City Gardens cultivated NJ underground music scene

Jimmy G of the punk band Murphy’s Law dives into the crowd of excited fans during one of many performances at City Gardens in Trenton.
Jimmy G of the punk band Murphy’s Law dives into the crowd of excited fans during one of many performances at City Gardens in Trenton.

By Emily Klingman and Alyssa Naimoli 

It didn’t look like much. The building had been a large warehouse, and before that, a car dealership with a decaying sign. In its new life, it became a loud and raunchy rock club. Fights broke out often. One musician remembers the place as “filthy.”

From the mid ’80s and into the ’90s, Trenton’s City Gardens, located on edgy Calhoun Street, was an East Coast hub for rock, punk and metal music. Hundreds of hungry bands played, coming back as often as they could. Some were on the rise internationally and making their U.S. debut; some were going nowhere. But week after week, thousands of fans, freaks and misfits poured in from distant cities and nearby schools, including Rider College.

“[The club] had these new wave/punk rock dance nights and I do remember going there with Mary Jean Gazzara and having a great time,” said Rider alumnus Rich Geary, ’81. “The club was seedy, but I loved it because of the underground, counterculture feel of the building. So many strange characters — but that was part of the fun.”

Now a new documentary film, Riot on the Dance Floor, traces the history of this improbable showcase for both well-known and local bands. It profiles the passionate promoter, Randy “Now” Ellis, who made it all happen. It was screened Feb. 11 at Mill Hill Playhouse in Trenton as it starts a circuit of international festivals.

The famous Jersey-born dance club lured thousands of music lovers every week. Concert-goers would flock to the club for the chance to see which great band Ellis booked that night. Nirvana, the Ramones, Green Day, and Nine Inch Nails are only a few of the headliners that took City Gardens’ stage.

The film follows Ellis’ past, the club’s history in Trenton, and then delves further into the connection between the club and Ellis. He built the foundations of a place, where people would come for the bands and come back for Randy. Friends and fans call Randy “the original iPod Shuffle.”

Despite the constant flow of bands that poured through the doors of City Gardens, Ellis still had to work a day job. He worked until 3 a.m. some nights at the club, and only got a few hours of sleep before delivering mail for the U.S. Postal Service. Ellis finally realized he was happier as a club promoter and decided to quit his day job giving up job security and a comfortable pension.

Geary recalls seeing many different rock bands at the club while he attended Rider.

“I remember seeing a band called Bow Wow Wow there,” Geary said. “Their hit song at the time was ‘I Want Candy.’ Very new-wave audience for that one.”

Geary also saw Velvet Underground members Lou Reed and John Cale perform. “I have seen Cale at least 10 times since and I have been a lifelong fan,” said Geary.

Many of the past performers of the club noted that City Gardens was what made the city of Trenton stand out to them. The club hosted bands not only from all around New Jersey, but also from Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New York City.

In 1987, the Butthole Surfers paid the stage a visit, and put on one of the club’s most memorable shows. Within the first few songs, their naked female dancer was already upsetting angry parents who had brought their kids to the “all-ages” show. Despite being told, not only by Ellis but by club owner Frank “Tut” Nalbone, to calm things down, the band continued its set. Cockroach-decorated confetti fell from the ceiling and the naked dancer continued until the lights and the sound system plugs were pulled. Concert-goers and the band then set fire to the stage with the bands pyrotechnics.

“Someone thought it would be a good idea to use fire in their show,” said TV personality Jon Stewart, who grew up in Lawrence and was a bartender at the iconic club.

Members of the band Vision noted the club’s impact on the local music scene at the time, saying “it made all the difference to music in New Jersey.”

The club at maximum capacity could hold up to 1,200 people. At its peak in the late ’80s, there would be 1,000 people inside with tickets, and up to 2,000 outside waiting for one.

City Gardens became the underground scene for punks, outcasts and music lovers from all over the tri-state area. The frequent visitors felt at home in the grungy, industrial hideaway that the warehouse-turned-dance club had to offer.

Steve Brown, a frequenter of the club back in the ’80s, believed the club’s appeal was the simple fact that “punks like punks.”

As tastes changed, so did the people; increased demands from the performers and obnoxious attendees became too much for Ellis. After he left the club, City Gardens closed its doors, dispersing the once-thriving local underground music scene.

Director Steve Tozzi ends the film by urging viewers to “support your local scene, it’s the only one you’ve got.”

After the film screening, Tozzi and Ellis held a Q&A session. Ellis began by stating that the film helped show him how much of an impact he had as club promoter for City Gardens.

“I learned I gave a lot of bands around the world a chance,” said Ellis.

After the film, post-punks and concert-goers gushed over Ellis’ ability to bring music and community to an sometimes empty town. They thanked Ellis for helping to give “a home to those who didn’t fit in much” and helping shape them into who they are, musically.

“To me, City Gardens represented an alternative to all of the corporate bands and allowed their fans to hear some different, creative music of all shapes and sizes,” Geary said.

Tozzi remarked during the session that he never intended to focus the film on Ellis when he began to work on it.

“I wanted to do it on City Gardens, but everyone’s story I talked to was around Randy,” he said. “We have enough footage, it could have been a mini series.”

Despite the end of his wild career with City Gardens, Ellis satisfies his need for music through small music-event planning and through his records. Ellis currently owns a store in Bordentown, New Jersey, where he sells vinyls from his extensive personal collection, ranging from old rock records to hilariously decorated Christmas records.

 

Printed in the 2/18/15 edition.

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