Calhoun Street in Trenton was a rough neighborhood, a poster child for urban decay. Outside the infamous underground venue City Gardens was a desolate ghetto. The walls of the place were a mess of scribbled graffiti. Inside, the club was barely maintained—dirty black walls, peeling stickers and missing ceiling tiles. Stories of violence, arson, fringe music, and brutal hardcore shows hung over the place—topics all touched on in the film Riot On The Dance Floor: The Story Of City Gardens And Randy Now.
From a perspective outside the realm of punk rock, hardcore and other forms of aggressive alternative sounds, it’s easy to generalize this music as the soundtrack of angry young men. And there certainly were young minds working out social factions, post-adolescent idealisms and burgeoning activism. But what Steve Tozzi’s Riot brings to light more than anything is the fact that the young men, and women, who attended City Gardens during its 1980s and early ’90s heyday, were really having a hell of a good time.
After premiering at the Boston Independent Film Festival in April, the film made its New Jersey debut at the Lighthouse International Film Festival on Long Beach Island on June 6 at the Surflight Theatre. Most in attendance were “alumnus” of the club. Also at the premier was Randy Ellis, aka Randy Now, the infamous promoter who booked over 2,000 bands at City Gardens in his career.
The film explores not only the history of City Gardens, but the significance, and why it became such a lightning rod. It’s a story told by punk luminaries Henry Rollins, Milo Aukerman, Dean Ween, Jello Biafra, Ian MacKaye, Johnny Pompadour, and even Jon Stewart, who had bartended there.
It was a place outside the major cities of Trenton and Philly where kids of the time saw Devo, The Exploited, Fugazi, De La Soul, Jane’s Addiction and the Ramones (25 times…). But it was also a place where countless bands from the area cut their teeth as opening acts, from Vision to 24-7 Spyz and Ween.
The story of City Gardens is intrinsically tied to the career of Randy Now, a larger-than-life character who was motivated by the idealism and spirit of the music more so than the financial gain—of which there was none, one of the key subplots within the film. It also manages to build City Gardens into the social and historical context of the blighted city of Trenton.
And yes, City Gardens was a place of wild release for so many young people, but between the wall of death, the acid trips and brawling skinheads was a freedom of expression. As the film illustrates, City Gardens was not only the place that every band of the ’90s alternative explosion played—Green Day to Fugazi, The Offspring and the Beastie Boys—but it was a spark that bred so many creative minds who would have an impact on not only New Jersey, but the world. And it created positive lifelong memories for so many.
Much of that is owed to Randy Now.
The film would not be complete without the 20- to 30 year-old-photos taken by photographer Ken Salerno (who is conspicuously absent from the film, despite his role as documentarian). Salerno’s instinctual, mostly black and white work provides so much visual that the story would be seriously lacking without it.
Tozzi, a New Jersey native and award-winning creative director, does a fantastic job of letting his subjects tell the story in extremely well shot and heartfelt interviews, so much so that the film received the “Audience Award” among the documentaries at the Lighthouse Film Festival. This is a fantastic film that will help to preserve a cultural hub of the New Jersey underground’s storied past.