City Gardens

A Look Back At Punk In Trenton

City Gardens

One place to see bands play is the same as another. A club is a club is a club, right? This is not so.

Up until 10 years ago, if a punk band was touring the East Coast, their itinerary would include stops at CBGB or The Ritz in New York, the 9:30 Club in DC, and City Gardens in Trenton. That's right, Trenton, NJ - home of pork roll, quoits, and heroin trafficking.

I'm not sure who is responsible for the smack, but the man responsible for bringing punk to Trenton is Randy Ellis, a/k/a Randy Now, the ex-mailman whose love for underground music created an original music scene that lasted fifteen years strong. Ellis went from spinning records part time to booking bands and tours, even road managing for some of the biggest names in punk.

Before The Trocadero in Philly was happening, before The Electric Factory was brought back to life, before The Stone Pony booked anything heavy, City Gardens had already established itself as THE place to play on the East Coast. Henry Rollins, Glenn Danzig, Billie Joe Armstrong, and Suicidal Tendencies screamer Mike Muir all can say that Randy Now was the first one to bring them to Trenton; and The Ramones didn't just accidentally play there twenty-five times.

It's true that I now avoid going to New Jersey's capital at all costs. But, back in 1985, I didn't care as long as I could go to my beloved City Gardens every Sunday to see bands like GBH, The Meatmen, Bad Brains, Gang Green, and The Ramones tear it up in front of 900 or more punks, posers, and "Family" members.

A punk kid on my bus stop, Shaun Yard, asked me if I could take him to City Gardens to see D.O.A., Corrosion of Conformity, and The Dicks. Who? Where? He assured me I would like the bands so I agreed. I was just getting turned on to some metal, but I really didn't know a thing about punk or hardcore.

So, on June 30, 1985 my life was transformed. I didn't do anything as drastic as burn my Skynyrd and Doors records, but after seeing my first show at City Gardens, I knew punk would be forever in my blood from that point on.

Shaun and I would head to City Gardens every week to see shows. I was exposed to many new bands in a short period of time, and I digested it all. By year's end, I witnessed some of the best punk bands around: Black Flag, Meatmen, Gang Green, Bad Brains, Scornflakes, Dead Kennedys, and Suicidal Tendencies.

It wasn't long before I found out that the person responsible for bringing these bands to Trenton was Randy Now. He got to know who I was since I went to so many shows at City Gardens. We would bullshit about bands, but never had any long conversations. After all, he had a show to run, skinheads to throw out, etc.

This past November, Randy threw a City Gardens reunion party at Hope Hose Fire House in Bordentown. The last time I saw him was probably around 1993, so I decided to pop in to see what this reunion was all about.

Randy recognized me right away even with my long hair and beard. I didn't get to talk to him much because he was busy dee-jaying and chatting with other past City Gardens regulars, some who knew him longer than me. I got his email address so we could meet for an interview at another time.

He had this brainstorm that I could interview him on the air and we could talk while the music was playing, so I went to The College of New Jersey's radio station, WTSR, to sit in on Randy's Thursday night show "Music You Can't Hear on WTSR."

As the show went on, his story came out.

Back in 1980, after he quit drumming for a local cover band, Construction, Randy started dee-jaying part-time at a bar in Bordentown called The Silver Fox. After a short run at a bar in Burlington, Randy tried to get a job at a new club that opened in Trenton.

"I said to the owner at the time, 'hi, I'm a new wave dee-jay, and he said a new what?'" Now said.

Randy spun new wave, as well as '60s underground music, which is very similar to what Randy plays now on WTSR. The same year, Randy had the opportunity to bring live music to City Gardens. He began bringing the Philadelphia bands - The As, Robert Hazard, and The Hooters - to Trenton. The Colors, managed by Blondie's Clem Burke, and Neighbors And Allies also brought big crowds to Trenton.

A turning point came when Randy heard the British new wave band 999 had a show cancelled at Hitsville in Passaic. He wanted to get them to play in Trenton.

"I found out who their agent was and booked 999 at City Gardens. With only a week of advertising, we had 600 people show up for them," Now said.

From there, the shows came rolling in. Ian Copeland, 999's agent (and Stuart Copeland's brother), handled nine other acts, including Television and the Dead Boys - all of which played there. Other agents heard about this cool venue in Trenton to play and the club's reputation grew.

Besides booking bands, Now also hosted a 90-cent dance night on Thursdays. City Gardens was a major hangout for the college crowd and it was common for the club to draw 700 to 800 people on that night. I spent many Thursdays there as well, buying two 90-cent rum and cokes at a time.

"We stole The Shades from Brothers and they played there every Thursday for six months," Now said. "When they broke up, the owner decided to dedicate Thursday night to a dance night and paid me 50 bucks. Plus, we would split the door money after the first 200 people. That was incentive for me to get people to come out."

Back in 1983, City Gardens only had 21-and-up shows. Now realized the amount of kids that were missing out on shows, so he began booking bands at an all-ages club called New York South (now Deliverance Church) in Florence, NJ. Suicidal Tendencies' first East Coast show was at New York South. The Dead Kennedys, Butthole Surfers, and Kraut also played there. Ah, if those church walls could talk.

The more that Randy and I reminisced over the air about famous City Gardens shows, the more untold stories came out, such as Randy's relationship with Henry Rollins, former lead singer of Black Flag, now a well-respected solo artist and spoken word performer.

"Chuck (Dukowski), the old bass player, called me and asked me if I knew any bass players since Kira quit," Now said. "I said I did, but he came with a drummer. That was Andrew Weiss and Sim Cain from Regressive Aid. Black Flag ended [up] not getting back together, but Greg Ginn started Gone with Sim and Andrew. After Gone was through, Henry called and asked me if I could get in touch with Sim and Andrew for him because he wanted them for his new solo project. I stayed friends with Henry and even booked his first tour. They did their first show at City Gardens in '87, opening for The Circle Jerks."

Henry's band played many shows at the club in the late '80s, as well as several sold-out spoken word performances.

The Ramones were another band that enjoyed playing Trenton. They played there 25 times and many performances were two sold-out nights in a row.

"Johnny was the one who signed the contracts," Now said. "He said City Gardens was always the hottest club to play. He wished they chose to wear shorts and tee shirts instead of jeans and leather. All Joey only wanted [was] pizza and women. They were so much fun to work with."

Randy didn't only book punk bands. He was responsible for bringing The Wailers and Toots and The Maytalls to Trenton, as well as Eric Burdon, Jack Bruce, Ice T, Faith No More, Blue Oyster Cult, Joan Jett, and Joe Jackson.

"Jackson's contract required me to rent a piano for him," Randy said. "Chopin Music on Olden Avenue wanted $500 for one night, so I found a guy in Lancaster who rented a baby grand to me for $300. The only other person who requested a piano was Sam Kinnison. I rented it from the same guy and Sam didn't even use it."

Randy and I could have spent hours talking about shows back in the day. He wanted to remind me that he enjoyed what he did, but at times it was a thankless job. He got Husker Du their first $5,000 show in New York without so much as a thank you. The Mentors, on the other hand couldn't thank him enough.

"El Duce would call me up and say we just got home from the tour, we're OK and thanks for everything," Randy said, doing a pretty good impression of the deceased hooded one.

The '90s brought more and more young kids to the shows; and with that, the trouble began. Kids were getting hurt and the owner, the bands, and even Randy, began receiving lawsuits in the mail as well as endless complaints from concerned parents. Because of these lawsuits, Randy stopped booking bands in 1994 and the club began its downward spiral. By this time, the Trocadero and The Electric Factory were happening and the Pennsylvania people stopped coming to Trenton.

People from Trenton often wonder why this area no longer has a scene. I drive my girlfriend up the wall when I go off on one of my rants about the shitty music situation here; about how the cover bands are a cancer that must be eradicated... (It's OK, just relax, breathe, and finish the story). Punk bands and fans worldwide have heard of the club. I've ran into many of the old punk bands and when I mention City Gardens to them, they always have good things to say about the place and about Randy. Trenton once had a thriving scene here; and for that we should be thankful. Some cities can't even say that.

Randy's reunion party has once again inspired him to dabble in booking bands. He has Bigger Thomas, a ska band that did many shows in Trenton, along with Hub City Stompers and The Flamingos, playing Hope Hose Fire House in Bordentown on December 30 and he's going to start working for his friend's publicity company next year.

I don't know about the future of Trenton's music scene. However, I would put my money down on the future successes of Randy Now. He's a good egg. And who knows, maybe one of these days I'll open my mailbox one day and find a pink punk card in there from The Other Side.

For more information about the upcoming ska show and Randy Now's radio show, visit his website at www.randynow.com.

[Note: Portions of this article were taken from Chris Bade's personal concert journal.]

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