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There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens, which can be found on Amazon Prime.
There’s a very revealing bit of archival footage early in the Riot on the Dance Floor. Some earnest but ill equipped high school student or public access host interviewing Randy “Now” Ellis asks if he, Ellis, thinks that music promoting is a good business to get into. After having told fun stories of his job he replies to this question immediately and instinctively in the negative. “Not at all. Nope. Not one bit. I don’t know why I do it. I must be insane.” Believe it or not this frank admission of professional misery didn’t get his phone ringing off the hook with requests to speak at “career day” but dang if it doesn’t hit the nail on the head of what it was (and still is) to be a full time rock and roll booker.
Randy (the “Now” was added as a snappy name for his DJ gigs) booked shows at the legendary Trenton, New Jersey, venue City Gardens for pretty much its entire duration and, as we’ll discover, he was one of the most fascinating linchpins of a surprisingly varied local music scene. The film charts not just his personal story, but that of the motley bunch of punks, metal heads, and all around misfits who showed up at the Trenton based club night in and night out, right up until things got too crazy and the hub started to disintegrate under the weight. Along the way director Steve Tozzi gets stories from dozens of musicians who played there, and we even get a quick and dirty lesson on the history of Trenton itself.
Despite not living anywhere near the tri-cities, the legend of City Gardens found me a while back in the form of a Vulture article on Jon Stewart who, unlikely as it may sound, was a bartender at the rough and tumble club for a couple of years before his comedy career took off. Then again just a few weeks back I heard the name of the club again when LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy casually mentioned to Tom Scharpling on The Best Show that he had been a bouncer there in the 80s before he was even old enough to drink. Needless to say, I was primed to be the perfect audience by the time I spotted this as a new streamable title on Amazon.
The film is full of the best kind of rock and roll trench warfare stories, dished out in the same tone you hear rehashing personal battle scars over beers with a friend. As a venue, we should all be as lucky as the kids of Trenton, New Jersey who, thanks almost solely to the tireless efforts of Randy Now, were exposed to in insane volume of awesome and fucked up concerts. The gamut runs from Sinead O'Connor's first American performance to Bouncing Souls to De La Soul to the goddamn Butthole Surfers, the last of which almost burned down the building before someone cut the power. City Gardens would eventually close up under the weight of asshole skinheads repeatedly suing the venue’s owner Frank “Tut” Nalbone (these guys and their wonderful nicknames!) when their arms got broken from self-inflicted injuries related most likely to stage diving. Up until then Randy Now did the lord's work not just booking far-out groups but being super cool about it, feeding and housing touring acts in order to save them the money they’d spend on a shitty hotel and fast food.
Some venues carry more weight than others for touring bands, and despite earning the nickname “Shitty Gardens,” City Gardens was where more than a couple of acts say they felt extra pressure to not suck. Like, imagine being in GWAR and you’re walking to the green room after a set still in all your silly GWAR gear, and some random audience member just flat out tells you “...not very good tonight... not very good” and you know it’s true. It’s the equivalent of a parent saying “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed” which somehow hurts way more. That was City Gardens: The parent you really wanted to impress.
As incredible as it is to hear all these fascinating road stories, the kind that you imagine bands telling each other when they cross paths at festivals, the beating heart of Riot on the Dance Floor (like the club itself) is Randy Now, who serves as an unexpected record-nerd cautionary tale. He quit his stable day job as a mail carrier to work full time booking what would ultimately amount to over four thousand shows at City Gardens, and in doing so gave up insurance and retirement in exchange for being that crucial cog in the Trenton scene. Late in the film he addresses his extensive record collection with the mix of disdain and pride that I think we’ve all seen before. As much as he truly loves all those oddball records there’s a not insignificant amount of palpable regret nestled in there between the novelty and garage rock sections. How much different would things be if he’d stuck it out at the post office?
Whether you have a really inspiring local scene or need to get up off your ass and start booking bands at VFW halls yourself, this is a damn fine doc well worth digging into. It’s worth recommending based on the poster alone which, I mean, how many recent music docs can you say that about? Do yourself a favor and check it out over at Amazon Prime.
Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.