A Man Out of Time

Repeatedly sideswiped by fame, singer-songwriter Dennis Britt braces for one last lunge at the big time

"I just wish somebody would have explained that to me in Watchdog," Britt laments. "I can understand now how going from a juju [song] to a ska to doing a pop-rock thing and then doing an Afro-Latin fusion thing would present a marketing problem. That's the key word -- marketing. You're looking at it like a fine art; he sees it as part of a manufacturing process. If you're an established artist like Paul Simon or David Byrne, that's one thing. But when you're a new guy, the A&R [artist and repertoire] guy says you have no focus."

But even if someone had been there to give Britt such advice, it might have sailed right over the aspiring recording artist's head. "I had almost $180,000 spent on my career [from Jonathan Lewis and others]," he cautions. "Yet every time you come home liking your cheap little demo better than what they got in their big expensive studio. We were doing alternative at Beirut. If I'd stayed with it, we'd be right in the forefront today. But my patron was a partner in Woody's [a popular rock nightclub on South Beach owned in part -- and frequented by -- Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Wood]. He introduced me to all these English guys. They all loved the band [Watchdog]. Some of them were hanging with Ronnie, the other one is Mick's friend. They started advising Jonathan, who in turn told me, and I bought it. They sold me. So they plucked me out, put me in Criteria with an engineer with gold records all over the walls, and gave me two producers from Rick Astley. I took 'em to Beirut. They hated it. That should have rung a bell. That was my scene they hated. I built that club. I lived there. But they sold me."

Dennis Britt was born Dennis Alonso Brito in Cuba in 1950 (he changed his surname to Britt in 1981, he explains, when his music career began to take off: "It was just a show-bizzy thing"). His father was a senior executive at Colgate, and his grandfather was a powerful corporate lawyer at Sinclair Oil. Dennis enjoyed all the benefits of a privileged upbringing, including attending an English-speaking prep school where his mother taught and his older brother, Ozzy, turned all the cool kids on to the sounds of Elvis and Bill Haley at sock hops. Later, however, at about the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961, Britt's family fled the island by plane.

"They passed a law that all kids from a certain age were being taken to indoctrination camps," Britt explains. "My mom brought us to Miami."

But shortly thereafter, Colgate transferred his father, who had stayed behind in Cuba, to Puerto Rico. "I guess that time ruined a lot of families," Britt sadly understates. "It did mine. Dad and Mom never got together again after that. Suddenly we went from having so much to crowding into a motel room on Tamiami Trail." A few months later, Dennis was sent to stay with an uncle in Peekskill, just north of New York City, where he lived an idyllic all-American existence. "I loved living up there," he sighs wistfully. "Ice skating. Looking for Indian arrowheads. Bass fishing. Fly fishing. I had a feeling in that town that you can't buy. The park. The gazebo."

At fifteen he returned to Miami to attend high school. "I became a total preppie!" he chuckles self-deprecatingly. "Weejuns. Gant shirts. Football games. Fights. Beer. Broads. The whole thing. I got pretty rowdy. I lasted here less than a year. Maybe nine months. They shipped me off to Puerto Rico real quick. With Dad. Put me in a Jesuit school. Flunked out miserably. Those Jesuits, boy, they put me through the ringer. The only redeeming thing was that I was a cool American guy in Puerto Rico. That's how I made friends. But I was the dumbest. I mean all these guys had been doing like advanced geometry since the sixth grade. I was like, 'What's wrong with them?' It was a disaster." It didn't take long before he flunked out.

The experience was not a total loss, however. One of Britt's Puerto Rican friends recruited his cool American buddy to play drums in a teenage rock band. "I was a natural, man," he insists. "Rock beat 101. Doom-pop. Doom-doom-pop. This guy opened my eyes to being a musician."

But flunking out of Jesuit school brought the difficult teenager back to Miami, where he enrolled at the private Christopher Columbus Catholic High School and joined the football team as junior varsity quarterback. Meanwhile the team's center drafted Britt into his band. "From then on, it was all the high school bands," Britt quips. "But I got tired of the guitarists always getting in fights with their girlfriends and breaking up the bands. You get tired of sitting alone in your house with your drums. So I sold the drums."

Britt met a guitar player named Brooks Reid at about that time. "That is the boy. He opened my eyes to the guitar," Britt gushes. "Open tuning. I just followed his footsteps in how to write songs. We're in this band and I see him barring chords and playing so easily. I go, 'What are you doing?' He goes, 'Hey, man, this is the way Richie Havens plays.' When I discovered that, man, it was like the sky just opened up.

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