‘I think the point is never give up,” says Amy Yates Wuelfing of what she learned from co-creating a book about Trenton’s famous former music club, City Gardens.
Wuelfing and collaborator Steven DiLodovico’s “ No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens” will bring those glory days back to life during the authors’ first book signing at Randy Now’s Man Cave in Bordentown on Saturday, March 8, from noon to 6 p.m.
While Now significantly figures in the creation of the legend, the authors have become its guardians.
Over the past 18 years Wuelfing worked at her day job as vice president of marketing at Caliper Corporation in Carnegie Center, yet she also took up the task of interviewing hundreds of musicians, club regulars, bartenders, bouncers, and DJs connected to the famed Trenton hotspot.
City Gardens — originally a late 1970s jazz club that opened in a old car dealer building on Calhoun Street and used the quasi-exotic moniker King Tut’s City Garden — is mainly associated with the space’s life as a new wave dance music years, starting in 1980 and continuing to the club’s closing in 1994. While other clubs attempted to follow, none were successful, and the building owned by the Nalbone family remains on the market.
She and DiLodovico then chronicled epic performances of the 1980s and 1990s to give us a back stage pass to this wild music scene without having to drastically alter our hairstyle.
Let’s start with the authors’ shameless namedropping. Jon Stewart, once a bartender at City Gardens, heads the celebrity list. Jello Biafra from the Dead Kennedys makes an appearance, also Keith Morris from the Circle Jerks, and the list goes on. The Ramones, Joan Jett, Butthole Surfers, Iggy Pop, R.E.M., Billy Idol, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers — the recollections of club regulars who saw them are hair-raising and mind-bending, especially to those of us who are highly risk averse.
How did this all happen in a bunker-like building, in an economically obliterated city with nothing but flyers and word-of-mouth promotion?
While the building was owned by the Nalbone family and had been a few clubs before, Wuelfing and DiLodovico pay tribute to area promoter/manager Randy Ellis (a.k.a. Randy Now) for putting the place on the map. With a passion for groundbreaking music Now identified the most important musicians of the era. In keeping with a “Trenton Makes, the World Shakes” mantra, he gave them a place to play and gave local club goers access to it all. He took an old car dealership in the underbelly of Trenton and turned it into one of the most important music venues in the Northeast.
The writers say that Now did it all on a band aid budget. He would drive to New York, pick up musicians, and let them sleep at his place or crash at the club. There are crazy stories of running extension cords from an upstairs apartment so shows wouldn’t go dark because of unpaid electricity bills. The bands always got paid, but the club often ran in the red. What kept it afloat were the freakishly popular Thursday Dance Nights.
For 90 cents on Thursday, a DJ played, and anybody — black, white, straight, gay, preppy, jock, punk — could dance. “It did not cater to one audience. In fact, it is the club’s inclusiveness that made the greatest impact,” writes Wuelfing.
As a testimony, the book recounts Jon Stewart’s recollections of his first City Gardens Dance Night: “I went there by myself — that’s what a loser I was. It was one of the few places you could dance by yourself. You could wear a brooch and no one would say anything. It was the ‘80s. We all dressed like Molly Ringwald and didn’t know why. Even the guys.”
Another City Gardens bartender, Anthony Pelluso, talks about seeing great bands before they hit it big, including R.E.M.’s first appearance. “It was the middle of the week, and not many people showed up. Maybe 50. But there was something about R.E.M. Everyone stood in one spot and didn’t move; we were mesmerized. A couple months later, they were playing New York and getting really popular. But that was a night I remember thinking, this is really something else.”
The fact that this was in his own backyard made all the difference to Pelluso. “We didn’t have to go anywhere; it was our club. Having the club there made you think that it was your place, like your own clubhouse.”
It was Wuelfing’s club too. On her first visit, she says she knew, “these are my people.”
Wuelfing was born in Michigan but grew up in Bristol, Pennsylvania. After her father, a cartographer, died when she was young, the future chronicler of Trenton’s rock music history was raised by her mother, a trauma nurse. High school did not interest her, so she found her way in the music scene. After school, encouraged by her mother, Wuelfing hung out at WTSR, the radio station at Trenton State College, and worked in record stores. She says her mother would even drop her off at clubs but with the admonition “as long as I know where you are, just don’t lie to me.”
Wuelfing says after she found that the clubs in Philly were pretentious, she discovered more kindred spirits at City Gardens Dance Nights where “people know that they didn’t have to do what society expected them to do.” It was that attitude that she says makes the difference. “Not many people from Dance Night are still friends with the people they went to high school with, but everybody’s still friends with the people they went to Dance Night with.”
Wuelfing’s sole focus became music. She dropped out of college to write for music zines (small self-published journals) but returned to graduate from Temple University.
When she got her first real job, it was as if Randy Now — that promoter known for identifying talent — had booked her into it. She answered a want ad for Caliper Corporation, the company that identifies talent at a corporate level. She has been there for 18 years and is now vice president of marketing.
The corporate culture of that organization meshes with her own. The core philosophy of Caliper’s founder, Herbert Greenberg, is to do what you love. “We spend a vast majority of our lives involved in work, and if that’s miserable, boy, that’s a waste of a short life. If you do what you love, the odds are you will contribute to make this a better world.”
The way the book came together is a lot like how the club worked — free thinking passionate people pitching in to create something significant, getting it up and running, and then keeping it going.
A very successful Kickstarter campaign helped get the book published. Donations came from people whose lives had been affected by City Gardens, and they wanted to keep the stories alive.
Wuelfing says that the writing took at least 15 years, adding that “’Finnegan’s Wake’ took less time; the Brooklyn Bridge took less time.” Her break came in 2009 when the music zine The Rumpus published her piece on the outrageous punk band Butthole Surfers’ visit to City Gardens. After that she looked at interview transcripts and wondered, “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?” She had just about given up when she saw a message on the Seedy Gardens Yahoo message board — It was DiLodovico asking for a list of the City Garden shows.
DiLodovico, a freelancer, was writing both “how to articles” at $15 a pop and about his experience in Philly’s late 1980s hard-core punk scene. He could not believe Wuelfing had compiled a calendar of all the shows in the club’s history.
As they chatted through E-mail, they realized they were a good match, coming from two different eras. Wuelfing was a “new wave/dance night girl” who wrote for the zine Hard Times and covered early hard core. DiLodovico was a latecomer, interested in hardcore or thrash (heavy metal that is more agressive and socially critical). He was eager to leave North Carolina, so he and his wife moved back to the Philadelphia area so he could concentrate on the book.
DiLodovico and Wuelfing were amazed at how City Gardens regulars remembered concerts. Two strangers could tell about the same concert and, after 30 years, some minute detail would be the same. This was a time when people did not record concerts on phones, did not take selfies, did not blog; the details were burned in their memories. The power of the music and shared experience seared these impressions. Sometimes the searing was quite literal. Like the day a Trenton Psychiatric Hospital inmate escaped, came into the club, and poured battery acid all over the bar stools!
Like many clubs, especially those created for and by young people, tastes and audiences changed, groups found other venues, and individuals needed to find ways to support themselves.
However, since Wuelfing and DiLodovico have figuratively kept the doors of the City Gardens open, readers can get to look in on a vibrant music scene that wasn’t recorded anywhere — a time when people lived the moment and years later are able to recollect the sounds, sights, and smell of the notorious club.
If and when you find the next City Gardens and experience groundbreaking live music, Amy Wuelfing wants you to “get out and be face to face with the music, don’t get distracted with filming and taking photos, just be in the moment. Interact and connect with people you’re surrounded by in a more meaningful way.”
Randy Now continues to seek talent and book new acts. He owns the Man Cave, a memorabilia shop in Bordentown, where Wuelfing and DiLodovico have their book signing.
Writes Wuelfing: “If you are a creative person and you hit hard times, just keep going. Keep doing the work, keep producing. You never know what you’ll encounter. It could be life changing. It was for us.”
No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens’ Book Signing, Randy Now’s Man Cave, 134 Farnsworth Avenue, Bordentown. Saturday, March 8, noon to 6 p.m., and Sunday, March 9, noon to 3 p.m. 609-424-3766 or www.mancavenj.com.
John & Peter’s, 96 Main Street, New Hope, PA. Tuesday, March 18, 8 p.m.
Siren Records, 25 State Street, Doylestown, PA. Friday, March 21, 7 p.m.
Trenton Punk Rock Flea Market, Historic Roebling Machine Shop Building, 675 South Clinton Avenue, Trenton. Sunday, March 30, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.citygardensnj.com.