A Man Out of Time
Dennis Britt inspires something bordering on fanaticism among his fellow musicians. "No artist to break out of Miami, past or present, myself included, possesses half the genius of Dennis Britt," claims pop songwriter-vocalist Tommy Anthony, whose recent independently released CD, Mondial, sold thousands of copies after garnering airplay on Top 40 radio powerhouse Y-100. "Totally warped yet totally brilliant. He's in a league of his own."
"He's an effortless songwriter," seconds Diane Ward, widely regarded as one of South Florida's top female rock vocalists and currently putting the finishing touches on her first CD at North Miami's Criteria Studios. "He's so incredibly quirky and kooky. Brilliant. One of the best songwriters down here, ever."
"Dennis is my artistic mentor," states Doc Wiley, accomplished bassist, budding producer, and former musical director of legendary Miami Beach rock bastion Washington Square. "His falling off a horse is everyone else's career best."
But despite similar effusive praise from nearly every musician who has ever shared a stage with him -- Raw B. Jae, Demetrius Brown, Jim Baumann, et al. -- Dennis Britt knows that the odds do not favor a man who, at the age of 45, still dreams of making it in an increasingly youth-oriented music industry. "I've been told that I'm out of the race," the singer-songwriter sighs between puffs on a Vantage cigarette. "I imagine they say about me, 'Here comes Dennis Britt again. This guy's been trying to make it since 1980. He didn't make it back then, he's not gonna make it now.'" Britt shrugs, then adds, "Who knows all the cloak-and-dagger things that go on behind closed doors at record companies?"
If anyone should have a clue, it's Britt. While the Cuban-born, Miami- and New York-raised musician has never, to use his own words, "scored the big touchdown" (i.e., put out an album on a major label), he's certainly rammed the ball down on the one-yard line a few times. Britt has performed dozens of industry showcases; he has inked a development deal with Capitol Records; he has partied with Atlantic Records big kahuna Ahmet Ertegun, former Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, and members of the Who; he's seen one of his demo tapes championed by high muckamucks at Arista Records; and he's worked with Steely Dan's Donald Fagen. Bee Gee Barry Gibb is a supporter. Two years ago, Britt and his band at the time, the Beat Poets, toured the southeastern U.S. with another obscure little outfit, this one named Hootie and the Blowfish. Britt even has a long-time financial backer, local business entrepreneur Jonathan Lewis, best known for overseeing the restaurant operations at the posh Grand Bay Hotel in Coconut Grove, although he also helped launch Big City Fish and Tu Tu Tango, among others.
"I think Dennis is going to be the oldest guy ever to sign a major recording contract," kids Lewis. "I think his music sounds better than ever. It makes sense that now he's getting recognized."
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. In the last fifteen years, Britt has penned the theme song for the long-running TV sitcom ¨Que Pasa, U.S.A.?, has opened three cutting-edge nightclubs on Miami Beach (Club Beirut, Kitchen Club, and Espresso Bongo), and has attracted the interest of Mike Carr of concert promoters Fantasma Productions. Right now Carr is calling upon his extensive industry connections to shop around a new demo tape by Britt and the singer-songwriter's current band, West Indian. Many insiders feel that the tape represents the best work the creative dynamo has recorded to date.
And if all that fails, there's still a nonmusical wild card that could make Dennis Britt a very wealthy man. During his stint managing Club Beirut, Britt became disgusted with the task of lifting and dropping the toilet seats in the restrooms. As a result, he developed a little plastic handle that juts out from beneath the seat and enables one to raise or lower the seat without getting one's fingers, um, soiled.
Bill Bakula, a former long-haired concert promoter turned corporate direct-response marketing tycoon, has big plans for Britt's little innovation. Bakula presides over Jamie Shoop and Associates A a Miami-based international TV infomercial and marketing company founded by the woman (Shoop) who discovered and managed the artist-when-he-was-still-known-as Prince. According to Bakula, the company grosses more than $150,000,000 annually by marketing everything from compilation albums to astrological charts to sports memorabilia. (Their biggest seller to date has been a weight loss-vitamin package known as Barton Nutritional Systems.) And they are about to launch Britt's toilet-seat invention nationally. They're calling it the "HyGenie."
"We believe in the product," Bakula enthuses. "We've developed 60-second and 30-second TV commercials, and we're currently market-testing them. We're putting a lot of time into Dennis's product. We think it's gonna succeed beyond everybody's wildest dreams because it deals with one of people's basic fears -- touching a dirty toilet seat."
What would that mean for Britt? "Remember the Topsy Tail?" Bakula asks without waiting for an answer. "A little plastic device for braiding hair. They cost about a quarter to produce and they sold between five and six million of them at two for $9.99. Let's put it this way -- if the HyGenie is as successful as we hope, Dennis can start his own record label."
"Who wants to make it overnight?" Dennis Britt laughs in a sonorous, raspy, bigger-than-life voice, the kind of voice that is at once infectious and sad, buoyant and battle-scarred -- chummy, ingratiating, but with an edge that suggests a dark side to match the haunted look that occasionally flashes across Britt's weathered face. Something about the songwriter's voice just commands your attention, whether amplified by the acoustics of the living room of the spacious two-story Miami Beach house he shares with his wife, Beth, and his nine-year-old daughter, Briton, or compacted into the tinny receiver of a cheap telephone. Imagine Sixties counterculture icon Wavy Gravy with a Philadelphia accent, comedian David Brenner with a head cold, or former Band member Robbie Robertson after swallowing gravel. Get Britt rolling on a subject he feels passionately about (which could be anything from current world events to Purvis Young, the Liberty City artist whose primitivist paintings adorn the walls of Britt's home, to the existence -- and Britt's personal sighting -- of UFOs) and the voice draws you in. It makes him an excellent storyteller; even when the stories are so-so, the delivery is spellbinding.
That quality, while diluted a bit by the exigencies of staying in key, carries over to his singing. Dennis Britt is not blessed with a versatile singing voice, but it fairly reeks of hard-won wisdom. Britt knows the limits of his low-end baritone and always stays within them. If you had to name a sound-alike, you could do worse than Gordon Lightfoot meets the Crash Test Dummies A in a really cavernous room.
The voice is usually the first thing people notice about Britt. He's a handsome guy, too, in a dissipated former golden-boy way. He has the Seventies-vintage emaciated rock star's frame to complement an impossibly boyish mop of feathery brown hair that's flecked with wisps of blond and gray. Bangs so thick they nearly obscure his eyebrows. His hair isn't just full, it's plush.
People who have only seen him from a distance or met him in a darkened nightclub cannot realize that Dennis Britt's deep-set eyes change color, chameleonlike, to reflect their surroundings. Under the fluorescent lights of a muted beige office, for instance, they take on a drab olive hue; as midafternoon sunlight bounces off his yellow and black shirt, the irises assume an ocher cast; in a bright restaurant festooned with wood trim, they turn hazel; and they become brown as cola when day fades into evening and the shadows lengthen.
Many of those who know him best speculate that this capacity to adapt to outside influences applies to Britt's musical career as well -- and that might not be a good thing. At various times, Britt has fronted bands that have run the gamut from mellow, Sade-like jazz to calypso to reggae to pop rock to acid rock to folk to his current laid-back, island-inflected, acoustic rock. In 1984 the Miami Herald threw in the towel in its efforts to peg Britt and began using a name the singer and his band Watchdog had coined to describe their sound -- "troparock." Herald music writer Tom Moon cited "a mixture of reggae and calypso, British-influenced power pop, and light jazz." By 1989 Britt turned up the power pop and tuned out the islands with the band Next. One year later, he and yet another new lineup, the Beat Poets, waded knee-deep into psychedelia and an alternative rock sound founded on feedback-drenched guitars and distorted vocals. Britt's current outfit, West Indian, features spare, uncluttered guitar-based arrangements of tunes whose cross-cultural beats suggest the solo work of Paul Simon or David Byrne.
His ability to glide from one musical genre to another -- sometimes on the same demo tape -- has endeared Britt to his peers even as it has exasperated record-label talent scouts. "Dennis's biggest enemy is his own talent," declares friend and former bandmate Doc Wiley, who played bass for a while in Watchdog. "If you wanted a salsa tune, he'd write one and it would be great. You wanted a reggae tune, he'd write one. Dance. Pop. Alternative rock. Dennis was doing grunge before they called it grunge. I've got some stuff [on tape] that goes from hard-edged R&B to this Robbie Robertson-type vibe to reggae. You'd never recognize it was the same guy."
"I know that [versatility] has probably hurt me," Britt admits. "This actually happened to me with Capitol Records. The president of the label heard my stuff and loved it. The first cut on the tape is pop rock. So he gives it to the pop-rock department. But the second cut is reggae. Guy in pop rock says, 'Hey, I love the first song, but I can't do anything with reggae.' He sends it to the reggae department. But the third song is a jazz-fusion thing. They ship it off to that section. Winds up back on the president's desk with all the VPs saying, 'I like it but I don't know what to do with it.' President calls me back and says, 'Dennis, we don't know what to do with it.'
"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.
"I always loved music, as far back as I can remember. Dad loved music. He brought me up on Rodgers and Hammerstein, Jolson, John Philip Sousa, all the Broadway musicals, Sinatra [he does a scary chorus of "Love and Marriage" to illustrate his point]. Dino. When I came to Miami I had all that in my head, plus Elvis, plus the Afro-Cuban beat, the bakatu-bakatu."
After graduating from high school, Britt put music on hold and moved to Boston to study TV and radio production. He dropped in on classes at Emerson College and later officially enrolled in a series of production-related electives at a Boston junior college, all with no intention of graduating. "They had a good production studio on campus," he says. "That was all I cared about." After three years, he returned to Miami looking for production work, and like so many eager communications students before and since, wound up in sales.
Britt landed a job selling airtime at the Spanish-language Channel 23, where he flourished as an account executive. Within a couple of years he was living the dream of so many young American males: Porsche, a house full of expensive antiques in Coral Gables, hobnobbing with the top executives at his station, and joining some of them and their powerful friends -- such as alleged HMO scam artist and international fugitive Miguel Recarey -- for weekend domino games.
As the youngest player at these games, Britt was eager to cement his status as a rising star, so he began to pitch them an idea he had been working on since college. "I thought it would be funny to do this story about these Cubans living in Miami, and the grandfather can't speak English, and the girl is totally Americanized." he recalls. "They're cracking up while I'm spinning out this potential sitcom in Spanish."
But despite his material wealth and his hot job, Britt's life began falling apart. "I'd always had this vision that one day I was gonna be on Johnny Carson," Britt confides. "I remember lying in my Louis XVI bed thinking 'What happened to [my being on] Johnny Carson?' Something as stupid as that. I got so angry at myself for getting so far away from what I loved, which was music. I developed ulcers. Woman problems. I was trying to sell my mentor at the station on this idea I had for a sitcom, but he wouldn't buy it. And I got so frustrated that I just quit. Walked away.
"Fast-forward about a year," he continues. "I'm living on Biscayne Boulevard, close to the water in a hotel room by myself with just wine, walnuts, and a little tape recorder. In a way I'm very happy because I'm back to my bohemian ways. I have a beard down to my chest; I look like Rasputin. One day one of the guys from the domino games sees me. 'Dennis! Dennis!' he yells. 'They're doing the show!' So he takes me out to the Sonesta on Key Biscayne A I look like a sheepdog -- I don't wanna be there. I get all cleaned up, I meet with these guys, the next thing I know I'm back in TV working on this show."
The show would become the immensely popular and widely syndicated ¨Que Pasa, U.S.A.? In addition to formulating the original concept for the show, Britt came up with the title and the theme song, for which he was paid just enough money to purchase a Fender Rhodes piano. Britt was hired on as part of the show's staff but quit after the first episode as a result of -- you guessed it -- creative differences. Britt thought the show should aim for Norman Lear-style humor with some sociopolitical impact; his superiors opted instead for simpler yuks and lots of slapstick.
A spate of jobs at Channel 23 and Channel 51, another Spanish-language station, ensued. Britt provided voice-overs, ran cameras and sound equipment, and even found himself anchoring the news in Spanish. After Britt produced seventeen episodes of a musical-variety show featuring Willy Chirino (and probably partially because of his exposure to Chirino), the music bug bit Dennis again. He chucked TV for the second time, packed up his Fender Rhodes, and moved to Philadelphia.
Ensconced in a garage recording studio in the City of Brotherly Love, Britt honed his chops, practicing religiously and recording anybody who could play, regardless of their ability to pay. "We ran into some brothers downtown, they were the shit," Britt recollects. "We recorded everything -- punk, jazz, reggae. It was a real community recording studio. Guys would walk in, no equipment. There was this little kid, he was stuttering. Little brother didn't know from theory. Every instrument he picked up -- you'd give him a Casio or a guitar -- he was incredible. Or you'd see some of the brothers slappin' that bass, you would never forget it."
Through the studio Britt met jazz flutist-saxophonist Marc Berner, and keyboardist Michael Richards, who, along with Britt's percussionist brother-in-law, Tavo Muller, formed the band that eventually would become Watchdog. "The band name was Raza Mundo. World Race," Britt elaborates. "We had Muslims, Rastas, Jewish cats, Italian guys, two Cubans, and an African-American guy who claimed to be a Native American tribesman.
"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."
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."
"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 (Mller, 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."
But whether or not Dennis Britt succeeds in being heard on a national scale, this time around he will do it his way or not at all. "I could not have more well-wishers, more great friends,"he beams. "I've gotten to play with the cream of the crop in town. Everybody's like, 'I don't know why you never made t, man.' The thing I've only recently realized is that I have made it. I have the respect of my peers. I have a wonderful family. I've been doing what I love for fifteen years and I'm still doing it. When somebody comes up afterward and says, 'That song talks about me,' you've made it. You might not get the financial compensation or the fame, but you've made it."
Besides, there's always the HyGenie.
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