Last month at WORD Jersey City, I interviewed Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico about their book No Slam Dancing No Stage Diving No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens. As the title indicates, the book is a comprehensive history of the now-shuttered Trenton, NJ venue at which a host of notable bands played in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. (I still have fond memories of seeing Mouthpiece, Iceburn, Holy Rollers, Endpoint, Shift, and Falling Forward there in 1994.)
Earlier this year, we ran an excerpt from the book, concerning a fateful Ministry/Faith No More show in 1986. What follows is an edited version of my conversation with Wuelfing and DiLodovico, covering everything from the book’s origins to the likelihood of a similar venue arising in the current music scene.
Where the idea to put this book together come from?
Amy Yates Wuelfing: The person who was the promoter at City Gardens, Randy Now, said, “I’m going to write my memoirs; I have all these crazy stories about bands.” He also used to road manage for bands, like The Mentors and Suicidal Tendencies, so he had some stories that we got into the book. But he really didn’t have enough to fill a book. People say that there are a million great ideas out there, but not every idea is a book.
So it started off as his memoirs, and as I began working on it, it just got bigger and bigger, and I realized that City Gardens belongs to everyone who went there. I love the oral history format. Please Kill Me, Legs McNeil’s book, is one of my favorites, and I really wanted to do that. It probably started about fifteen years ago.
How did the two of you know each other?
Steven DiLodovico: We didn’t, really. It’s a funny story. I’m actually born and raised in Philadelphia. I had been living in Charlotte, North Carolina, for a couple of years, going nowhere. I was doing a little bit of freelance writing. I had my feet in different worlds, musically–I did a lot of work for hip-hop labels, stuff like that, but I grew up with punk rock and hardcore. Staying within those two veins, someone had asked me to write a retrospective of the Philly punk rock scene that I knew, and some of the old venues that I went to in Philadelphia. In doing that, one thought kept coming to mind: what about that place in Trenton we always went to, City Gardens?
I tried finding information about it, just factual information: when it opened, who owned it. I knew nothing about it, other than the shows I went to. This was before Facebook or really big social media. Whatever search engine you used, there wasn’t a lot of information on City Gardens. I found this Yahoo! newsgroup that was basically a back-and-forth email with a bunch of City Gardens people, and I started asking around in there. Nobody really had anything for me, but this woman kept popping up, saying, “Email me outside of the group. I have a gig calendar of every show that ever happened at City Gardens.” I was like, “Jesus Christ. Okay!” So I emailed her, and she told me the idea that she had on City Gardens, and she sent me the one story she had complete, which is the Butthole Surfers story. I was so freakin’ floored by it; I thought that this was the perfect way to tell this story. If you’re going to tell the story of this club that existed for fifteen, twenty years, it can’t be as a narrative; it has to come from all perspectives. So…I basically harassed her until…
Amy: I gave in. Basically, I was looking for someone to help me finish this book, so when he started popping up online, I thought, “Someone I can bamboozle into helping me with this book.”
Steven: And I thought, “Someone who did all of the hard work first.” (laughs) I’m not a spiritual person; I don’t believe in weird, freaky connections.
Amy: I do.
Steven: She does. And she said that this was all preordained, so I’m going to run with it. It was a happy coincidence. My life really sucked at the time, I can tell you that much. And Amy came along with this and kind of saved my life. So…
Amy: And here we are.
Early in the book, in the acknowledgements, you mention that Henry Rollins was the first really big figure who agreed to speak with you. Was there anyone else who you felt that you needed to speak with in order for this book to work?
Amy: As the book went on and we started talking to people, we realized, the big names are cool. Certainly, Jon Stewart and Henry Rollins are cool. But the story of the club was more about the people who worked there–the bouncers and bartenders, and those people were easy to find. There were a few people who we asked who didn’t make it into the book, but I don’t think that they were missed. I think that everyone who was supposed to be in the book is in it. And most people were very gracious with their time, Henry being a perfect example. I said, “Would you be willing to talk about this?” “Sure.” A lot of people were very accommodating and very willing to talk about it.
Steven: My take on that is: I come from a mid-to-late-80s hardcore background. It’s based on that type of accessibility. Back in the day, you would just do it by writing fan letters. A lot of the friends I still have to this day are from New York or California, and played in some band or another that I liked, and I wrote to them. “I love you, I love your record, be my friend!” (laughs) But from that, twenty, twenty-five, thirty years of friendship came from that.
I look at it this way. There are some very established, very big names that Amy got to talk to, that I got to talk to. In the punk rock world, there are some surprisingly large egos. And when I compare… I don’t want to mention any names, but who I compare it to is, I had an email address for Ian at Dischord Records. I emailed Ian blindly. Ian himself responded to me. When I told him about the project, he said, “I’ll help you out in any way I can.” And within a week, we had an interview with him, I had a great correspondence with him; it was great. Someone on that level, and everyone knows what he’s known for and what he’s done with DIY music, would stop and talk to us. There are people who maybe put out half a seven inch in their life, who thought they were too good…
It was a strange world to delve into, especially when you deal with the music industry side of it, which I was not familiar with. I don’t deal with press people or agents; I let her handle all of that. Surprisingly, many people who played there had very specific memories, which you don’t always see. A band that toured for years and played a thousand shows, they’re not going to remember the four times they played in Trenton. Some people did. That’s how big of an impact City Gardens had.
You organized the book year-by-year, often focusing on specific shows. Did you know that from the outset, after looking at the calendar, or did that come from talking with bands?
Amy: In the beginning, Steve and I went through the gig calendar that I had developed through research and picked what we thought were the important shows, the standout shows. Not all of those made it into the book, either because there was nothing exceptional about that show or because no one had any strong recollections. There were certain things that didn’t make it in there; then, there were other shows that people did have strong memories of that we didn’t consider for it, but did make it in.
Steven: A lot of it came about very organically. You’d speak to one person about one specific show, and they’d mention some detail of another show that you hadn’t even planned on writing about or gathering data about. It sparked something. You’d say, “All right, let’s go back and see what so-and-so said; they were there.” And all of a sudden, you’ve got four or five people, with a really nice thread of a story going, and you say, “Okay, this show’s going in the book.” It became meaty, out of nowhere. As the conversations and the interviews grew, that’s how a lot of these stories took shape.
In the book, you mention the All show where Milo Aukerman handled vocals. I remember hearing about that just after it happened: “Do you like the Descendents? Yeah, you should have been at City Gardens the other night…”
Amy: There weren’t even cellphones for that show. People were on line for the pay phone on the corner with handfuls of quarters to call their friends, wanting to tell them, “Get here right now.” It wasn’t that long ago, chronologically, but in terms of technology, it was eons ago.
Steven: Don’t say light years, because they’ll criticize you for that.
Amy: Someone sent me an email after I said “light years” on The Daily Show saying, “Light years is distance.”
Steven: Going back to something that Amy just hit on is… I know there have been a lot of “scene books” that have been coming out lately. I think it’s great, because everybody’s scene, wherever you were, it meant something to somebody. We’re on the edge of the last great movement before technology took over. If you went to punk rock shows in the 80s, you probably don’t have a lot of pictures. You don’t have a lot of video.
Amy: You have flyers.
Steven: Maybe you have some tattered flyers, and so, for me, it’s very cool and important to document this time. You take a book like American Hardcore, they just kind of decided arbitrarily that hardcore ended in 1986. Well, a lot of us know that that’s not true. A lot of us also know that there were different parts of the country and the world that weren’t represented. And you can’t do it all in one book, so it’s kind of incumbent on everyone who lived through the scene: if it was that important to you, maybe sit down and document it. That’s kind of what it was for me.
Have you thought about doing another project along similar lines?
Steven: She can’t get rid of me.
Amy: I’m stuck with him. (laughs) We’re talking about doing a history of recorded music, of record stores in America, over about a hundred years. Something like that. Things with this book have been so chaotic, we haven’t really been able to focus on it yet.
Were there any stories that you were told where it was a fantastic story, but it didn’t quite fit into the narrative?
Amy: The frickin’ book is four hundred pages long! We jammed everything in there.
Steven: Pretty much.
Amy: The only time we really edited was some of the things that happened in the book that were illegal. We changed people’s names, or made people unidentifiable.
Steven: I got a lot of stories about people who were no longer with us. While there were several sources to corroborate them, I didn’t feel right putting it in. It’s one thing if a person’s still alive and they turn you down for an interview, they don’t want to give their side. I had a lot of really good punk rock war stories where I couldn’t use them because everyone was referencing this one person, and they’re no longer with us. It wasn’t right. But most of the stuff that we got that was good, we fit it in there.
Towards the end of the book, you talk about the current state of the DIY scene in Trenton. Thinking back on it, what do you think it was about City Gardens that caused it to get this astonishing array of music? It wasn’t New York, it wasn’t Philadelphia, and nothing seems to have taken its place.
Amy: I think that technology affected the likelihood of another City Gardens ever happening. What made it special was a perfect storm was: it was in the middle of the ghetto, it was between New York and Philadelphia, it had dance nights every week, which were the cash cow. The dance nights helped to underwrite all of the shows that lost money. If they didn’t have the dance night, they wouldn’t have been able to keep the club afloat for as long as they did. So you had longevity of the club, and so many bands came in and out because it was there for so long.
Steven: You had a guy booking bands who went outside the norm, as far as booking went in those days. Randy Now was not afraid to take chances with putting together strange bills at the time. Different genres, just throw them together. You’d get a punk rock band, a ska band, the Bouncing Souls and Token Entry; even if these shows flopped, I’d go to this place, because this guy was willing to do this. And, bottom line, you’d pay seven dollars to see eight bands. A lot of it was time and place. The venue, the building, had a lot to do with it, but I think it was the time and place.
The array of bands covered in the book: you have Ministry in their new wave days, you have hardcore bands; De La Soul, shows up. For all that it’s DIY, it’s not just DIY in the punk and hardcore sense.
Amy: I think that’s the beauty of it. We have a big story about Bo Diddley in there, and Ricky Nelson. Randy Now had this love of music, and it comes through, that he booked all these different genres all the time. People would just go to see what was there that night, even if they didn’t know the bands. People had to trust in him.
Steven: That was another thing, going back to the time and place. I think you were more willing to go see some bands you had never heard of just to get out of the house and do something, whereas now, everything’s so rigid. You go to a hardcore fest and you’re going to see twenty-five hardcore bands, and anything that varies from that blueprint isn’t going to go over well.
Amy: Also, you couldn’t go on the internet and piss away three hours on Facebook or Twitter or whatever, like you can do now. If you got bored, you had to get up and leave your house and do something.
The book’s now out in the world. What’s the feedback that you’ve gotten so far been like? Have people told you stories that weren’t in the book?
Amy: Oh yeah. We have a whole list of people who were like, “Why wasn’t I interviewed? Why am I not in that book?” But mostly, the feedback we get is: “Thank you. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for documenting this, it shows that my misspent youth wasn’t wasted after all, that I did do all of these cool things.” There’s a lot of people who are now middle-aged documenting the things that they did when they were young. Mostly, we hear, “Thank you.”
Steven: That, to me, is the coolest thing you can ever get. I’ve said this many, many times before: I never played in a band. I didn’t do anything in my scene other than go to the shows and lend my energy to what was going on. So, even if it’s thirty years later, if I can contribute some small part of it, that’s awesome to me. To know that it strikes a chord with people… We’re hearing from people who have never set foot in New Jersey, let alone City Gardens, who are saying, “I grew up in so-and-so, and we had the same kind of scene. We had a venue that was a real dump, but we loved it; it was our place.” Hearing that kind of stuff, you know you’re reaching people. It’s very cool.