In the very early 80s I was traveling to Miami for business -- I worked for Billboard, the record industry journal, and the Latin industry, which was my turf, was based in Miami. In one of my first trips I drove up and down the Miami Beach shoreline looking at the hotel fronts, once grand but no longer, not even those monuments to excess, the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc. I remembered how in Frank Capra's A Hole in the Head, Frank Sinatra drives from his shabby little hotel on Ocean Drive to the wondrous Fontainebleau, symbol of everything he wasn't. That was 1959.
By the '80s the wondrousness had faded. When I drove north I found the shabby little hotel, The Cardozo, and its fraternal twin across the side street, the Carlyle, and many little hotels that looked to me like Art Deco candy. As they did to preservationists and developers. Soon one of the hotels was rehabbed, the Carlyle I believe, and on my next trip I booked a room. This hotel had the downtown New York decor and the vibe down, though as someone pointed out to me, the haircuts were still wrong. And it was a miniscule scene. I came down from my cool room on the cool elevator to the cool lobby/bar/restaurant, and that was it. Out there was the real South Beach, the un-rehabbed hotels filled with pensioners or the dreaded marielitos, Cuba's lumpen proletariat dumped by Castro on US shores.
The rehabbing took off. At one point, Tony Goldman was rehabbing the Park Central and, wisely, allowing journos like myself to stay in the one floor that was finished. On one of my stays he told me a friend had opened a café a couple of blocks down and I might enjoy it. I went there with my wife Cristina and my friend Octavio Soler, and we drank beer sitting at a sidewalk table, a new phenomenon in the area. How pleasant, we said to each other at the new and sparely patronized News Café.
The little hotels kept getting pimped out, like Cinderella going to the ball. Trendy young tourists from Europe showed up. They didn't mind the Latino riffraff at an SRO next to their hip rehabbed hotel. In fact, they liked the raffishness, plus, hey, the riffraff sold drugs. The first night spots were hotel bars. You walked in and ordered a drink, period. No doormen, no velvet ropes, no VIP rooms. That didn't last.
Neither did a certain artsy vibe. Another friend, Paco de Onis, had moved from Cartagena, Colombia, where he ran the very hip bar/restaurant Paco's. He began dj'ing world music at local South Beach clubs. Now, anyone who thinks South Beach was with it should know that no one knew what world music was -- everything came late to Miami and Miami Beach and in many ways still does. Listening to Paco spin Afro Pop, some Eurotrash chick tells me, "why doesn't he play something sensual?" To which I had to reply, "If it got any more sensual we'd all be fucking."
The artsy crowd had hopes that SoBe would be like Soho in NYC, art galleries and all. Nope. It would take decades and Art Basel for that to take off, and not in South Beach, but across the causeways. Eventually, even the marielitos left and the drug trade got taken over by Euros. Modeling took off. Why travel to the Third World Caribbean, where nothing really works, when you could have the tropics in the USA, where everything works? And the ill fated Versace moved in and redid a beautiful rundown building, where people who had far more taste than money lived, into a palazzo. I and others can say that we partied at Versace's, before he even heard of South Beach.
It's been my fate to be a geezer of many scenes. South Beach was one. I see the posted photos of the scene and I don't recognize any of it. After my time. I did party at one club, though, Woody's, where I quite literally ran into Ronnie Wood, that is, we collided with each other walking in. I'd seen him earlier in the night at the Strand, SoBe's version of NY's Odeon. The Strand was great. Tables were spaced in a way that encouraged table-hopping and one-table partying at the same time, don't know exactly how. And if one of The Rolling Stones was at a nearby table you somehow felt like you were in the same crowd, though you never met -- unless you physically crashed into each other later in the night.
One late afternoon, a group of friends and I occupied a table at the Strand and sat drinking and eating for hours and hours. People came and went and came back with other friends and left again and others joined in. We never stopped consuming. For a while it felt like we'd been transported to the Round Table at the Algonquin back in the day -- we were, if I say so myself, an interesting bunch. But the management got tired of our never ending stay and we were told to leave. And that was, as it usually is when things get really good, the end.