Tuesday, March 11, 2014

REVIEW: No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes – An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens

Max’s Kansas City.  CBGB.  Maxwell’s.  All legendary clubs in the tri-state area that not only evoke the ethos of the punk era, but helped to usher it in and foster the careers of some of the brightest lights in alternative rock over the past 40 years.  Well, add another name to the list: Trenton, NJ’s City Gardens, a warehouse-like club that serves as ground zero for Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico’s passionate, detailed and raucous oral history.  Fashioned in the mold of the seminal “Please Kill Me” (though perhaps sharing a more similar worldview to the left-coast corollary “We Got the Neutron Bomb”), “No Slam Dancing” traces the rise and fall of City Gardens through the 1980’s and early 90’s.  Unlike those works, however, the real “heroes” of this tome aren’t the bands who play in the club’s notoriously cavernous (and hot!) walls, but rather the coterie of characters that work there and the regulars and hangers-on that came out to shows (though, in most cases, they are one and the same).

Promoter and all-around music hound Randy Now acts as the unifying force, and without his passionate center the book would lose its focus – the remembrances and anecdotes from such wide-ranging, big-name artists as Henry Rollings, Mickey Melchiondo (inexplicably credited here “Mickey Ween” instead of Dean Ween or by his given name), and the Ramones are fun and insightful, but the real meat of the book is in the stories as to how the place operated and what it took to get bands in and on the stage - and keep them there!  Now’s notorious policy of banning stage diving (along with Doc Martens and other skinhead accoutrements) is detailed throughout the book and serves as an illustration of the ways in which Now had to balance the desire to showcase the greatest touring and local bands of the era with the real and ever-present threat to concert-goer’s safety (and the attendant lawsuits that resulted from many a missed dive or cracked skull).

The book doesn’t skim on the “good stuff” though: sex, drugs and debauchery abound, and the opening salvo relaying a mid-80’s Butthole Surfers show exhibits everything you would expect from such a performance (any show that includes gratuitous nudity and Gibby Haynes setting someone on fire is a keeper!)  The multiple perspectives afforded by the oral history format also enhance the feeling of being at a good rock show: the rose colored glasses, the half-remembered details and the blurry look back make for interesting (and frequently contradictory) commentary on how being in the throes of a transformative experience – on-stage or off – can impact the memory of that event.  The back half of the book does become a bit of a slog at times (while certainly a part of the scene, the back and forth “battles” between various contingents of ‘skins comes across as more redundant than revelatory), but all-in-all “No Slam Dancing” is a worthy addition to the canon of alt-rock writing. 

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