Here Lies Coconut Grove, We Loved It So
A look back on the 30 long years of amazing memories.
For many people around the world, 2016 marks a year of great loss. David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Sir Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, David Gest, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Anton Yelchin, Gene Wilder, Alexis Arquette...the celebrity list alone goes on and on.
Back home, monthly controversies kept us busy and hailing recent times as a true end of an era. But recently, news broke out that would cement that belief for a lot of people. September 2016 is to be the last month of existence for Paceville's Coconut Grove.
Seeing as Coconut boasts a three-decade-long story, we spoke to Wayne Flask, Antonio Tufigno, Edward Brincat and Michael Bugeja - people who not only remember Coconut a couple of generations ago, but were also instrumental in shaping it into the legacy it had for years to come.
The "Old Coconut" (1986 - 1995)
It's very difficult for pretty much anyone living in Malta to imagine a Paceville without Coconut Grove. It's very easy to find - just get to Burger King, and then walk a couple of metres downhill. However, imagine how much more of an iconic landmark it would be if (a) there's half the amount of bars and clubs in the area and (b) it actually is Burger King.
That was the case in the mid 80s, when Coconut was an extremely tiny bar on the corner of the notorious Paceville Pjazza. Michael Bugeja used to work behind the bar for a summer there, and when Coconut expanded and took the whole corner, Mike—together with Joe Abela and Mark Farrugia—was also the first resident DJ there.
Coconut first came into our lives on the 4th of July 1986. Back then it was a tiny, 50 square metre bar - essentially the entirety of Coconut Grove was what is now the entrance to Burger King.
Mike remembers a time when the original Grove was actually quite different to the one most know and love. "The playlist back then was more eclectic, the crowd more mixed, and you would hear anything from post-punk, grunge, Britpop and heavy metal to classic rock, hiphop, pop, punk and even trance, all in one evening," he reminisces.
"Music was music, and as long as it connected with the people, it was all good. I dare say the regulars then (a good number of them play in some of Malta's top bands now) were more accepting of other styles than the ones that frequented the post-BK Coconut Grove".
"Toilet bowls were torn out of their places, benches and chairs were smashed to mutation, and the rock scene left its mark... before moving on"
Antonio Tufigno told us about how vital Coconut was to the local alternative scene in the late 80s and early 90s: "There was absolutely no place of entertainment for us apart from Coconut. Paceville was full of rock clubs playing classic rock and U2, and leather-trousered swaggering bands aping them with a Maltese accent and busy guitar solos. Try-hards. Going out to bars and clubs meant that you had to endure all sorts of things from the Scorpions-style classic rock, which is already wrong on so many levels, to the inane drivel played by the clubs where the pretty girls used to be. In the latter places, the music was hurtful to the soul and left deep scars." To the people in the niche alternative scene, there was only really one place to go, and that place became home.
So when the news broke out in 1995 that Coconut Grove was to shut down and give way to Burger King, everyone felt like it needed a proper Last Bash. And a bash is exactly what the party turned out to be - toilet bowls were torn out of their places, benches and chairs were smashed to mutation, and the rock scene left its mark... before moving on. Many people still look back on this day—Sunday 22nd October 1995—and refer to it as "the best Paceville has ever seen."
Coconut Grove II: The Early Years (1995 - 2000)
While not necessarily a bad thing, people who remembered the original Coconut instantly realized that the new iteration of the bar was different when it moved to its current (and final) location. "The old Coconut was a noisy buen retiro. The new one catered for heavy rockers as well, so it was already different, although it still played interesting music, on the whole," Antonio recalls.
"The Paceville most of us know and (perhaps deep down) love is a thing of the past, but that doesn't mean there's nowhere else to go to find shelter"
Michael Bugeja, who had now been a resident of both versions of Coconut, returned as a resident DJ for a couple of years (before moving to the now-defunct Rock Cafe). When Mike did return, he says he "found [himself] back there, but this time upstairs" as, together with Marco Ramunno, gave birth to the Remedy rock / metal club.
Having experienced three decades of Coconut, Mike agrees with Antonio. "The Coconut Grove we know today is very different from the one I started out in," he admits. Remedy was born out of a refurbishment that was done to the first floor on the 7th of December 2000, around the same time that people feel yet another stage of the bar's lifetime was approaching.
"Il-Coconut" (2000 - 2016)
You could argue that Coconut didn't really have two different stages, but three - one for every decade it's been active. It's true that in 1994, a year before closing its doors in the old location, Coconut Grove expanded from 50 to 400 square metres, but since it remained in the same location, some people put both eras together. And besides - if you're old enough to remember the first eight-year stage, you'll definitely remember the second extremely shorter one.
Later generations who only started going out to Paceville in the Noughties will tell you that they are the ones who have experienced "The Death of Paceville" first-hand. The Alley, BJs Jazz Bar, Poxx Bar, Play Rock, V-Gen, Elements, even legendary Axis - we millennials have had our fair share of Paceville heartbreaks right around the same time we were being inducted in it. While all of this was changing (or outright disappearing), Coconut geared up for what would eventually be its last decade and a half.
In 2002, Wayne Flask started what he calls a "brief yet colourful DJ'ing career: a sea of familiar faces, the sweet bunch working at the bar, the familiarly inappropriate requests and that fuzzy feeling of a home outside of home where everybody sort of knew each other." Wayne's memories of the place resonate with the latest iteration of Coconut: late 90s rock anthems hard-headedly blaring out of decades-old speaker systems, slurred discussions on the death of Paceville over a pitcher or five on the rickety chairs outside, and stains of endless vodka shooters on the once-glossy wooden bar. By now, Coconut had developed itself as an iconic staple on a lot of people's weekend agenda - be it in the very beginning of the night, the very end, or even the whole damn Saturday.
This was also round the same time when people who remember and had lived through the first years of Coconut were being faced with new personal priorities, which meant that an important and irreversible reshuffle in regulars was in the works. "Paceville became one gleaming pair of fishnet tights and it was all over. Places like the new Coconut were just a reminiscence of the oases of fun which Paceville used to sporadically offer in those darker days," Antonio ponders.
This eventual demise wasn't something that should have really come as a shock, Wayne argues, and the signs have been showing themselves since the early 2000s. "When I started DJ’ing there, nu-metal was establishing its stranglehold on rock music while MTV was effectively strangling a whole genre. Rock wasn’t dead yet, but it struggled to replicate the wealth of the nineties. In turn, Paceville’s “entertainment” model changed drastically. The metal community, for one, were out of a regular hangout."
The Future of "Rock" in Paceville
Honestly, there probably isn't one. At least not for quite a long time. Sure, places like De Olde Keg are still open and people still regularly flock to it, perhaps now more than ever. But it's very difficult to shake off the feeling that things have not only changed, but have really and truly done so quite a long time ago already.
"Like many, I believe that Coconut Grove has always been more than just a bar to all those whose lives it was a part of and even if it physically ceases to exist, the memories will forever remain alive," Mike trails off. But when everything is said and done, this end of an era is not necessarily a bad thing either.
"Fortunately, the decent music scene is replete with interesting people who are genuinely talented these days, and activities are held very regularly," Antonio admits. Every single week, there is at least one rock event, alternative music gig or indie party in Malta. Venues, while still technically sparse, still exist, and most of them feel the burden of being some of the last ones around and are instead pushing harder to make their time worth. Nearly all of them are now outside of Paceville, and that perhaps is a good thing. The Paceville most of us know and (perhaps deep down) love is a thing of the past, but that doesn't mean there's nowhere else to go to find shelter.
We couldn't have put it better than Wayne:
"Maybe most of us are shocked because we kept putting off having a night out at Coconut for years, until we realised we’re married or have kids, or maybe there’s shifts to put in at work, and there’s no Killing in the Name Of you could mosh to that will change that. I’ll miss it dearly, even though I don’t have time for it. We salute you, Coconut Grove."
You're still in time to celebrate: The Coconut Grove Closing Party is happening on the 24th of September. See you there for one last night of moshpitting in Paceville!
Here’s a little, if incomplete, Spotify playlist with songs Wayne used to play in the “old times”. It’s a collaborative playlist, so feel free to make your own additions. And of course, sharing is caring.