Goner Than You'll Ever Be

Wetlands wasn't just another insulting New York club. It was a secret society, a temporary autonomous zone, a late-night slacker's sanctuary, a tripper's refuge, an all-ages hardcore haven, and—most of all—a temple of expansive and unpredictable dance music in the key of X. Too crunchy for hipsters and too off-kilter for norms, Wetlands kept its cool on the margin of New York nightlife.

Downtown Rising: Mark Stewart and Stacey Earle at Knitting Factory, September 19
photo: Cary Conover
Downtown Rising: Mark Stewart and Stacey Earle at Knitting Factory, September 19

Thanks to an expired lease and the luxury condos moving in upstairs, Wetlands closed its doors for the final time around 3 a.m. on the morning of September 11. Jazz guitarist Stanley Jordan, Phish bassist Mike Gordon, and Gov't Mule guitarist Warren Haynes had all joined DJ Logic's band during the evening. (Three people later e-mailed Logic to thank him for playing for so long that they overslept and missed work at the World Trade Center; former Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's Ratdog would have closed Wetlands officially five days later.)

The club offered a congenial place to hang even when the music sucked. "Wetlands isn't necessarily the best place to see a show," admits Peter Shapiro, who bought it from original owner Larry Bloch in 1997, "but it's a great place to go to a show." Located at Hudson and Laight, some 30 yards from where the Holland Tunnel discharges an endless stream of cars, Wetlands was like a village inhabited by different tribes on a nightly basis, gathering in myriad nooks and crannies. It was a small, oddly configured room; light and sound bounced hotly off a brick wall 30 feet in front of a low stage, backed by an infamous jungly mural. The DJ, lighting guy, and their friends hung out in a glassed-in booth across from a meandering bar that offered an obstructed view at best. Now destined for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a vintage VW bus plastered with band stickers dominated a strangely unobtrusive eco-activism zone. Outside, the city's most tolerable bouncers checked IDs of kids who'd swooped down the West Side Highway from Westchester or Connecticut, or through the tunnel from Philly and Jersey. A flight of stairs decorated with the cheesiest black-light posters ever led to a low-ceilinged space reminiscent of the office in Being John Malkovich, abutted by a psychedelic dungeon where strangers shared pipes and spit. The hedonism could extend past the downstairs bar into the club's offices, back stairways, and boiler room.

It was a village with an ethos, and the regulars alone comprised a small community. When Larry Bloch borrowed money from his father to open the place in February 1989, the belligerently committed grassroots activist thought that New York needed an environmental social-justice organization and nightclub in one. He envisioned Wetlands as "the antithesis of the way other clubs were run." The stage was erected low, he says, "so people wouldn't feel like they were coming to worship the band." Patrons were encouraged to arrive early and stay very late. Weekend headlining groups would usually hit the stage around midnight and, since Bloch insisted they play two sets, the music often lasted until five in the morning.

Derided as solely hippie-retro by local musicians and tastemakers, Wetlands was nonetheless the first New York venue to book Rage Against the Machine, Counting Crows, Sublime, Travis, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Live, the Wallflowers, the Manic Street Preachers, Marilyn Manson, and Dave Matthews. It was the New York nexus of Phish's East Coast granola circuit. In the early '90s, shows by Blues Traveler and the Spin Doctors transformed Wetlands into a floor-shaking sweatlodge of bodies writhing to kinetic white blues and funk. Generation after generation of improv-rockers made it their own, from New Potato Caboose, the Grateful Dead-influenced band that opened the club, to moe., the Disco Biscuits, the New Deal, Lake Trout, String Cheese Incident, the Ominous Seapods, Soulive, and the Slip—bands that could rearrange your chakras six ways from Tuesday on a good night.

The improv-whatever acts turned out to be the bread and butter of a remarkably liberal booking policy, one that nurtured groups from downstairs to upstairs to out the door toward larger venues. In 1993, original talent buyer Walter Durkacz, who now books Central Park SummerStage and Joe's Pub, passed the ball to Chris Zahn, who initiated the Sunday School of Hard Knocks, an eventually popular all-ages hardcore series, at a time when no other club (including CBGB) cared to deal with the scene. Zahn and fellow talent buyer Jake Szufnarowski brought back the legendary Cold Crush Brothers for shows in the mid '90s. The infamous Zahn-a-thons, a guilt-relieving way to appease every band that sent him a demo tape, put 50 acts on the stage during the course of an evening.

The spot's full name was Wetlands Preserve, but Wetlands couldn't preserve itself in the end. Its shuttering leaves another fat hole in the heart of New York clubland's gasping ecosystem. —Richard Gehr

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