“Anyone who has a problem with GWAR realizes pretty quickly it’s like getting angry about The Simpsons.”
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.
Beastie Boys – July 26, 1985
Mike Diamond (Beastie Boys): We recorded “She’s On It” before opening for Madonna on her Virgin tour. It was one of two songs we would perform to the boos and shocked expressions of her audience every night. Thanks are due to her for keeping us on the tour. Because it was our first single on Def Jam as part of their new Columbia Records deal, we got to make a video. Shot on Long Beach, Long Island, it was directed by Rick Rubin’s NYU roommate at the time, who was going through the film school. Basically, it was a low-budget, amateurish attempt at a David Lee Roth video, the only difference being that instead of getting hooked up, we got dissed. Aside from getting to spend the night at Rick’s parent’s house, and meeting his parents, the only high point came when this channel in the New York area called U68 started showing the video. U68 was somewhere between public access and MTV. They would show all kinds of crazy stuff from that time. That gave us a little bit of juice, enabling us to get booked at one of NJ’s most infamous clubs, City Gardens. We drove through pouring rain in a rented milk truck, only to arrive at our gig to an audience of, like, five people, not including the members of Washington D.C.’s Junk Yard Band, who opened the show.
Henry Hose (City Gardens regular): We went to the show, and it was getting later and later and later, and the Beastie Boys didn’t show up. Most of the people had left and Frank [a.k.a. Tut] was pissed that he had to give people their money back. He had to refund money and was furious. The band finally showed up well after midnight. It was just the three Beastie Boys and Rick Rubin, and I saw Randy having words with them. They grabbed a table from the back of the club and put it up on stage, set up two turntables, and they started doing the show.
Deirdre Humenik (City Gardens employee): They didn’t show up until a half hour before closing time, then they jumped on stage and started busting and smashing record albums and throwing them into the crowd.
Gal Gaiser (City Gardens DJ): I was hanging out with [Regressive Aid guitar player] Billy Tucker that night and stood next to him for the whole thing. Rick Rubin was breaking records in half and throwing them into the audience like Frisbees, and he hit Billy Tucker square in the head. And Billy loved it! He thought that it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
Henry Hose: I saw someone—I won’t say who—go over to the bar, grab something from behind the bar, and then bolt out the door.
Deirdre Humenik: The crowd chased them off the stage and they jumped into their Mustang convertible and took off. People were booing them and were pissed, and there was a fair amount of people there. People came out and slashed their tires, and they drove away on flat tires.
Henry Hose: They did their show, which I thought was great, and everybody started leaving. This was probably around two in the morning. As I was pulling out the driveway and saw that the Beastie Boys had flat tires on their box truck. “Someone” took an ice pick and picked their tires because they were pissed off about having to give everyone their money back. So, they had flat tires, it’s two in the morning, and they were stuck in Trenton.
Gal Gaiser: On my radio show the next Monday, Billy Tucker came down and talked about the show. The Beastie Boys only played for about 15 minutes, but I clearly remember Billy saying, “That was the best 15 minutes of music ever.”
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.