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Published: 2001/10/18
by Jesse Jarnow

After Hours

Robert Hunter at the Wetlands, September 30, 2001 (photo by Carol
Wade)

Grateful Dead lyricist and songwriter Robert Hunter, an avatar of myth and
wisdom, provided the convocation. He appeared onstage, elfish, a little bit
before 9:30 in the evening, becoming heavier and older than I would have
imagined during the four years since I had last seen him.

He hadn't played in public for two years, he admitted during a rambling
version of Box Of Rain, stretching out not between the verses but
between the song's first two lines, as he struggled to remember the piece.
The songs – which also included Terrapin Station, Ripple,
Peggy-O, and Dire Wolf lost their epic qualities with the
fumbled fingerpicking.

Still, the man wrote so many meditations on death and closure that I hold
near to my being that his performance held far more symbolic resonance than
it did musical enjoyment, and that perfectly okay. Like most of the crowd, I
knew the songs by heart. The only thing left to do was to contemplate their
meaning in this particular situation. What did it mean that Hunter was
onstage in the Wetlands on their closing night? What did any number of lines
suddenly signify? Though a civilian would have been confused, it was far
more important than just some damn hippie strumming an acoustic guitar.

***

In May of this year, I graduated from school, strained to tie up ends in a
life forced to be over, and moved back to New York. In leaving my friends in
Ohio, I looked forward to rejoining the Wetlands family. No more than month
after moving to Brooklyn, it was announced that Wetlands was going to close.
The two endings in my life seemed to provide an uncanny parallel in terms of
a move towards some semblance of adulthood (something far too easy to
predict, on both counts, at this point in time).

There are probably literally hundreds of stories like mine. I started going
to the club when I was 14 or 15, seeing many dozens of shows there through
my high school years, where I met many of the people who have shaped my life
and beliefs. I had my first real kiss there, during a Percy Hill show.
During the four years I attended college in Ohio, I managed to make it to
Wetlands on a regular basis, often spending every night of extended weekends
in New York inside its comforting walls.

The primary difference between college and Wetlands is in the linear
structure. Matriculating as a freshman, I roughly knew my course. One
hundred level courses would give way to 200 level courses and I would
accumulate credits towards the tangible goal of graduation. Wetlands never
had that linearity, but it had – if anything – more of a clearly defined
purpose; certainly one that went beyond the sheer amassing of arcane
knowledge. Wetlands had a goal: to make the world a better place. And it
worked.

I did not get involved in the Eco-Center at Wetlands, nor did I even really
pay much attention to it. Regardless, it – and Wetlands' entire existence,
for that matter – showed me that alternatives were possible; that the kinds
of relationships fostered and expected by shopping malls and endless
suburbia weren't the only kind, that the type of information transmitted by
mass communication outlets wasn't the sole variety. I learned that not only
do we not need television to entertain us, but that we don't even need to be
entertained at all.

Like academia, it provided a very real structure for people to exist in with
those beliefs. Now that it's gone and we head out into the real world, the
knowledge that a place like Wetlands can exist is an empowering one.

***

On the evening of September 10th, I stopped by the club, briefly, to drop
some stuff off, and say "hi" to some friends. After dinner, I headed over to
the Knitting Factory, for a set by Lake Trout. I had tentatively planned on
returning to Wetlands to catch a little bit of DJ Logic's set, but ended up
being far too tired. Instead, I went home and went to sleep. When I woke up,
I was in a brand new world.

Amidst the chaos of downtown, Wetlands sat quietly, mostly unharmed, about
10 blocks north of the World Trade Center. The club had been scheduled to
close after a September 15th performance by Bob Weir and Ratdog. Crews would
be enter the building in the days that followed and begin to dismantle it.
In effect, the World Trade Center attack bought the club a two-week
reprieve, though – for obvious reasons – a darkness loomed over the venue's
last nights.

The yuppies – yes, a generic slur for those responsible – taking over 161
Hudson Street have displaced a very real community in a time when community
and emotional strength is needed the most. Not only have they displaced a
very real community, but they have displaced one that was founded on
principles of social activism and questioning that, in a far more rational
way, presented a stance on globalism similar to the brutishly perverted
critique offered by the men who lodged airliners into one of the world's
largest metaphors. It's not irony – at least, I don't think it is; I've been
told irony doesn't exist anymore – but it sure is something, and it sure is
damning, and it sure makes me want to scream. A physical space that could be
used for calm discussions about the unfolding madness is instead, right now,
being cleared to make way for the lobby of a condo.

And so, as Wetlands opened its doors for its last nights, the fact that it
was, in fact, the end wasn't foremost in people's minds — at least not in
the big, emotional way I'd been bracing myself for since August. People were
seeing each other for the first time since the 11th, trying give each other
some sense of comfort.

After Hunter's performance on the 30th, as the stage was taken over by what
seemed like an endless stream of funk musicians, I got righteously drunk.
Funk has never really been my bag and interests me very little on a musical
level. Sure, it's good dancing music, but it's a melodic cop-out so far as
group improvisation goes. All of the folks who took the stage – Topaz, Eric
Krasno of Soulive, Justin Wallace of ulu, among many others – are damn
ginchy at what they do, it just made for less than engaging music. Maybe
that was the point, maybe that was the way to go out: drunk and dancing. It
seemed depressing, though, after Hunter's symbolic supplications which
promised an ending of far greater solemnity and importance. But, it was a
gathering, and people experienced the music together, and that's what was
substantial.

And, somehow, at 5:00 – or whenever the band finished playing – after
speeches by Larry, Pete, and Jake, the last person remaining on stage was
some dude with dreadlocks and a didgeridoo. Heady. As he finished, a
familiar groove tumbled out of the speakers; Scarlet Begonias from
May 8, 1977. At the helm in the DJ booth was Larry Bloch, the founder of
Wetlands, who spun a set spanning from the good ol' Grateful Dead to the
B-52s, filled with classic pop music, reminding people – or me, at least – that is fully possible to actually dance to real rock and roll.

Larry played music for hours. Gradually, people began to filter out of the
club, disappearing out the side door into the increasingly blinding
daylight, exiting the scene. By the end, there were a dozen or so folks.
"I've only got three songs left," Larry announced. People wandered around
the club. I sat down at the foot of the stage right pole, near the bandroom
door, site of the aforementioned first kiss, and my favorite spot in the
club to experience a show from.

I stared at the stage. The lights continued to move, though there was no
band playing. It was like a scene out of an old movie. I expected the ghost
of a band to fade in. They didn't. A group hug, Leon Russell's Mad Dogs
and Englishmen, and it was over. Walking towards the door, my addled
brain reviewed the night, reviewing the lasts, and landed on the image of
the dude with the didgeridoo. It all seemed too tasteless for some reason.

I noticed an acoustic guitar onstage. I picked it up, and sat on the edge,
strumming and singing:

And if you close the door

The night could last forever

Leave the sunshine out

And say "hello" to never

All the people are dancing

And they're having such fun

I wish it could happen to me

But if you close the door

I'll never have to see the day again.

And if you close the door

The night could last forever

Leave a wineglass out

And drink a toast to never…

"Alright, Elvis, let's go," Lance called, as I warbled through the last
chorus.

We walked off into the sunrise.

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