“Anyone who has a problem with GWAR realizes pretty quickly it’s like getting angry about The Simpsons.”
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.”
Minutemen/Krank – July 25, 1984
Mike Watt (Minutemen bassist): When we started going to punk shows, I said to [Minutemen guitarist] D. Boon, “We can do this.” I never said that when I went to an arena rock show. Those people seemed like the anointed ones from Mt. Olympus. But punk shows were empowering. The idea of playing outside your town was insane for us. We thought it was just an incredible opportunity and a miracle it was happening. As far as the scene went, a big factor was the fanzines, and when you went out on tour you would actually meet these people. The old days were a lot about people. Touring was pretty much do-it-yourself. Punk in the U.S. was very small for a long time, until hardcore, and even the beginning of hardcore was small. For a lot of towns Black Flag would be the only punk band that came around. The idea that anybody can start a band, do a fanzine, do a label, put on gigs… I think that’s great. Really not about a style of music, hardcore did generate an orthodoxy with its sound, but it’s more about going for it and not having a gatekeeper get in the way of you trying to channel your energy and let loose your expression.
On some tours, it was ten of us in one van! Minutemen and Black Flag in one van, pulling shit in a trailer. We got a couple of boards in there to build bunks, and there were layers of people. I was so far up that my nose was only inches from the roof. I couldn’t even read because I couldn’t get my arms up to look at a book, so I would have to lie there. Also, because of the situation, we couldn’t always tour in a logical sequence. Sometimes you would have to double back, depending on the opportunities to play. So, there were major hell rides. Sometimes you would have to leave right after playing to make it to the sound check at the next gig. But it was all worth it. Those things were minor compared to not getting to play for people in other towns. It’s not just about you bringing your music to other towns, it’s about you going to those towns and learning about why all those places were there. For Black Flag, [guitarist] Greg Ginn was into ham radio, so he knew about people in other towns and thought — tour! Don’t keep it in town, take it to other towns. So, that was a whole other experience, and we got into it pretty heavy. Black Flag seemed very industrious and motivated, and I liked that. Those people were from very different backgrounds than us, but they impressed us. This whole idea of taking stuff into your own hands… we never thought it was possible, coming from an arena-rock world. They taught us so much. It was harder for us to tour than it was for Black Flag, since we all worked, and it was tough getting time off. I was a paralegal, I worked at SST, and I was a pot-and-pan boy. Me and D. Boon worked at Jack in the Box for $1.65 an hour. I was a parking-lot man. Even though I got a college degree, I had to take lower-paying econo jobs to be more flexible with my time.
The first couple years we were into punk, we wore regular clothes. We tried the punk clothes that we painted on, and we got so much shit that we went back to high-school clothes. I can’t imagine going to high school back then as a punk. You had a scene that didn’t have rules and allowed everybody, and some people aren’t that together. I was never into the fighting. But I live in [San Pedro], a harbor town, and there was fighting there way before there was punk. There was time in the ‘40s when [San] Pedro was the murder capital of the U.S. Most people are longshoremen, and you have a lot of transients. So, when there was fighting at gigs, it was not new to me. We loved every gig we got to play. And D. Boon would say, “Every pad has got something to teach us.” I’ve been doing diaries for the last ten years, but I should have been doing it back then. Maybe then I’d know the lesson of City Gardens. I’m just glad there was a place for us to play, and a scene that was kept alive. Every pad was up against a lot of adversarial conditions, and they were true troopers. It wasn’t that popular of a scene, and people had to really love it. And it built in them some self-reliance, more so than if things were easier. There was a lot of individuality. It empowered you to try to be yourself, not a Ken doll or a G.I. Joe doll.
The internet is an extension of fanzine culture. It’s a different delivery method, but the ethic is the same: creating parallel universes. I remember in the ‘70s, with CB radios, people were like that, fake names and stuff. So, the mechanics change, but I wonder if the basic way humans operate changes. Other people are sort of doing the same thing you’re doing, so you should be allies, but everything is fraught with dangling duality. The Minutemen were notorious for fighting with each other, but it was kind of a vetting. It’s just part of the human experience.
The following excerpt is taken from “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens” by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico
Bad Religion/ALL/Vision/Shades Apart – June 29, 1990
Dave Franklin (Vision, vocals): Shades Apart opened up, then we went on, then ALL, and then Bad Religion. The night before Shades Apart opened for Bad Religion at the [punk club] Anthrax in Connecticut. I went up with the Shades Apart guys to see Bad Religion, and there were maybe 150 people there, 200 tops. I was hanging out talking to [Bad Religion’s] Brett Gurewitz and Greg Hetson, and they were both like, “Man, I thought we were a little bit bigger on the East Coast.” And I was like, “This is kind of a weird place.” I mean, it was a great place to play—totally cool people—but was hit-or-miss. I said, “Tomorrow night in Trenton, at City Gardens, the show is going to be off the charts.” When the next night came and we pulled into City Gardens, there was already a line around the building. Then the Bad Religion guys pulled up in their van. The first thing Brett said to me was, “You weren’t kidding!” The place was already sold out.
Peter Tabbot (Vision, guitar): This was another amazing City Gardens show. Bad Religion are/were…well…BAD RELIGION. One of my favorite bands, and we were all so psyched to share a stage with them in Trenton. They had pretty much come back from the dead just a couple of years before with the release of Suffer and No Control. This may have been their Against the Grain tour, and they had totally reestablished themselves as the smartest, best punk-rock band around. ALL just had a release or two out at the time, I think, and they were still kind of riding the coattails of The Descendents popularity while generating their own fan base with their kind of prog-punk melodic style. But they were definitely a good draw on their own. With us and Shades Apart, even though we were local bands, we both had a significant following. The show was packed. I would never, ever throw my band into a conversation about the great shows you would catch routinely at City Gardens, but objectively, it was a pretty good bill in 1990. It was typical of what Randy would do: four bands, each of whom has a significant audience psyched to see them for $7 or $8. Randy would put that together every single weekend, for seemingly years on end. You’d get two, three, or even four national touring acts on the same bill, and then the next night you’d get another fantastic show. Maybe it would be hardcore/metal one night, and then punk/indie the next night, but always amazing shows for just a few bucks. What I remember most about shows like this Bad Religion show at City Gardens [is that] you knew a fair number of the people. And you often went to whatever shows were happening on the weekend, even if it wasn’t a band or style that you closely identified with. A place where you knew the bouncers and the bartenders. I would imagine that this happened, to a lesser degree, at places like CBGB or The Ritz in New York, but those places didn’t have that same feeling. As large as City Gardens was, and as many people as you’d see there for bigger shows, it always felt like someone was having a great show in your backyard. That is, if your backyard happened to be the bowels of Trenton. This show is a really good example of Randy pairing great national acts with some pretty decent local bands.
Scott Reynolds (ALL, vocals): I remember the stage smelled like puke all the time. We’d come in and load in and every time we’d be like, “God, it smells like puke up here!” I mean it was really, really strong. It was really gross, and you could smell it while you were playing. It was part of the charm, I guess.
Dave Franklin: That was a great show. I recall I was in back bar and the Shades Apart had just finished. The crew was setting up Vision’s equipment, and [Vision bassist] Kevin was there with his brother and a bunch of other people I knew. I wasn’t in the conversation, but I was probably three or four people away from the conversation, and I could hear Kevin saying, “Wait ‘til Vision goes on, this place is gonna’ go CRAZY!” And sure enough, we went on and the place just went absolutely crazy. Blink of an Eye was out, and we were already like the house band. Everybody knew our songs and went nuts! Bad Religion and ALL were amazed by the crowd.
Scott Reynolds: That was always one of my favorite places to play. We had big shows there.
Jeremy Weiss (City Gardens regular): The show was sold out. This is a true story: I was a very resourceful kid. I knew how [clubs] worked because I’d started booking shows, and I knew back then that bouncers would just as soon check IDs at the local bars as they would at City Gardens. I also knew they were susceptible to bribes. So, I walked around the back, I knocked on the door, and this towering individual popped his head out and said, “What?” I said, “I’ll give you $100 to let us in.” He didn’t say one word, nodded, put his hand out. I gave him $100 and me and four of my friends jetted right into the show while 275 other people stood out front, bummed out. We got into that show and were completely blown away. It was so packed that it was raining inside the club.
Scott Foster (1124 Records): I caught just about every ALL show that came through there. They were one of my favorites. That night we were waiting in line outside, and I saw some guys playing catch with a baseball. One of the guys missed it and the ball rolled over to me, so I picked it up, and, when I went to give it back to him, I realized it was [ALL’s] Karl [Alvarez] and Scott [Reynolds] playing catch. Karl said, “You wanna take over for a second?” and he gave me his glove. I played catch with Scott Reynolds for ten minutes while Karl did something else.
“Punk was standing up against the stage, standing within the splash zone, catching stage divers, stage diving and hoping to get caught, listening to exciting, energetic, emotional, so-real-it-was-almost-insane music being played by exciting, energetic, emotional, so-real-they-were-almost-insane musicians in small rooms like CBGB’s, A7, and Maxwell’s in Hoboken. A bad show just wasn’t possible.”