A Man Out of Time

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

"When things are supposed to happen, boom! They happen," Britt asserts. "We had gotten some money together to record, and I came down to Miami to check out a few studios. There was this place in the Grove, they practically laughed us out. We didn't see anything we liked or could afford, so we decided to stay in Philly for the time being. A year later I get this call from a lawyer friend of mine in the Grove. He heard I might be looking for a recording studio and he knows of this place that's up for sale because the owners got busted for drugs. He wants to know if I'd be interested in renting the place if he buys it. He takes me over to look at the studio and I can't believe my eyes. It's the same one they laughed us out of a year before. Fate! The place is empty except for the equipment -- grand piano, eight-track, two-track -- plus central a/c, house in front. I say, 'What's the deal?' He says, '$1000 a month.' It was practically handed to us."

So Watchdog relocated to Miami, enjoying almost unprecedented local popularity in the mid-Eighties. "I thought they were gonna make it big," recalls Patrick Gleber, owner-manager of Tobacco Road, where Watchdog first began attracting crowds in 1984. Then as now the Road was a two-story cabaret. Watchdog played its "troparock" upstairs, Iko-Iko belted out the blues downstairs. "That was the heyday for Tobacco Road as far as live music was concerned," Gleber adds. "[They] were great. I remember conga lines, lots of dancing. They had fun. Good-looking guys doing good music and attracting a good-looking crowd. Kind of like Nil Lara today."

"We ruled," Britt flatly states of Watchdog's initial six-month tenure at the Road. "I never use that word, but we ruled there. [Owners] Pat [Gleber] and Kevin [Rusk] gave us the room for as long as we wanted. I think that's the only time in my career when I had lines of people outside the door. We were a party band. We could give you a calypso, a reggae, a pop rocker, a ska. People were dancing everywhere."

But their newfound popularity went to their heads. "We got snotty, man," Britt admits. "When they showed us around Coco Loco's [a Mexican restaurant adjacent to the Coconut Grove Playhouse], the place was huge. We thought we could bring the whole crowd from Tobacco Road. Boy, did we learn a lesson. First of all, at the Road you also had Iko-Iko downstairs, and man, they could bite your head off. They were great back then. But we also discovered that not only do people come to see the band, they come to be in an environment. It takes two to tango. Put a great band in a place with the wrong atmosphere, fans wonder what's going on. Your partner, the room, stinks. Too much light, too many mirrors, bad sight lines, not cozy. We played there [Coco Loco's] a year and a half. Eventually we got it packed. But it was never Tobacco Road."

One very good thing did come of Watchdog's year-and-a-half run at the cantina. He met Beth, his future wife. "She's on her way out of the restaurant," he smiles. "This guy, God love him, he stops her and says, 'You gotta check out this band.' They're girls from Palm Beach, they're down here having a good time in Coconut Grove. They don't give a damn about the band. It was one of those love-at-first-sight things. I look down, there's the girl, she's lookin' up, probably thinks I'm Sting or something. Then suddenly we were living in this studio in the Grove, which was fabulous before the Mayfair came in. I remember playing some occasion in Peacock Park and rolling the Fender Quad from the house right down to the park. It was great. That's my little secret victory, that out of Miami I've been able to squeeze small-town living."

By 1987 Watchdog had acquired a harder edge and was encroaching on alternative rock. The gig at Coco Loco's had run its course. The band grew restless. Enter Britt's financial guardian angel, Jonathan Lewis. "I was just blown over by his music," recalls Lewis, who met Britt during Watchdog's extended Coco Loco gig. "I have a lot of friends in the music business, but I never had been or aspired to be until I met Dennis."

Lewis introduced Britt to his music-biz connections, financed the musician's recording efforts (notably at Criteria Studios), and provided Britt and his family with monetary support for what the businessman terms essentials such as "diapers and rent." All told, Lewis estimates he has spent more than $100,000 on Britt. "I was responding to his music and I was responding to him as an individual," Lewis explains. "I really believed in him, I really thought something was going to happen eventually. And I always believed it was important that Dennis spend his time working and writing as opposed to waiting tables or tending bar or something."

Lewis figures that despite the fact that Britt has yet to snag a record deal, their association has paid off for him in nonmonetary ways. "I get a lot from Dennis," Lewis notes. "He's my mentor, I get a lot of strength from him. I think he's incredibly insightful. There have been many times when his support -- his sort of spiritual outlook -- was significant in my life. So things like that generally go in two directions."

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