The Legendary City Gardens: Five Favorite Moments From Punk’s Paradise

For a decade, 1701 Calhoun Street in Trenton, New Jersey was a living, breathing entity — as loud and vivid as its patrons and performers. Standing proudly between Philadelphia and New York City, the legendary punk club City Gardens saw the likes of some of the biggest names in music before they rose to fame. Hindsight bares witness to the musical mecca City Gardens created in Trenton, but if you were a concertgoer back then, the club certainly looked more like a diamond in the rough. This hidden gem merged people across all different backgrounds in one space where they could be themselves and share in what they loved.

City Garden’s rich history has been preserved via interviews, videos, photographs, podcasts and a recently released oral history written by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico, featuring priceless first-hand accounts of the club’s most infamous shows. It features an excellently underwhelming passage about Nirvana’s September 27, 1991 gig (that’s right, three days after the release of the band’s record-shattering second album Nevermind, the guys in Nirvana were playing to a small, unknowingly lucky crowd in Trenton). With incredible insight from band members and regulars alike, “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes” highlights the city’s tradition of honoring the clubs memory by retelling its most fascinating tales.

While City Gardens closed its doors in the early 1990s, many fans and artists still recount the club’s legacy to this day, not only on the community, but on themselves as well. As Trenton’s current punk scene begins to gain prominence across the city at the emerging Mill Hill Basement and Championship Bar, many cannot help but look fondly at the past while creating a new future for their city. Take a trip back to Calhoun Street with five favorite anecdotes from City Gardens.

Jon Stewart on Bartending, Fist Fights and Angry Soccer Moms

While hosting “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart invited City Gardens oral history author Yates Wuelfing and frontman Gibby Haynes of the niche ’90s alternative band Butthole Surfers to talk about the club and his time there as a bartender. One particular Butthole Surfers concert came to mind, leaving the trio to reminisce on the fact that despite being an all-ages show punk show, you still shouldn’t bring your 14 year old son to City Gardens.

Source: “The Daily Show”

Randy Now Knows How Much a Band is Worth

City Gardens was well known for its impressive show bills and it was thanks to Randy Now, the club’s booker and promoter. Now didn’t hide the fact that he only hired bands that he liked. In fact, he rejected Pearl Jam’s offer to play the club even after a cancellation left an open spot in the evening’s lineup just because he wasn’t fond of the band’s music. He even denied the Smashing Pumpkins after they asked to receive $300 for a gig, reasoning that the band was only worth $100 at the time. Now did manage to book Green Day, but only after booking much smaller bands first. Still, Randy Now was the reason why City Gardens became the legend that it is today. He shared this and many other City Gardens stories on the Chris Brake Show.

Source: The Chris Brake Show

The Video Shoot

In March of 1990, City Gardens and its attendees got a brief taste of the limelight when hardcore outfit Judge decided to record a music video for its song “Where It Went” during its performance that evening. According to the oral history, even Randy Now didn’t know about the band’s plans — but they traveled like wildfire via word of mouth around the scene. What unfolded next was a jam-packed, chaotic frenzy to get in front of the camera for their 15 minutes of fame.

That night was fucking bedlam, because everyone wanted to be on the video. No one was sure what it was, but they were like, "Goddamn it, I'm getting on stage and I'm going to get on this videotape!"

—Todd Linn, City Gardens security

"Everybody went berserk because they wanted to be in that damn video."

— Jeremy Weiss, City Gardens regular

"I was on stage for that. It was me and Jim Norton. And I can tell you, me and Norton earned our $40 that night...(we) were trying to keep people off stage. But if I was holding one person back, someone was climbing over him, and then someone would try to climb over that person...People were using my back to dive off onto the crowd. And you know what? I didn't care. I was having as much fun as they were, because that was why I was there. Because the music made people live..."

— Carl Humenik, City Gardens security

Excerpt via “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens” by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico, book

“They Don’t Play, We Don’t Play”

It wasn’t surprising to see bands standing up for each other, especially at a close venue like City Gardens. The bass player for Vision, who was opening up for The Exploited, was banned from the club for a previous fight that took place. Randy Now remembered the bass player and told Vision that they had to leave and would not be able to play. Members of The Exploited, The Pagan Babies, and other bands playing that night told Randy that they wouldn’t play unless he let the bass player and the rest of Vision to play. They were later able to play on the condition that the banned player would leave right after the set. It was the first time that Vision played outside of basements and other smaller venues.

Source: “Riot on the Dance Floor”

90-Cent Dance Night Thursdays

As run down as the club was, there was always a striking turnout on Thursdays for 90-cent Dance Night — what soon came to be a City Gardens staple and main moneymaker. The club’s “anything goes” atmosphere led to a more welcoming environment and widespread clientele that attributed to the event’s success. As patrons discuss in the oral history, the DJ’s offered up an unheard of variety of tracks,blending genres and breaking stereotypes. In an excerpt, former City Gardens employee Rich O’Brien discusses the intrigue of dance nights.

“The allure of 90¢ Dance Night was that it was dirt cheap. It was 90¢ to get in and 90¢ for a draft beer. Everyone could go there, be themselves and not worry. No one would give you a hard time or try to pick a fight with you.

The reason City Gardens still comes to my mind at least a dozen times a week is the fact that you could go there any night of the week and be entertained….You could go on Wednesday and see reggae, or go for dance music on Thursday. Friday night could be a big band like the Ramones or Violent Femmes and Sundays was hardcore. I have never seen it duplicated in any of the bars or clubs I’ve worked in since…”

—Rich O'Brien, City Gardens employee

Excerpt via “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens” by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico, book

The versatility and multifaceted nature of the club allowed those who didn’t fit in with current trends or music preferences to find one another (albeit sometimes dancing alone on Thursday nights) and build a community that has been so deeply cherished ever since.

Roundup and words by Kimberly Ilkowski and Tamara Fuentes
Header photo by Kimberly Ilkowski

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