after that.

And that’s the story of the night Madonna almost came to City Gardens.

Mr. Norton    telling his tale during the filming of   Riot on the Dance Floor.   Photo by    Ken Salerno

Mr. Norton telling his tale during the filming of Riot on the Dance Floor. Photo by Ken Salerno