One of the most talked about clubs on the Internet and publishing world is one that hasn’t existed since the mid ’90s. City Gardens, a Trenton venue, played host to countless hardcore, metal and alternative shows from the ’80s and ’90s, and is now the subject of a book. No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens, was co-written by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico. I’ve actually known DiLodovico for years. We met at my college radio station WDNR, a tiny 10 watt station, which was where he found out about music and my de facto fraternity. I caught up with him about how he became an author, what the book has to offer to those that might not have been around to experience the club and whether a place like City Gardens could exist today. The authors will be doing book signings over the next few weeks at Word Jersey City (4/7) and the Jonathan Levine Gallery (4/19)
Tell me about how you became an author.
I always knew I wanted to be a writer, I just didn’t know how to. I was always good with the turn of a phrase, so I kept that in the back of my mind. With most “writers,” it’s a lot easier to talk about writing than to actually write. But as far as music went, I’ve always been involved since I was a preteen. I realized that I was never going to be a rock star. I can’t play an instrument, so I better just stick with what my one strength is. I did a lot of the normal stuff that you do as a punk rock kid growing up, I wrote for zines, tried to do my own zine and worked for labels, and tried to apply writing like that. Even when I wasn’t really working in music, I was always doing freelance gigs writing for hip-hop mags like Elemental. Eventually, once I kind of found my stride and had a firm grip on what I knew I wanted to write about which was kind of this retrospective looking back at the music that I lived for and through it kind of boosted my confidence because I was like “this is what I want to do.”
How did you meet up with Amy?
I was living in Charlotte North Carolina with my wife and a bunch of stray cats working a series of dead end service industry jobs, and I was doing a little bit of freelance writing. I was writing a look back on the Philadelphia punk rock scene that I grew up in and while I was looking for information, I kept flashing back to City Gardens. I went to City Gardens a lot, but I wasn’t a local, I didn’t know it’s inner workings. I knew there was a guy named Randy who put the shows on, but I had never seen him or met him. I didn’t know a lot about the history of City Gardens – I didn’t know when it opened or anything like that, so I looked it up online, basic Google searches and really there was nothing. I found a few old punk cards and flyers but there was no official City Gardens website, there was nothing like that.
One thing I did find, and this was in the days before social media as we know it now, was one of those Yahoo newsgroup kind of things, where it’s kind of a group email back and forth and it was called the “Seedy Gardeners,” and it was a bunch of City Gardens alumni who got together and tried to keep in touch. I joined and kept asking if anyone wanted to talk for this interview I was doing, mostly on hardcore. The people I kept talking to said that they didn’t know too much about the hardcore scene, they were more the alternative dance night type of people. But throughout all this, this woman kept popping up with messages saying “email me outside of the group. I have a calendar that has every City Gardens show that ever happened.”
I contacted her and it turned out to be Amy and she said “look I’m working on this book on City Gardens and I did all this research.” She went back through the old Aquarians, the East Coast Rocker newspaper and by hand compiled this gig calendar from going through the old ads that they used to place for City Gardens. I was really impressed with that and I kept asking her about the book and she finally sent me the one story she had done – the Butthole Surfers story. I read that and was absolutely floored. I never really read an oral history as far as documenting music before, I hadn’t real McNeil’s Please Kill Me book, so I didn’t know the format. That really grabbed a hold of me having the different people telling their perspectives of the story so I was all hyped about it. Amy and I started chatting online, and I would go work my shitty job and wait to come home and hope that Amy sent me more of the book. I kept bugging her to let me help her, since I still had a lot of contacts with the underground scene of the ’80s that I was into. I kept telling her “if you want to interview any of these bands that I know, I would be happy to facilitate it.” I would write out stories about my experiences at City Gardens and kept sending them to her. Finally, she asked me to co-author the book with her and that was my design all along, so I jumped in and ran with it.
I would imagine most of the hardcore stories and those towards the end of the club are yours?
Exactly. Amy had a definite vision of how she wanted the book to go and a lot of it was chronological so it’s amazing how these roles worked out because it’s not something that we sat down and discussed, it just ran organically. Amy went to a lot of the Thursday night 90 cent dance nights, and I never in my life went to one. Amy started going to shows a lot earlier than I did, so she saw a lot of great shows that I didn’t have the chance to see but I had certain expertise in the more extreme music – the thrash metal the really heavy punk rock, the hardcore stuff. So the time periods we were both there and the different experiences that I had, it just worked out where you can kind of cut it in half. The first half of the book is all her, and the second half of the book is all me. Obviously, we contributed a little back and forth, but the majority of it, you can tell where she began and I jumped in so it just worked really well.
What would you say to someone that might want to read this book that never heard of City Gardens or didn’t get to go to it?
If you were a part of any scene during this time frame, no matter where you were geographically, a lot of this stuff is going to resonate with you. There are going to be people interviewed in the book that you would have never met in your life, but again if you were in the scene and you went to shows there’s somebody you know in that book. Just somebody that reminds you of your best friend or the crazy guy that you always see at shows that started fights – that’s not limited to geography. While we tell the history of one particular club, the number one subject of the book is the music. City Gardens is just the platform through which the stories are told. If you know these bands and you went to similar shows in different places, I think you’re going to connect with something. For younger people who never had the chance to go there or live through this era, I think it’s a great of history just to hear these stories of how shows went down before the internet age, before mass communication was at everyone’s fingertips. There are a lot of themes that run through the book, a lot of anecdotes that you didn’t have to be there for. You didn’t even have to be born at the time.
You say in the book, you got introduced to the world of City Gardens through radio. Do you want to talk about that a little?
Not just City Gardens, music in general. I grew up in Delaware County Pennsylvania right outside of Philly. You could listen to WKDU, but it was too far to get a strong signal, so out by me was Widener University in Chester Pennsylvania.When I was in seventh grade, I never slept well, I was always up late at night and I had a clock radio next to my bed. I would just listen to the radio. There was always just something weird about having this voice talk to you in the dead of night when there was no one around to talk to and then the music would come and I would just fiddle with the dial and I remember it had to be 1985, I guess way to the left of the dial and buried under the static, I heard crazy metal riffs and I was like “what is this?” I mean up to this point, I knew my aunt’s record collection – Led Zeppelin and The Who and all that classic rock stuff – but I knew nothing about punk rock, I knew nothing about metal, and here’s this little WDNR station.
This was the mid-80s it wasn’t like ‘oh, I just heard a song. Let me look on the internet and find out everything about this song.’ I would have to listen again and again just to get a name of a song, let alone the band that did it. That was my only influence in music. I didn’t know anybody else in real life that was into extreme music. I didn’t know about the world of zines, I didn’t know that the world of college radio existed. Everything that I knew about music sprang from WDNR. Everything about it – wanting to go to shows, wanting to be a part of a scene nobody else knew about, it was still completely under the radar. Through listening to WDNR, I made friends, I made friends with the DJs. I would call in and request songs, and the whole time I was learning about underground music and then I learned about shows, where it was like “hey there are these things called shows where there are bands playing, and it’s more like a party rather than a concert. It’s definitely not a concert it’s a small community of people all there for the same goal.”
I owe my career to it. Not bad for a 10 watt radio station.
Most times it would be a 5 watt because the transmitter would get busted! (laughs)
Do you think a place like City Gardens could exist now?
The short answer is no, it will never be like that, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be like that. With each person, there is going to be that connection they have to the music emotionally, whatever void that music fills in their life, and no matter what the technology situation is at the time that will never change. What changes is the culture around it and the way these things are approached. Today you can be a one man band, make an album without ever leaving your house, promote it, never play a show and theoretically sustain a career out of it.
There isn’t the story of the band grinding it out on the road anymore. You still have bands that do that, and there’s a whole little scene that throws back to the 80s, but they have all these aids to help them, which is cool. You have to adapt and change. There’s nothing more sad then the people that sit around and say “ugh these dumb kids, they don’t know what it was like back in my day.” They’re not supposed to, and that’s the joy of being young. You don’t give a fuck about what happened before you, you just go out and do your own shit.
If you have these tools around and you know how to use them while still maintaining your integrity about the music and about your scene, it’s very powerful to get out a message to a couple thousand people, just by pushing a button. That’s something in our day we would have never dreamed of, but if we had the opportunity, we would have jumped on it. If the internet had come along in 1983, then we would have been the generation that did it, and our whole musical history would be different. The people that came before us would have been telling us that we didn’t know what it was like in their day. Every new generation has to find their way to do their own thing and I’m down with anyone that goes outside the norm to do it. You have a lot of scenes all over the world that take the best elements of what the late 70s and 80s taught us about independent music and how to go about it, and they will stay true to that.
Speaking of today’s tools, you crowd funded the book. How did you find that experience?
I have mixed feelings about it. When critics speak against it, they say it’s basically digital panhandling, At the same time, no publisher wanted anything to do with our book. If they showed the slightest bit of interest, they wanted to change the whole thing. First they harped on “you gotta change the title, you gotta change the title” and Amy had this title for 16 or 17 years and it was not going to change. If you went to City Gardens, you would understand the relevance of the title with the sign that barred people from slam dancing and stage diving and wearing lots of spikes on their leather. We had no idea what we were gonna do or how we were going to get this book out. They were saying nobody wanted it, it was too small of a niche, only people in Jersey will be interested, so really Kickstarter was a godsend for us. It allowed us to reach the people that wanted this book made and gave them their chance to put their money where their mouth is. You could say we owe everything to the people who contributed to the Kickstarter. We had no other avenue of publishing, and it was well over 350 people to hit the goal. Almost every one of those people, you can trace back to City Gardens in some way. Maybe they went there once and it had a huge impact on their life or they were fans of music. People who wanted this book to be made got their chance to vote.
Can you judge whether it’s successful or not?
Amy and I are doing this by the seat of our pants. Neither of us had ever written or published a book and we’re learning all of this as we go. We’ve gotten a bigger response than we ever anticipated. After we got word that we were booked on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, just the announcing of that happening, things really took off. We got a small distributor from Charlotte North Carolina who specializes in getting the book into independent stores and indie record shops. Our main distributor Infinitemerch.com keeps ordering books, so we’re almost sold out of the original printing we did. We definitely want to do a second printing. A lot of people are tapping into this. We’ve done three book signings already, and we can’t believe how many people come out share their stories and just thank us. That’s a really strange experience for me, I’ve never been thanked for doing anything. If people are still interested, then hell yeah we’ll do second and maybe even third pressings.
Are you profiting off of this, do you think there’s a point that you’re going to?
Not really. We had an established goal for what we needed for Kickstarter and that was just estimated. You have to be careful, because if you set your goal too high and don’t reach it, you get nothing. You have to get enough to finish what you’re doing, but at the same time, you don’t want to shoot too high. We had all these different levels of reward packages, but we didn’t factor in the shipping. We did all that in the last week, and we dropped over a grand on Stamps.com. There was a great deal of debt incurred and I don’t know if we’ve gotten back to even yet, but debts are on us because it came out of our own pockets. It’s not like we have a big time publisher on our back sweating about book sales though. I don’t want to speak for Amy but I’m just so grateful that this thing is done and out. I don’t give a shit if we lose a million dollars on it, this has been such a huge part of me and Amy’s lives for so many years and there were many times that we thought this book was done and dead, so just to have it done and out that’s the profit right now.
So there’s a film as well that’s happening, a documentary?
It’s a documentary called Riot on the Dance Floor. We have a five man crew. Steve Tozzi is the director. Ken Salerno, whose photographs over the years have almost become synonymous with City Gardens, is the director of photography. Peter Tabbot, who for many years has been the guitar player in Vision. He is our music guy and me and Amy, having done so much research for so many years acted as producers.
It’s not the film of the book or the book of the film. They’re two similar stories. The film tells more about Randy Now, the guy who booked and promoted City Gardens and made it what it was. Our book was more chronological. The two go hand in hand really well. When the movie drops and people get to see it along with the book, it’s going to tell a nice well-rounded story not just of City Gardens, not just Randy Now, not just the music. The whole era of what it was like to go to shows back in those days.
How did you guys get Jon Stewart to be interviewed for the book?
That was pretty much Amy. Amy’s husband is a PR master. Howard has been doing it for a long time. He knows how to get the job done. I can’t speak for Jon Stewart, but I think if people bring up City Gardens he has fond memories, so it was something he enjoyed talking about. I won’t mention any names, but it was a lot less of a hassle to get him than it was to get people who played in bands that existed for a year or two and you never heard from again.
Was there anyone on your hit list that you weren’t able to get ahold of?
There were a lot of big name groups that came through City Gardens, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Jane’s Addiction and Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. There’s a lot of people that, if we could have gotten them, it would’ve been cool to put their name in the book. You take a band like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who’ve been around for 30 years and played a thousand shows, I don’t know that if I had a chance to interview anybody in that band, they would have good detailed memories of the show they played at City Gardens. When you read the book, you see that we just interviewed people that went to shows and people who worked there because they’re the people that actually have the clear cut memories of the shows and know the workings of the club.
Do you think that hardcore helped drive a nail into City Gardens?
Definitely. I don’t know that hardcore music itself could be to blame, but definitely that kind of attitude. Anyone who went to the club in the late 80s saw how it changed. The lawsuits were a huge reason why they stopped doing shows at City Gardens and why Randy got burnt out on it, They’ll tell you they feared going to the mailbox and getting one of those registered letters from lawyers that a new lawsuit was coming. The insurance got outrageous. I mean, you couldn’t operate and make a profit. City Gardens is known as a live music venue, but the thing that kept City Gardens going through all those lawsuits and all those all-ages shows, where they couldn’t make money selling alcohol, was their 90 cent dance nights. They would get thousands of people in every week and their liquor sales were ridiculous. That kept the club going while they would lose money on shows and they would lose money in lawsuits.
The aggressive theme came later on, and it really hurt the operation of City Gardens as it did a lot of clubs at the time. Anyone that lived through the whole era and went to the shows regularly will tell you. Changes happened, really towards the end of the 80s, that punk rock got that mainstream boost. You had jocks coming to the shows and they didn’t know how to handle themselves. If you went to shows, you knew how to stage dive without hurting yourself. You knew how to be in a pit without getting your head busted open. If you have people that think the purpose of slam dancing at a show is to hurt people, they’re going to hurt people and chances are they’re going to be hurt. It was really the actions of a ridiculous few that changed the shows. Now you can’t even see shows without a barrier. There were never barriers when we went to shows.
What was your most memorable show that you saw at City Gardens?
In 1988 I went and saw Jane’s Addiction and I didn’t even know who Jane’s Addiction was. In 1988, I would’ve laughed at you because if it wasn’t Agnostic Front or Slayer, I wasn’t listening to it. I’d gotten on the guest list for the show, and none of us really wanted to go because we were all hardcore metal kids. So we had the free tickets for City Gardens, and we had nothing better to do. I remember first seeing the crowd and being like ‘uh this is not my crowd.’ I’m used to hanging out with weirdos but this was a whole different set of weirdos. But Jane’s Addiction came out and I was really mesmerized by how intense they were. The thing that really did it for me was the rhythm section; Avery and Perkins, bass and drums, it was really driving and hot and sweaty. That’s the thing about City Gardens – because of the crazy bills that Randy put on. If you were adventurous, you would see shit that you never set out to see but in the end you come back with this new experience. I saw Jane’s Addiction at the height of perfection, before dope ruined them, and you find out what a jerk off Dave Navarro is. There was no hype about them. They just came out they rocked, and blew me away.
Mine was the Faith No More/Soundgarden/Voivod show.
Nice. I didn’t see that there I think I saw it at the Troc. Actually, my memory of it is definitely not as good as the people who saw it at City Gardens.
Yeah, I’ll always remember Chris Cornell scurrying out over the crowd on an I-beam and dropping down into the audience.
The show I saw at the Trocadero wasn’t even like it was bad, it just wasn’t memorable. I wasn’t a fan of the new Faith No More and I was not a fan of Soundgarden. I’ve interviewed many people about the City Gardens show and they just talk about how they were blown away by it, and I just feel cheated. I didn’t see that at the Troc. Maybe it’s something about the venue, I don’t know. I never thought about it while I was going there but maybe it’s time, memory, hindsight. You don’t realize how insanely good shit is while it’s happening until it’s long over. I guess that’s life.
What’s your next book?
We actually already started on our second book. We decided that we were going to write another book about the history of record stores in America. It’ll be a pretty big undertaking. We’ll be working on that for the next couple of years. It’ll be a lot of research and again a lot of interviews.