Many people look back at the clubs they went to when they were young with something more than just nostalgia. These were the places they went to during a time when music somehow seemed a bit more important to them than it does now; places that allowed them to get out of their house and become part of a different world — a scene of their own. Steve Tozzi pays tribute to City Gardens, a legendary club in a beaten down part of Trenton, New Jersey that was one of those places. Booked by Randy Now, the club hosted shows from some of the biggest bands of the 80s and 90s while they were on their way up. Tozzi's film Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens takes a look at this influential venue with a story of musical champions, underdogs, and a bunch of misfit kids who found an unlikely home.
Over the course of a decade-and-a-half, City Gardens played an active part in the rise of bands like Nirvana, Jane's Addiction, Sinead O'Connor, Green Day, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Faith No More, The Beastie Boys, Nine Inch Nails, and dozens of others. Legendary artists such as The Ramones, Iggy Pop, The Pogues, Joe Strummer, Dead Kennedys, Soundgarden, Slayer, and Black Flag all took turns on stage. And a guy named Jon Stewart just happened to tend bar.
Steve Tozzi grew up in Old Bridge and was a bit young to see the entire history of the club unfold, but he did go to many shows there and he was always intrigued by the way Randy Now was literally the face of the club. The more he worked on the film, the more he realized just how important Randy was not just to the New Jersey music scene but the national scene as well.
"Band members from Henry Rollins to the Goo Goo Dolls said they really appreciated what he was doing because there weren't many people you could trust when you were out on the road for months and months," said Tozzi. "They said he was kind of an oasis for them. Randy even used to let them stay at his house."
People had approached Randy for years to do a film like this, but no one ever saw it through. When Tozzi asked Randy for his help, he was told, "I'll help you out all you like but don't walk away from it. Just actually do it."
City Gardens was a huge club that could hold over a thousand people. It was so big that the property probably would have been too expensive to be found anywhere else. In Trenton, the venue lived in isolation. It wasn't an old theatre that came with a long history, it was a rundown cinderblock building in an area of Trenton nobody would find unless they were going to the club or lived in the area. To say it was a destination place is an understatement.
"It was perfect because you could kind of go nuts there," said Tozzi. "It was tucked away in a place that no one was looking."
Tozzi interviewed over 100 people for the film. Three of his favorite subjects included Ian MacKaye of Fugazi, Henry Rollins, and Jello Biafra. He learned that all three could clearly remember the City Gardens days; they didn't get caught up in alcohol or drugs the way others from the period did and they could recall things other musicians simply couldn't remember. They all also spent a lot of time with Randy and were able to see things with a critical eye.
"When we started, I didn't know what the film was going to be," recalled Tozzi. "I knew Randy, but I didn't know that he would be instrumental as much as he was. It was more that he was the center of this all because that was the perception from the bands and what they dealt with. I wanted to open the curtain behind how to put on a show and how these shows sort of happened."
Around the time Tozzi was working on his film, Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico were putting together the book No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes. The two helped Tozzi with the initial groundwork of contacts and gave him a background on the history of the club. Ken Salerno, the club's photographer, lent photos that are used throughout the film as well.
The book and film combine to tell the story of City Gardens from two different perspectives and have helped spur interest in each other. Most of all, they help tell the story of the people who went to the shows and how the club and Randy Now changed their lives. One thing is for sure, Trenton hasn't been the same since and the club is certainly missed.
Voorhees Hall #105
New Jersey Film Festival
New Brunswick, NJ
Friday, February 13 at 7:30pm
Trenton Film Society
Mill Hill Playhouse
205 East Front Street, Trenton
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.