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“The beauty of the club,” explained author Amy Wuelfing, “Was that there was no judgment; you didn’t have to dress a certain way, or have a certain look, it was a totally accepting environment. There were everything from Mohawks to totally normal styles, people dressed outrageous and like the average person next door.”
The club which Amy speaks of, is none other than the now defunct City Gardens in Trenton, NJ. This “between gigs” stop gap located in an extremely underprivileged area, played host to some of the wildest, extreme bands ever to grace a stage.
Wuelfing and co-author Steven DiLodovico depict much of the club’s tumultuous past in a highly anticipated new book titled, “No Slam Dancing No Stage Diving No Spikes: An Oral History of The Legendary City Gardens.” The pair will be doing a pre-release book signing on March 8 at 12 p.m. and March 9 at 1 p.m.at Randy Now’s Man Cave located at 134 Farnsworth Ave. in Bordentown City, NJ.
Author Amy Wuelfing
Growing up across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, Wuelfing made frequent trips to 1701 Calhoun St., to the warehouse with the leaky roof that housed the madness of what would become Trenton’s counter culture scene from the early ’80′s until the changing of hands around 1994. “It was a non-descript building but yet the coolest place in the area,” she said as we discussed the how, the when and the why of her involvement with the club. “I started listening to (City Gardens DJ/promoter/booking agent) Randy’s radio show on WTSR and I remember him talking about these bands, I got a fake ID and once I got my driver’s license, I went. The bands that Randy was booking, if you wanted to see them before, you had to go to either New York or Philly.”
The “Randy” to whom Amy alluded is local entrepreneur and now owner of The Man Cave in Bordentown City, NJ. Randy “Now” Ellis. He recently recalled for me his thoughts on Amy and Steven’s undertaking. “My first reaction when Amy approached me, even though we are friends, I laughed. I mean people are always coming up to me about City Gardens, like they think I owned the place and the reality is, I was really just a flunky (laughs). I met Amy when she used to go to the club, she had a fake ID, nobody really cared though; that’s just the way it was. Amy and I have known each other forever and ever, so when she came to me about this, I said, “Good Luck!” I’ve been answering questions for her for the last fifteen years.”
Fifteen years is not an exaggeration by Ellis but rather the actual time frame of this project from start to what will be its completion once released to the public on March 10. “This has been in the works for fifteen years,” Wuelfing elaborated. When asked about this endeavor she hesitated only briefly as if looking for the right descriptive way to explain the, at times, painstaking hours of research that needed to be done in order to put the book together. “Um, yeah,” she said with a chuckle. “This was one of the most tedious parts. The main thing was trying to find a list of shows. I mean nobody kept records, so I was forced to really dig. I went to the offices of “The Aquarian” newspaper and they were nice enough to allow me, for two days, to look through every issue of “The Aquarian” from 1980 through to 1995. I was in their records facility, which was a dusty warehouse, looking through back issues and old post cards and flyers; that was probably eighty percent of the research. The rest was trying to track people down and obtain interviews; it was time consuming.”
Although labor intensive and somewhat frustrating, as she states on the book web site (www.noslamdancing.com), “At times I said I was done with this stupid project…” Wuelfing remembered just why it was that she began writing it in the first place. “Well, I grew up in the ’70′s and the ’80′s on arena rock. When I’d go to concerts in these huge stadiums and places like The Spectrum, the performers always looked so far away. I remember seeing Van Halen and David Lee Roth looked like he was an inch tall. In City Gardens you were close to the bands and close to the music. My favorite band was the Violent Femmes, I remember seeing one of their first appearances at City Gardens, they came walking through the crowd playing their instruments. As they made their way to the stage, the people were banging into them and they were right there within my reach; it gave me a whole new perspective on how I wanted to see shows.”
Wuelfing readily admits that without her co-author and friend DiLodovico, the book may have never been completed despite all of her good intentions. “Yes, Yes, I probably would never have been able to complete the book without Steven. I was doing it solo the first ten years, at times wondering to myself “What am I doing?” Then Steven helped me the last five years which was great because with the little bit of age difference between us, we were able to recount our experiences; mine from 1983 until around 1990 and his from the late ’80′s through the ’90′s.”
Along with all of the research and collaboration, hours turned to days and years as she picked Ellis’s brain for memories and club history. Amy, like so many others, credits Randy for the clubs success, “Randy,” she states, “Through his efforts, saw the potential in the club and bringing in the bands. If it wasn’t for Randy, that club would not have existed.”
Ellis doesn’t necessarily see it that way; even seeming a bit embarrassed when asked how he felt knowing that the patrons and a generation or two have credited him with, not only the club’s success but it’s very existence. “I don’t see it,” he said, as he shook and bowed his head behind the counter of his Man Cave shop. “But what do I know? I liked turning new music and groups onto new people. I’m blushing (laughs), I just did my job. The first two years I took a few photos and got some autographs but after that I never did, because it went from fun to a job. People used to say that I was lucky, that I had such a cool job; I never used the word lucky. It wasn’t luck, it was hard work running that club and booking bands for all of us involved. We had no book or instructions to follow; we just did it.”
“Did it” is correct. The dilapidated building in a ghetto section of a city, a city only a bit more than a decade removed from racial riots and tensions saw the likes of many a performer; some on their way up, some on their way down and others who were already established legends. Acts such as the Ramones, Henry Rollins, Violent Femmes, Gwar, Joan Jett, Hooters, The A’s, Black Flag, Nick Lowe, Green Day, Anthrax and Slayer all made multiple appearances at the club. Others like Iggy Pop, Nils Lofgren, Joe Jackson, Bo Diddley, The Pogues, Beastie Boys, Ween, Junior Walker, John Eddie, Eric Burdon, Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow, The Plasmatics and even Clarence Clemons, Los Lobos, 10,000 Maniacs, the Goo Goo Dolls, Soundgarden and John Cale all graced its stage.
“No Slam Dancing No Stage Diving No Spikes” comes right from the famous sign that graced the club wall; serving more like a hazard warning than rules as sometimes the club could get a bit out of hand; ultimately leading to its undoing. “During the mid ’90′s, things took a violent turn at the club,” lamented Wuelfing. “Frank, the owner and Randy were being it with lawsuits and the club just wasn’t worth being kept open in it’s current form. Local acts and jam bands became the entertainment, national touring acts were a thing of the past and the club finally closed its doors for good around 1999.”
The building, at least to my recollection, sits vacant; still part of the urban blight which surrounds it. Even during the club’s heyday the area never changed but the club; well it changed people’s lives. Keefe Lehman of Levittown, PA was a frequent patron who says just that, “Dirty, the place was dirty,” he said as a smile crept across his face. “You literally had to sanitize your hands after leaning on the side of the stage but that place influenced an entire generation of Pennsbury High School students. Our entire lives revolved around City Gardens, who was playing and what was happening there.” Another was Terry Loda. Now in his mid-thirties, he remembers attending shows there as soon as he was also able to drive. “My favorite part of City Gardens, was taking someone there for the first time. I remember taking my friend Amy there to see Sick Of It All and once the band started, the whole floor became a mosh pit and she went running in the opposite direction (laughs). My other buddy Bill wanted to see the Ramones, he had to see the Ramones. I remember him saying to me, “When the band starts, I’m going to go to the mosh pit.” I couldn’t seem to make him understand that the entire dance floor, no, the entire building became a mosh pit! There was nothing like that place…”
Debbie Harry 5/22/94 at City Gardens. Photo © Joe Ryan
These are just two examples of the overwhelming connection that many made/felt with City Gardens. Now, thirty seven years after it opened and twenty years after Ellis booked his last show there, he looks back with apparent mixed emotions. “I don’t know, honestly I don’t. I’m excited that people get to relive it through the book and the upcoming movie but I guess that I’m a bit surprised that it means so much to so many people. I mean, when it was happening it didn’t seem like much, ya’ know? I guess it meant more in retrospect than at the time; but hey, I’ll get my fifteen minutes of fame for about three weeks out of this, then I’ll go back to being the Man Cave guy (laughs).”
Wuelfing says that book pre-sales are doing well, well enough where she’s been inspired to begin work on a second book; this one about American record shops. “We used a Kickstarter campaign to initially get funding and let me tell you, there are a lot of people championing this book. We have had a lot of pre-sales; the hard copy is just about gone. I can’t complain, so far it’s been great! Yes, I am working on a second book; this one about the history of record stores in America. I just started it; hopefully it won’t take fifteen years (laughs)!”
Their book signing tour kicks off on March 8 and 9 in Bordentown, NJ then makes several stops in the Philadelphia area before ending in New York City on April 19. Please go to the aforementioned web site or find out more information on www.mancavenj.com.