Randy Ellis is tired.
After all, the guy has booked literally 5,000 bands over the course of 44 years in the music business. He has reason to want a break.
“When I was working in the club at night and as a mailman by day, I didn’t sleep for two decades,” says Ellis, a local underground music icon and owner of Randy Now’s Man Cave in Hightstown.
The club was the raucous rock repository, City Gardens in Trenton, where Ellis ran the shows and anything else that needed attention.
The decades were the slam-dancing, stage-diving ‘80s and ‘90s, during the punk/alt-rock era.
And the bands were either on their way up or on their way down. The Ramones, Blue Öyster Cult, The Replacements, The Dead Kennedys, Green Day. It’s a list that seems to have no end. And Ellis seems to have a story about every one of them.
If they awarded degrees in institutional knowledge, Ellis would have a Ph.D. in Punkology. There isn’t a band or musician he can’t riff on at will.
But these days, Ellis is starting to think about when he’s going to finally pull the plug on the big amp and take off for parts unknown. “I’d like to travel with the wife (Mary) and children (his pets),” he says, showing off a photo of the family dachshund, Fritz. “But I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.”
Ellis is into his second year of a three-year lease for his record store in Hightstown, after 10 years in Bordentown. Record store actually is a misnomer because, along with lots of vintage vinyl and cassettes, the place is chockablock with what Randy describes as “nothing you need to survive.” Classic rock T-shirts, pins and stickers. Tins of Charles Chips. About 120 different sodas in glass bottles, including Big Red, a popular cream soda from Texas. Whimsical novelty items such as a toy plastic minivan with a mini-speaker that will play a vinyl record by “driving” around the album’s grooves. The store is simply crammed with lots of “cool stuff,” says Ellis.
And while he admits that he’s happier than ever at the new location — next to the Old Hights Brewing Company, with double the space, plenty of free parking and, most important, a friendly landlord — Ellis is nonetheless thinking of hanging up his promoter hat at the end of the lease. And when that happens, local musicians will have one less egg to fry on the gig circuit. You see, Ellis is still booking bands.
Randy Now’s Man Cave is not a rock warehouse like City Gardens, which could pack in 900 people, not so comfortably, and 1,500, definitely not comfortably, for an oversold show. Now it’s just 49 people on folding chairs in the middle of the store. Gone is the slam dancing. Stage diving also is history because, well, there is no stage. “We’re old now,” says Ellis, who at age 67 has been booking gigs since he was 23.
“When I went to this big hole-in-the-wall in Trenton (City Gardens), it was 1979,” he says. “It was just starting up and I asked if I could DJ. We began with seven people, mostly my friends and cousins. We got a lot of kids from Mercer County College, Trenton State, even Princeton University.”
That’s because it wasn’t only music that was attracting the college crowd. “Across the river you had to be 21 to drink and in Jersey it was 18. Jon Stewart (way before his ‘Daily Show’ days) was a bartender for four or five years.
“Things just grew and grew through word of mouth. Then one day I said to the owner, ‘I know a band that plays original music, not covers.’ They were called The Shades, from Trenton. They were good. They had a 45 out. And it all just started from there.”
Ellis spent the next seven years working as a mailman during the day and promoter and showrunner at night. Then in 1986 he said to himself, “Let’s go for this!” He quit the post office and did a stage dive into indie rock — headfirst.
“The first day, I had booked a band called Motörhead, and they canceled that night. And I was a like, ‘Oh no! What did I just do? Now I’ve lost my career at the post office.’ It was a pretty scary time. But I also was making connections with a lot of punk, hardcore bands out of California. And back then you could get a round trip ticket for $99 with People Express. And I knew all the agents and all the clubs from Boston to D.C. So I started bringing all the bands out on the $99 round trip ticket. They were bands who had a following on the West Coast and they’d come out here to build a following on the East Coast. And things just got bigger and bigger … What can I say? I had good taste in music.”
In the end, Ellis says, litigation “killed the charm” at City Gardens. “We got a bunch of lawsuits against us for slam dancing and stage diving. My car was like an ambulance taking kids to the hospital a couple of blocks away. The owner would say to me, ‘Every day I go to the mailbox, I start shaking waiting for another certified letter, another lawsuit.’ ”
That’s when City Gardens finally shut down. And Ellis had to find another way to make a living.
“I started booking band tours out of New York. But I was only making $250 a week and I had to pay for parking and train fare. That lasted only eight months.”
Next, Ellis went back to the post office part-time, and started delivering newspapers. At the high point, he was flinging The Philadelphia Inquirer, Trenton Times, Trentonian and Burlington County Times out his car window to more than 1,200 customers a day.
“I had it down to a science,” he says. “It was all in my head. No computers. Made a lot of money. Christmas time was amazing.” But the newsprint business eventually went south, and so did the delivery job, as media companies hired outside vendors for circulation.
Time for another Randy Reinvention.
That’s when he took over the Record Collector store in Bordentown and turned it into Randy Now’s Man Cave.
“Randy Now is my silly DJ onstage name,” he says. “You can’t use your real name in the clubs. The kids find your name and they want to come visit you. They’d say, ‘Is your name really Randy Now?’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s for Knowakowski.’ That’s what I told them.”
Ellis was at the Bordentown location for a decade, until a new landlord took over and told him he’d be on a month-to-month basis at the shop. “That’s when I decided I had to get out of Bordentown. And here we are.”
Man Cave customers are about 60 percent male, from age 35 and up. “Lots of my people come from Philly, Toms River, Baltimore, Staten Island. I got a guy from New Hampshire whose mom lives in Hightstown. He stops in here every two weeks when he comes to check on how she’s doing.” But Ellis says he also gets a good number of 13- and 14-year-olds who can’t get enough Beatles and alternative music.
And those who need help with electronic and ambient music can see Walt Manser, who works in the shop a few days a week. “I like it here,” says the Roebling resident. “It’s a good atmosphere. Keeps me busy.”
While busy is good for the bottom line, busy is not so good for relaxing, which is something Ellis is very much looking forward to. He recently went to Wildwood for three days — his first vacation since 2018, he says.
Ellis plans to continue bringing in at least two bands a month to his Man Cave. Upcoming shows include Joe Jack Talcum of The Dead Milkmen, Oct. 7; The Cucumbers and Keith Kenny, Nov. 11; and The Grip Weeds, Dec. 2.
But after next year?
“I think I’m going to be ready to sell, if there’s anybody who wants to buy.”
For more about Randy Now’s Man Cave, visit mancavenj.com.
The book “No Slam Dancing, No Stage Diving, No Spikes: An Oral History of the Legendary City Gardens,” by Amy Yates Wuelfing and Steve DiLodovico, and City Gardens T-shirts are available at diwulf.com.
Here is the trailer for the documentary, “Riot on the Dance Floor: The Story of Randy Now and City Gardens”:
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