A fan of live music in the 1980s and 1990s living in central New Jersey could travel to New York City, Philadelphia, or the Jersey shore to get a fix, but those trips were inconvenient. Traveling an hour or more to get to the show included either the cost of mass transit or gas, tolls, and parking.
For many, there was a better option. That option was a “god-forsaken, brick shithouse in the armpit of the East coast, Trenton,” New Jersey. And that brick shithouse was City Gardens. If you grew up in the area and went to shows there, you might have called it “Shitty Gardens,” but you kept returning, because no venue in the area provided a better mix of punk, rock, reggae, and hardcore music.
No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico is an oral history of City Gardens, from its early days in the late 1970s through its closure in 1994. Over the course of its 432 pages, the book traces the long and colorful history of the club by using first person accounts from its patrons, workers (including booker Randy Now and a pre-Daily Show Jon Stewart), and musicians; a list that includes members of the Butthole Surfers, Ween, Dead Kennedys, Beastie Boys, Ministry, New Order, the Violent Femmes, Husker Dü, the Minutemen, the Rollins Band, and numerous others, both famous and lesser known.
While some might wonder why a club in Trenton, New Jersey, that closed 20 years ago deserves the oral history treatment, but that question will disappear when the reader realizes that he is 150 pages in and cannot wait to continue reading about the bands, the fights, and the personalities that inhabited City Gardens. The chapters of the book are divided by year (or two-year period) and the authors include the top-10 songs of the respective year at the beginning of each chapter (or section in the middle of a chapter that spans two years). This device adds context to the chapters by providing a dichotomy between the bands who performed at City Gardens and those who were topping the Billboard charts.
In addition to the oral histories, the book contains numerous set lists, photos, and advertisements for the club. It is those advertisements that add to the story of the club. In a given month, the Meat Puppets headlined one night; a few nights later, Social Distortion, Henry Rollins Band, and Red Kross performed; a few days later Jimmy Cliff ruled the night; and the next two evenings were headlined by the Circle Jerks and Iggy Pop respectively. That was typical for City Gardens, and if you were a fan of the type of music you might have heard on MTV’s 120 Minutes or alternative radio station 106.3 FM (whose popularity peaked between the mid-1980s and early 1990s), you were in college rock heaven.
Ultimately, it is the stories from the people who were there upon which this history relies, and authors Wuelfing and DiLodovico, who spent approximately 15 years putting this book together. While clearly a labor of love, this book is more than just two fans’ tribute to a club that they clearly adored. It is among the most comprehensive histories of 1980s and 90s alternative music that this writer has ever read.
While every major band of the era did not make its way to Trenton, enough did. Fans of the music of that period will be unable to put the book down. It sounds cliché, but the stories, largely arranged chronologically, take the reader on a ride that starts in the late 1970s and does not end until the club closes. The decision of the authors to present the stories chronologically is a wise one. Seeing the evolution of bands and of the music industry itself during the timeframe that this book covers provides a fascinating (and at times, alternatively tense and sometimes sad) look into the era and its sounds.
The book doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of the club’s existence. The neo-Nazi hardcore fans, the racial tensions, the element of danger associated with the club because of its location, and, as the title alludes to, the slam dancing, stage diving, and spikes that were ostensibly banned.
When I started reading this book, I wondered whether it was advisable to tell multiple stories from bands that played the club on multiple occasions; however, that concern was unfounded since the evolution of the respective bands and their respective arcs of popularity turn out to be integral to the book.
No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens is an extremely entertaining read. You will wish that you were there. If you were lucky enough to have seen some shows there, you will know that the authors have described it perfectly. If you were not fortunate enough to have seen a show there, you’ll wish that it could reopen, even if for one night. And you’ll probably hope that the Butthole Surfers are the headliners.