In the 1980s as popular music diversified and independent bands began touring, a network of clubs sprang up across the country. One of the most visible was City Gardens in Trenton, New Jersey. Sinead O’ Connor reportedly made her U.S. debut there. Legendary punk act The Ramones graced the stage over 20 times. Comedian Henny Youngman, best known for “Take my wife… please” performed there as did REM, The Replacements and Rollins Band.
According to author No Slam Dancing co-author Amy Yates Wuelfing, City Gardens wasn’t just another club. It offered music fans and misfits a place where they could fit in, even if only for a few hours.
“A lot of people who went to City Gardens didn’t even dress punk," she says. "But they felt misplaced or like a misfit. But after they went there it was all OK.”
At least for a time. As musical tastes changed, so did the scene and the club began attracting an audience that was sometimes violent and almost always less understanding than the original clique.
"After about ’88 when ‘punk’ and alternative went more mainstream and it started to attract this more meathead element? I think that that non-judgmental atmosphere started to fade a little bit,” she says.
But for all the legendary bands that played at City Gardens, it was a different form of music that kept the lights on.
“The cash cow that really kept the nightclub afloat was the dance nights," she says. "Thursday night dance nights brought in a ton of cash and that sort of helped to underwrite the shows that lost money.”
But City Gardens, which Yates Wuelfing describes as a “scuzzy country club,” couldn’t stay on top for long. Another venue in the city began hosting dance nights and before long those who’d come to City Gardens week after week went elsewhere.
There were other complications too.
“There were lawsuits from kids hurting themselves during shows," she explains. "They started to pile up and the owner, every time he would get one of those notices that he had to go to the post office and sign for something, he would literally start to shake and have an anxiety attack. Every time they put on a show they ran the risk of getting sued again and they were just burned out.”
Still, City Gardens remains strong in the memory of those who went to shows there, worked there, or played a show there. Asked what she learned from her time there Yates Wuelfing offers this.
“That you could really do anything that you wanted," she says. "The club really made you believe that. Especially if you were a creative person and you wanted to write and you wanted to have a magazine. Go ahead and do that. There’s nothing stopping you. If you wanted to be in a band, if you wanted to make a movie, if you wanted to do anything, you don’t have to have the blessing of some big corporation, you can just do it. You do anything that you wanted. The only limitations that you had were the ones that you put on yourself.”
If there’s one thing almost everyone who passed through the doors to the club does remember, it's which shows they saw there. There’s also one thing that almost no one can remember. That future Daily Show host Jon Stewart tended bar there.
“Most people don’t remember him at all," she says. "You would think that as a bartender he would be more memorable. But he wasn’t. He was just quiet. Made your drinks, took your money.”
Although No Slam Dancing is specific to a time and place Yates-Wuelfing says that the book is more universal than she expected.
“There were clubs like City Gardens all over the country in places that weren’t part of a huge metro area that were sort of tertiary markets for traveling bands like Black Flag and whatnot,” she says. "I sort of hoped that it would speak to those people, but I didn’t know. You can’t really tell. But people come to book signings and say, ‘I never went to City Gardens. I grew up in Atlanta. I grew up in Nebraska. But I totally relate to this book. Even younger people who weren’t old enough to go to shows at City Gardens, they like to have the historical perspective of what it was like back then too.”
No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico is out now.
You can find out more about City Gardens in the upcoming documentary Riot on the Dance Floor.