Of Bumble Bees and Sunflowers (Part II: 1994-1998)
CHRIS BARRON (vocalist, Spin Doctors): We got signed. We did one or
two more shows there. It was just a total mob scene. Then we hit the road.
We started touring really extensively and we were playing different sized
venues. At the time, it was either the Wetlands or, like, the Beacon
Theater. There wasn't really a big club in between. At times there were.
There was a club called the Marquee, over by the West Side Highway, that was
pretty good for a while. It was like a 1500 kind of club. But there wasn't
anything in those days that really fit that description. You kinda had to
play the Beacon, which the capacity was like 2500 or 3000. If you weren't
quite ready to play there, or you were too big for the Wetlands, there
wasn't really anything in between to play.
MARK WHITE (bassist, Spin Doctors): The Wasabi [a supergroup made up
of three-quarters of The Spin Doctors, John Popper, and other NYC musicians]
shows were fun. We went up there and we just made up the music onstage. It
was kind of cool to do it here, as opposed to doing it wherever we were
doing it before. That was the first gig we did it like that. We did it
upstate, but it was never as good as when we did it here. Most people didn't
want to go upstate to see us.
RICHARD GEHR (writer): While I was there, I probably didn't even see
one New York band. I saw all these bands who were peripatetic jambands that
were working the circuit that Phish had blazed up and down the east coast,
and Wetlands just happened to be the place they played in New York. I kind
of liked that about it. It was on the margins of New York. It didn't really
seem to be in New York in a certain way.
Most New York hipsters disparaged it and wouldn't go there. It became the
place for bands from out of town, and kids from out of town. Because of
where it was located it was really easy to get to from Jersey or
Philadelphia and upstate and Westchester. People just come down the West
Side Highway or through the tunnel and they'd be at Wetlands.
JON TOPPER (manager, moe.): In '91, I'd never been to the club, but
I'd heard about the club. I was going to SUNY Buffalo. I started promoting
some shows in clubs up in Buffalo. I would pick the bands I would promote in
Buffalo by looking at who was playing Wetlands on Saturday nights. Buffalo
was 30,000 kids and a lot of them come from the New York City area. That's
how I kind of started.
MARC BROWNSTEIN (bassist/vocalist, The Disco Biscuits): It really
hasn't changed that much, if you look at it, because all different kinds of
bands always played here all the time. What you're talking about, I
think, is the way they marketed the Wetlands using different bands within
certain genres. Obviously, what I think you're alluding to, is that early on
it was more of a straight hippie band place, right? Or, let me go further:
in the early days it was heavy New York City funk like Milo Z, The
Authority, Mexican Mud Band, Shockra was from Boston was still sort of
playing New York City funk, etc., etc.. Then, after the Phish boom, it
turned into a sort of hippie band haven: Percy Hill, Strangefolk, Ominous
Seapods, freebeerandchicken, Leftover Salmon, yadda, yadda, yadda.
LANCE ROYES (security, 1994-2001): [Unlike The Spin Doctors/Blues
Traveler fans], moe. and the Disco Biscuits crowds were still college kids,
but they weren't so much the frat boys who wanted the perfect Wall Street
job. They were more interested in the partying, going for the music, and
having fun, instead of going out and trying to connect and spend as much
money as can trying to impress people.
It's more along the lines of looking at how the society itself was changing
through that time, going from the really good marketing experiences on Wall
Street with everybody making money hand over fist, to crashes and a lot of
uncertainty, a problem with the 401Ks, people just realizing then "fuck it,
chances of me getting a job where I can retire with pension don't matter
anymore, so I'm just gonna have fun". That's where the difference started.
CHRIS ZAHN (talent buyer, 1994-1999): It's also the type of music.
[The earlier bands], I think, [were] more accessible bands, [with a]
mainstream sound, than groups like the Phish-influenced bands, who more of a
I think a lot had to do with the fact that, yes, drug intake went way up
among this next generation of kids that were going out. So [we got] more
water drinking. Also, [New York was] a little stricter on DWI checks, stuff
like that. I think that, especially in New York – which is scare-happy – you
cannot have 30 beers and go out and drive a car. You can blame it on
Guiliani coming into office and being in our hair. I hate having to say
LO FABER (guitarist/vocalist, God Street Wine): I'd say that the New
York club scene has been under a lot of pressure in the Guiliani
administration. As everybody knows, his administration has not been too
friendly to the club and cabaret business. I guess the argument is that we
represent the dregs of society and he's trying to clean up the quality of
life in New York. It's kind of silly.
I remember in the Nightingale, who didn't have a cabaret license, they tried
to enforce the cabaret laws: you can't have dancing unless you have a
cabaret license. So, for the first couple of weeks of his administration,
they put up signs in the Nightingale saying "no dancing". When people were
caught dancing, Nightingale was ticketed. That's just the vibe. The dancing
police. This stuff all goes in cycles. It'll turn around and new clubs will
open and things will be great. It's on a down cycle.
JESSE JARNOW (writer): There was one week in February '94 where there
was, like, a Spin Doctors show at The Cooler, a Traveler show at CBGBs, and
a Wasabi show at Wetlands. The Spins were premiering all the stuff from
"Turn It Upside Down" (1994), so that was sorta the beginning of their end.
Traveler was premiering all the stuff from "Four" (1994), which was the
beginning of their popularity. So, it was kinda like the two bands passing
each other en route. Earlier that month, I think, moe. played at Wetlands
for the first time.
JON TOPPER: In order to get into that room, [I booked] the band Sonic
Garden from Buffalo who I thought, in their prime, was the best Dead cover
band around. I knew there was a little bit of a shortage of Dead cover bands
on Tuesday nights. So, I actually booked them into the Wetlands in order to
get to know the Wetlands in order to get moe. in. At the end of that Sonic
Garden night, Larry actually told me that it was the best Dead cover band
that they had had up to that point. I was like "well… I've got this other
band". Originally, we were booked to be on a Chucklehead date, but then
Chris Zahn took over the booking and called me up and said "hey, I've got
this other date [opening for The Dude of Life], would you rather have this?"
The place was packed. It was our first gig in New York City that meant
anything. There were 800 people packed into that bar. Plus, there were,
like, 1000 people on line to get in. The guys were kind of nervous and they
got up onstage and getting ready to play and started kind of playing before
even the soundguy was even behind the booth. I was in the DJ booth. I'd
asked Larry if I could go into the DJ booth to take some pictures. He was
DJing, and you don't fool around with Larry Bloch when he's DJing. He
started yelling. "They're not supposed to be onstage! This is the way it's
done! Nobody told them to get onstage! The soundguy isn't' even ready!" I
kind of just put my head down and walked out of the booth.
But, at the end of the night, he came and put his arm around me and said
"they were amazing,". From there on, Larry was behind us all the way. He
gave us great nights: Thanksgiving weekend, New Year's Eve. It really had a
lot to do with building the band up.
LARRY BLOCH (founder/owner, 1989-1997): moe. was more sophisticated
feeling to me, the kind of people that came were slightly different. It was
more of a cerebral reaction. moe. did some incredible shows here. They did
our anniversary, and they did our New Year's Eve.
RICHARD GEHR: The anniversary show was where they did "Timmy", the
first performance of "Timmy". It was this long, convoluted rock opera which
ended with Timmy coming to Wetlands and coming in and seeing a band called
moe. playing at Wetlands. It was great. It was really, really great.
JESSE JARNOW: Before I came to Wetlands, that tape was one of my
first impressions of it. Actually, before I went to Wetlands, the first
thing I ever read about Wetlands was a review of that show. I saw some kids
reading the Voice in the hallway of my high school and saw the headline that
was like "School of Phish" and I was, like, "whoa, that's the Voice. That
LARRY BLOCH: In some ways, moe. were extremely psychedelic to me.
[They] just experimented, and were there for whatever magic popped up. They
didn't force any schedule, they didn't force any setlist, they didn't force
anything that restricted the ability to be spontaneous and to be goofy and
to be introspective and to be really true to that. It sounds like a clichI don't know these guys really well to know, but they seem very comfortable
with themselves with what they do. No pretenses. No need to be big shots.
That's something you can get from a band at their show: wow, these are just
RICHARD GEHR: I started hanging out there after I became a Phish fan,
and quickly became a moe., and got into that whole third generation jamband
scene. Compared to every other club in New York, Wetlands was warm and
embracing. New York clubs are cool: everyone is being very cool,
nobody dances, nobody talks to anyone else. It's just that thing where you
go and you worship the band. You stand in front of the band and hope you
don't do anything stupid and then you go home.
CHRIS ZAHN: We convinced Copernicus to open up for moe.. Copernicus
was that mad, old guy that did the spoken word thing with the demonic
synthesizer and the white light shining on his face. That freaked out the
guys in moe.. I have a tape of that. "REALITY IS AN ILLUSION! NOTHING IS
REAL!" and he would do this thing. He claimed he was descended from
the original Copernicus. He did a run here. It was like convincing them
not to have a band open up for them. "We want someone to open up for
you that has absolutely no draw, that would not help you at all in your
career, and will freak everybody out in the audience." Maybe that was an
exchange for them forcing us to book Ffudd to open up one of their shows.
At first, it didn't occur to me that I would have to get approval from other
bands [to book openers]. If it was a headliner and I wanted another band to
open, I'd just put them to open. Then, bands would get upset. "No, no,
they're not opening for us, we have our own band that we wanna put on the
bill." I never liked that politics of having to go through the channels.
It's our club. It's our stage. We wanted the early slots to develop bands,
give those slots to local bands, especially, that needed to get in front of
crowds. That was important to us. It wasn't so important to headliner bands.
I remember, real early on, getting yelled at a lot and being forced to take
bands off bills. It was courtesy thing. Eventually, it flip-flopped back to
that way again. Everybody knew who I was and trusted me. "Forget this, I'm
not getting any approval."
Interlude: Jake Arrives
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI (employee 1994-1999/talent buyer, 1999-2001): The
first time I went there was to drop off a resume, 'cause I'd heard about the
club a lot. I moved to New York. I moved here at the end of August 1994, the
day after my birthday. August 31, 1994. I was looking for work. Obviously, I
didn't know what I was gonna do. I was taking a year off from college, which
I never went back to. There was an ad in the Voice for "New York City
environmental nightclub looking for part-time office help", so I figured it
was Wetlands from what I'd heard about the place.
So, I got dressed up, tucked my shirt in, got a resume, and walked all the
way down here. I had no idea where it was, so I just walked down Hudson
Street and asked people "where's Wetlands?" "I dunno." They were office-type
people. I went up to the side-door and rang the buzzer and said "I'm here to
drop off a resume" and Larry was the guy at the other end of it. He said
(gruff voice) "I'm not taking personal appearances. You have to fax
it." I'm like "fuuuuuck", so I walked all the way home and faxed the resume.
Two days later, I got a call and I went in for an interview. I walked in the
side door. They buzzed me in. I was looking around. "Okay, this is kinda
cool. I guess the main room is downstairs." So I went downstairs and went
into the lounge. "Hmmm, maybe it's on the floor above the place I walked
into." I walked into the office, sat down, and had an interview. Never had
the courage to ask Larry where the main space was. I went through my whole
interview and walked out. Went upstairs, looked around, didn't see a
stairway, and walked out. Got called back for a second interview and a third
interview, and then I got the job.
I started as Larry's assistant. Then, after not too long, I became the
publicist and started working on press releases and blurbs about the bands
and making sure we got listed in all the different papers.
I really wanted to take down the murals behind the soundboard. We were gonna
leave the ones behind the stage, 'cause you can cover it with a certain. The
other ones, I though, were tired and not relevant to what we were doing
anymore. People had seen it, and it did more harm than good. People would
say "look at the mural; a buncha hippies dancing in a field". The Jerry face
was painted two days after he died. Before that, it was just a body sitting
there with a different head on it. We just had somebody come in and paint a
new head on it and make the whole body a little bit bigger and remove one of
the fingers in the hand.
I didn't have a problem with it being a nature scene, other than it had
those hippies and the stage with the girl with the flowers in her hair and
the guy with the tambourine. Help Preserve Our Natural Resources. The whole
style of it was very '60s, very lovey-dovey, hippie stuff. I'd have no
problem if they'd kept the theme of what's behind the stage, views of
wetlands. The hippie aesthetic just turns more people off than it turns
Pastoral hippie scene with Jerry Garcia figure in lower right. (photo by
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI: Being an environmentalist and being a hippie are
two entirely different things. The hippie movement, I think, is kind of
silly. I have no problems with peace and love, but when you're throwing it
in people's faces and you're not showering, you're not combing your hair,
and just taking a laissez-faire attitude towards life and responsibilities,
then that's what people look down on the hippie movement. I'm not against
the environmental Eco-center. Not at all. I'm very proud of everything we've
done and accomplished and especially the fact that we've stayed true to it.
ADAM WEISSMAN (Eco-Center, 1997-2001): There are a few things that we
can speak to. One of them is just what we can be as a center itself. We're
somewhat unique – although that's becoming less true because I think more
people are starting to get this connection – in being a center that actively
addresses a range of issues as broad as we do, from animal rights to sweat
shop labor to defending rain forests and viewing all these things not as
separate issues happening to get done out of the same office, but as part of
a larger political context, basically just having a broader critique of the
comodification of all life and how civilization as a whole has viewed things
in terms of their value to profit rather than their intrinsic value and how
that stretches across all aspects of life.
Over time, the Activism Center became much more of a campaigning
organization. After Russ left, Cathy Kim came on as the director and was
replaced shortly thereafter by James Hansen, who for six years really
developed the program, more than anybody else, into what it is today, using
the Tuesday night meetings as a vehicle to get people more directly involved
in action. We developed four working groups that still stand today: a
working group devoted to rain forests, one to human rights, one for looking
at wilderness issues on the North American continent, and one for animal
rights; just this whole theme of a multi-issue center and the emphasis on
non-violent direct action and things like lock-downs, chaining ourselves
together, dropping banners. Also, creative protests with street theater,
costumes, and puppets and humor. Lots of on-the-street demonstrations.
3. High Weirdness and Security
CHRIS ZAHN: Yosi Piamenta: the Hasidic Hendrix, the Sephardic
Santana, the Gefilte Garcia. We did a Rock For Shabbas benefit here. It was
the first time I'd seen Yossi. It was Inasense, Yossi… I think Evan and
Jaron actually played on that. Yosi came in. "Wait a second. What is this,
the pot-smokin' rabbi, here? What the hell is going on?" He was great. He's
just so much to deal with.
When you get him on the phone it is not a quick two-minute phone call. You
are on the phone for 20 minutes. He's yelling at you. He's yelling, he's
loud. We had a nice run with him. He'd fill up on all these off-nights. "You
tell us, Yossi, what's a great night for you to play?"
"Moooooooonday, April 14th is a great night!" "Okay, sounds
good to us."
[He'd draw] guys. Jewish people. There'd be a big Hasidic Brooklyn
contingent that came out. A lot of young guys. A lot of them under 21. In
the Hasidic tradition, it's okay to drink if you're under 21. That's what we
were told that night because there were a lot of older drinks buying for
under 21. When we busted them and threw them out they were like "it's okay,
it's okay". "No, it's not okay, you're under 21. Get outta here!"
RODNEY SPEED (maintenance, 1990-2001): I remember the Hasidic Jewish
gentleman that became whacked out on acid. Whooooa, boy. That was so crazy.
CHRIS ZAHN: Yosi was a big ticket on the Jewish wedding band circuit.
That gets expensive! He's not just some ordinary wedding band. He's a class
act. It's an honor to get Yossi to play your wedding. You got the dough, you
can get Yosi. His club shows, I guess, were a chance for him to let his hair
down. Then, at setbreak, everyone would get into a prayer circle.
Yosi knew Garcia and Santana and Hendrix and those people. He didn't know
anything about these new bands. We said "Yosi, if we can get you in front of
one of these new bands, five or six hundred people, they'd flip for you and
the next time you come back on your own, all these people would pay to see
you." He was a little stubborn about it. "I'm not taking a cut in pay. I
don't need to compromise to these people."
We did, finally, get him to open for Baba Olatunji. I thought it was one of
the cool double-bookings. Everybody loved him. The Baba crowd was a nice
mixture of people into African music and the Deadhead connection. Mickey
[Hart] fans definitely, I thought, had a nicer, more sophisticated taste in
music. You got people who came to Baba who shook their bones. All they
wanted to do was dance and boogie, and some people really came to listen. We
got him to do that. That was the only time we could convince him to open up
[At Yosi shows,] the dancing was intense. We dubbed it the moishe pit. Have
you ever been to a Hasidic wedding? At a good Jewish wedding, you see good
circle dancing going on. Now, you're talking about circle dancing at a club,
where it gets a little more rough. Guys would stage dive. People were saying
"what's the difference? All these guys dancing with each other?" Go to a
hardcore punk show, a lot of guys dancing with each other. They might have
different dress. The moishe pit got intense. He would wail away.
PAULY ETHNIC (security, 1997-2001/percussionist, vocalist, The
Conscious Underground): There's this one dude in particular, who comes. He's
this older Jewish dude, hippied out crazy. He wears mad short shorts and leg
warmers and he wears this robe around him and he carries this stick, and
he's on some wizard type shit. He likes to dance close to really young
LANCE ROYES (security, 1994-2001): We used to have a drag queen that
hung out here. Never wore underwear. Always walked around with a hard-on. He
was here all the time, for two or three months.
The Carnivores show was fuckin' weird, too. When Carnivore played here, they
had these skinned goat's head and cow's head on stage and kids were running
up on stage licking them. I've seen some screwy shit here. We had the freak
shows kids here once with the Murder Junkies. This kid had a dart board
tattooed on his back and kids were throwing darts at him. Then he bit the
head off of a mouse and stuck a syringe into his arm and pulled out the
injector slide and let the blood start coming out, filled up a glass with
it, drank the blood, and started chewing on the glass.
First, I got hired by moe. to be head of security at a club called Styleen's
in Syracuse in '95, '96, for Mimi Fishman's birthday party bashes. I was
working for a while with her. Then Bob Kennedy called me up and asked me if
I could replace his security company with myself for the Gathering of the
Vibes 2000. I ended up doing security, supervising for Camp Bisco for a
company based out of Massachusetts, and all this stuff that Walther
Productions does down in Maryland. Everything Terrapin does, I either do
security or stage crew for. I've worked for four different festival
companies now, all because Bob Kennedy called me up one day.
Until there's a problem, everything's great. As far as I'm concerned, doing
security in clubs like this is the same as all the festivals I do. It's
really simple: as long as everyone's safe, no one's getting hurt, and
everybody's having fun, we're doing our job properly. The second I've gotta
put my hands on someone, there's a problem.
There's no dealing allowed in my club, don't let me catch you doing
chemicals in my club, and use common sense when smoking herb. Don't stand
under the white light, inside the front doors, smoking a bowl. Use some
common sense. Learn how to roll a joint.
4. Random Mutations
MAX VERNA (guitarist/vocalist, Ominous Seapods): The Seapods first
gig there was an opener for Max Creek. Max Creek was really cool with us
and let us use most of their equipment. Which worked out well because we
had shitty gear at the time and the stage was way too small for two bands
worth of amps and drums. We were really psyched about playing there, we
even took pictures of ourselves out in front. I think that gig was back in
'93. It was so long ago that Ted [Marotta] wasn't even our drummer, it was
a guy named Dave King who was about seven years older than the rest of us.
DANA MONTEITH (guitarist/vocalist, Ominous Seapods): I thought it was
a lot smaller than I imagined. I remember hearing about as a legendary venue
and then going in and thinking "oh my God, this place is actually quite
small". And I think that that's a common thing that I hear people say, or
heard people say about, that they'd heard about it and they'd seen the
lineups of the bands and then they go there and it's this extremely intimate
MAX VERNA: We always wanted to give the folks at our shows something
to remember, so you can imagine that the Wetlands was the place to pull all
the stops. Most of the stuff we came up with were extensions of mutations
that took place in the long van rides or on the couch in our living room.
Dana or I would start to mutate and then we would play the game of trying to
out do each other. It was all in fun and we would just crack each other up.
Most of the mutations on stage were spur of the moment skits because we
wanted to see how high and how far we could take things.
DANA MONTEITH: I remember, it was a huge deal that the Pope was
coming to America. He was gonna be in New York. We found out that he was
gonna play that day. Ted and I were talking in our rehearsal about what we
could do that was totally out there. "Let's make some Pope hats!" We did
that. We're like "okay, we're really gonna cross the line here". We had a
butthead mask; that's why he wears the hat, 'cause he's got a giant butthead
thing going on. We took it way over the top with the Baby Ruth candy bar
coming out of the butt.
We had the whole take off on the music business where the Pope is putting on
a show and his booking agent is there and his accountant is there. Even
though they had 150,000 people at their show in Central Park, they still
weren't breaking even. We did this whole spoof on that. Like many of the
freaky things that we did, it crossed the line of good taste. We had a tune
called I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon, so we changed that around to
I’m The Pope, I Shall Arrive Soon.
We were talking with Chris Zahn when he booked the place, saying "well, what
can we do that would be extremely whack?" And he said, "well, how about an
eight-track release". I was like, "that'd be great". He found cases of
eight-tracks. We thought "okay, we'll just put stickers on them and give
them away like that". People will put 'em on and it'll be like Donnie and
Marie or something. Then we had the idea of "let's try to record music onto
MAX VERNA: The eight-track show took a lot more prep work. We
actually recorded Seapod bootlegs on all of those eight-tracks with an
eight-track recorder. Brian took that bull by the horns. He locked himself
in his room for over 72 hours and personally recorded each of the several
hundred eight-tracks with the worlds only eight-track recorders.
5. Punk Isn’t Dead, It Just Smells Funny
LANCE ROYES: Usually, when we have shows that have mosh pits, I'm
doing stage security. I monitor what's going on in the pit. The key to doing
a good hardcore show security is knowing the difference between moshing and
fighting. It's a big difference but it's hard to see. As long as kids are
just dancing, it don't matter. They might beat the shit out of each other,
but it's all in good fun. After the song is done, they hug each other, and
everything is good.
When fights break out, then it becomes a problem. I have to jump offstage,
dive into the crowd, pull kids apart, drag them out different doors to keep
them from fighting, keep their friends separated. Fights aren't really that
common. The reason is you release so much aggression when you're inside that
pit that you don't have anything left. All your anger and frustration is
pretty much released by the time that song is done. It's a good thing.
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI: [Wetlands won] Best Hardcore Venue in New York.
New York Press. '95 or '96. We shoulda won it every year.
LANCE ROYES: The hardcore punk scene has always been the same: fuck
everything. They just don't give a fuck. That's the scene I came out
of. They ain't changed a bit.
JESSE JARNOW: I guess it's aggression, but it's also pretty channeled
sometimes. Jamband music can be pretty escapist, I suppose.
ADAM WEISSMAN: [The connection between punk and environmental
politics] is where people choose to get involved on an individual basis. I
guess that the difference is that the people find the themes that we're
talking about directly reinforced in the lyrics to the music they're
listening to. In the 'zines, in the literature, in the tee-shirts, in the
buttons, and so they can… and that's certainly not true of every band, but
there are cases that can be made. It's certainly there, it's certainly an
LARRY BLOCH: From a percentage point of view, in terms of the amount
of people who come here and sign the petitions, it has occurred to us over
the years that the people who sign the most of the petitions are actually on
hardcore nights, in terms of people who were a little more ready to be
directly involved in reading and absorbing the information. That may have
had something to do with sobriety. Many of these kids didn't do any drugs or
alcohol. Perhaps, it's an easier environment to take the time to read
something than if you're in this environment of having a great time and
dancing and expanding your consciousness a little or whatever. I don't know.
CHRIS ZAHN: I used to tell James: "we're getting more signatures and
more interest in the earth station from the punk kids than from the frickin'
jamband kids. What's going on here? Isn't that awkward?" "Who cares!" On
Tuesdays, you wouldn't see punk rock kids coming to the meetings, though.
You'd see the people who were coming to the Psychedelic Psaturdays shows.
LANCE ROYES: [The scene down here] is the same as it is own a hippie
night: lots of kids smoking pot. The difference is upstairs on the dance
CHRIS ZAHN: You've got the jamband scene on one side and you've got
the punk scene on the other side, and nary do the two meet in the middle.
There was one scene that I actually knew met in the middle: the ska
CHRIS ZAHN: The ska shows here were huge. It's definitely dipped a
lot, but there was a time that we booked ska every week and it was packed.
Standing at the front door, I would always see them looking at the posters
for the other shows, especially the Long Island kids. They would know moe.,
they would know Yolk, they would know the 'pods. They would know those bands
in the jam scene. That wave of ska wasn't the militant "I'm gonna wear
two-tone black-and-white skinny-tie pork-pie hat" ska. That was over. Ska
was suburbanized. It was mainstreamed. A kid can go to a ska show and love
ska but also see jamband music. The ska scene, though, also had a lot of
punks. Punk and ska had a connection. That bridged the gap between the two.
CHRIS ZAHN: The first Lee "Scratch" Perry shows were legendary shows
[on October 30 and 31, 1997], the first shows booked with this guy in New
York in over a decade, sold-out shows.
CHRIS ZAHN: Late in the afternoon, I got a call from the booking
agent. He's in the hotel with Lee and says "we've got problems, Chris."
"What?" "Lee refuses to perform tonight." "What do you mean he refuses to
perform tonight?" "He needs hash. He's dying for some hash. Could you get
him some hash?" "Hash? I don't buy drugs for bands, what are you talking
I called a bunch of people. "Hash? I don't got hash!" Who had hash? High
Times Magazine. So, I called the office. I was like, "hey guys, do you have
any hash?" Steve Bloom was telling me "there are code words we've got for
this" . He was trying to tell me. I told him what it was. He made calls.
Finally he said "I've got this guy for you", so I trusted him. What the
fuck? Guy from High Times is telling me he found this guy for me. I had to
deliver it to the hotel room.
Weird motherfucker, "Scratch". Everything was cool. And then when he came
down here, we put him in the Eco-Office for his dressing room, the first
thing he says "I don't like this room! Bad vibes in here! Bad vibes!" He's a
KREGG AJAMU (employee, 1994-2001): The best thing I felt like I did
here, of impact, was Fishbone. In 1995, I was very active in some of the
first fundraising efforts for Mumia Bu Jamal's legal defense. In 1995, I was
going back and forth between New York and Philly a lot, because it looked
like his execution was going to be imminent, very imminent. I got the club
involved in doing a series of benefits. We had the Last Poets, we had a
ridiculous reggae show with Julia Reed and Louie Baruka. That was sick.
Fishbone was supposed to perform. They were all set to go. That was going to
be their first time here. Then, at the last minute, they backed out. So, we
had Mephaskaphales, we had Rhythm Republik, we had some other local bands,
but we had no true headliner. What are we gonna do?
I talked to my friend Clifford Mooney Piercy, who was the lead guitarist for
the Family Stand, but he's also the lead guitarist for Steel Pulse. He said
Pulse's show back at Steeplechase Park in Brooklyn was canceled because of,
once again, security and police problems, and they were laying over here in
New York on the way back to England. I told him what it was about, and Steel
Pulse performed here at Wetlands. August 15, 1995, a benefit for Mumia
Bu-Jamal. On that day, we raised over six grand for his legal defense. If I
had to have a date with the largest impact for me, that was it. That was
pure luck. Otherwise, I would have felt that the staff would be really let
down because Fishbone didn't come in. But we got a Grammy-award winning
international reggae group to come play for us instead.
JESSE JARNOW: I think a big change came whenever Otis stopped
introducing the shows… which, I think, was early '97. Whenever he stopped
working there. He would get up and introduce the bands. And, whenever he got
up to introduce the bands, he would usually end up plugging something. "The
Product Is You!" or "This is National Whatever Day". I think that added a
big sense of that to the tapes and the vibe of the club having all the sets
start off with that.
DAN LEVY (editor): It was always there, but totally unobtrusive. I
never felt like they were gonna let the environmentalism get in the way of
rockin' hard at the place. If I chose to get informed, I could. If not, it
was just a nice club filled with nice people.
6. In The Office/B>
LARRY BLOCH: The club was all about fun and activism. We didn't want
to take ourselves too seriously. I wanted to have the club be as
ego-less as possible, from the design, the stage thing, the whole friendly,
intimate kind of way the club operated, not having people being abused by
security, to try to have everything be that way; mellow and not a lot of
ego. That attitude about the club, about not taking itself too seriously
even though we were doing really serious work, percolated throughout people
like Chris and Jake and others and people who helped bring those ideas to us
like John Dwork from Dupree's Diamond News and Speed of Light and Phurst
Church of Phun and all that. It worked really well in the way we presented
ourselves to the world.
The door to the Wetlands office. (photo by Carol Wade)
LARRY BLOCH: There's a lot of energy in that little tiny office,
which seems extremely small for three or four people, and it is, but the
dynamic of being able to get work done like that – if you have the
personality to be able to do it, is incredible, because you can all hear the
same information at the same time. You all can learn an awful lot of what's
going on. It worked great because most of the people that worked that
office… you either thrive in that atmosphere or your done. If you can't
thrive in that atmosphere, you're done. They all did it. Chris was really
good at it, being able to adapt systematically.
CHRIS ZAHN: Demo tapes everywhere. I saved everything. I would
categorize everything by certain styles, genres. I think the Zahn-a-thon
came about because there were so many demo tapes on the wall, so many bands
calling, so few slots. "We've got to have a clearing house. Can't we just
have a demo tape night?" Larry dubbed it Zahn-a-thon. The idea was "can I do
100 acts, from spoken word to solos, to duos, to bands, all night long?"
CHRIS ZAHN: This office had this little tiny Mac over here with an
ancient printer. It was one computer. No answering service at all. There was
just an old-style phone where you could put people on hold. All messages
were taken on little pink slips. It was dirty, it was overcrowded, yelling
everywhere. I was on the phone trying to book things. People were screaming.
It was craziness. It definitely made us psychotic, good psychotic.
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI: [Our 1996 April Fool's Day ad in the Village
Voice] said "introducing new night club: House of Booze". Underneath it said
"must be over 21 to buy drinks for your underage friends". Larry came up
that idea, and he came up with calling the club the House Of Booze. When it
ran, as you were looking through the Voice, it appeared in the outer column
on the right hand side of the paper. We convinced them that we wanted to do
this, and they should help us out and the Wetlands ad should be on the next
page in the same spot. So, we designed it to look just like the layout of
the Wetlands ad.
LARRY BLOCH: I could get an opportunity to poke some fun at some of
the incongruities of the music business, to do it fun and gently, even
though it would make a point in each case. I wanted to have that outlet, and
the idea came to do that in an April Fool's ad, that we would blow people's
minds. If you examine the ad enough, it was obvious that it was a joke. A
lot of people didn't examine it closely enough and took pieces that they
wanted to believe were true and acted upon it. It was overwhelming.
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI: If you don't get that, you're silly. We had shows
in there. The Sex Pistols were playing: The Currency In The UK tour. It was
$500. It was John "Don't Call Me Rotten" Lydon, Steve Jones, Glen "Why'd You
Have To Kick Me Out" Matlock. That was done in two or three nights at
Larry's house, smoking pot and we came up with these silly ideas and ways to
phrase them. I think Chris contributed to that a little, too.
LARRY BLOCH: It was so much fun being in the office that day and
answering the phone.
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI: I took a phone call the day the ad came out from
this guy who said "hey, how do I get Sex Pistol tickets? When do they go on
sale?" "What are you talking about?" "The Sex Pistols are playing there,
right? On this date?" I was like "no way, dude, you've been had". And the
guy got so furious with me on the phone, yelling at me and telling me that
he saw the ad, he was working at this construction site, he told his foreman
that he was sick, made up this story, went to the bank, and took out $1000
in cash and was going to come down and buy two tickets to make sure he could
get them. "No, no, you didn't just do that, did you?"
TicketMaster's phone switchboard got overloaded. We shut them down for about
an hour because so many people were trying to call in to get tickets for
7. Enter Shappy
LARRY BLOCH: After I got divorced, I decided I wanted to sell the
place. At some point, my wife told me that she was going to move up to New
Hampshire to be near her sister. I made a promise to my son that I would
evolve myself to be away from living here in New York for three years. I
knew it would take a while. As a matter of fact, it just took three years,
amazingly. For a while, I didn't think it would happen at all.
I wanted to live close to my son and be part of raising him and didn't want
to be doing this crazy job here. I couldn't be his father. I didn't want to
own the club from up there. I'd be here picking the gum off the bar and
wanting to be part of everything. I could not do that. I had to find a way
of keeping the vision going, and the commitment to the environmental and
social justice programming, and not selling out, and the vibe, and the
music, and – my God – I thought it would just be impossible. I even thought
that I might have to close the place 'cause I wasn't gonna find anybody. I
wasn't going to sell it out, I wasn't gonna sell it out to the people that
want all this money that want to buy Wetlands. Everybody said "no, you've
got to find a way not to close the place". I heard that.
PETE SHAPIRO (owner, 1997-2001): I was going around showing clips
from these two Grateful Dead films I had made ["Miles To Go" and "A
Conversation With Ken Kesey"] on college campuses and speaking about my
experiences on the road with The Dead. A Dead cover band, After Dark, would
play after me. We went and did this a couple of times. This was right after
Garcia passed away in late '95, early '96. At one of those shows, Marty
Bostoff – who was the bass player – told me that Wetlands was for sale and I
was like "oh my God". I couldn't believe it. Not that I'd been there too
many times. I just felt it was a very special place and I was like "gosh, I
wonder what's going on".
I didn't have the money, really, to buy it, but… I didn't know what made
me call, but I did. I wasn't looking to buy a club, I was into film. I was
an intern at New Line Cinema. I'd just gotten back from college. I just
figured that I couldn't do any wrong by taking over Wetlands and giving it a
I called Larry and said "what can I do to help this situation?" At first,
maybe, he was talking to a couple of people and I was, maybe, going to be
part of a team, and then I ended up buying the thing myself. Much to his
credit, he structured it so that I could buy it, so I could pay him over
time. To his credit, he wanted to give it to somebody he felt comfortable
with. I guess he felt comfortable with me. I really believed in what the
place was about. I had no experience in bar business, even live music
We tried to make the transition easy. When [Larry] announced that I was
going to buy the club, formalized that, there was a good six months, eight
months, ten months, where he still formally owned the club, but I was going
to be the new owner, kind of like an owner-elect kind of thing. That was a
really key phase, where I could be there and be the owner in a way, but not
have to deal with all the owning-the-club things. It helped me to learn a
lot about what the club did, what the policies were, how the bookings
worked, how the environmental center worked.
RICHARD GEHR: I think, as Larry said, "there was a lot of
language in our agreement". (Laughs.)
LARRY BLOCH: I tried to pass on the idea that you're going to get
offers, get temptations, you're going to meet people. With all kinds of
people in the world of the music industry, at every moment the opportunity
for eroding the standards and values of a place like Wetlands are going to
present themselves to you. You're going to lose relationships if you tow the
line by saying "no".
And that's a hard thing to pass along to somebody who's young and eager to
make connections and have relationships and be successful. I've certainly
tried my best to illustrate how even little things towards steps to what
might not appear to be anything serious like selling out might lead to a
subtle shift in a way things can go and what we stand for can be eroded
easily if you don't take a stand right from the beginning and be true to the
vision. I certainly passed on all the experiences of the premises and "what
to do if…", etc., as much as possible. We shared all sorts of talks about
things of that sort.
PETE SHAPIRO: There wasn't a lot of change. When I came in, we didn't
fire everyone and bring in new people. There's very little turnover amongst
the staff at Wetlands. Almost no turnover. I think that says a lot about the
LARRY BLOCH: Things that worked so well here, I knew they wouldn't go
away, because of the people who worked here, and the people who did the
talent buying, like Chris who was here and left behind, having DJs perform
and during setbreaks and afterwards to enhance every evening. The staff, to
some extent, runs things here. The vision and the vibe and the ideas here
are shared by lots of people and promoted and run by lots of people. I
shared with him the model of the place and the ideas that went into creating
PETE SHAPIRO: When I brought my parents, in early '96 right when I
was buying the club, they thought I was crazy, I brought them to a Dead
Center. We walked in – it was setbreak, I think, for the Tricksters – and
everyone was seated in front of the stage. A lot of people with their shoes
off, piled up, and sitting in an Indian circle. That was a pretty good
moment: it's rare that you walk into a rock and roll club and everybody's
sitting in an Indian circle on the floor.
LARRY BLOCH: I never felt comfortable leaving. It's like saying
"here's my child that I raised 'til she was eight-and-a-half… now you go
take care of her". There's no comfort in that.
8. The End of Dead Center
LANCE ROYES (security, 1994-2001): Back when we used to have the free
Tuesday nights, we had more trouble and more violence and more fights on the
Grateful Dead cover band nights. We'd have like 1000 people outside for,
like, 13 months in a row. We had this place packed, sold out, 13 months in a
row every single Tuesday. Kids were drunk, kids were stupid. Fights would
break out here and there. They wouldn't leave at the end of the night.
They'd start arguing and fighting with the staff. They'd try to convince
people to give 'em free shit.
We had a Deadhead riot once when the Dead were in town. They did five shows
at the Garden and Meadowlands. We were doing these late-night Dead cover
band things, one or two in the morning, and we got filled to capacity so we
stopped letting people in. These fuckin' kids started going nuts outside,
throwing skateboards and shit. We had to drop the gates, lock the front
doors. It all kind of stopped six months after Jerry died. No one was a
PAULY ETHNIC: Jerry Garcia went out of style? That's fucked up, man.
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI: The Grateful Dead night was one thing that I
pretty much took away [when I became talent buyer] because it wasn't making
the club any money. When we started charging money for it, it really dropped
off. I said "we can't keep doing this every Tuesday, it's just pointless.
Let's just do it once a month." When we did that, the attendance went back
up. It had nothing to do with me not wanting to book Grateful Dead bands and
everything to do with me wanting to make enough money so that Peter could
pay the bills.