A Man Out of Time

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

"That place got insanely popular," adds Wiley. "All the people on X came by because they wanted to hang out in the black lights. All the goth kids loved it. It was Dennis's idea to rummage through the kitchen for props. I don't think they invested more than $3000 on renovations. That was part of Dennis's genius. He could make something out of nothing; he was forever making purses out of sows' bars."

Britt shrugs off the compliment. "That's one of the very few advantages that musicians have," he reckons. "They can run clubs; they really know what people want, how to entertain people. But you know, after a while you get tired of the injustice. I would estimate that at the Kitchen Club we were making $50,000 a month for Mr. Kasden. Then when it comes Friday, to get your lousy $300 check you've gotta chase him around for a week. Hello!"

The times took a toll on Britt's band, too. After performing their seventh major industry showcase without landing a deal, Watchdog finally broke up in 1988. Britt went to New York City for four months as part of a deal to sell CBS some old Watchdog songs. "'You're gonna make it big, kid,' Britt says mockingly. 'You're gonna be huge.'" Disillusioned once again, Britt returned to the Beach to find that the scene had gotten ugly at the Kitchen Club, where he accepted the job of interim manager. "It was the same building but not the same quality of life," he notes. "So I left."

Around this time, Allan Jacobi, a prominent local entertainment attorney and sometime backer of Britt called him. "'What are you doing now?'" Britt says, recounting their conversation. "'I don't know, I got this idea about a beatnik coffeehouse while I was in New York. Like a West Village thing. An old bohemian hangout.' He goes, 'Wow, I love the idea!' That afternoon he calls me back. 'I've got the money. Have you got the place?'"

And so Espresso Bongo was born. Britt agreed to run the place in exchange for a one-third ownership interest. The concept was simple: a low-key coffeehouse-hangout with comfortable furniture, books on the wall, and an atmosphere that made you feel as if the place already had been open for 50 years when you walked in the door. Britt's autonomy lasted about as long as it took him to find a suitable location on Lincoln Road.

"All of a sudden they [partners Allan Jacobi and Frank Martinez] were the ones who knew everything," Britt complains. "They were the decorators. They put marble and zinc and wood in. The place looked exquisite, but they went way over budget building it. It wasn't a place for artists. They thought they knew better than I did about music. Even the name, I got voted out. It went away from that whole bohemian thing -- coffee, bagels, laid-back. Before you know it they're selling little chocolate-covered doughnuts for five dollars, and charging five bucks a head at the door." So, true to his pattern, Dennis Britt walked.

"We did some good there," he assesses in retrospect. "We gave some people an outlet for their creativity, albeit for a brief window of time. We had homeless guys coming in there and reading poems they'd written. MTV showed up right after it opened to do a worldwide CD release party for U2. They loved the place. A year later they called to come down again. Now it's a French restaurant. The coffeehouse is history. A year later, MTV's filming spoken word readings at [New York City's] Nuyorican Cafe.

That could have been us. We were in the vanguard of this whole Kerouac-Beat resurgence."

And so now it's back to the basics: Dennis Britt, a guitar, a harmonica, a few friends, and a fresh batch of songs. West Indian's music even attracted Fantasma's Mike Carr's attention the old-fashioned way -- by luck. West Indian guitarist and long-time Britt cohort Daniel Jacobson mailed a rough demo tape to Fantasma on a whim. While Fantasma is primarily a concert promoter, Jacobson figured it couldn't do any harm to send them a tape. (Fantasma president Jon Stoll, a man with heavy music industry connections after 22 years in the business, recently had agreed to represent his first local unsigned rock band, West Palm Beach's INHOUSE.) The tape landed on Carr's desk (his official title at Fantasma is director of touring), where it sat amid a growing pile of other similarly unsolicited offerings. This is where the story takes a turn that will seem incredibly bizarre to anyone familiar with the music business -- Carr actually listened to the tape!

"Based on the name 'West Indian,' I thought it would be reggae," Carr admits. "I was so impressed by what I heard on the tape that I drove down to hear their first gig at Rose's. After listening to them and hanging out with Tavo (MĒller, West Indian percussionist and Britt's brother-in-law), Dan (Jacobson), and Dennis, I became even more interested. So I decided to try to help these guys secure a record deal. I think Dennis has tremendous capability, and I know he's got a huge catalogue of material that's never been released, dating back to Watchdog and the Beat Poets. The guy's one hell of a prolific writer, and I'm as amazed as anyone that he's still unsigned. I'm not 25 years old and I don't have my ear to the radio, but I've played the tape for several of my cronies in the industry, and everyone I've turned on to Dennis has been impressed. I've gotten feedback like, 'The Bob Dylan of the alternative set.' He's a powerful voice who deserves to be heard."

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