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.
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.