Bloch and John Popper at Wetlands
On February 16, 1989 Larry Bloch and a team of novices achieved something unique in a former Chinese-food warehouse just south of the Holland Tunnel in Manhattan. Not only did this inexperienced collective open a nightclub in the mostly-undeveloped Tribeca region but they created one that fused music with activism in an altogether distinctive manner. As part of the club’s monthly operating budget Bloch created and funded a not-for- profit Center for Social and Environmental Justice to a tune of $100,000+ per year.
This self-styled “Eco-Saloon,” would come to embody a spirit, a community, an ethos. People still rave about the time they first encountered Blues Traveler, Phish, Pearl Jam, Dave Matthews Band, moe., The Disco Biscuits, Ben Harper, or Agnostic Front at the club. Others never visited, but have seen the signature Wetlands bus in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or have listened to the celebrated live recordings that originated from the club’s intimate stage. Still others participated in Wetlands’ working groups for social and environmental advocacy and remain tethered to its influential Activism Center.
Bloch, who passed away on Sunday in Brattleboro, Vermont, eight months following his initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, was inspired to open Wetlands by his dual passions for improvisational music and grassroots activism. He founded the club in an effort to realize both goals. Undeterred by his lack of experience as club owner, in such a challenging environment as New York City, Bloch simply put his head down and realized a vision that many dismissed as impossible.
Given his perspective, the venue was idiosyncratic. For instance the stage did not face out into the room but was tucked away in the corner.
As Bloch later recalled, “I wanted a place that had lots of nooks and crannies, at least two levels. I didn’t want a long rectangular room where one end was the stage and the other end was the bar and in between everyone would be sitting or standing and that would be the nightclub…The stage was first of all always envisioned to be a low stage, to create intimacy. Even though I understood that most stages were higher than our stage and higher meant you could see the band better. I regarded that as less important than the intimacy of band and audience. As well as everything else was supposed to be less ego-oriented and when a band is up on stage, it’s more like band worship. I wanted it more like people playing cool music for their friends.”
He achieved such a goal with numerous acts doing just as he intended. Bob Weir reflected, “I remember a place that had a lot of different spaces, a lot of different rooms and stuff like that-unusual for a concert facility but from every little nook you could still see the stage somehow, which was kind of cool.’
Dave Matthews added, “I don’t necessarily want to go back to having to play clubs every night but certainly Wetlands has got to be my favorite memory of a club if there’s going to be any.”
In the documentary film Wetlands Preserved: The Story of An Activist Rock Club, Rob Barraco (Phil Lesh Quintet, Zen Tricksters Dark Star Orchestra) shared a memory that speaks to this as well: “I’ll tell you what I loved about Larry. One day he was yelling at the soundman, ‘The bathroom mixes are not right. The left and right balances are not correct, fix them.’ So I go up to the soundman, ‘There are stereo mixes in the bathroom?’ And he says, ‘Larry.’”
Another signature feature was the Wetlands bus, which currently is located in the Rock and Roll of fame of Fame. Bloch’s vision for the Volkswagen was “I wanted it to be functional, where someone could sit inside and eventually sell tickets, sell merchandise and facilitate the Earth Station,” which was the focus of activism in the club.
Peter Shapiro, who purchased the club from Bloch in 1996—and has gone on to open Brooklyn Bowl and The Capitol Theatre along with his role as the publisher of Relix—offers, “Larry Bloch’s life had a direct and positive impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people. Wetlands was a wholly unique place, there was nothing like it when it first opened and there still is nothing like it today. It was Larry who single handedly brought Wetlands to life and caused it to flourish. There were others that played important roles at Wetlands, but it was Larry who was both Wetlands’ mother and father. Just given the amount of married people that I have met over the years that say they first met at Wetlands (in the basement, of course), it is not an overstatement to say that Wetlands caused the world to be a better place.”
John Dwork, longtime supporter of the club and former publisher of Deadzine Dupree’s Diamond News once stated rather evocatively, “I will remember Wetlands Preserve as a beautiful flower growing in a crack of concrete.”
Dean Budnick, founder of Jambands.com, executive editor of Relix and the director of Wetlands Preserved, adds, “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to suggest that there would not have been a Jambands.com, a Jammys or even a present-day Relix without the effort and inspiration of Larry Bloch. He created a gathering space for both sacred and profane communion with an enduring legacy.”
Shortly after learning of Bloch’s death, moe., posted a message on their homepage which reads, “Today at 5:30pm, we lost a mentor to many. Larry Bloch was a great man who brought a great vision to life. Those who frequented the Wetlands in New York City got a chance to see someone build a scene like no other and understood the significance; they got to witness and be part of the vision. Nobody has been able to duplicate what Larry did. In a way, moe. lost their Bill Graham today.”
John Popper, whose band Blues Traveler, was Bloch’s favorite from the early days of the club, contributed his sentiments via Facebook, “So sorry to hear about Larry Bloch,founder of Wetlands… He fought his cancer really hard&lived 8months longer than predicted in pretty good health&went peacefully by all accounts… We all love him&wish him well on the next phase of his journey…”
After selling the club Bloch moved up to Brattleboro, Vermont where he became deeply involved in local affairs. He maintained his focus on activism by opening the store/gathering space Save The Corporations From themselves. He also co-founded Brattleboro Community Radio and remained focused both on local initiatives and such national campaigns, such as the effort to legalize hemp. Earlier this month, Building a Better Brattleboro honored Bloch as the recipient of the Larry Cooke Memorial Service Award, which is “presented annually to an individual whose committed and tireless volunteer work has helped to make downtown Brattleboro a more vibrant place.”
In speaking about the legacy of Wetlands, Bloch once emphasized, “That’s how I view the world now, as a better place as a result of Wetlands. I put my attention on how it has fueled me for the work I’m doing now. And I hope the same transfer of energy can occur for people who were touched by Wetlands instead of focusing their energy on the absence of Wetlands.”
No doubt Larry Bloch would hope for the same from his family friends and anyone who seeks to honor his memory. For those who knew him or simply knew of him, it will be much harder and the hole considerably larger.