July 05, 1996 Features & Images » Feature Story

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The South Florida Experience Part II In which our reporter compares Miami’s nightclub scene with Whistler’s By David Branigan There are basically four types of clubs in South Miami, the youth boxes, the live rooms, the gay bars and the adult elite. The youth boxes are clubs like Chili Peppers, which are side by side on Washington Avenue with the same boring ad nauseam mainstream mix you hear from Whistler to Cabo San Lucas. Actually there are two different formats for the boxes; one is the mainstream mix — the same Love Shack/YMCA/Brown Eyed Girl mix that lobotomized lemmings dance to in generic clubs all over the western world. The second is the dance mix, which at least uses some DJ skills to bring you the Prince/Rob Base/N-Trance school of dance top 40. These boxes are a dime a dozen, with no cover and very little ambience. The Whistler rooms crush their boring little heads, in style at least, even if they mimic the generic sound. The live rooms, led by the legendary Tobacco Road, tend towards blues and Latino rock, with only a small handful of alternative rooms. On the radio the alternative music is in such brutally high rotation that it's worse than top 40 used to be. But Miami is funk-filled, with disco and hip hop everywhere, so it's no surprise that there’s no cover during the week for most bands and minimal ($5-$10) on weekends — which only goes to show that the death knell for the live music scene is a continent-wide malaise created by rising costs and heavy government liquor taxation. You know things are tough when the venerable Commodore Ballroom will be closing in Vancouver in July. The gay bars were made famous in the recent Robin Williams’ film The Birdcage, which was shot in the Art Deco district on South Beach at a transvestite dinner theatre called Lucky Cheng's, which features a show much like in the movie. The highlight in Miami is the adult elite clubs. They range from Sean Penn and Mick (Simply Red) Hucknall's Bash — 11 p.m.-4 a.m. with a $15-$25 US cover charge — to Prince's Glam Slam, with a $15 to $40 US cover, only open weekends, from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. with a Gay Friday, Foam Party Saturday and Reggae Sunday lineup. Foam Parties are all the rage. At Glam Slam they have this 40-foot toothpaste tube above the dance floor and everything runs normally until the DJ yells out, "Are you ready for some foooaaamm!" Then the tube fills the dance floor with five feet of a lubricant-lather and all hell breaks loose. Lots of clothes are discarded and things get seriously twisted. Unfortunately there were no foam parties scheduled our night out. The club we checked out was called Amnesia. It cost $15 for entry or $20 for all-access VIP cover. The club decor itself was opaque white marble, wide open and as cool as a sphinx on a steamy, tropical night. There were bathroom attendants offering a wall full of colognes and grooming aids. Hell, they'd even shake it for you if the tip was right. There were no waitresses. The club held about 800 people; the dance floor held about 500 with some killer laser lighting. But when we arrived at 11:30 there was only about 40 people. It was kind of like a mini-Luxor. The crowd that rolled in was at least 75 per cent black. This was the most upscale black crowd I've ever seen. Members of the Miami Dolphins were there. Lots of chains and evening dresses, some drugs but none of it apparent outside the eyes of the users. The service bar itself was the size of Buffalo Bill's and even with 500 people you never had to stand in line. People were there to see and be seen and the mix and production values were as smooth and classy as the giant club itself. The DJ was named Kool G. He had worked with a Canadian rapper named MC J and managed a few videos on Muchmusic, (So Listen, No Sexx With My Sister), before going back to the real work in the booth. Kool G mixed up some mainstream dance early with some deft but subtle scratches before dropping the bpm down into the low coolio/tupac/method man-hip hop range for what seemed like days. By 3 a.m. I was one of maybe 10 white people in a crowd of 500, but as I had pounded vodka and cranberry throughout the Panther game earlier at the hotel room, and continued on with a few well placed cocktails at the club, I was determined to prove that I could out-dance the whole brotherhood. During the daylight hours, Vancouver blows away most of Miami. The food, the service, the shopping is all generally better in Vancouver. But then there’s Miami Beach. Eight miles of wide, clean, sandy beach. About 25 per cent of the women go topless and probably 50 per cent are wearing thong bikinis, but what that creates is more a sense of freedom than lust. After getting whiplash my first few minutes on the beach, (ya gotta love sunglasses), I became desensitized to the flesh feast after half an hour. I found South Florida to be much more liberal in many ways than B.C. in general and Whistler specifically, which created more joy and much less tension. We are in a global economy competing for global tourist dollars and as such we must measure ourselves against the elite if we are to continue to top the global resort charts. One of the knocks against Whistler is that its conservative bureaucracy and policing is creating a one-dimensional tourist Disney World with little real character. The suggestion is that by keeping us neutered by red tape and regulation we streamline everything into an overflowing profit funnel for the major players. As much as I'm inclined to lean towards the Voglerian theory of over development, Disney World we ain't. Disney World is an ode to capitalism entertainment-style and it makes Whistler look downright eastern European. It celebrates America's number one cultural export: entertainment, with an emphasis on film and its characters. The money being spent creating a mecca out of the marshlands is garish but the target market wallows happily in it. What makes America great is that ability to go bigger than anybody else on the planet. But Disney World is all disposable, cotton candy fun. It's instantly enjoyable and instantly forgettable, like the culture it celebrates. I enjoyed it more than I expected, probably because the Magic Kingdom was sold out on the Memorial Day Weekend so we opted for the more educational and adult Epcot Centre — but much like McDonald's, it's designed for kids and the kid in all of us so-called adults. And therein lies the difference. Whistler is designed almost exclusively for adults and as such has a much more serious nature. So what is there to learn by a comparison of these two tourist hotbeds? In international tourist dollars, Whistler is simply not as expensive as it appears to Canadians and us local skids. In international development terms, we ain't seen nothin' yet. In international liquor laws, we are Mormons living in the dark ages. In international morality we are quintessentially Canadian, in that this place is just as wild as any place else but we keep it behind closed doors. In service, especially hotel service, we are better than almost anywhere in South Florida except the extreme high end, like Bal Harbour and West Palm Beach where the Julio Iglesias and the Gloria Estefans shop and dine and the price and service are a match for anywhere on the planet. The one area where Whistler crushes South Florida is in its inhabitants’ self worth. Everywhere I turned in Florida I saw people fixated with celebrity and vanity. There was one bar on the South Beach strip that called itself American Models, and two blocks down was a Model Party where the sign read: "Models, rum punch and bright conversation — join the party." The party consisted of a handful of vacant, pretentious egos looking for mirrors. South Beach is a gay hotbed and on the long weekend it was overrun by good looking, well groomed men, preening, posing and posturing. But the preeminent goal for the weekend, besides casual sex with strangers, was to determine where Madonna was, (she spends a fair bit of time in Miami), and how to be in the same room as her. From Planet Hollywood to Universal Studios, from South Beach to the Florida Keys, from Glam Slam to the "O"rena — everybody in Florida wants to be discovered, wants to be a star and wants to be associated with something else. In Whistler the beauty is not in the celebrities that visit — it’s all around us, in the lakes, the mountains and the old growth trees. The only price for that is what we'll pay if we take away what God has given and replace it with what we think God's children will buy.

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