Our Dance With The Earth (Part I, 1987-1994)
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI (employee 1994-1999/talent buyer, 1999-2001):
ROCK AND FUCKING ROLL!
LARRY BLOCH (founder/owner, 1989-1997): Jake, what company
manufactured that beer?
JAKE SZUFNAROWSKI: (with an impish grin) A Chinese sweatshop.
2. Building The Club
The mural behind the stage. (photo by Carol Wade)
LARRY BLOCH: Wetlands was nourished in the backroads and woods of
central Massachusetts, in terms of what was happening in my life. I was
newly married. [My then wife] Laura was pregnant with our son-to-be Aaron. I
happily moved back east from California after 11 years. It was a time of
getting reacquainted with place. California didn't feel quite like that to
me, even though I lived there so long. There were places, seasons, family
near by. It was a different environment, to be sure. A closer-to-the-land
kind of feel. I got to spend time reflecting.
I felt so right, but not in a hurry. Here was a magical being, my son, about
to be born. I had a home. All of that great energy came together and
somewhere along the line, back in '87 or something like that, came the
inspiration for Wetlands, to imagine a place that was both a wonderful,
cool, conscious, joyous, ecstatic, musically diverse place, that was also an
amazing, energetic grassroots full-time activism social-justice center that
was literally founded on a model that would really be dynamic, that would
really make great changes in the world. And it has.
The idea of having an organization, an enterprise – in this case, a
nightclub, but it could be any kind of enterprise – that would devote its
resources, its energies, its support, its vision, to an in-house group of
people that worked for the enterprise running (with guidance) a full-time
environmental and social justice organization that would be funded not by
profits outside was extremely important. It's just like paying the rent.
Part of being here is funding that, with enough people and resources to do
the work envisioned, which is a significant amount of energy and funding.
Most of that work is usually done by not-for-profit companies that have to
spend a lot of their energy raising money administering the organization and
then having a little bit of energy leftover to try to achieve their goal.
They're doing all these mailings. Not very effective. Not very efficient.
Not really putting the energy into the end result, the goal. A lot into just
maintaining the organization. This model, I think, is a dynamic
revolutionary way of thinking about the world of the future in terms of how
for-profit businesses organizes themselves.
There was a group of us that started to run things in the beginning,
together. It was sort of one accident after the next. First and foremost was
Laura, my wife at the time. We're divorced now. But we are very much close,
still love each other. It's a great relationship. Her input was tremendous
from the very beginning. She is an artist, a very great visual artist. She
helped design many things in the club that you see and touch or just
experience. She lent ideas to the geography and to the placement and to the
colors. She built the lamps that are over the bar. She did the monthly
calendar of activities that we would put out. She was A-number-1 dream
companion, as I always call her.
A light fixture in the Inner Sanctum. (photo by Carol Wade)
LARRY BLOCH: We moved to southern Connecticut with the intention of
finding a space [in Manhattan] and building the club. We wanted to find a
place downtown. When I went to the zoning department to find out what
neighborhoods would allow for a nightclub to be built, some of the searching
had already pointed out that buying an existing club wasn't likely to fit in
with the vision. It would be someone else's kind of vision taking over a
TriBeCa was one of the most available places. There was also the way west
side up in Chelsea. Not too much else in all of lower Manhattan. The Village
really didn't have spaces at all, because of schools or residents or
landmarks or what have you. We went down to TriBeCa to check out the
neighborhood, because I had never heard of TriBeCa before, to tell you the
truth. I'd never been down to this particular part of Manhattan.
It was a totally different world. At least it was back in 1987. It was
quiet, to say the least. Most of the buildings down here were not even in
use, in terms of the commercial buildings. Not that many people living down
here, not that many tall buildings. It was really kind of cool. I fell in
love with the neighborhood right away. It was out of the way, but it was a
different type of place that was being built anyway. It's not meant to be in
the middle of the tourist district. There was open space. The Holland Tunnel
right there. It was odd, but it was cool. So, we started looking for space
in TriBeCa as a result of that.
[The space] was a warehouse, a food warehouse. It was filled with vats of
rice and monosodium glutamate. And there were rats here in large numbers.
Big rats. We started from scratch. We renovated the place from zero. Breck
Morgan and his crew of many did the murals. He also did the two murals and
the two signs — the sign that was over the door ("we labor to birth, our
dance with the Earth"), which I know have up here, and the Wetlands sign.
Part of the mural at the back of the performance area. (photo by Carol
There's a lot of words that I could throw out that were going through my
mind at the time, that had been reinforced over the years. I wanted to have
a place where people would feel like they were coming over to my house. They
would feel comfortable, like they were kicking their shoes off. We had many
different places where you could go to experience the same evening.
At a busy show, you can experience the space in many ways: you could be up
in front of the stage, rocking your ass off; you could be sitting backstage
hanging out, you could be chilling at the bar, you could be dancing in the
Earth Station area, you could be coming down here [to the lounge] and
crashing or doing whatever in the Inner Sanctum [a smaller room off of the
main lounge], you could be spacing out in the psychedelic blacklit hallway,
you could be hanging out in a nook and a cranny while you're part of this
cool musical event that's going on upstairs — the band, or the DJ
performing in between sets, or whatever's going on.
The stage was put where it was quite on purpose, with beauty and art in
mind. The beauty and art were manifold. There's phenomenal sound the way
this was designed. Does it make it more difficult to create that sound
throughout the rest of the club? Yeah, it does. It takes a lot of care to
make it fantastic out by the front door. However, it can be done that way.
It takes a little bit more care and little bit more running around by the
sound engineer, but it works. The sound and the feeling out in front, to
me… I've never been in a better sound experience than out in front of that
CHRIS BARRON (vocalist, Spin Doctors): Wetlands has always been a
sort of awkward place to perform. The stage is in a silly place. You're
facing this wall, and you have a lot of people in front of you, but on a
night when it's packed you've got a lot more people off to stage left than
you do in front of the stage.
LARRY BLOCH: Remy Chevalier came on board and helped set up what was
then a complete unknown: how we were going to operate the environmental
social justice activism center. It wasn't called that officially. It had no
official name. We called everything the Eco-Saloon. Those were the meetings
that we had, at that time, every Sunday evening at six. That was the
original concept: folks would come and listen to a presentation that might
be given on an environmental social justice topic by somebody from the area,
or somewhere else in the world.
I wanted to have a Dead night. It wasn't an idea, it was a love. I wanted to
go there, I wanted to hang out there, I wanted to DJ there. We moved the
Eco-Saloon to early on Tuesday. It was a perfect fit. The Eco-Saloon, of
course, was free. It fit very well. We never had to kick anyone out. It was
a perfect marriage to have the Eco-Saloon followed by Dead night.
ADAM WEISSMAN (Eco-Center, 1997-2001): The original office was
basically the [VW Micro]bus [parked inside the room] upstairs. A lot of the
environmental merchandise was sold out of the bus: buttons and things of
that nature. It was a much less elaborate program at that point.
LARRY BLOCH: The bus was found in a field in New Hampshire by my then
father-in-law Paul Fruzzetti, Laura's dad, who – at my request – was
searching for a 1966 or 1967 VW Bus, because those the only two years that
they made the doors that opened up on the side. I envisioned it and Laura
designed it. Paul Fruzzetti built it: a place where we could have a person
sit inside in the bus, be available to people that would ask questions about
the Earth Station, the environmental and social justice literature, and
calendar of events that was upstairs next to the bus, or to sell merchandise
from within — conscious raising apparel and buttons and bumper stickers and
sign up people to register to vote and answer the phones and stuff.
The Bus. (photo by Carol Wade)
ADAM WEISSMAN: I don't really come from [The Dead] scene, but – speaking as an outsider – I think in the '60s, which is ultimately where the
Dead scene traces back to, there was a more perceived intrinsic connection
between music and politics. There's certainly as much political music now,
but most of it is more relegated to the underground, whether it's in the
punk scene or underground hip-hop or a range of other styles. There are some
people who break through, like – say – Rage Against The Machine, but that's
more the exception than the rule.
The vast majority of pop music is largely apathetic where, coming out of the
'60s, there was a sense that it was all part of a larger culture, the whole
countercultural idea, which included the music, which included the politics.
There wasn't quite as much of a separation. I think some of that has carried
over into some of what the musicians themselves represent, some of what they
speak to. Some members of the Grateful Dead have given, at least, lip
service to environmental causes and, at most, have taken an active role
either through financial support or through participating in symbolic civil
disobedience protests. There are a range of different things. It's allowed
them to act, to some degree, as role models.
3. Send In The Bands
DAN LEVY (editor): There was this whole scene that preceded The Spin
Doctors/Blues Traveler [scene], of which The Mighty Sweetones were always
pointed to as the ur-band of the scene. Or, really, who's pointed to is Joey
Miserable and The Worms, from which The Mighty Sweetones and Milo Z and
Simon and The Bar Sinister all came. But there were these other bands, too.
There was this band called… sometimes they were called The Special Guests.
Other nights they were called The Surreal McCoys.
Later, when it intersects, is that there was a sort of supergroup called The
Dogs. Everybody in The Dogs was an incredibly good songwriter who was in
another band. They played at Roseland [Ballroom] with The Spin Doctors and
Blues Traveler on New Year's 1990, which was the first big New Year's show.
JEFF MATTSON (guitarist/vocalist, The Zen Tricksters): About six
months or eight months before Wetlands opened, we were playing a gig at a
sort of movable Grateful Dead club called Club Dead. It was a guy who was
having different nights in different clubs around New York City. It was
during some Grateful Dead Madison Square Garden shows and we were playing in
a club called Jamming, on 42nd Street. They were literally bringing free
busloads of Deadheads from the Garden over to the club.
That night, a guy came up to me and said "listen, I'm opening a club in a
few months. I'd really like to have you guys play there". We hear all kinds
of things, so we're like "yeah, sure, whatever, give us a call". And it
turned out, of course, that it was Larry Bloch and it was Wetlands. We were
one of the first. We came here as a band playing in a new club.
Tony, Carl, and Kregg at the front door. (photo by Carol Wade)
LARRY BLOCH: There were three opening nights. We had a private party
for the people who helped build the place; that was for friends and family.
That was not a public night. The first real night was a Friday night. That
was a DJ night. In the beginning, we envisioned Friday night to be a DJ
night. That didn't last that long, but we tried it out. It was called The
Wetlands Flood. [Talent buyer] Walter Durkacz was the DJ.
All I remember is being so busy attending to the operation of the club that
I have no recollection of anything else that happened. I don't remember any
of the music that Walter played, I don't remember if any of the people
danced or what they did. I don't remember socializing with anybody. All I
remember was the first night as the owner/operator of a nightclub and a bar
and a food service place and an activism center and wanting to have
everything go perfectly every night that I was there, but there with no
experience and no idea how it was gonna work.
That Saturday was the first live music, with New Potato Caboose. That
evening was unbelievable. It was transporting. That's the first night where
I can remember the magic. The band was turning everybody on. It happened
that night. Right away. The band sounded great, looked great. The crowd was
just experiencing something for the first time in the club, I'd say.
MARC BROWNSTEIN (bassist/vocalist, The Disco Biscuits): I'd say 1989
was about when I first started coming, which is right when it opened, right?
See, I didn't know that then. That's an interesting thing. I didn't know
when I first started coming to Wetlands that it was a brand new place. I
figured that it'd been there forever. It kind of had a rustic feel about it
DAN LEVY: Chris [Barron] was talking about this from the stage the
other night [at The Spin Doctors' reunion, 9/7/01], but there was one
week-and-a-half where The Spin Doctors played, like, seven different clubs.
Wetlands was one. Nightingale was one. There was one called The Spiral, on
Houston Street. There was the Continental Divide. A lot of people played
LO FABER (guitarist/vocalist, God Street Wine): Nobody ever told us
that you're not supposed to play too much in the same town. We just didn't
know what else to do except get as many gigs as we could. We'd play
Nightingale one night a week, Continental Divide another night, somewhere on
Bleecker Street another night.
CHRIS BARRON: Those places were basically dumps. They were bars with
stages where bands could play, whereas the Wetlands was really a musical
venue with a bar in it. They were really set up for music. It was just a
more special environment to play in.
The whole hippie/jamband thing was huge at the time. I remember walking in
for the first time. The place was all psychedelic, particularly the
downstairs with all those amazing vintage posters and the black light and
stuff like that. It was just really, really cool to be in a rock band at
that point in time and to have a place like that to aspire to play in.
DAVE MASUCCI (saxophonist, The Authority): The scene felt safe. As a
musician, it felt loving. Even as a listener, this was before I was playing
some of the bigger shows. When I first started sitting in with The Spin
Doctors and Blues Traveler and stuff, it was at Mondo Cane and Mondo Perso
and Nightingale's and Under Acme. That was around the same as they were
playing the Wetlands shows. They were a bit pickier about having people sit
in on the bigger shows in the beginning.
LO FABER: Wetlands was bigger, and it had a bigger sound system, and
it was a lot more professional: a bigger ad in the Village Voice. It
attracted national acts. It was geared towards our scene and our style of
music, as opposed to all the other clubs we played where it was, like, four
punk rock bands and then us doing our little Steely Dan thing.
LARRY BLOCH: Bands like New Potato Caboose were already successful in
their own region, and I think they'd been up here before they ever played
Wetlands. They were based in Richmond, Virginia, I think.
LARRY BLOCH: Lucky for us, they used their own sound system, because
the original Wetlands sound system was inadequate. It was not designed with
enough quality for the room. We had to scrap it fairly soon after four or
five or six months, maybe. We were very happy to use their sound system. It
was great, although it took up more room than we had allowed for. That stage
of ours grew. It got bigger from the beginning. You can't tell now, but the
stage upstairs was smaller than it is now. You have to visualize the same
bands who play here now, playing a stage that's half as big as that. And
they did. (Laughs.) Wasn't quite half, but it was definitely
stretching it. Our original sound system was mounted on stage, too. It
wasn't flown up in the air.
DAVE MASUCCI: We became really good friends with the guys who
maintained the sound system there. They ended up doing sound for us
elsewhere when we did colleges and outdoor events. Those guys, Banana Sound,
are geniuses. They really took it seriously.
DAN LEVY: A lot of the things that made Wetlands special really never
got transferred anywhere else. You could see it in parallel with what was
going on in parallel at the Nightingale bar, which was even more beloved by
the people who from my scene, but was also a place where dark, dark things
were always happening in the corners, so much so that after getting shut
down a few times, it's no longer. It's been obliterated and turned into a
yuppie bar. Wetlands was always more sweetness and light.
LARRY BLOCH: Abbie Hoffman died, I think, in April of '89. It
might've been March. We did a free show called "Steal This Cover Charge". It
was a free jam. "Abbie Lives In The Free", we called it on Saturday, May
6th. I don't know if it was a result of that, or subsequent to that, but I
met Johanna Lawrence, I guess she was Abbie's wife at one time. She had
organized subsequent to that, a couple of gatherings. I think they were
benefits for the Abbie Hoffman Foundation that was created as a result of
his death to carry on his work and to archive his life. What they did was
have people who were friends, like Allen Ginsberg. Kurt Vonnegut was
supposed to be at one, but never did come. He actually telephoned in his
regrets. There were other people there: William Kunstler and Norman Mailer.
I'm forgetting the others.
The first one was free. There had been no foundation established yet. 800
people showed up. 800 people over 40, I'd say. You can imagine how
incredibly impossibly uncomfortably crowded it would've been. There was no
way to get them all in the club. Even if we had 500 people in the club at
the time, it was too crowded for the people that were in there. Then there
were 300 people outside or whatever there were. It was chaos. A lot of
people were completely uncomfortable with that kind of crowding, considering
the nature of the crowd. There were a lot of people not accustomed to that.
They weren't there for rock and roll, particularly, even though they
certainly had activist spirits.
There was a rotation of people that read poetry or said words about Abbie
Hoffman or had some presentation. That went on outside as well. In other
words, Allen Ginsberg got up and read his poetry from stage and then he went
outside and did it to the people that were out there that couldn't get in.
4. Tuesday Night Dead Center
CHRIS ZAHN (talent buyer, 1994-1999): Grateful Dead cover bands had
to play on Tuesdays. Had to be psychedelic rock bands on Saturdays, jambands
or whatever. That was the formula. Fridays had more of a funk/reggae flavor.
Sundays become an all-ages thing, the Sunday party, which kind of morphed
into a hardcore punk thing.
LARRY BLOCH: Dead Center didn't start out being free in the
beginning. We didn't know what was going to happen, and there was no reason
to not make any money on a night of the week by design, but – as we
experienced after a couple of years of doing that – there's such a large
amount of people that are part of that scene where money was not an issue
for them, meaning they didn't have any. We welcomed them into the club. It
was part of the great vibe and energy here. I think that's why Dead Center
worked so well here over the years. For many years, every Tuesday night,
there were 500 people that would come in here and boogie to psychedelic rock
until 4:00 in the morning. Talk about having a party. You couldn't have a
party better than that.
JEFF MATTSON: For New York City, it was extraordinary to have a place
that was so, for lack of a better word, hippie oriented. At a lot of places,
particularly at the time, we would go and we would play and the club staff
would just kind of tolerate us, look at us, body-builders working the door.
They didn't get the music at all.
And here you had a club formed by Deadheads for Deadheads and those who
liked the style of music, the nascent jambands scene at that time. Jamming
was a dirty word. What are we talking about? 1989. There was the Dead, who
were an aberration in their huge popularity. Nobody else was nearly as
successful. Anything longer than eight bars of guitar solo was considered
indulgent. Here comes this place where it's completely cool to do your thing
and not just be tolerated because you bring some people there to drink.
Not only that, but here you had Larry, who really cared about the music. I
used to get a laugh from Larry because he was the only bar owner who would
want to know what we were playing and would say "do you really wanna end the
set with Deal? It might not be the right song."
CHRIS ZAHN: People still call, to this day, and ask "is it bongo
night?" Somebody called the other day. "Is it bongo night tonight?" "Oh, you
mean Tuesday night."
PETE SHAPIRO (owner, 1997-2001): Everybody remembers Vern. I remember
the early days watching Vern downstairs in the drum circle. Do you remember
him? That guy who would speak in the middle of the night about "focus".
Focus Vern. I had some great memories of him. He passed away recently,
unfortunately, of cancer.
CHRIS ZAHN: Vern was my favorite Wetlands regular. He was the old
Rainbow [Family] guy who led the "focus groups" in the lounge [on] Tuesday
nights. He was an institution.
JEFF MATTSON: Vern was a fixture around the Wetlands, at least the
nights we were there. He was a leader in the Rainbow Family. He was a great
guy, but a real character, an older guy. He was always trying to drum up
support for bands to play at Rainbow Gatherings and stuff like that. I think
they had some drum circles that they used to form downstairs at the Wetlands
on the Dead Center nights, before the band played.
CHRIS ZAHN: I always wished that people listened to each other a
little more while playing in the Tuesday night drum circles. Every now and
then you'd have a small group who started, having a nice rhythm going. But
then it got chaotic and it was like "oh, my God, it's like 50 people playing
a different pattern". The energy in that room…
JEFF MATTSON: One night, we were playing and – as I said, we knew
Vern from seeing him there all the time – he was always carrying around some
little piece of Latin percussion in his hand. Rob Barraco, who was our
keyboard player at the time (he plays with Phil Lesh now), met eyes with
Vern and Vern kind of gestured to him. Rob perceived it as "hey, how ya
doin'?" and Rob just kind of nodded back to him. What Rob didn't realize is
that he had just given Vern the "okay" to invite the whole drum circle of
Rainbow Family people onto the stage to play percussion.
The next thing you know, there was an onslaught of percussionists, or
would-be percussionists, on stage with us. Nobody knows what's going on. It
was cool for a number, and then they were still there. And another song goes
by… it was like "uh, okay". Then, somebody from behind me says "alright,
let's do it up one now!" (Laughs.) At that point, it was like "okay,
we want to thank the Rainbow Family for playing drums with us." At that
point, we bid them farewell.
5. The Spin Doctors/Blues Traveler Connection
DAN LEVY: With the Blues Traveler/Wetlands scene, it was as if some
of my wishes had been answered after the "In The Dark" influx of fans in the
Dead scene. I kept wishing "why don't they just find their own scene because
how could they possibly be getting off on this huge stadium experience?"
Suddenly, it was happening in my midst. It wasn't merely that there was a
really good band with improvisation and people were going to see them a lot,
but people were taping, people were nice to each other. It was kind of like
a technology transfer from the Dead to this scene. I got very excited about
it very quickly.
LARRY BLOCH: I saw Blues Traveler at Nightingale's. That's where I
saw them. They rocked my ass off right away. There were no seconds between
seeing Blues Traveler and wanting to have them come play at the club.
DAN LEVY: Certainly, the first really memorable times for me at
Wetlands was in February of '90, though I'm sure I'd been there to see
[Traveler] before that. It was a show where they played 'til about 5:15 in
the morning. Everybody kind of remembers that. If you were there, you
LARRY BLOCH: I never get tired of re experiencing what it was like in
the first year of the club at a Blues Traveler show. Nothing like it ever.
Nothing like it ever since. Everything was new, everything was happening. It
was a new experience. We were like children, both the people who worked here
and the people who came here. They were also part of a genesis. Something
was happening here and it was amazing and it was not like anything that was
happening anywhere else. They hadn't experienced anything quite like it.
Here was Blues Traveler connecting with them in a way that was having them
go wild. People were going wild. Traveler ignited that. John Popper, what he
was doing on that harmonica, nobody had ever seen or heard that before.
Nobody. People were blown away. When the room started to get packed, when
Blues Traveler got more of a following and the word spread, and Blues
Traveler was up on stage, every single person in the room was dancing.
Everybody. They were dancing everywhere. I'm not exaggerating.
CHRIS ZAHN: People would associate the older bands – like Widespread
and Traveler and Big Head Todd [and the Monsters] and a lot of the bands
from that era – with people coming out and drinking, a beer and shots kind
LANCE ROYES (security, 1994-2001): It was more frat boy rock with
Blues Traveler and those guys, people that had money and were going out to
CHRIS ZAHN: Larry once told me that he really thought the floor was
going to collapse at one Blues Traveler show. He said it was like horses
constantly galloping. It was people dancing. But when you hear the
vibrations [in the downstairs office]... it's rare that you hear that these
days; non-stop, 'til the wee hours of the morning, steady galloping,
trotting. People still dance, throwdown or whatever you call it, but that's
pretty intense boogie.
LARRY BLOCH: I have a clear memory is that, though that floor shakes
to this day when it's rockin' upstairs, and we've had every kind of crowd up
there beating on that floor including rockin' hip-hop shows – it still was
never louder than when Blues Traveler played. The loudest seismic reaction
on that floor was when a Blues Traveler show was happening. It was the
Spin Doctors, Blues Traveler, Warren Haynes, Joan. They were all playing
together all the time. Whenever one of those was playing, the others were
all there playing with them. Warren Haynes, wow. Not that this is any
contest, but Warren is such a nice person, so humble, such a great musician,
great singer, great guy… he's contributed more music than anyone, I think,
in the club. Very early on. I don't remember when he first walked in here
and he's played here in every kind of incarnation ever since. Here he was
with DJ Logic on the second to last night.
LARRY BLOCH: Many bands followed in [Blues Traveler's] footsteps,
Spin Doctors most immediately because they were friends, they knew each
other, they played with each other, they played interlocking sets
eventually. It was a natural, easy thing to see. Spin Doctors took a little
time to develop their music. When they did, there was nothing like them.
Another band that, especially in the first couple of years, were just
CHRIS BARRON: It took us a long time to break into the Wetlands. I
was living on Bergen Street in Brooklyn, in this funky neighborhood at the
bottom of Park Slope with the Blues Traveler. My rent was, like, $200 a
month. It was Bobby Sheehan, God rest his soul, Chan Kinchla, John Popper, a
lovely, lovely guy named Darren Greene who was the artist, one of the guys
who did the art for both bands, and I — this shotgun apartment with a long
hallway and all the bedrooms along the hallway.
I would've gotten up around noon and fixed myself some breakfast. The
apartment was a wreck, an absolute pig sty. The kitchen was the place
where everybody's flotsam and jetsam got jettisoned. There was a pathway
through all the garbage to the stove, and I was the only person who cooked
there. I would make myself some scrambled eggs in the morning and some
really strong coffee. I had a little desk set up on the side of the kitchen,
by the window. I had a little bookshelf. I would sit there with all my
books, drinking really strong coffee, super-hyped up on caffeine, and I
would write. I wrote Hungry Hamed’s, a Spin Doctors' tune on our
second record, there. Although, somedays I would go to Hungry Hamed's, which
was a donut shop about three blocks from the house on Bergen Street.
A lot of days, I would take the subway up to Sheep's Meadow and pass out
flyers for our shows, these crazy flyer that I would make at the Village
Copier on 13th Street. Our manager, Jason Richardson, had this old Duster,
an old Dodge Duster, and it was a piece of garbage. It was, like, a 1972
Duster. We'd load all the equipment into that and everybody would sit in the
front seat. Eric Schenkman, Aaron Comess, Jason Richardson, and I would all
sit in the front seat because it would be too crowded with the equipment in
the back. It was so crowded that one guy had to steer and the other guy had
to do the pedals of the car.
LARRY BLOCH: They were a psychedelic rock band and people don't
remember that now, perhaps. It was incredible. Not only did they have all
these funky poppy dance three-minute songs, but they had these eleven-minute
psychedelic incredible rock songs that were jammy but they weren't light and
spacey. They were funky, jammy psychedelic rock. They'd have a whole show
where you had components of both. It really made for a very entertaining
show. [Vocalist] Chris [Barron] had great stage presence. He would engage
everybody. Then they would kick back and do this jam that the Grateful Dead
would be proud of. It was amazing that they could do both.
CHRIS BARRON: Chances are that we'd get home around 7:00 in the
morning, somewhere between five and seven in the morning. "No cop, no stop."
That was something Bobby used to say. We'd drive home from there and he was
a pretty aggressive driver.
DAVE MASUCCI: There definitely were perks to being affiliated with
The Spin Doctors and Blues Traveler. They vouched for us. There were shows
where they helped get us to open up. I can't say that our first show at
Wetlands was opening up for either of them, 'cause it may not've been, but
they definitely put in a good word. I'm sure some of the people who were
working for Wetlands saw me sit in, or saw Rennie [Lopez] sit in, at another
LO FABER: I always like to tell the story of how we had such a hard
time getting our first gig there. We came in opening for Blues Traveler, but
that's just 'cause Blues Traveler asked for us, not because Wetlands wanted
us. We tried and tried to get a headline gig there. Came back and opened for
Traveler again, kept trying to get a headlining gig, so we finally told a
couple of friends of ours "just do whatever you can to go convince Walter to
They drove down to the Wetlands one day, not that I'm really condoning this,
and they lit up an enormous spleef sitting right at the bar in the afternoon
and handed it to Walter. Walter was instantly, pretty much, booking God
Street Wine. That's what bands should do to get gigs. (Laughs.) We
had a hard time at first and we would draw 40 people. Eventually, we turned
it around and started packing the place.
DAVE MASUCCI: Milo Z's band, in some ways, was kind of competing. We
were in competition in some senses. There weren't a lot of bands who knew
about The Funk, who were really representing funk in an honest way. They
were holding it down, and we were holding it down. There was definitely a
camaraderie, but still somewhat of a competition.
One time [Milo Z.] was in the crowd, and he was just chillin', and Rennie
invited him up right after a setbreak. He threw down this rap. I don't know
if it was seeing the height of the stage or what it was, [but Wetlands
crowds] would embrace guests. It's almost like they expected it with certain
bands, like The Authority. The expected us to surprise them. Milo Z sat in
and threw down a phat rap. We improvised. We jammed. We didn't do a song.
MARC BROWNSTEIN: [Besides The Authority], we were seeing the Mexican
Mud Band, Joan Osborne, I think – at some point – Dave Matthews. I missed
Phish. I would've liked to see those shows, but I missed it. I don't know
what I was doing. I guess I just didn't know who Phish was at that point.
When Phish got here, they already had a big scene bubbling up in upstate
Vermont. They were also a band that had learned how to do all of their
production themselves and were quite good at it, to say the least. It was a
professionalism that was new to us.
MAX VERNA (guitarist/vocalist, Ominous Seapods): The first time I
went to Wetlands, I was still in college. I remember thinking the place was
smaller then I had imagined, but the vibe more than made up for it. Some
friends and I went to see Phish in '88 or '89. The opening band was great,
they did a cool version of I Am The Walrus. Then Phish came on and,
man, was I high as hell. I had put in my time downstairs in the basement,
affectionately referred to as the Opium Den. I made sure that I got up to
the front nice and early because I wanted to see everything.
I don't remember much because it was a long time ago, but I do remember the
song Esther lifting me and the room a few notches. After the first
set I went to the bar and got tanked. I stood at the overlook by the bar for
the beginning of the second set when one of my friends told me to meet them
over at the bus in a few minutes. His intent was to go to the bar over by
the front door to hang out and have drunk talk. I stepped down off the
overlook a few moments later and got a bit dizzy. I sat on the step for a
minute or so to get my act together. The next thing I knew, the lights were
on and my friends were picking me up by the arm pits and getting me to walk
out of the bar with them. I remember thinking one day I would love to come
back and play on that stage.
LARRY BLOCH: The first person to work under Sheryl Liguori as the
kitchen manager told us about Phish. He was the first person to say "hey,
have you ever heard of this band Phish?"
JEFF MATTSON: They had food back there, now that I remember, where
the dressing room is now, there used to be a little kitchen there. It was a
pretty simple menu, probably veggie burgers or something along those lines,
LARRY BLOCH: The kitchen was a wonderful idea, and we had great food,
but the location was a disaster that no one had thought of until we'd
experienced it. You can't get to it with a crowd of people out there in
front of the stage. It's dysfunctionally located. Though we had a fine menu
of vegetarian items, we couldn't afford it after a while. We lost tons of
money at the kitchen. Somewhere around here I have a menu. We had homemade
pizza, we had jalapeno cornbread, we had vegetables on a skewer with peanut
sauce, we had baked curlicue fries. They were not fried. We baked them in a
giant convection oven that we had. We had some natural drinks, but I don't
remember what they were.
JEFF MATTSON: When it was crowded in there, it could take you 10
minutes [to get from the band room to the stage]. There've been some nights
in there were there were, like, 800 people, which is 300 more than it fits.
It's just a sheer physical thing… forget about people stopping you to say
"hello" or to request a song, just physically trying to get through a crowd
that big, you really had to set out about 10 minutes before the set.
LARRY BLOCH: The band room used to be downstairs where the Eco-Office
is now — the tiny little room, which is half the size of the regular
office, which itself is tiny. That used to be the band room. Imagine the
band in there, and then all the guests that wanna get in there. It was like
trying to pile people into a phone booth in one of those scenes in a comedy.
The whole back area was totally clogged, and the manager would be trying to
get through. It was crazy. It was good crazy.
LO FABER: Eventually, there was one Blues Traveler show where they
didn't play their second set for an hour because the guys couldn't get to
the stage. Then they said "okay, we can have the dressing room in the
LARRY BLOCH: Where was the Eco-Office originally? That's a good
question. I think we set it up at the bar downstairs. Unless it was at the
coat room, which wasn't the coat room yet. Was it there? I can't remember. I
know that the Eco-Office was set up at the downstairs bar for a considerable
period of time. You had a phone down there already. There was a computer
there from the beginning and you just had to set up the paperwork and all
that. The files were kept under the cabinets in the Earth Station area,
where they are still, to some extent.
LARRY BLOCH: We did the Phurst Church of Phun. It was John Dwork and
a whole bunch of other folks. They were loosely called "the Badillions". It
was a bunch of Pranksters, or neo-Pranksters. Wavy Gravy was there. It was a
mind-bending event, and the people had a great time at it. We did those
throughout the years. We did the light show. We had a sound system
downstairs where all these improv weird things happened and interactive
stuff between a whole bunch of people that would help facilitate the evening
throughout the crowd and the crowd themselves. Everybody would be given a
different identity. There was a lot of interesting music upstairs. We often
had the Zen Tricksters do three sets on Phurst Church of Phun, though the
first one was with a band called Midnight Sun.
LARRY BLOCH: It was always rather mystical to me that the street that
bordered the length of the club, Laight Street, was on the east coast and
way over there on the west coast was Haight Street. I thought that was
really quite remarkably coincidental, don't you think? How many streets have
that kind of spelling to begin with? It seems such an odd coincidence.
The street fairs we had were called Shakedown On Laight Street. The club was
open, but the street fair was right outside. We got permission to close from
Hudson, one whole block down to the next street, and we had vendors. We did
a couple of them on the night off when the Dead were in town. That's when we
did them. We got people to come down on the off night and hang out. Some
people wanted to vend stuff. The club opened during the day and people could
come in there. We had a band inside.
In the afternoon, we had a DJ play music or I'd play music. People could
come in and hang out, dance, go to the bathroom, get refreshments. Outside,
they could just hang at the street fair. People had portable music out
there, too. It was a nice scene.
6. The Sunday Party
LARRY BLOCH: We called it the Sunday Party. That was the original
name we had for it. I'm not sure if Laura or Remy came up the name. It was
one of those two. Henry Rollins came and did spoken word, the first time. It
went from there. It took a while to develop trust of people that would see
these bands booked into the club, and had heard of Wetlands but had never
been here and thought it was just a hippie club or a neo-hippie club.
The Authority was more city-like, urban. They had a little bit more of a
feel of a New York neighborhood than hippies out in the woods somewhere. It
was nice because people that enjoyed The Authority's music was a more
diverse crowd. It included the former. It included the people who would come
see Blues Traveler or who would come see New Potato Caboose. It had a
RODNEY SPEED (maintenance, 1990-2001): Where the other clubs focus on
the current type of music, Wetlands focuses on all types of music: past,
present, and future. What makes Wetlands stands heads above the clubs in the
KREGG AJAMU (employee, 1994-2001/guitarist, Rhythm Republik): There
were no particular restrictions about music. It was always so open. It's one
of the things that made me always want to be here. The last bits of that, I
experienced that at the old Ritz in the Village. You would have that there,
or at CBGBs. I always felt something too dark at CBGBs. The old Ritz was a
melting pot. One night, you could have Shiela E with somebody, and then the
next night you could have the B-52s or Kid Creole and the Coconuts or the
Godfathers; all kinds of different music constantly. We're the music
capital, New York. There's some real true diversity.
I started coming here in 1990. The Black Rock Coalition – Living Colour – was doing things here on a regular basis. The Good Guys, a band from
Virginia, pre-Dave Matthews, used to sell this place out. Calvin Bell, PBI
Street Gang, Kelvinator, and – of course – Living Colour were bands that
were here. Those of us who were members were just getting our feet wet in
the business, then.
MARC BROWNSTEIN: I remember seeing a Living Colour/Anthrax show here
sometime. It was sort of like an All-Star Jam type of a night. I feel like
it was a Monday night or a Sunday night, where they had lots of different
guys come down from different bands. Basically, it was like most of Anthrax
and most of Living Colour and some other guys from other bands, but those
were the two prominent acts that were playing. Unless I'm remembering it
wrong, which I might be, but that sticks out a little bit.
LARRY BLOCH: Sure enough, after a while, that transpired. Word got
around that it was a good place to play in, the music sounded good, the
staff was cool and no one was challenging anybody, there was no big ego,
nobody was giving anybody any shit, security was cool. People found out what
the club is about in terms of not selling out and being independent and all
kinds of similarities between where their minds are at and what they're
singing about and what this club is about. As more and more people saw that,
and demystified the place, the scene grew until it became a very popular,
vibrant, Sunday scene. It was nurtured by Chris [Zahn] more than anybody,
ultimately, when things really were rolling.
LANCE ROYES: I've seen the Black Panthers, Friend of Mumia, a good
bunch of environmental activist networks, some Indian groups. Back when we
were going through the Peltier stuff, Tasha Bell came through here and did a
bunch of stuff with action networks.
CHRIS ZAHN: One time I was walking out of the office, and it was a
Tuesday, and they were getting ready to do their meeting. It was a little
before seven. In the Inner Sanctum, that's what we call the back room. The
Inner Sanctum is actually the official title. I saw these guys, older guys.
Some guy had a little desk thing. There were all these guys lining up, like
five or six guys. What the hell is going on?
I go upstairs and it didn't like the typical Tuesday volunteer staff. I
asked James, who was director of the eco-staff. "Who are these guys?" "Maybe
I shouldn't tell you…" "Tell me. Is something going on out there?" "It's a
medicinal marijuana exchange." "We can get in big trouble for this." "So you
said 'just come to Wetlands and do the exchange?" "Yeah."
I thought about it, and it was kind of cool. It went on for a few weeks. It
was a lot of AIDS patients that were coming down and getting the stuff. We
were all worried about it. It was too risky. But, then, fuck it: we're
Wetlands, we've got a responsibility. It's one of those things he did that
you can't put on a press release. The climate is a little more relaxed now.
It was shocking for me to see that. It was a community of people that looked
like they hadn't ever been to Wetlands. This place is cool, taking a risk,
letting us do medicinal marijuana.
The Inner Sanctum, sadly devoid of furniture and stragglers. (photo by
LANCE ROYES: We don't always support corporate structured
environments. We usually support more community-based political groups.
Transient groups and watchdog groups feel more comfortable coming here
because they know it's not structured and driven by corporate interests.
KREGG AJAMU: I've done benefits for Haitian refugees, constant food
and clothing drives, in conjunction with WBAI and my favorite DJ, Brother
Shine. A lot of those thing along the lines of raising awareness towards
homelessness, shelter, food, refugees, and Mumia. Not so many things have
been so environmental in basic nature, but definitely activist. It's been a
lot. Not as much as I'd have liked to over the last couple of years, because
I've been involved with more specific productions, working with people,
7. Zahner Arrives
CHRIS ZAHN: A friend of mine was dragging me out to see The Spin
Doctors [in February 1992]. I knew that they were happening in New York – I'd heard a lot about them – but moreso at Dan Lynch's Blues Bar,
Nightingale's, and that circuit more than the Wetlands thing. At that point,
I think it was '92. I finally came down here for the first time. There was a
frickin' mob everywhere, people on the streets.
I remember walking in, I'll always remember it. I know what it's like for
other customers to walk in here for the first time when it's really packed
and really get hit hard with that hot air, with that wall. Now we're
used to it, all the people that come here a lot or work here know what it's
like to come in here in the dead of summer and just feel that "whooosh",
like you're in the fuckin' Sahara. I remember getting hit by that.
RODNEY SPEED: One time, it was so hot when the Spin Doctors were
playing, the walls were wet, even the floors were wet.
CHRIS ZAHN: Then I remember seeing a lot of broken glass everywhere
and people barefoot, dancing, and I said to my friend "what the hell? There
are people dancing barefoot in broken glass and it's hot; what are we
doin’ here?" It was fun. It was a great time. I had a ball that
night. I thought they were brilliant, The Spin Doctors. It was different
than the three-and-a-half-minute pop songs. It was definitely more of a hot,
sticky, sweaty extended jam kind of thing. I forget who opened for 'em. I
think they did two shows that night. I think they actually cleared the house
and did a late night thing. It was a mob scene.
One of the people who dragged me there was actually an employee there. I
remember Blue Oyster Cult came on the PA during setbreak, Godzilla.
Godzilla comes on and I said to my friend who works there "what the
hell is this? Godzilla?" He's like "oh, you should talk to the owner,
Larry. He's the DJ". "Oh, (groans) one of those clubs where the owner
DJs. Great." At the time, I was doing some freelance DJing: at parties and
lounges. Of course, I'm like "I can be a better DJ than this guy." "Well,
I'll introduce you to him, why don't you tell him straight to his face?"
So, he introduced me. The guy kinda spooked me out at first. He was all
nervous in there, didn't wanna talk to me. But I told him "yeah, I can DJ.
Want me to DJ here one night?" He took my information down and was like
"make me a tape". So, I made him a tape. I put Iron Butterfly mixed with
Motown, just an eclectic mix of everything. And he liked it. He started
calling me up to DJ here every now and then. That's how I got my foot in the
LARRY BLOCH: I certainly had no experience DJing when I came here.
When Laura and I were living together in California and we had people over
for dinner, I'd like to put on music and enhance the afternoon or evening,
with a record player or something like that. After the first few months of
watching how this was working with the DJ, I wanted to do it. I wanted to
learn how to do it. I wanted to learn about music more. I had a limited
amount of knowledge – it's always limited – but I had a very limited amount
of musical knowledge in terms of having heard music. I certainly expanded my
exposure to all kinds of music a an incredible pace during the first few
years of doing Wetlands. I aspired to learn how to use the equipment.
I'm a DJ that envisions the evening beforehand. Knowing who's playing,
knowing when the doors open, knowing when the band is going to go on, what
kind of music – assuming I know the music – and therefore what kind of
energy is going to be out there and when. Anticipating how early the people
will be arriving in the space to some extent. I like to construct an evening
for people where I am welcoming them in, ushering them into my living room,
and taking hold of their imagination, and leading them on into the evening.
KREGG AJAMU: Larry Bloch was really, really meticulous about playing
different things and leaving an attention to detail. At other clubs, they
just throw a tape on. They don't care. I go to other clubs and they might
have some heavy metal tape blaring… I can't listen to that before going
on, and I'm not being a prima donna. I've been spoiled on that tip. It's
important to set the right tone for the evening, do whatever you can to get
CHRIS ZAHN: They hired me to DJ. At first, I got the DJ shifts that
nobody wanted. Pretty much it was God Street Wine and The Authority to start
off with. Nobody wanted to work those shows, but they were great fun. From
there, I branched out. Eventually, I was doing two or three nights a week.
Then, I remember coming down here [to the office] and people would ask me
"how was the show [last night] that you were at?"
Some shows were great, some shows stunk. I'd be honest. I'd be like "this
band sucked, this band is great". There was one weird thing that turned it
around. I think it was 311. I got sent a CD in the mail and I start spinning
it, their first CD. People were flipping out. I'd play it an Authority show.
Everytime I would put it on, people would come into the booth and say "this
is amazing. What is it? I love this stuff!" It was 311. "It's a band from
Nebraska, on Capricorn Records." "When are they playing here?" "I dunno."
Eventually, all these people started asking, so I said to Mark – the talent
buyer at the time, the guy who had just taken over for Walter – "this band
311, I'm playing 'em at night, people are flipping for it. They wanna know
when 311 is gonna play here." Mark said something like "eh, I can't deal
with this shit", so I told Larry. Larry said "why don't you get on the phone
and try to book it?" "What do you mean 'book it'? I don't know how to book
something." It started with that. Eventually, I was like "okay, I'll call
them up". I didn't know what the hell I was doing.
We get hold of 311. We had them open for The Authority. I thought they gave
them a big kick in the ass. I guess this was '93, something like that. Larry
said "maybe do some more shows, Mark needs help." Part of me had no interest
in this at all. I just wanted to spin tunes. I didn't want to book shows.
There were all these other bands that I started to book. I said "I guess I
can do this, it's kind of easy, call people up and see if they wanna play…
oh, now I gotta worry about paying them?" "How much are you guys paying
us?" "Uh, I dunno." That's how I kind of eased in to it. Eventually, Larry
was like "Mark's leaving, do you want this job?" "Yeah, sure, I'll take it."