The following is an excerpt from the book No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico. Photos by Ken Salerno.
WEEN – December 2, 1994 (The last show Randy Now booked at City Gardens)
Jamie Davis: Me and Alex [Franklin] were hanging out. We were like, “Eh, it’s the last night; we should go.” We had pretty much spent our whole lives there. We were hanging out, talking to the bouncers and shit, and Randy was like, “Yeah, just go in.” We didn’t think of it as an “end of an era” kind of thing.
Ben Vaughn: Ween sent me a tape and said, “We want to make a country record.” I listened to it, called them back, and said, “What country?” And they’re like, “You don’t hear it?” I said the only thing to do with this is to go to Nashville and hire all the A-list session players who played on Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty, and Dolly Parton records….the guys who are ready to retire from the union and start collecting their pensions. We got the Jordanaires, who used to play with Elvis. They were like, “We love it; let’s do it.” We cut the whole record in three days. I thought it would go over better if I presented them as a brother act. I called each Jordanaire individually and said, “Okay, the Ween Brothers are coming in.” I told them there were going to be some blue lyrics here and there and asked if they were okay with that. Only two guys said no. One guy said, “I’m a Deacon at my church, and I’m not gonna play on this record. But when you come down to Nashville, I’d like to sit down and have a talk with these boys and try to straighten their asses out.” Pig Robbins, one of the most recorded piano players in history of country music, is blind. When they brought him into the sessions, he was like, “Where’s these Ween brothers?” And we’re like, “Right here.” Pig Robbins goes, “We got some country motherfuckers here, eh?” And then we were off to the races. By the end of it, the drummer took Mickey fishing with him. That album became 12 Golden Country Greats.
With that last Ween show, the Randy Now era of City Gardens was over. Various legal troubles contributed to the end of Randy’s partnership with Tut and City Gardens. As with the beginning of the club, no one knew at the time it was the end. Many factors contributed to the demise of City Gardens, both as a venue and as a way of life. Things were changing… the “digital age” was about to take on a new meaning as more people gained access to the internet. It wasn’t long before any music fan with an internet connection could steal his or her favorite artists’ music. At the same time, with more and better video technology becoming readily available (and with its quality reaching new heights) the need to go out to a venue and see a band perform was diminished. You could watch most groups’ performances online. Hell, if you are in a band, you can practically book and promote an entire tour from your cell phone. The decline of record stores and venues, coupled with corporate music entities capitalizing on youth-oriented trends, severely fractured a scene that once prided itself on its insular nature and anti-corporate stance. The late ‘90s saw the co-opting of anything that might have once been considered “alternative” and turned the average music-hungry connoisseur into a demographic target. Once-hallowed grounds that had hosted music’s most important moments disappeared into myth. Many venues were forced to change the way they did business. Others closed for good. By 2013, Ian MacKaye was selling Minor Threat t-shirts in Urban Outfitters and Greg Ginn was suing every person who ever said the words “Black Flag.” “Punk” t-shirts were readily available at every shopping mall with a Hot Topic.
Jello Biafra (Dead Kennedys): It’s harder to tour underground today in a way, though there are many more promoters and venues. Lots of cool bands and music labels, but the guarantees from the promoters, numerically, are about the same as they were when I was in Dead Kennedys. Meanwhile, everything else has skyrocketed. Not just gasoline and accommodations, and your rent back home, but the ticket prices have multiplied by ten in many cases, but the bands ain’t seeing that money. A lot of times the promoters aren’t either… it’s the insurance companies. All it takes is one cutie with a rich lawyer daddy to fall in the pit, and they sue, and then it’s either no more shows or they have to buy a lot of insurance and charge the public accordingly.
Randy Now: We never made a decision to stop forever. We just decided to take a break from it for a couple reasons. We had a couple years of bad weather during the winter, which made it tough. Tut was getting hit with all the lawsuits and would shake everyday going to the mailbox. I felt like, “Fuck this. I’m tired of it.” It had become a job, and it wasn’t fun. Going back to the ‘80s and ‘90s, nobody would book these bands. They came to me over and over again. I’d get them when nobody wanted them, and then we’d build them up, and they stayed with me right until we closed down. Nowadays, I get a lot of people saying things like, “That was really good what you did back then, even if we bitched about the ticket prices. But, looking back, it was a great deal.” It was a big PA, a big room, big insurance. I had to feed the bands and pay for security and advertising. When a band comes, you’ve got to advertise all over the East Coast, and there were no computers. The insurance was a killer. I had to buy individual policies for every show just for myself, let alone for the club. And they were $750. I had to guarantee 30 shows a year to get it down to $350 per event. In the 1980s and early ‘90s, $350 for a show for insurance… There were a thousand people there at times, but (more often) there were only 100 people. It was like a dollar or two dollars per person. It went up to $650 for a Bad Brains show. I almost told the insurance company that they were a folk band. If I had told them the Bad Brains were punk, it would have cost a thousand dollars. The owner’s old man came up with an idea of having the pit roped off, and you could only go in if you paid an extra $8. The skinheads would have loved that, and they would have paid it! It would have taken care of the insurance. But I also had to guarantee 30 shows a year at $350. It was almost a $12,000 policy, and it got used quite a few times. Another problem was shows in Philly at VFW halls [featuring] eight bands for five dollars. We were competing with that. It was tough, balancing all that while being cool with the kids and the bands. We tried to pay the bands as well as we could. We didn’t have alcohol sales, and when we finally had the chance to sell alcohol, everyone was under 21. The bar would make $27, and the bartenders would make $3 in tips.
Dave Franklin (Vision): I cannot overstate enough how important City Gardens was. In a world of non-rock stars, that place that made you feel like a rock star.
Chuck Treece (McRad): It’s lacking right now. We don’t have a City Gardens. That club, that scene, is irreplaceable. To imagine what kind of aggression that was in that building on a weekly basis is fucking crazy. It’s a part of our youth.
Craig Wedren (Shudder to Think): Where is the City Gardens of now? Where does it exist and what’s it like? You think of the way that club looked, of the bands that played there, and of Randy and the kind of energy that was in the place, good and bad… where is that now? It was a specific convergence of time, place, and creativity. I know that was happening to a greater or lesser degree all over the country and the world at the time, but it was tough to put your finger on it and appreciate fully, except in hindsight.
Tim McMahon (Mouthpiece): There were always rumors about City Gardens closing toward the end. By the later days, in the mid-‘90s, there were tons of shows going on everywhere, all the time. We had this attitude like, “Oh well. If it closes, it closes.” We took it for granted. That’s what I keep thinking back on. We said, “It’s City Gardens. It’ll always be there.” And then one day, boom… it wasn’t there anymore. Nothing ever took its place. We thought other places would fill the void and it wouldn’t matter, but it did. It really did. Going to City Gardens… it felt like our place. Everywhere you turned there were people you knew. There was nothing like it. I look back now and regret that I took it for granted.
Dave Smalley (D.Y.S./Dag Nasty/ALL/Down By Law): [The scene] didn’t exist in a vacuum. It existed because of the spirit and the purpose and the goals that made punk rock what it was. It wasn’t just a quick moment in time that we all enjoyed and then went off to become accountants who forgot what we were. We didn’t check our values at the door. It wasn’t just entertainment. It was a way of life.
Mike Watt (Minutemen/fIREHOSE/The Stooges): Safe to go crazy… I try to keep that from being an old idea, and I still put it out there when I play. The big challenge is to be creative, but maybe that challenge should never be solved. Maybe it should always be difficult. “What can I think of? What can I do?” It’s timeless. Trotsky was talking about this idea, “permanent revelation,” and he used the metaphor of the penknife. He said, “The art is not in the penknife; the art is in what is to be carved.” So maybe that’s the way a scene is: it can only go so far, and then the humans have to get involved. A scene is only the instrument.