Monday, September 28, 2015

Back at the Baked Potato

Thomas Wolfe said, famously, you can’t go home again.  Nonsense!  Saturday night, I went home, and for once, I found nothing had changed.

A huge chunk of my high school years was spent at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood.  My friends and I generously thought of ourselves as musicians.  We were too cool for school.  In reality, we were dateless and desperate.  Rather than admit our inability to get laid or be accepted into the cool group, we formed our own allegedly suave clique and spent our time at the Baked Potato, music nerds to the core.

The band we went to see with religious devotion was Don Randi and Quest; the name alone smells like the 1970s.  Randi was the keyboardist for a group of studio musicians in the 60s and 70s known as the Wrecking Crew.  A lot of their work became part of producer-turned-murderer Phil Spector’s legendary Wall of Sound.

In 1970, Randi opened the club in North Hollywood and Quest became the house band.  The place was a hangout for L.A.’s best studio musicians—Jeff Porcaro, Steve Lukather, Lee Ritenour and Alex Acuna.  So many others.  The posters from those gigs are tacked up on the walls, faded and torn, a kind of Los Angeles musical history wallpaper.

When I arrived Saturday night, I was surprised to find nothing had changed.  Well, almost nothing.  Don Randi’s seven-foot grand piano and Rhodes electric keyboard/synthesizer combo have been replaced by a single Yamaha digital keyboard.  Better sound.  Only a little more room in the tiny space.  Randi’s son, Justin, now runs the place and tends bar.  He also sings, stepping into his father’s set for a few Neil Diamond numbers.  The air inside the club is historical, musty and warm, cozy on an end-of-summer, first-days-of-fall evening.

Not a single musician remains from my high school era Quest, except for Don Randi himself.  This didn’t surprise me.  The personnel was never set in stone, but subject to who was available on a particular night.  The line-up on Saturday was Larry Klimas on Woodwinds, Frank Fabio on guitar, Chris Roy on bass, Peter Korpela on percussion, and Todd Wolf on drums.  Halfway through the first set, drummer Miles Robinson of the Fifth Dimension sat in.  He was the one we all idolized back in high school.  He is an incredible, energetic performer whose presence on this night seemed to revitalize Don Randi as they ran through the chord changes of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood.”

The music was as dated as the ruffled tuxedo shirts we didn’t wear to prom (dateless, remember), but it was a nice trip down memory lane.  And actually, after my fellow musicians graduated high school and went off to college, I did take a few young ladies there, including my future wife who on this recent Saturday night also found the music a little too middle-of-the-road smooth jazz.

Don Randi, himself, was in fine form.  He talks more now than I remembered.  Maybe it’s because he has a book coming out:  You’ve Heard These Hands:  From the Wall of Sound to the Wrecking Crew and Other Incredible Stories (Hal Leonard Books, 2015).  The stories he offered up between songs were interesting and added to the historical vibe of the club.

On a more pedestrian level, the drinks were small and expensive, but strong, and the food was terrific:  all kinds of stuffed baked potatoes the size of footballs.  I had the excellent chicken salad (yes, they do also offer salads) and my wife and I split a chicken parmesan potato—more than enough for two.

I enjoyed my sojourn in the past and I’d definitely go back.  The Baked Potato is part of L.A. music history.  Unlike my high school days, I’d go in for one of the other fine groups on the schedule.  Don Randi and Quest are a treasured memory for me now, but like a favorite childhood toy one has outgrown, it is time to move on to other experiences.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Not Quite As Fast As A Speeding Bullet

Carolyn Cole Los Angeles Times

As I followed the manhunt and eventual killing of Richard Matt and capture of David Sweat in upstate New York this weekend, I marveled at the job police officers do in this country every day.

We welcome their intervention when bullets fly and innocent people are in danger, but we rail against them when they beat a Kelly Thomas to death or shoot down an Ezell Ford in cold blood.  But there are many sides to every story.

Some nights, I listen to LAPD scanner traffic over a website listed below, and I am always shocked about how many calls involving guns and gunshots come out over the airwaves.  I know the officers must go into these areas not knowing who the bad guys are, who is armed, and who is ready to kill them.  Adrenaline flows, and people get hurt.  It is easy to point fingers after the fact, but in that split second, the brain does not compute as fast as a speeding bullet hits its mark.  And that is the reality in an America where everyone is armed.

I wish we could banish guns from our streets so that officers would not have to bring in military grade hardware to combat street crime, but until we pass more stringent gun laws in this country, or negate the Second Amendment altogether, we will always be haunted by the bloody trajectory of that speeding bullet.

There is no incident in recent memory that demonstrates the danger police officers face every day and the murderous consequences of gun violence than the North Hollywood Bank of America robbery and shootout of 1997.  I’ve attached below the full police scanner traffic of that day which included the takedown of two very dangerous and deadly felons as well as charges that when it was all over, officers let one of the suspects bleed to death on the pavement.  Some would argue he deserved it, that it was street justice.  Whatever it was, the terror is evident in the police officers facing these heavily armed men and the dispatchers who tried to get them help.  It was a bloody day in Los Angeles history, and one worth remembering when we consider the job of policing the streets of America.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Heat and the Dust

Nhat V. Meyer McClatchy-Tribune

The patch of dirt outside my door at the front of my apartment building smells like dog urine.  The grass is long dead and worn away.  Next door, the duplex has a “lawn” of mixed dry weeds and crab grass (the only grass that seems to thrive without water).  The owner of that building has reduced his watering to once every two weeks.  Across the street, the homeowner ripped out his lawn altogether and replaced it with white rocks.  Papers and trash swirl in the street and the slightest breeze brings a dust storm of gritty particulate and dead, dry leaves.  The neighborhood looks windblown and arid.  A foreclosed home around the corner has been redeveloped into small apartments.  Where those potential renters will park is anyone’s guess because the street parking is always full from the tire store and car dealerships on the boulevard up the street.  My neighborhood has become an industrial wasteland due to drought and overcrowding.

In the novel, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s Joad family sees California as a modern promised land where the earth is fertile and opportunities abound.  The grandfather dreams of sitting himself in a tub of grapes and “squirshing around,” symbolizing the abundance of the farmlands of the region.  In California, Grandpa Joad thinks, you can bathe in grapes!  What they find is much different from their idealized version.

Anyone traveling to California today might also find a land very different from what he or she has envisioned.  California is not the promised land.  It is a place that does not live up to its dreamy fiction, and the drought has made that all the more apparent to anyone who takes a good look around.

Freeways are littered with trash.  The landscaping is dead due to the lack of water, and pot holes and the rough pavement can rattle a car’s suspension system until it feels as if the tires will fall off.  Trees stand dead and brown, diseased or dehydrated.  The famous stucco houses and apartment buildings are streaked with dirt.  Los Angeles, in many places, has become an ugly city.

Homeless people from all over come to L.A. because the weather is mild and consistent.  But with global warming, we are having more and more triple-digit days and that makes it rough on the homeless population.  Los Angeles is ill-prepared to deal with a heat crisis like we see today in Pakistan with close to a thousand people dying of heat-related conditions.  The number of tents in parks, in alcoves on thoroughfares, on the sides of the freeways, has grown.  Signs proliferate:  “Will work for food.”  “Homeless vet.”  “Large family needs assistance.”  And of course, every sign has the same sign off:  “God bless.”  In what promises to be a smoky, hot, dusty summer, God’s mercy will definitely be needed by those who live rough on the streets and alleys of L.A.

Mindy Schauer Orange County Register

Of all of Los Angeles’ most pressing needs—affordable housing, renewed infrastructure, better city services—the most serious is water, the stuff of life.  The drought is killing us.  There are a few signs of hope, however.  The Pacific is warmer and that might lead to a wet El Nino winter.  In addition, there are red crabs washing upon beaches from Orange County to northern Los Angeles County, usually a precursor to the El Nino phenomenon.  We can only hope this means a wet winter is coming, but it would take several wet years to undo the damage that has been done by this drought.

Los Angeles has always been a city challenged by water issues.  Joan Didion wrote about it in one of her essays entitled “Holy Water.”  William Mulholland stole the water rights from the Owens Valley with his construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.  Global climate change has only exacerbated the problem now, and the prognosis, whether or not politicians disagree with the scientists, is dire.

Down the street from my dog-piss dirt patch, the city recently installed artificial turf on the center median of the boulevard to avoid using water to feed plants that spend their lives choked by exhaust fumes from traffic.  Wood chips, rocks, and cactus have replaced the green lawns throughout the neighborhood.  The city is brown and dry and hot and dusty, and that will be a fact of life in L.A. for some time to come.