Those old enough to remember the glory days of Trenton’s club scene in the 1980s are also likely to remember promoter Randy Now. Born and raised in Bordentown, his real name is Randy Ellis, and now (or “Now”), lo these many years later, he’s back to promoting shows again.
Granted, he is working on a smaller scale than what some of us remember from the massive (up to 1,000 patron) City Gardens Club at 1701 Calhoun Street, where Now booked many epic shows through the 1980s and ’90s. But if Now and the theater owner get their wishes, he will soon be able to promote quality shows at the Open Arts Stage Theater, right next to Mastori’s Diner on Route 130 in Bordentown Township.
In its day, City Gardens was “the” place. Memorable shows I saw at City Gardens included Tuesday night house regulars Joe Zook and the Blues Deluxe, new wave and post-punk acts the Godfathers and Killing Joke, and the late Monty Python comedian Graham Chapman. And a quick glance backward at its performance schedule shows just how connected and eclectic the club was: Dead Kennedys, Joan Jett, Circle Jerks, Butthole Surfers, Ramones, Beastie Boys, Iggy Popp, Henny Youngman, and the Phillip Glass Ensemble. Interestingly, one of the club’s bartenders was Lawrenceville’s Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, better known today as The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart. That was then.
Recently, Ellis spent four years booking concerts and helping to establish the Record Collector — an independent record store on Farnsworth Avenue in Bordentown — as a popular performance venue, and then did a short stint booking acts into the nearby New Hope Winery.
Now at 56 he is continuing to do what he has done for 25 years: promoting shows, DJ-ing in clubs, hosting radio shows, and staying connected to many styles of music.
Now is a fourth generation Bordentown resident whose father — a deliverer for a former Bordentown-based laundry business — hated long hair and the Beatles. “He’d tell you to your face, even if he didn’t know you, to get a haircut. My dad never encouraged me to take up any musical instruments, and never took me to a major league baseball game during our time together,” he relates. His mother was a housewife who raised four kids and never learned how to drive.
Now spent one semester away from home at William Penn College in Oskaloosa, Iowa, returning for music.
“I missed playing (drums) with my band. I had a band called Construction which became Strange As Angels. They went on to become the highest paid cover band on the East Coast, but I was only with them in my late teen years,” Now says. “They were a band that made $7,500 a night just to cover other peoples’ songs. They would play Seaside Heights and these really big bars in Delaware and Baltimore.”
“There was nobody terribly notable in that band that remains on the Trenton scene, I haven’t seen any of them in a number of years,” he says. After dropping out of college in 1976, Now worked in a procession of other bands and then took a steady gig as a mail delivery person.
He was working as a mailman in his early 20s when he spotted a notice in a local newspaper for this new club called City Gardens on Calhoun Street, a rough area of Trenton.
“I saw the ad and called up the guy and I said ‘I’m a new wave DJ.’ I was kicking around a couple of other bars in central Jersey, and it wasn’t going over. I wasn’t playing Led Zeppelin and ZZ Top, I was playing the B-52s and Ramones and Talking Heads,” he says. Now began DJ-ing at City Gardens one night a week and gradually began to draw larger and larger crowds to his new wave dance party nights.
“I was just playing songs that I thought would be good to dance to. I didn’t even know what I was doing. One song would be Johnny Rivers, and the next song would be the B-52s. In those days, in 1979, what I was playing was pretty close to what Little Steven is doing now with his ‘Underground Garage’ (Sirius XM) radio show. There was no notebook; you had to learn on your own through trial and error,” he says.
Asked why he changed his last name from Ellis to Now, he said, “somehow in the late ’70s everyone had a stage name, so I came up with ‘Now.’ Glad I came up with that idea, as thirty plus years later, I’m still Randy Now!”
As Now’s reputation as a lively and innovative DJ continued to grow, he put City Gardens on the map for college kids from Trenton State, Rutgers, Princeton, and other institutions. Suddenly, bands that played original music and had nowhere else to play came knocking on the door at City Gardens, and Now began booking them into the club as well.
“Back then, everything was just looking on the back of records and getting phone numbers and addresses, there was no E-mail,” Now says.
“The Bounce and the Rockin’ Bricks and Jigs and the Pigs, all New Brunswick bands, they played City Gardens, too. While the club, defunct since 2001, is still owned by Frank Nalbone, I was the one who was researching and finding out how to get ahold of 9-9-9 and these other bands that we wanted in there.”
“At the time it was 18 to drink, so it became an oasis for punkers who wanted to look different or act different. They knew they could go there and be among friends,” Now says. He finally left the club in 1997, burned out from doing music five and six nights a week at the massive venue. Now had served a tenure there of nearly 20 years.
In 1997 he went back to being a mailman (something that he would do off and on part-time), but his experience at City Gardens taught him artist and public relations, how to get the word out to the media, and how best to advertise upcoming shows. That, in part, had him booking shows in the smaller Bordentown record shop venue, including Jersey-centric comedian Uncle Floyd Vivino, Pete Best (the Beatles’ original drummer), keyboardist David Sancious from Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band, Larry Kirwan from Irish rock band Black 47 with Irish poet Paul Muldoon, Peter Tork from the Monkees, Vini Lopez and Steel Mill, blues people John Hammond and Rory Block, and dozens of other comedians and multi-dimensional performing artists.
In 2012 Now decided he needed to open his own venue, opening Randy Now’s Man Cave, a retail outlet attached to a garage for intimate in-store performances. His store, he says, “sells all kind of stuff you don’t really need, like specialty candies and sodas in bottles and CDs and DVDs, as well as pendants, posters, and memorabilia.” Randy Now’s Man Cave is open from noon to six most weekdays and similar hours on Saturdays.
Besides adapting to the smaller venues, Now has also adapted to new organizational and marketing practices such as E-mail, Facebook, and Tweeter, common tools things never imagined during the City Garden days.
Another recent change occurred four years ago when Now married musician and educator Mary Mindas. Originally from Louisiana, Mindas graduated with a bachelor’s degree in music education from Saint Mary of the Woods College, in Indiana, and continued her graduate studies in New Jersey at Rutgers, Juilliard, Kean, St. Peters, and Georgian Court, and then the University of North Dakota’s graduate program in autism. She has been an instructor of music and special education at Monmouth Regional High School for 23 years.
“She is also an autism specialist and sings at Christmas time with The Boston Pops at Symphony Hall in Boston,” he adds proudly, noting how after auditioning for the symphony, Mindas — a mezzo-soprano — has appeared with the Pops during her winter break.
But for Now there is no break. On Friday, June 14, Now will host a meet ’n’ greet from America’s premier ska band, the Toasters, from New York City. The Toasters have been performing their own brand of ska music — sort of a hyped up reggae music, with the rhythms played much faster — for 34 years now. That evening the band will perform at the Hope Hose Fire Company on Burlington Street, not far from the Man Cave.
“This show with the Toasters will probably turn into a City Gardens reunion of sorts,” Now predicted, “because The Toasters played at City Gardens twenty-five times and this would be a great chance for old friends to find each other again, along with the four thousand other bands they may have seen at the club, so this could easily turn into a reunion for patrons of the old club.”
Now is optimistic about the future and the chance to promote additional shows in Bordentown. As he understands it, the Bordentown Township Planning Board needs more information from the owner of the theater where a few small modifications may be necessary.
“We’re working with Bordentown Township to do shows. It’s a 336-seat theater and it sits right on Route 130 as you come into Bordentown,” he says. After the June 14 show by the Toasters in the fire house in Bordentown, Now says he plans to refocus his efforts on making his store a success.
“At this point, I’m kind of waiting for the green light from the township for more shows at the theater,” he says . . . for now.
The Toasters, in-store meet and greet, Randy Now’s Man Cave, 15 Park Street, Bordentown, Friday, June 14, 5 p.m.
The Toasters with Void Union, Hope Hose Fire House, 150 West Burlington Street, Bordentown, Friday, June 14, 7:30 p.m. $15 advance. www.mancavenj.com.