Larry Bloch, Founder of New York's Wetlands Preserve Club, Dies at 59
Music industry activist Larry Bloch passed away on Sunday in Brattleboro, VT after an eight-month battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 59.
Bloch was best known as the original owner of Wetlands Preserve, a New York venue that helped birth the jam-band scene of the '90s. The club’s doors opened in 1989 and closed one day prior to the 9/11 attacks in 2001. By then Peter Shapiro had taken over ownership of Wetlands.
“Larry enabled me to be able to buy Wetlands,” says the sandy-haired impresario, who today has vested interests in Relix Magazine, Brooklyn Bowl and Port Chester, New York's Capitol Theatre. “He chose me as much as I chose it. I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
Grateful indeed, as Bloch explains in the Dean Budnick-directed documentary, Wetlands Preserved: The Story of an Activist Nightclub, “Our club -- built for Deadheads, by Deadheads.”
But there was more to Wetlands than endless jam sessions featuring members of Blues Traveler, Phish and the Allman Brothers, or Grateful Dead cover bands. Bloch used the club to convey an anti-corporate, pro-environment message.
Born in Philadelphia in 1953, Bloch was raised in New York City, but moved to Los Angeles after failing to graduate college. Bloch and first wife owned a printing company there. They sold it and relocated to Connecticut. Despite having no experience in the music business, Bloch decided he wanted to open a club in New York. He chose Tribeca because it was a warehouse district at the time.
“The idea was to create our own space with our own identity,” Bloch said about the club at the corner of Hudson and Laight Streets near the mouth of the Holland Tunnel. A Deadhead, Bloch initially catered to New York’s tie-dyed crowd. This expanded to the nascent blues and funk bands working around New York, such as Blues Traveler, Spin Doctors and Joan Osborne, all of whom would eventually have major commercial success. Shapiro says that in the decade-plus that the club was open, some one million people came through the door.
Among the bands that played Wetlands during its early days are Pearl Jam, Phish, the Dave Matthews Band, Rage Against the Machine, the Roots, Hootie and the Blowfish and Cypress Hill. In addition to a solid jam-band lineup, Wetlands opened its doors to ska, hardcore, jazz and hip-hop, But success bred problems with the Tribeca Community Board, which didn’t like the late-night crowds snaking down Laight St. With bands encouraged to play multiple sets, Wetlands famously stayed open until 4 a.m. and beyond.
“It changed from a commercial neighborhood to a high-end residential neighborhood,” says Shapiro.
After selling Wetlands in 1996 -- partly due to the city’s crackdown on clubs under Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s watch -- Bloch migrated to Vermont to be closer to his son following a divorce from his first wife, Laura. There he opened a store called Save the Corporations from Themselves on Brattleboro’s Main St. Like the “Eco-Saloon” at Wetlands, with its sundry sflyers, books and pamphlets, Bloch’s Green State shop has its own “Activist Attic” upstairs. He later married his second wife, Lisa, and the couple remained together until his death.
Bloch became as popular among activists in Southern Vermont as he was in Lower Manhattan.
He and others tried to save Radio Free Brattleboro, to which the FCC would not grant a license. “We fought the FCC even though we knew it was a losing battle,” says Brattleboro attorney Jim Maxwell. “Larry was an intense human being. He had a way of convening the urgency of a situation.”
In New York, activists would often meet at Wetlands to plan direct actions and guerrilla street theater. “If you were left of center politically, and really wanted to make a change,” Shapiro recalls, “Wetlands was the place to be.”
For Shapiro, it proved to be a springboard to bigger things. He went on to co-produce the U2 3D movie (along with his brother Jon) in 2007 and then parlayed that into opening Brooklyn Bowl in 2009. Shapiro has since renovated and reopened The Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, NY and is planning to branch out to Las Vegas with a Brooklyn Bowl to open in 2014.
“I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for Larry Bloch and Wetlands,” he humbly states.
Shapiro last saw Bloch two weeks ago. “I invited him to DJ at the Blues Traveler/Spin Doctors show (at the Capitol on Oct. 13),” he says. “Up until the end I tried to get him to go. He was my conscience. I can always ask the question: What would Larry think about this or that? He’d either say, 'That’s cool' -- his favorite phrase -- or tell me why it wasn’t cool. He would never bullshit me with a yes.”