Monthly Archives: January 2011

Greetings From Asbury Park!

Asbury Park… what a strange little place. It is at once bustling and desolate; quaint and sinister. And there’s always something vaguely poignant about a shore town in the dead of winter and buried under weeks’ old dirty snow. Asbury’s garish gaiety combined with blight and banality was beyond surreal. Vacancies lined the blocks next to almost-revitalized splendor like half a mouth filled with broken teeth. Shore towns have always been strange to me. As a kid I could never grasp the concept of all these places (whose very existences were the definition of summer memory) still being there in the winter. I just figured they magically disappeared until Memorial Day…

My long ride began in the suburbs of Philadelphia on the coldest day of the year (up until that point, at least. I think it’s actually colder today). A trolley, an EL, a train and a car ride and my head already swam with random route numbers. I made it to the Trenton train station (quite possibly my least favorite place on Earth), slept on a couch at Amy’s and then rode up to Asbury with Tozzi early Saturday morning. For a person who hates travelling as much as I, this, in itself, was quite a journey.

The spot we had for filming had been secured for us by longtime Vision cohort and all-around funny guy Derek Rinaldi. Some place called the Annex, and we just could not figure out how to work the thermostat. For most of the day we had no heat. In a way, I think this worked best for us: using the David Letterman theory I figured a cold audience/interview subject would be on their toes more than a comfortable one. I don’t know if this was the case, but it was cold as fuck all day long. Lucky for us (me) the bar next door opened at 11AM and quick shots of whiskey snuck throughout the day were very helpful. Our buddy Fritch, creator of the film The Last Bastions of Rock was also in attendance filming some real candid behind the scenes stuff and just hanging out. Between him and Salerno our day in Asbury Park was well-documented. And a lot of that stuff you’ll never see, because it’s just too raw to be put out there…

First up: some City Gardens alums. WTSR DJ Scott Lowe provided us with some descriptive insight into the earlier days of City Gardens while also adding yet another perspective to Randy Now’s diverse musical path: his life as a college radio DJ. Scott was kind enough to give us some old promos and bits from some of Randy’s radio shows throughout the years. Scott was followed by another lifer; Tom Crist who also had seen Randy’s rise from the earliest years.

Then there was Gentleman Jim Norton. To understand what it is to interview Norton is to know this: in blocking out times for interview sessions we give most people a half an hour when doing a crowded shoot like this. With Norton we blocked out a full hour, with a couple of half-hour slots just in case. And he used most of that time. Jim’s insights are invaluable. There is nothing better than having a guy who both played the City Gardens stage and worked it. His stories about Randy are priceless; his stories about stage-managing big-ego-ed artists are a piss and, of course, his tales of the life of a City Gardens bouncer are just about the best thing ever. Jim was composed, eloquent, incredibly funny, patient and self-effacing throughout the process. I guess all those straight edge years really do something for the memory because his testimony was filled with some great, detailed stuff and he just has a knack for telling a story.

After Norton we sat with Tim McMahon, frontman for Mouthpiece, head honcho at Double Cross Webzine and just a real nice guy. Tim is like a curator of Hardcore knowledge; he has a great sense of overview when it comes to the history of Hardcore because he is such a fan. You could see it in the way he animatedly spoke about the great Youth Crew shows he attended at City Gardens; how those shows and bands impacted and influenced his life. And still do to this day. His excitement was very contagious and I couldn’t help smiling throughout his segment. Plus, he’s got the best hair in Hardcore, that’s for sure.

And then came the hometown heroes; the Jersey champs: Vision. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I dug Blink of an Eye back in the day. And anyone who has seen them knows there is no better live band in terms of pure energy. I must have seen them play 100 times back in the day, but this was the first time I had ever sat and talked with the guys. First up was Pete Tabbot and he pretty much blew us away with his concise and quietly funny stories. Like a lot of the people we interview, these guys were fans of the music and once you get them talking about it that shines through. Pete talked about amazing, inspiring shows with clarity and enthusiasm. It was during Pete’s segment, while I was busy remembering fondly the chaos that was the night Vision, Pagan Babies and the Uprise played with Exploited, I realized that Saturday was 24 years to the very day of the riot. How eerily fitting…

While Pete was being filmed we sent Dave Franklin and the rest of the crew over to the bar. By this time we had a nice loud consortium of rambunctious people. Norton stayed and hung out with the boys, Alf Bartone came along for the ride as did Russell Underdog and few other friends. The vibe was jovial, fraternal. It also helped our cause to get Franklin a little liquored up before his interview… When finally it was time for the gregarious Mr. Franklin to sit in the hot seat he was ready to go. And, as hilarious as he was on-camera, the shit that went on before and after the shoot was the real show. Without getting into too much detail I will say the best story of the day (which never made it on film, thank God) was a dual telling by Franklin and Salerno of a certain friend of theirs from back in the day walking up the Garden State Parkway for miles while smoking an ounce of crack. Swear to God. You can’t make that shit up.

When Dave sat under the bright lights he was amazing. The guy is who he is; 100% energy and no bullshit whatsoever. Vision was kind of like the house band at City Gardens through the late 80s because they played there so many times. Dave vividly remembered every last one of them, and every last one of them seemed to involve some incident that was just fucking hysterical. Funniest story (well, the funniest he told on-camera, anyway) was Vision’s first gig at City gardens with the Exploited and how Randy exploded in a tirade upon learning that Vision’s bassist at the time had actually been banned for life from the club because of fighting. To hear Dave recall it had us all laughing and trying not to ruin the audio with our laughter.

But, on the real: Dave had a special kind of quiet reverence for the place and for what it meant to him. He resoundingly stated, for anyone who would listen, how important City Gardens and Randy Now were for both his life and his band. He spoke of the honor of being asked to open for the Ramones, he spoke of the wildly raucous nights he spent on the City Gardens stage, leaping and bounding like a Wildman (and often of swinging from the rafters, much to Randy and Tut’s mutual dismay). Most touching was the way he spoke of his relationship with Randy and the fatherly way (even when Randy was screaming and cursing at Dave for some boneheaded stunt) Randy treated him throughout the years. It summed up a lot of people’s feelings toward Randy: his never-ending generosity when it came to the bands and the fans. The way he was willing to put himself out there solely for the sake of the music. I think every person that had ever been booked by him felt this in some way or another. Franklin was most appreciative and exemplified this with a deep sense of honor.

For me… I am a fan and have never pretended to be anything but. To get into a room with these guys, these heroes from my past who, through their music, made my life seem almost important and bearable, is an honor that never really loses its impact. I am not at all embarrassed to express my gratitude and my very real admiration for the people who I get to meet who made the music. It never gets old to me and talking with these people, even 25 years after the fact, has the ability to transform me into that douchey 14 year old who is starstruck and shy. I don’t care. That has been the best part of this whole experience. If you had told me 25 years ago that one day I would be sitting around with the bands whose records I cherished more than my own life; just sitting and talking about the music and the memories, I would never have believed you. That is the beautiful thing about Hardcore: it’s always been an accessible, generous thing. It’s always been a mirror of integrity and the ideal that it’s better to give back than to take. And as we sat around afterwards, laughing and lifting drinks to our health, I looked around the table and realized that this is where I was meant to be.


The Calhoun Mile

Most of you will remember that back in the day going to Punk Rock shows was not always the safest things to do. Everyone knows that the best spots to see shows were always in the most dangerous neighborhoods. It ain’t like it is now, with all this sanitized, well-structured and heavily-scheduled “fun.” You took your chances when you went to a Hardcore show and any one of a million things could have happened to you between the time you walked out your front door and when, eventually, you returned there. And that was part of the excitement.

Without getting sidetracked into a long-winded discussion of the socio-political, cultural and geo-economical cause and effects of poverty, it will suffice (at least for my purposes here) to say that the indisputable truth is this: if you went to a Punk Rock show in the 80s you weren’t going somewhere nice.

Being 13 and having hardly stepped outside the confines of my lily-white suburb, Punk Rock was the first thing to take me out of my known comfort zone and show me a side of life I had really only known through television and the narratives of the earliest Hip Hop records. I was embarrassingly naïve and I have no problem admitting it because most of you reading this were in the same boat at the same time.  It’s no secret that Punk Rock is and always was a mostly-white, mostly-male, suburban phenomenon (yeah, yeah, I hear all you LES NYHC peeps yelling out there, but I’m looking over a broader spectrum of demographic here), and most of us (with obvious exceptions) fit neatly into those parameters. And that was cool.

The thing about our scene was participation. It was a living, breathing, participatory beast. You had to get your hands dirty and your nose bloodied to really absorb it. You could buy all the records and ‘zines you wanted, but you weren’t really “in it” until you had gone to shows. Dirty, smelly, sweat-soaked shows. It was just a rite of passage; one of many.

My friends and I grew up primarily in Philly. We had our spots and none of them were too nice. Being leather clad, mohawked Punks or long-haired hammers or skins in full dress, going into some of these neighborhoods where the clubs resided always meant being hassled by the locals (and, a lot of times; the cops) and you took it in stride because that was the badge you wore and the flag you flew. Freaks unite! For us, getting to City Gardens was the scariest thing we had encountered. We were unfazed by North Philly; by the Lower East Side of Manhattan and Baltimore’s scary world of row-homes and rubble. Shit, we weren’t even scared of the back-woods, Nazi-infested hellholes that populated the Pennsa-tucky regions like Reading and Allentown PA.

But going to Trenton was always, somehow…different. I remember my first trip like it was yesterday. I was riding with a friend we called The Moshing Fetus. Yep. The Moshing fucking Fetus. One of my best friends, and the only person I knew, at that time, with the balls to drive to City Gardens. Just a couple of hammers trying to find a show. Well, that night we got incredibly lost and toured the wide world of Trenton for hours. Everything was gray, desolate, and quiet in the winter’s slumber. It was like a surreal dream gliding through those streets. I was thoroughly insulated and under the thrall of the sense of invulnerability that comes with youth and stupidity. When we finally found Calhoun Street we were at the bottom of it; where all the government buildings and stuff are. I remember thinking “well, this ain’t so bad. It’s right up this street…” And so we saw the sights. It seemed like every ten feet you hit a red light that lasted for fucking hours and while you were waiting you drew the most conspicuous attention from the locals. They knew. After so many years it was easily apparent what all these weirdo-looking white kids were doing riding through Trenton and sometimes it was funny. Sometimes it was scary. I never felt so frozen and as accessible as I did sitting through those long, long red lights. Maybe it was being out of state, maybe it was being so completely unaware, but something about Trenton was unnerving. Of course, I was only seeing a very small part of it, but the young eyes of youth only know what is contained within their horizon. The funny thing was, looking back there was a lot more to fear inside the club than in the neighborhood around it. I’d seen people get beat down bad on the City Gardens dancefloor; I’d seen people stabbed outside. Shit, the parking lot alone was more dangerous than all of Trenton. But we were never scared of what went on inside.

Anyway, that ride came to be known as The Calhoun Mile and my friend Pablo still, to this day, says; “don’t tell me you’re Punk Rock. You ain’t Punk Rock unless you did the Calhoun Mile.” Like I said: a rite of passage. Each club in every city has its own; Trenton was no different.

Punk Rock first intimated to me that the world was a bigger place than what I knew. Punk taught me this when schools, parents, teachers, priests, councilors, etc. didn’t. Or wouldn’t. Or couldn’t. Yeah, it’s pretty corny and cliché: middle-class white boy finding excitement in the supposed “danger” of urban blight, but I can’t front. It was exciting; it was a part of the City Gardens experience.


Legends

The greatest thing about City Gardens was the legendary air that surrounded the club. While it was a great place for the wild, burgeoning scenes that were emerging in the mid-to-late 80’s there was also a great sense of Punk Rock history that served as the foundation of the City Gardens aura. The list of classic acts and obscure icons is eclectic and rich with tradition and lineage. Some of the greatest, most influential artists that nobody ever heard of killed it up on the City Gardens’ stage and thus furthered the indelible myth of both the scene and the club.

I was a Hardcore kid; I was in on the birth of the second wave of Hardcore music that had spawned from the earlier bands like Minor Threat and Black Flag. By 87 I was following the New York City (specifically the Lower East Side) bands that were redefining the genre and City Gardens was a haven for these guys. It seemed like every Sunday there was an all-ages show that featured some of the greatest Straight Edge bands of the era: I can’t tell you how many times I saw Gorilla Biscuits, Sick of it All, Bold, Judge, Youth of Today, Quicksand, Underdog, Token Entry and the bulk of the Revelation Records lineup. Those shows were vibrant festivals of youthful exuberance and were crystalline moments of a scene that was just coming into its own. And, true to the City Gardens aesthetic, the shows were energetic, chaotic and eventful.

I missed the first wave of the original Punk Rock pioneers and the birth of the first Hardcore movement. I had missed the potent primes of some of the most vital bands and artists that had shaped my musical world and initiated me into this scene. But thanks to Randy Now I got the chance to see some true legends while they were still virile and magnificent.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Ramones at City Gardens. It was in April of ’88 and it was my second trip. They weren’t the same band as the Leave Home and Rocket to Russia era- Ramones, obviously. And they hadn’t yet been properly acknowledged for their place and importance in Rock history. Truth was, at that time, nobody but the diehard fans really even knew the Ramones were still around. They were touring constantly and releasing albums consistently but, as far as “commercial” radio went, well, you remember what was big at the time. Suffice to say that there wasn’t a whole lot of room for a band as austere and un-flashy as the Ramones. As far as the Punk scene went, second and third generations of the music had already come and gone and, while they owed much to the Ramones, some had denounced them in a holier-than-thou stance of fierce independence. The Ramones were unfairly labeled as “sell-outs” by a lot of the ignorant New School Punks and shunned as “old men.”

Of course, I was one of those brash, asinine kids yelling “sell-out” at the time. So when I went with a friend to City Gardens to see the Ramones I was less than enthused. I was way too cool to admit to liking something so old and out as the Ramones. I was the kind of kid that would tell anyone who asked (and nobody ever asked) that the Clash sucked, the Sex Pistols were gay; that Television and Elvis Costello and the Talking Heads were not Punk Rock and the Ramones were boring and over.

HA!

The Ramones were like a machine; they cranked out a slew of classic hits that sounded fresher and meaner than any records I had bought in the previous five years. They were a polished and professional unit that coursed along in swift, sleek fashion. They were loud; they were visceral and completely unconcerned with anything but the music. They were true to form and they casually proved their prowess as one of the fiercest live acts Rock and Roll music has ever produced. They kicked my ass in a most embarrassing way; showing me just how ignorant and naïve I was. I thought I knew it all at the age of 15 and there were the Ramones, the ones who really had seen and done it all, to point out just what a jackass I was and how much I had to learn. That show was one of those moments where you can actually feel yourself being enveloped by history and becoming a part of something huge.

There was a steady parade of great musicians who, by the time I got around to seeing them perform, had honed their craft to a perfect science of sound and energy. I saw Social Distortion, one of the greatest California Punk bands of all time, long after their Mommy’s Little Monster heyday. By that time Social Distortion was well into their Rockabilly phase. Gone was the ragged and sloppy Punk fashion; this new phase brought a stylish throwback to sharp gangster threads. Mike Ness wore khaki chinos, suspenders and a wife-beater T-shirt. On his feet were savagely polished wing-tips and he looked real boss and very far removed from the spotty teenager who had loved the sound when he smashed the glass in his glory days. And they still ripped the shit out of City Gardens. That show was packed to the roof with old Punks and bikers. I had managed to get right up to the stage and was inches away from a still-messily-mascara-ed Mike Ness as he spit fire through a Les Paul and rocked sleeves of girly pin-up tattoos. Their presence was locked and tight; you could see the ease with which they owned the stage.

The Bad Brains were probably the most influential band I had ever heard. I saw them at City Gardens in 1987, when their best recordings were already behind them. They were no less ravenous and insane with age, though, and the set they played that night, while littered with newer, slower songs that had a Metal tinge to them, was amazing. The classics brought a roaring sense of camaraderie to the crowd; a lot of the kids were young like me and getting their first sight of what a true Hardcore band was. The pit was more of a celebration than a battlefield; it was as active and frenzied as could be without a trace of violence. We danced and skanked and stomped and you could feel the waves of positive and harmonious energy. I think that show drew the most enthusiastic crowd I have ever been a part of.

The same with Rollins. I saw him in late 1991; a spoken word show. That engagement was the first time Rollins had spoken publicly about the murder of his best friend Joe Cole. It was a galvanizing moment for me and the few hundred other people in the audience. Rollins had been, for years, telling crazy Punker stories about himself and Joe and when he launched into a tale about the two of them coming home with a fistful of Sylvester Stallone films (which they rented solely for comedic value as usually is the case with any Stallone film) we all thought it was going to be another goofy story with a hilarious punchline. Somewhere along the way things got really bad as Rollins very plainly and clinically told the story of being forced into their home by armed robbers and forced to kneel in execution positions while waiting to die. One was shot dead and, for some reason, Henry was spared. It was a heavy, heavy moment and after punctuating the story with a screaming “BANG!” that was the gunshot which ended his friend’s life, City Gardens went deathly quiet. I’ve never felt such a dramatic, heavy air in one place. You didn’t have to know anything about Rollins and Cole to be affected; it was a horrible story that would have broken the most thickened Skinhead’s heart.

I saw the Cramps and the Damned at City Gardens, long after they had made their names and were approaching legendary status. I saw Killing Joke and D.R.I and G.B.H. I saw GangGreen and the Circle Jerks, and for a couple of bands that had been around for a while they both rocked the shit out of those crowds. I saw Suicidal Tendencies after they had gone “Metal” and had gutted their original lineup and they were still one of the best live acts I’ve ever witnessed, even if they had “sold out.” I saw Agent Orange and a ton of Ska bands that I never would have seen anywhere else. A lot of these groups were bands that had, supposedly, been written off as “trash that would never prosper or go any further than the garage and demo stage” by countless pundits and journalists. Some of these bands, by the time I saw them, were actually thought to be irrelevant. And somehow they always brought the heat when they played.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Randy Now for being a very influential person in my life; and I never even met the guy. For so many years he was nothing but an anonymous, kind of goofy voice that came on between sets and calmly (and very un-Punk-ly) announced the upcoming City Gardens events. But, as far as my own, personal experiences, Randy was an artist and a true visionary. He just had an ear for great music, no matter what it sounded like and because of his love for the music I got to witness some revolutionary events and historic moments.


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