At the Princeton Public Library Sunday, Library staffers shared glimpses of past lives immersed in the independent music scene of the 1980s and 1990s. Think punk, mod, new wave, post-punk, DIY underground, gothic rock, and you have some handle on the many sub-genres that spread through word of mouth, zines, and college radio stations such as the one that featured Tim Quinn on the air.
Mr. Quinn, now the Library’s communications director and president of the Princeton Public Schools Board of Education no less, once broadcast a music show from the studio of WTSR-FM (91.3) from 6 to 10 p.m. On Sunday, he moderated a conversation between librarians Carlos and Allison Santos, and Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico, joint authors of the book No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens. Carlos and Allison met at the club, where Mr. Santos was a DJ and Ms. Santos tended bar.
The book’s launch and signing drew a crowd of City Gardens fans to the Princeton Public Library to reminisce on the legendary Trenton music venue, where just about every significant alternative act of the 80s and 90s performed.
The audience buzzed with chat as individuals recognized each other from their punk, mod, or new romantic days. In its heyday, City Gardens on Calhoun Street in Trenton was one of the first venues to host the likes of Nirvana, REM, Nine Inch Nails, The Dead Kennedys, The Ramones, Faith No More, and Billy Idol. It operated from the late 1970s until 1994.
Blondie played there. So did the Ramones, Gang of Four, UB40, the Replacements, Joe Jackson, Minutemen, New Order, the Pogues, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, and a skinny kid with a shaven head named Sinead O’Connor.
Besides the headliners, although none who played there had earned the attribution at the time, were countless others cherished in the memory of City Gardens fans.
Their names speak volumes of 1980s era of punk: Rancid, Sick of It All, Voodoo Glow Skulls, The Beastie Boys, Afghan Whigs, Gorilla Biscuits, Killing Time, to mention just a few plucked at random from the pages of Ms. Wuelfing’s and Mr. DiLodovico’s new book.
The word “legendary” included in the book’s title, cropped up a lot on Sunday, to describe the club itself, its bartenders, bouncers, its DJs and Randy Ellis (then known as DJ Randy Now), the promoter who booked all those acts, and “created the scene at City Gardens out of nothing.” In the days of the mosh pit and the venue’s famous “Wall of Death,” he was also the man behind the sign that inspired the book’s title.
Former DJ Carlos Santos, who works several evenings a week at the Library’s main checkout desk, recalled the draw of the music scene as well as the venue’s impact on his life. Mr. Santos also spun records for WTSR and was DJ for City Gardens’s popular 90 Cent Dance Night on Thursdays. “This wildly successful weekly event, which drew substantial crowds of locals and college students, helped to make financially possible the club’s impressive lineup of what would have to be considered the vanguard of pop music in the 80s and 90s, which eventually became known as ‘alternative rock,’” said Mr. Quinn.
Ms. Santos, who works in the Library’s youth services department and is the founder of the Princeton Children’s Book Festival, said that City Gardens was known simply as “The Club.” She recalled tending bar alongside the man who would change his name from Jon Leibowitz to become writer and satirist Jon Stewart of The Daily Show fame.
“He was a comedian then too; a witty prankster, who took no B.S. off anybody,” said Ms. Santos, adding that Mr. Stewart “poured hard,” which didn’t go down well with the club’s owner Frank “King Tut” Nalbone.
By all accounts, City Gardens was a unique phenomenon, a club where every significant alternative act of the 1980s and 1990s performed.
Recalling one of the very first City Gardens dance nights, when only about ten people showed up, Mr. Quinn said: “Randy was cajoling us to get up and dance and some of us did; no one cared what you were wearing, what you looked like, or whether you could dance, that was the ethos of the club, show up and have a good time.”
The first time Mr. Santos walked into the back room, DJ Randy Ellis was playing “Totally Wired.” “I thought, ‘wow, this is my kind of place,’ I began hanging out there a lot and eventually became DJ” he said.
Acknowledging that he was a late arrival at the club in 1988, Mr. DiLodovico said: “I didn’t even know it was a dance club. I went to see my Punk God, Glenn Danzig. I was from Philly and I had seen flyers for City Gardens but in the days before cell phones and GPS, Trenton seemed a long way away. When we set out to find it, we just headed for the shittiest part of town, that was a rule of thumb for finding punk venues, and I remember it was huge; listening to a band through that sound system was fantastic.”
Ms. Wuelfing said that she couldn’t wait to get to the club after hearing about it on college radio. “I was 15 and I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license; I already had a fake I.D. As soon as I got there I knew, these are my people, this is my place. Wanna dance by yourself? Go ahead. It fostered creativity; it was an incubator.”
Could such a club exist today? asked Mr. Quinn. The consensus was that City Garden was of its time. “A lot of bands played there before they got big, Echo and the Bunnymen, The Thompson Twins, in a club that held a thousand people.”
“But this type of underground music is still going,” said Mr. DiLodovico, “and they have learned Randy’s lessons well, instead of being a scumbag promoter, he dealt with bands honestly.”
“Everyone there felt like an outsider,” said Ms. Wuelfing. “Today, the Internet serves this group.” “It was a place you could go by yourself, dance by yourself and, if you wanted to, make new friends,” said Ms. Santos.
Members of the audience recalled with wry pleasure the disembodied voice of DJ Randy Now announcing the bands and playing “annoying polka music when he wanted you to leave.”