Madison Square Garden… of Squalor
Phoenix’s Premier ’80s Punk Dump
If you think the original incarnation of punk rock passed entirely over Phoenix, you just weren’t there. I wasn’t there either – I was in elementary school – but apparently 1979-1984 were the golden years, and at the center of it all sat Mad Garden. Short for Madison Square Garden, this seminal punk club took its name not only from the New York landmark, but from a cavernous, 1929, brick wrestling and boxing arena on 7th Ave and Van Buren Street. When Tony Victor, owner of Placebo Records, the Valley’s sole, period punk label, started booking shows in ’81, he booked them at another old wrestling dive. It stood on 37th Street and Van Buren, across from Bill Johnson’s Big Apple, and it too was called Mad Garden.
Bands played in the wrestling ring at the building’s center, setting their amps and drums on the padded floor between rubberized ropes. The stage wobbled during performances, adding visible bounce to the already agro musicians’ antics. Scratched wooden bleachers lined walls decorated with black and white publicity photos of small-time, largely deceased wrestlers in period regalia. A chain link fence enclosed the stage in order to protect fans from flying wrestlers; a previous owner installed it after a wrestler landed on someone in the front row. Instead of protection, the fence provided the perfect monkey-bars for punks to climb during shows.
While London and NYC already boasted legendary punk scenes by 1975, Phoenix’s started in ’78 with the birth of The Consumers and largely ended with Mad Garden’s closing in ’84. In the interim, local bands like JFA, The Feederz and Mighty Sphincter left a lasting impression on their generation, with Mad Garden serving as the center of the action. For big-name touring acts, the rowdy ring provided a reliable playground. Everyone played there: Bad Brains, Black Flag, Violent Femmes, The Minutemen, Butthole Surfers, Minor Threat, Bad Religion, Husker Dü, and, of course, locals like Meat Puppets, Victory Acres and Sun City Girls. Mad Garden was, as JFA’s singer Brian Brannon sang in a song penned specifically for the club’s closing night, “A hall where weirdoes sometimes wrestle/A fitting place for us freaks to nestle.” The word ‘freaks’ was key. That early crowd wasn’t punk in the formulaic fashion sense – liberty spikes, combat boots, Clash patches on jean jackets – it was diverse, equal parts skater, student and New Wave.
Victor made a natural booking agent. His uncle leased the 37th Street building for wrestling events, and being a music fan with a bassist for a business partner, Victor knew all the angles: keep covers cheap and Mad Garden BYOB so minors could attend; blanket the city with hand-drawn fliers; use your uncle’s karate school employees as security; then sell beer inside where cops couldn’t see. The result was a grubby, grassroots, communal atmosphere that one clubber described as “the rowdy punk rock equivalent of the company family picnic.” Like any killer picnic, though, the ants eventually arrived to carry off the food.
Police surveillance, obstinate neighbors and a raucous parking lot party squad sealed The Garden’s fate. Fire regulations kept crowds under 350, but a few gigs, like two back-to-back Dead Kennedys shows, drew over 500 people, along with the Fire Marshall. Despite fliers bearing desperate warnings (“Please! Help keep the Garden from closing down! Don’t show up until you’re actually ready to go inside!! Okay?”) The Garden closed in January, 1984, after a beer-soaked, full-house, adrenalized goodbye gig featuring JFA, TSOL and Crucifucks.
Then the building became a Spanish bible study center. Or was it a plastic flower warehouse? It depends who you ask.
1) You can download a soundboard recording of a searing 3/23/83 Meat Puppets show here, for free. It was recorded at Mad Garden: http://www.wohlers.org/puppets/madgardens/
2) Footage of JFA playing Mad Gardens in 1983:
3) Fliers from the final JFA, TSOL and Crucifucks show, along with numerous others, are available at http://www.shavedneck.com/Phoenix/index.htm
4) Missouri-born painter Thomas Randal Farnsworth snapped photos of that same 3/23/83 Meat Puppets show while earning his BFA at Arizona State University. The pics and a flier can be found here: http://homepage.mac.com/tfarnsworth/PhotoAlbum31.html
5) The entire B-side of the 1982, Placebo Records compilation This is Phoenix Not the Circle Jerks features tracks recorded live at Mad Garden. Apparently it’s tough to track down.