Thursday, March 27, 2014

Russia/Ukraine: Rocket to Russia

The Ramones: Sheena is a Punk Rocker

A bit of a cheat here, because the theme reference is to an album title, not a song, but honestly, when I first heard the theme, this is what came to mind. The third studio album by The Ramones, it was released in 1977, when the Cold War was still in full swing, so the picture on the back cover, of a “pinhead” riding a rocket from the U.S. to Russia, was pretty provocative. And the original artwork is currently in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The album showed a bit of growth for the band, with some slower and poppier songs, and includes a number of classics, including “Sheena is a Punk Rocker,” and a couple of covers.

Actually, this is really an excuse to write about Trenton’s City Gardens, a somewhat legendary (mostly) punk club that closed in 1994, but is currently in the midst of a wave of nostalgic publicity. I’ve written about the club a couple of times, here and here, as has my fellow SMM’er, Central New Jerseyite Darius, here and here. But what is feeding the renewed interest is the recent publication of No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes, an oral history of City Gardens, which you can buy here, and the soon-to-be released film, Riot on the Dance Floor. You can see a trailer for the movie here. Earlier this week, one of the authors of the book was on The Daily Show, being interviewed by former City Gardens bartender Jon Stewart, along with Gibby Haynes of Butthole Surfers, who appeared at the club, often with disastrous consequences.

No Slam Dancing is a fascinating read about a club that was, for the most part, the lone outpost of punk and new wave music between New York and Philadelphia. The anecdotes from club management, particularly the brains behind the operation, erstwhile mailman and DJ Randy “Now” Ellis, employees, regulars and musicians give an interesting insight into the 1980’s punk scene, in the era before you could hear anything and find out about anything on the Internet.

One of the key points that keeps getting made in the book, and in the interview with Jon Stewart, is that City Gardens, despite the fact that it was a dump, and dangerous, provided a haven for disaffected fans and musicians, a safe place (psychologically, if not always physically) for outcasts. And I’m glad that it served that function. I have to say, though, that my experience was a bit different. First, I was going to shows there in 1981 and 1982, before the more hardcore and skinhead bands began to play, so while I do remember it as being a shit hole, I never felt any danger in the club. Outside, maybe, but not inside. Second, I was a Princeton student and college radio DJ who was coming to hear music that I liked, not to find a tribe of fellow punks. I usually got in for free, sometimes got to interview the bands and even introduce them on stage, so I didn't qualify as a disaffected youth.  As a result, some of the nostalgia for City Gardens as a refuge is beyond me, but I certainly have very warm feelings for the place.

It was fun seeing references in the book to shows that I attended and to WPRB (although not as many as I would have expected). I’m particularly fond of Randy’s discussion of driving members of Romeo Void to do an interview at the station, drinking beer with them in the car before the interview, and having to pull over to allow singer Debra Iyall to “piss behind a tree.” It explains her truly obnoxious behavior during the interview that I tried to conduct, including her blurting out profanities and doodling penises on scrap paper. And makes me wonder why she didn’t just wait until she got to the interview to use the Holder Hall basement toilets, which, while not luxurious, were better than squatting behind a tree. But she was a piece of work.

To bring it back to the Ramones, one of my favorite City Gardens memories was getting the chance to interview Johnny Ramone backstage along with one of my fellow staffers, Chuck Steidel, before getting to introduce the band from the stage. Although not a life event as important as, say, my marriage or the birth of my kids, the chance to stand up in front of an audience and say, “Ladies and Gentlemen, The Ramones,” probably still makes my top ten.

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