Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Interview With 'Riot On The Dancefloor' Director Steve Tozzi: Documenatry Tells The Story Of City Gardens & Randy Now

As a young suburban New Jersey ska aficionado in the early to mid 1980's, I had an ongoing love affair with a big ugly hulk of a building in a blighted area of Trenton, New Jersey known as City Gardens. While it was primarily known as a punk rock club, what I loved most about the place was the number of ska and reggae shows the club's promoter Randy Now booked. Randy was clearly a fan of the genre and he went out of his way to book the best local and regional ska bands from NYC, Boston and Philly including The Toasters, The NY Citizens, Bim Skala Bim and Scram. It was always easier to wait and see these bands when they came to Trenton then to trek into CBGB's or The Ritz in New York City.

I remember the first show I ever saw at the club (The Groceries, a local NJ band with a good following) when I was a high school senior. The club was in very run down part of Trenton and it was a dark, dirty and dingy place but I was always excited to go there. The car rides with my friends to and from the club were always memorable and the characters who ran the club (e.g., Randy) seemed larger than life to me as a 18 year old. Its fair to say that my experiences seeing a variety of diverse shows at City Gardens molded me into the music fan I am today.

Fast forward a few years.  My love and passion for ska led me to start my own band in New Brunswick, New Jersey while I was a student at Rutgers University. In fact, it was a chance meeting that singer Roger Apollon and I had with Steve Meicke (our original sax player) at a Ranking Roger show at City Gardens in August 1988 that took our band (then known as Panic!) from the planning stages to reality. Somehow Randy heard about us and the noise we were making and he offered us a show opening for Boston's Bim Skala Bim in March 1989. We must have made an impression on Randy, because he kept on booking us for the next 2 1/2 years until the original band split after a bittersweet gig opening for our musical heroes The Special Beat in September 1991.

Its safe to say that Randy Now played a huge role in helping us become the band we are nearly 20 years later. He acted as an unofficial booking manager (he booked us on our first tour as support for The Selecter in 1991), connection maker and guru to us and later as a good friend to me. Whenever we played there was a sizable crowd at the show (a mix of punks, dreads, mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads) and we took full advantage of the opportunity to bring our 2-Tone inspired mix of ska, reggae, punk and calypso to the diverse audiences who quickly warmed to us.   I think its fair to say that all the shows we played at City Gardens had a huge impact on us as a maturing band.  As we learned our craft and wrote better songs, the crowd responded and Randy would encourage us even more. The sheer variety of shows we played opening for bands as diverse as De La Soul, Burning Spear and Token Entry ensured we were seen and heard by many. In fact, people still come up and say that they remember seeing us at City Gardens back in the day.

Below is rare footage of us performing at City Gardens as support for Yellowman in late 1989:

When City Gardens closed in 1994 it was the end of an era in many ways, but the memories I had of seeing shows at the club and later playing shows there were forever burned into my memory.  The club was a powerful part of my youth and the people I met there and the musical experiences I had there are still a part of who I am today. It was a life changing experience for me and for many others.  City Gardens, like CBGBs or The Cavern Club changed people's lives and it deserved to be remembered in a way that honored its legacy.

Well, that has finally happened!  Recently I was interviewed about my City Gardens memories and experiences for a documentary that is being produced about City Gardens and Randy. 'Riot On The Dancefloor: The Story of Randy Now & City Gardens' by director Steve Tozzi (that's Tozzi below in a Panic! shirt watching us play at City Gardens back in 1989) will chronicle the club's key place in alternative music history as well as the invaluable role that Randy Now (whose day job was as a U.S. postman!) played in turning the club into a musical oasis in the middle of a ghetto.

Tozzi who saw shows at the club as a teen and young adult is the perfect person to helm this production.  An accomplished filmmaker who has worked on a number of other documentaries and films projects, he has smartly partnered with Ken Salerno, who acted as the unofficial house photographer for most of the shows at City Gardens and with Steve DeLodovico and Amy Wuelfing who are writing an oral history of the club titled 'No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: How City Gardens Defined An Era' (read an interview I did about ska at City Gardens here).  Its a powerful quartet who have a vision for how to best tell the story of City Gardens and Ramdy Now and they are committed to seeing it through.

A six minute trailer for the film was just released on crowd sourcing web site last week.  Its am amazing short that delivers on the promise of what City Gardens and Randy meant to so many of us. Have a look at the trailer that was released just last week (and look for me near the end right after Robert Tierney the singer of The N.Y. Citizens):

Tozzi was kind enough to take time to answer some questions about the documentary and of his own City Gardens experiences:

What is your personal connection to City Gardens and Randy Now?
I went to the club to see the ska and hardcore shows Randy put on. But I also went to the old Ritz for the Rock Hotel shows. From the town I grew up–Old Bridge in NJ, CIty Gardens was almost as far of a drive as NYC was. SO I went to both locations. The one thing I do remember about Randy back then was that he greeted people at the door at times or would hand out those punk cards to people on the way out. He was the face of that place, someone you could talk, Places like the old Ritz had no one upfront it just felt like a business.

Do you remember the very first live show you saw at City Gardens? What was your favorite show?
The first show I saw at City Gardens was Fishbone I think, I remember it being just a mad house. The band was in the crowd as much as they were on stage. I remember Chris Dowd from Fishbone, jumping into the pit ever 3 min. My favorite show is a hard one... I would have to say Bad Brains/Leeway. I remember it was during the summer and it got so hot in there that the band had to take 4 intermissions. Literally the sheet rock walls were crumbling from the heat.

What was the inspiration for the documentary?
I was inspired to do the film in two different ways and at two different times. The first was from an excerpt that I read of Amy Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico's book about the club. It told the story of when the Butthole Surfers came to City Gardens. I remember when I was reading it, that I was laughing uncontrollably. I just couldn't believe this had happened at the club.

The second was when I met Randy for breakfast to talk about the project for the first time. After talking to him about where he grew up, how the club started and what he was doing currently. I suddenly realized that this story was much bigger than the club and the bands that played there. This man was responsible for putting on shows for thousands of kids throughout the years, with everything stacked against him. He didn't own the place and didn't make a lot of money. They were constantly dealing with lawyers because of people getting injured during the rougher shows. It was a pretty hard buck to make...and on top of it all, most of the kids did not appreciate what he was doing for them. After learning these things I had a pretty clear picture about the type of film I was going to make.

What was Randy Now's response when you first approached him about the idea for the documentary?
He said, "Great, but realize I get this offer about three times a year. So if you are going to do it, DO IT!" He basically challenged me, so I said "Allright I will" and we started filming that day.

The City Garden fan base is quite loyal. What kind of input/feedback have you gotten from fans about the project?
People are pretty loyal about the club and its history. The majority of the people that have sent us comments have been very positive and supportive. But we do get the occasional "This is about NJ Hardcore right???? We owned that place." NJ hardcore did play a roll in City Gardens history, but it is one part of that history. To focus the film on one genre of music would do Randy and the club a disservice. Every type of band played there, from Bo Diddley to Gwar, The Toasters to NIN. There was also an entire dance night community there. Everything should be represented is some way.

There's a who's who of musicians in the documentary. How hard or easy was it to get them all on board with the project?
Most of the bands we have talked to remembered Randy and the club fondly. Once we told them that the film was centered around Randy, they were in, nothing else had to be said. Most people want to do the film, the only problem we have had, has been scheduling the interviews. But that would be a problem for any interview based documentary.

For the uninitiated, can you explain a little bit about the process behind how a documentary film is produced and what keeps you busy during that time?
We currently are in production, filming interviews and filming some of the bands playing live. I also film Randy on and off every two months or so. We are hoping to start editing the film in September/October. Our goal is that we will have a final cut minus any graphics and musical scoring by spring of next year.

Can you share any unusual or particularly memorable experiences from filming the documentary so far?
One memorable night was when Ken Salerno and I went to Pennsylvania to interview Tesco Vee from The Meatmen. The club was way up in northern PA–in the mountains. The place was an 80's looking biker bar a little rough around the edges but nothing out of the ordinary. We met up with Tesco and did the interview...he was great and then he said to come up close to the stage to film the band playing. I was shooting the film camera that night and Ken was shooting stills... the show went off without a hitch. As we were packing up to leave, Ken pulled me aside and said "Did, you see what was going on with the crowd?" I said "No, I had my eye in the camera's eye piece and was filming The Meatmen" Ken then said, "Wow, you missed it, that place was filled with a bunch of Nazi's, didn't you see Tesco telling them to fuck off?" "Yes, I remember him yelling at some people but I didn't realize why." Ken then proceeded to show me some of his photographs from the night. One punter had an SS baseball cap on and another had full sleeve tattoos filled with german soldiers, panzer tanks, swastika's and just a ton of hate tattooed on his body, after seeing that we quickly jumped in my car and raced out of there. It was really unsettling.

In your opinion, what is City Garden's enduring musical legacy?
That is a good question...I guess It was a place that defied the stereotypes, It wasn't situated in a thriving metropolis. It wasn't a beautiful place. But It had Randy and he loved to bring new music to people. So to me, the legacy of City Gardens is that it was a punk club that had heart and that heart was Randy.

When can fans expect to see the documentary?
The film is in production through 2012, but we hope to have a DVD out by the end of next year.

There is a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding. What will the money raised be used to pay for?
The money raised will pay for several production costs in making the film including, film storage, travel expenses, festival fees, a second camera, just a whole slew of things. If we raise the 60K we are trying for, we will then be able to purchase some of the more costly music tracks we have always wanted for the film's soundtrack.

Amazingly the documentary raised its initial goal of $20,000 via Kickstarter in just 4 days!  With more than a month of fundraising time left, please consider donating what you can.  Any additional monies that can raised will help the production immensely.

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