By Michael E. Miller
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It may be hard to imagine these days, but there actually was a time when Coconut Grove was synonymous with the phrase "hippie mecca." Long before CocoWalk reintroduced the sight of imperial China's peasant-pulled taxi carts, prior to jet-setting celebs such as Madonna and Sylvester Stallone discovering the joys of a bayfront manse, the Grove was host to a vibrant enclave of artists' galleries and studios, poet-clogged coffeehouses, and, above all else, musicians. New York City folksinger Vince Martin is widely credited with first putting the burg on the bohemian map in 1961, fleeing a frigid Greenwich Village winter and in the process forging a travel path that would draw south then-budding talents such as David Crosby, Mama Cass, Richie Havens, and Fred Neil. Some, like Martin and Neil (who cut an album together in 1965), laid down roots and settled in. Others, like Joni Mitchell, Eric Anderson, and John Sebastian, came for visits -- a respite from the Village folk scene and a chance to woodshed with friends in a bucolic setting.
"I remember my life in detail, just not in sequence," quips Martin, now age 63, speaking from his Tampa hotel room en route to a series of Miami gigs, his first local shows since moving back to New York City in 1979. With no little symbolism, the site of Martin's performances this Friday and Saturday is the Titanic Brewing Company, a building better known in the Grove's hippie heyday as the Flick ("I can't believe the place is still there," Martin marvels). The place was home to many legendary concerts in the late Sixties and early Seventies by artists such as Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin, as well as Martin's own primary stomping grounds.
As for Martin's original inspiration for driving down to South Florida back in 1961: "It was a girl, a stewardess. She lived right on Leafy Way." Laughing, he adds, "If I hadn't tried to score, [the folk scene] might never have been there." Still, it was the sheer physical beauty of the Grove that made Martin stay and made converts of everyone else that followed. "The minute I drove into the Grove from Brickell Avenue, I was hooked. It was just so different. You could smell it and feel it. Within a month I had my own place right by the bay, where you could smell the jasmine."
It's a sentiment perfectly captured on Martin's 1969 album, If the Jasmine Don't Get You ... the Bay Breeze Will, one of that decade's overlooked gems, and a record whose title truly says it all. From the opening cut, "Snow Shadows," the sound is an airy blend of folk spirit and rock dynamics. Softly brushed drums push forward behind propulsive flat-picked twin acoustic guitars; Martin's high tenor sings of romantic loss, quivering over the lines "Stumbling through the snow..../Nothing waitin' for me like I'm leaving behind..../Cities are meant for leaving before I get too black and blue." As the song builds, the drummer dramatically downshifts, cracking his snare with a full stick. Martin's voice in turns seems to lift off with a thrilling effect, soaring, as he croons, "Heading south without you like a wild bird flying blind/Someone should have told me I'd never go home."
More than 30 years on, it's as good a credo as any for the Northern Anglos who still seem to be magnetically drawn to Miami, simultaneously looking to flee their past and start fresh.
"That record was cut in Nashville," Martin recalls. "The musicians had just finished doing Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, and they wanted to jam." He pauses, briefly lost in the memory. "They're geniuses. I just sat and played and they came along with me." As for the album's title track, a sprawling thirteen-minute outing complete with jazzy guitar breakdowns, a forceful bass solo, galloping percussion, and Martin's scatting, it was wholly improvised. "They wouldn't quit!" Martin exclaims, describing the studio band. He continues, "I wanted to stop singing, and the fuckers wouldn't quit! So I said, 'Okay, let's go.'"
Vince Martin was the singer's next release in 1973 for Capitol Records, a collection more firmly in the then-dominant singer-songwriter pop vein. Michael Dean, currently with the Beach's Esperanto Music, was working at that time as a DJ on WBUS-FM, a freeform radio station intrinsically tied to the Grove. (WBUS today is classical outlet WTMI-93.9 FM.) He'd landed in that neighborhood in 1970 as a twenty-year-old British expat. He interviewed Martin on the air at WBUS about his new album. He too had fallen under Coconut Grove's spell.
"I don't know about magic," Dean says of the descriptions often levied at that era of Grove life, "but it was cheap and comfortable. Contrast that with all the musicians back in Greenwich Village scuffling about in all the traffic, the noise. If you're Tim Hardin and you need a break, you're not going to go to Las Vegas. And that builds up a network. The Grove became an attractive destination for cats who wanted to deviate from the norm." And then there's that jasmine. "You'd be out on your bike at night, just looking up at the moon in the open sky. The jasmine blooming would hit you like intoxicating perfume -- just lovely."