A Man Out of Time

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

One of Lewis's earliest efforts on Britt's behalf was to arrange for Watchdog to play a showcase for an English music entrepreneur, and he instructed Britt to book a room that reeked rock and roll for the occasion. Britt rented the Delano hotel ballroom on South Beach. "We were running through there at all hours of the night," Britt remembers. "We started living at the hotel. So we did the showcase, we're into the alternative thing. The cat's comment was, 'Jesus, people stopped tripping years ago!' Little did he know.

"Downstairs in the basement was a Latin club where they had an average of about a stabbing every week," Britt reminisces. "So I go to [Delano owner Paul] Kasden, 'Listen, you got a bunch of crazy Latins killin' themselves down there. Maybe three or four customers show up a night. Please let me open a rock cabaret. I think that was the key word, cabaret. I tell this old kosher Jewish guy, 'I can make money in this club.' So he says okay."

Britt selected the name Club Beirut to signify a sort of rock-and-roll shelter, a place where music meant more than race, religion, or country of origin. Also, crack sales and an influx of hookers had turned the street outside into a war zone. Delano owner Kasden hated the name from the start, but, according to Britt, acceded to his wishes on that and just about every other issue of any consequence affecting the club. The deal was that Kasden collected all the liquor sales; Watchdog and any other band performing live split the door.

"Kasden's son, Tim, was over at the Seagull Hotel," Britt recalls. "He comes every night. They give us rooms upstairs. Raw B. Jae moved in there, Doc [Wiley] moved in there, the rest of my band, and I was living there too [with his wife and daughter]. Plus we had two rooms for bands. I can remember Vesper Sparrow having water balloon fights in the halls. Bootleg. The Nukes. At night, after the shows, it was a riot. A riot.

"Robert Cray was there one night," Britt recalls. "Julian Lennon sitting in a corner, nobody knew who he was. Ziggy Marley. All the crowd from Woody's, China Club, Tropics. One night these young guys come up to me and they wanna play. The Kids. I say, 'Man, I'm sorry, I can't do it.' 'Come on, man. Let us play the club. We've got Johnny Depp in the band.' I had no idea who Johnny Depp was."

Doc Wiley remembers those days, too. "It was mostly an after-hours club," confirms Wiley. "You had to be a real fan to show up before 2:00 a.m. A lot of shady folks. One night after their gig at Club Nu, Soul Asylum came by. [Guitarist-vocalist] Dave Pirner came up to me and said, 'I really liked your stuff.' 'Did you catch the whole set?' 'No we walked in in the middle.' 'Stick around until 5:00. We'll be back on by then.' 'How many sets do you do?' 'Three each.' 'All original?' 'Yeah.' 'You guys are insane! We only do one set in Minneapolis.' And he stayed for our last set."

"I knew I was living a movie," Britt says now. "I savored every second. We had no money, living there in the hotel with Beth and Briton, but I really loved it. That [Beirut at the Delano] lasted about a year. It was going great. The hotel manager used to come in at 5:30 in the morning, turn on the lights, and throw a bunch of people out. Then one day I go down to the club and I see all this cotton in the halls. 'What's all this cotton?' They have a brother pulling the stuff off of the pipes with his bare hands. That afternoon the feds showed up. They started wheeling old people out, and the next day the hotel was shut."

Wiley puts it succinctly: "I'm literally sleeping in my bed and this guy shows up at my door dressed in a space suit telling me I have to vacate the building. The place was full of asbestos."

"So I say to Mr. Kasden, 'What do I do?'" Britt amplifies. "He says, 'Go see Timmy.' So I take the whole circus with me. The next day we're all at the Seagull, which is like a run-down gay hotel, standing in this gloried drag closet. 'What do we do now?' Ruben Pagan and this guy Mont had already been DJing at Beirut, and they were playing excellent music. They suggested we open a dance club. This closet stands right next to an old kosher kitchen that had long been closed in the hotel. One minute we decide to make a nightclub, the next minute we're looking at this kitchen that looks like a disaster area. So a name immediately comes to us A 'Hell's Kitchen.' We immediately painted that one out front, but Mr. Kasden freaked out when he saw it. This thing was devilish. So we changed it to just 'the Kitchen.' Spray-painted all the silverware fluorescent colors and hung it from the [black-lit] ceiling. The room was so gorgeous Coke shot a commercial there. Vice shot there."

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