‘There Was Nothing Else Like It’: Jon Stewart on His Days As a Bartender at New Jersey’s Greatest Punk Club

Jon Stewart and City Gardens owner Frank “Tut” Nalbone, sometime in the early ‘90s. Photo: Rich O’Brien

Long before Jon Stewart became a cultural icon on The Daily Show, before his ‘90s MTV chatfest and early success as an acerbic, leather-jacketed stand-up comic, he was just another struggling bartender in Trenton, NJ. From 1984 to 1987, Jon Stuart Leibowitz worked at legendary punk club City Gardens. Housed in a decrepit former supermarket deep in the badlands of Trenton, City Gardens hosted a wildly eclectic mix of hardcore, post-punk, indie, ska, hip-hop and metal — Nirvana, R.E.M., and the Ramones are on the long list of influential bands that played there — throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s. Steered by postal worker turned promoter Randy Now, it served as a kind of CBGB for the disaffected suburban youth around New Jersey and Pennsylvania. City Gardens’s glory days ended in 1994 with the departure of Now, and it was shuttered a few years later, but the club is getting some belated appreciation with the publication of an oral-history book next month and a new documentary slated to hit the festival circuit this summer.

Nearly 30 years after he started working there, Stewart spoke to Vulture about his memories of mopping up vomit, dealing with loose firearms, and how City Gardens’ inimitable underground vibes helped change his life and inspire his ascent from rookie comedian to perhaps the most trusted newsman in America.

Randy Now working the door. (At top, Stewart with club owner Frank “Tut” Nalbone in the early 90s. Photo by Rich O’Brien.) . Photo: Ken Salerno

What were some of the best shows you saw at City Gardens?

There was some tremendous bands that played there, and some great shows. X did a great show. Gibby from Butthole Surfers nearly burned the place down. Anybody from Joan Jett to Agnostic Front and GBH and GWAR. You know, Black Flag and Bad Brains. Bad Brains was like the house band, they were there like every six weeks. They were amazing. The Chili Peppers. It was just an incredible and vibrant scene and there was nothing else like it.

Wasn’t there a night when a guy pulled a gun out when you were bartending?

Yeah, that was during the X show. It was the first time I’ve ever held a gun in a non-structured environment. There was an off-duty cop there. It was a pretty heavy punk scene and it could get somewhat aggressive. I believe there was a bit of a disagreement between this gentleman and two other people who felt that his face should be hit by their fists. So I think maybe he disagreed with that, and within that a gun was pulled, and I think someone got hit with a bottle and things went flying and I ended up with the gun behind the bar.

X’s Exene Cervenka and John Doe in the late ‘80s. Photo: Bruce Markoff

So you held onto the gun until the cops came?

Yeah, the cops were somewhat familiar with the establishment. This was probably ‘86, ‘87.

That was probably a few years before I started going there as a kid. You know that there’s both a book and a documentary coming out about it this year?

Aw, that’s nice. It was a wonderful place. [Owner] Tut was super warm and open, and Randy Now booked great music. City Gardens, man. It just reeked of possibility, along with God knows what else, whatever other secretions and body fluids that were there. Every week, man. Like these visitors from the Enchanted Lands would show up in a bus and come here and play this amazing music. It was very, very special.

One of the best things about it was how Randy Now would put together these really interesting bills …

It was great. I remember Stiv Bators and the Lords of the New Church. This was when MTV was on everybody’s radar and Martha Quinn was the sweetheart of the world. And so Stiv Bators and Lords of the New Church were playing, and there’s Martha Quinn, this pixie-ish sort of girl. And you remember Stiv Bators? He was a fucking maniac. So he’s on stage, and he is, as Stiv is wont to do, is vomiting, during his set. I remember that because I had to clean it. After the show, there was a little green room that was up the stairs. And you know all the bands would sign it, from the Meat Puppets to Joe Jackson. And so I went up there with some beers to load the band up. And there, post-stage-vomit, is Martha Quinn on Stiv Bator’s lap, basically Zamboni-ing the inside of his mouth.

Stiv Bators and MTV VJ Martha Quinn when they were ‘80s sweethearts. Photo: Corbis

That must have been tough to see. Did you have a crush on her like every other guy back then?

Of course! It made me think to myself: “You know what I don’t do enough? Heroin. That’s what the ladies want.” But it was very aspirational. It was just very open. Not in a “let’s all paint our faces and dance with our shoes off” kind of a way, but just in a “you can express yourself however you want” kind of way. You know, whether it was “90 Cent Dance Night,” where people would just dance by themselves to The Smiths, or the all-ages hardcore shows, where you’d see Dead Milkmen or GBH or Agnostic Front or those bands. Or you know, GWAR or Ween or Bad Religion … All different kinds. It was an oasis. The Butthole Surfers, I think, was an all-ages show ….

That was Ween’s first real show, too. They were the opening act.

Was that Ween’s first show? [Buttholes’ singer] Gibby had brought on a topless lady. I think Tut or Randy had said, “Don’t do that,” and so they shut them down. And Gibby just started, like, lighting shit on fire. If you remember that place, it was basically, like, a box filled with wall insulation. Like, that’s what its inside was: wall insulation painted black. Probably painted black with Napalm. It was the most flammable place you could possibly light. It ended up catching the wall a little bit. Somebody got a fire extinguisher and ran onstage. You know one of the bouncers that night was the guy from LCD Soundsystem, James Murphy?

The Butthole Surfers in 1987, just before nearly burning the place down. Photo: Ken Salerno

What are your memories of him back then?

Basically my memories of the bouncers were the people who stood and watched while you sprinted to your car at 3:30 in the morning.

Maybe he was one of the bouncers who had to break up the Wall of Death. That was a City Gardens thing. When guys would link arms and just charge the stage?

It was a Gardens thing. It was the type of thing that was a fad at hardcore shows. That’s why the hardcore shows were rough, man, because people would just get bloodied. That’s why being behind the bar was kind of nice. You could hear the music and you could do your thing. But you rarely had a body fly back there … There were these incredible explosions of violence on the dance floor, but I can also remember showing up for work and there was this beautiful girl sitting at the bar and reading like, Salinger, and I was like, who the fuck is this? And it was Natalie Merchant from 10,000 Maniacs. It wasn’t all about anger and catharsis. It was really eclectic.

The Wall of Death at a Murphy’s Law show in 1986. Photo: Ken Salerno

So did you ever get mugged outside?

I think if you worked there, you generally knew the routine of how not to get mugged. In general we all had each other’s backs. Before I would do my shifts I’d go up to the Jamaican and Honduran guys that used to play soccer in that little field behind it, if you could call it a field. We’d play a pick-up game and go inside and sort of shower up and get down for a good hardcore show. Bad Brains or whatever. It was amazing.

Bad Brains singer HR gets a helping hand from fans in 1989. Photo: Ken Salerno

So did working there somehow inspire you to get out of Trenton and make it big?

I just have such a fond memory of that place. I still think the aesthetic for the place sort of inspired you to pursue what you wanted to pursue, you know? At the time I was living in Trenton, I was working at another bar over on Route 1 underneath a liquor store called The Bottom Half. The guys were great, but it was a windowless room underneath a liquor store in Jersey and I was thinking, “Fuck, man. This could be it. This could be life.” I mean, a bunch of guys sitting at the bar at the liquor store and we’d all just get shit-faced. That was the life I was probably heading towards. But it just didn’t feel right. And finding this place City Gardens was like, Oh, maybe I’m not a giant weirdo. Maybe there are other people who have a similar sense of yearning for something other than what they have now. I think it inspired a lot of people, man. It was a very creative environment. It was a place of great possibility. I’m glad you’re doing a story about it, and I’m glad it’s getting its due.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of The Legendary City Gardens by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steven DiLodovico, is available for pre-order now. Riot on the Dance Floor:The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens directed by Steve Tozzi, is currently in post-production and set for release later this year.

Jon Stewart on Bartending at a Famous Punk Club