Clubs Crawl

The week of the World Trade Center disaster, nightclubs around the city were to be filled with artists ranging from White Stripes to Herbert to Richie Hawtin for the annual CMJ Music Marathon. Instead, the stages were desolate and empty, as club employees and patrons alike were barred from entering the off-limits areas of Lower Manhattan. “Acid Mother Temple was supposed to be closing the festival,” says Guy Compton, marketing director of Knitting Factory. “I don’t think they’ve played in the States for 10 years. The money aside, it’s just completely amazing music that we lost out on.”

While CMJ has been rescheduled for October 10-13, Compton says all of the original showcases at Knitting Factory—including shows by Folk Implosion and DJ Vadim—have been canceled outright. “It’s a crushing blow,” says Compton. The Knit has a few of those dates already booked in the main room, but Compton and CMJ organizers are still unsure which of these shows will be included in the Marathon, as CMJ is still scrambling to rebook what will undoubtedly be a smaller event.

Knitting Factory, located on Leonard Street four blocks south of Canal—just eight blocks from Ground Zero—is one of the hardest-hit venues. Already in deep financial trouble before the attacks, the Knit barely made it through the last year, which Compton calls “our toughest period to date.” But now, the club has to start over from its own ground zero—the general public couldn’t even venture below Canal Street without proof of residence until last Monday. “We have to do what we have to do to survive,” Compton says.

Unable to enter the club until the Monday following the attack, the staff hacked into the company’s Web site from outside and changed the homepage to give updates. Compton opened his doors on Wednesday the 19th for a show featuring Freedy Johnston and Stacey Earle; on the Web site, he posted tips for negotiating the various police checkpoints around the area. Compton required that patrons prepay for tickets, and gave city police a guest list for each show. “What we do at the velvet rope, they’re doing at the checkpoints,” he says. According to Compton, the American Analog Set show this past Saturday night came close to selling out, and the area seemed unofficially opened to pedestrians, but not vehicles, as of this weekend. “To get that close [to selling out] in these conditions is a major, major victory.”

The Knit is not the only club directly affected. Shine, which sits at the border of Canal and East Broadway, is technically allowed to be open, says co-owner Nicholas Cohen, but “I’m looking at 30, 40 state troopers outside our club.” Cohen has temporarily canceled weekly dance parties like Giant Step and Touch. Opening his doors would cost the club $4000 per night, Cohen estimates, but “Is it worth being open and not have people inside?” he asks. “That doesn’t help anybody, including the staff, because they are not going to be making any tips.” He says that getting deliveries for beer and liquor have been extremely difficult but that Centro-Fly and other clubs have offered to help out. Cohen estimates financial loss is in the tens of thousands, but the club was fully operational as of Tuesday night’s Vice magazine party.

While nightclubs are perhaps one of the last things on people’s minds, club owners are looking into the possibility of getting financial assistance from Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). “I think we’d qualify, but everything’s going to be in a holding pattern for a while. They have to worry about Cantor Fitzgerald before they get down to us,” says Compton.

Vinyl, the largest nightclub in Lower Manhattan (located at Hubert and Hudson, nine blocks from the disaster), has also been closed two weekends straight. Co-manager Benny Soto said that even if the club—which had been partially without electricity and water—had been able to operate, its DJs, like Danny Tenaglia, didn’t want to play. Soto pointed out, “You don’t know how many people are really going to come out and dance. But Vinyl has a real hardcore crowd, and people will want to dance, especially at a party like Body & Soul, which tends to be a little spiritual. Dancing is a way of healing.” And countless other parties, like the ones thrown by Plastic City at the Soho Grand and the Tribeca Grand, have been put on hold indefinitely. “My guess is they are basically done due to this horrible occurrence,” says promoter Ben Butler.

Nightclubs, already beleaguered by the mayor’s anti-club task forces (“Giuliani has never looked too favorably at our types of businesses,” says Compton) now face a more daunting rebuilding process. All the same, many venues, including the Knitting Factory, are donating proceeds and holding benefits. The local record and promotions company Giant Step canceled three shows after the disaster; co-owner Jonathan Rudnick says that from his Church Street office “you can immediately smell the thick air and see flatbed trucks filled with huge, huge girders and wreckage. We have been back in the office since last Monday and still have trouble with long distance.” But “so many have lost so much that an interruption in any of our business just pales in comparison.” —Tricia Romano

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.

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