We have wandered, it seems, into a time and space where the parameters of fun in the Nineties - bargain-basement sensation as soulless, senseless, and dumbed-down as a television sitcom - have already been exhausted. Other eras of fun are needed for fuel. The Fifties have been used up as a stylistic sourcebook. The Seventies have become one big disco theme party for college students who appreciate the easy camp of flared pants. It's time for the Sixties, when fun was fun, and best of all, everything had meaning, purpose, and boffo production values.

Sixties-style fun is all the rage at the Island Club's Thursday-night theme evenings: the Underwater Ball. Conceived, directed, and produced by owner Tom Bellucci and promotions director Linda Bedell, it appears to have something to do with raising money and awareness for ecological causes, giving the place another Island-of-Lost-Souls big night, and perhaps most importantly, providing socially conscious entertainment as a kind of bar snack. For the occasion the club is done up in a trendy but concerned motif: hanging cutouts of sharks and other fish, imagery from the Save the Whales school of iconography, and quilts composed of individual fabric squares painted by the patrons and sewn together. The whole scene is refreshing and pleasant, with none of that theme-party-gone-awry feeling that infects other club nights.

But our companion, artist Alan Treister, a resident of Berkeley, California (the land of ultimate higher purpose), will have none of this soulful South Beach stuff. Being a member of the Treister development family, of Mayfair fame, he tends to favor the Grove as a stomping ground for simple, unaffected carousing. "I can't stand all these people standing around with all their attitude," he sneers derisively. "This is just style, posing. It's ridiculous. The Grove is my kind of thing; it's like one big impersonal shopping mall, all UM girls and beer. Most of the Beach looks like Beirut. The clubs are great in the Grove - nobody knows anything, and they're not looking for anything except a good time. They all know they're nothing and they don't pretend to be anything else. Look around here. Everybody's worried about acting sophisticated. Nobody's having real fun. And let's face it, that's the point of it all."

Real fun, of any era, being an exceedingly rare commodity, we immediately fell for the hype and headed over to the Grove in search of late-night weekend diversions. The point of it all, unfortunately, was pretty elusive. The Grove, like bell bottoms, Pucci prints, and free love, has lately come to seem like a dated but still potently marketable concept. It's a product - not unlike, say, blue jeans - that has been transmogrified far beyond its humble beginnings, a one-word image (Cher, Liz, Elvis) that is instantly capable of producing a whole range of cozy, if no longer pertinent, associations: long hair, John Sebastian, bong pipes, wild peacocks, trees. All this, of course, bears little relation to the new, postmodern Grove, a place that looks as if it's been pumped up with steroids, money, and gonads, a pop-up toy-architecture land populated with youth gangs, Euro-trash, and the aforementioned University of Miami students, a class of people who readily bring to mind the classic Root Boy Slim number: "So Young, So Hip, So Lame."

The fun tour began, inoffensively enough, at Tu Tu Tango in the CocoWalk complex. In accordance with the mutant-theme-park mentality of the mall, the restaurant is patterned - we think - after some deconstructed French Provencal bistro, with hanging vegetables, people painting at easels, and lots of earth tones. As the very nice ballet benefactor Mark Steinberg pointed out, the place did draw a mixed crowd, "just like the Grove used to twenty years ago." Arguable, but the crowd sure was mixed: socialite and Realtor Brenda Nestor, glamour gal/hustler Bobbi Berkman, in-your-face architect Robin Zachary Parker ("There's going to be a party tonight, buddy"), Brad Arkin of the Arkin Construction family, and our favorite human being in the world, marketing consultant Rebecca Cohen, who was leaving the following day for a new life in California: "Let me tell you, an evening like this makes it easier to go."

After a few drinks at Tu Tu, we hit the streets and soon realized that we did not recognize, or even want to acknowledge, one single person. By 1:00 a.m. things had gotten pretty sloppy, with charming bits of overheard conversations ("When somebody does that to me, man, I blow their fucking head off..." "Shit man, let's get some bitches...") and tableaux that John Sebastian could never have envisioned. At the Tavern in the Grove, formerly the old gay landmark The Hamlet, the UMers crowded in and jammed against each other, like mountain goats butting heads during mating season. Later a group of young Latin athlete/thugs messed with a deranged-looking black street person, whooping, taunting, and finally mounting and riding him as if he were a horse. Not an appetizing sight.

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Tom Austin