Monday, April 28, 2014

Breaking News!! Donald Sterling Is A Racist!

I’m puzzled by all of this furor that exploded this weekend involving Los Angeles Clippers’ owner, Donald Sterling.  Yes, his taped comments are reprehensible and dastardly.  (I like that word when dealing with classic silent movie bad guys, which in all the pictures of Sterling, he appears to fit the bill although he lacks the requisite handle-bar mustache)  But as we have heard ad nauseum, Sterling is not a born again racist.  This wasn’t an overnight conversion.  As the media has trumpeted, Sterling has a long history of racial discrimination.  There are lawsuits, one of them filed by the federal government, detailing Sterling’s discriminatory practices in real estate and business.  Former employees like Elgin Baylor have tried to sue him for, wait for it, racial discrimination!  This guy didn’t need a hood, nor did he need to sneak into a particular neighborhood under the cover of darkness to burn a cross on someone’s lawn.

This racist hid in plain sight in front of 18,000 people at an NBA basketball game!

And apparently, it was a not-so-well-kept secret among many people here in Los Angeles.

So if everyone knew Donald Sterling was a racist, why is this story breaking now?  And a follow up question, who stands to gain from the whole kerfuffle?  I mean, even the girlfriend with the tape recorder says she didn’t leak the recording, and in fact, she has said Sterling allegedly knew his comments were being recorded.  So what gives?

And to add a touch of irony to the proceedings, the NAACP announced today in a tweet that it will not be awarding Sterling any lifetime achievement awards next month.  Phew!  I’m glad they caught that in time before the plaque was engraved.  As Kevin Roderick said on NPR today, these awards are never given out based on merit.  It is all about the money.  Sterling writes a lot of checks to charity, probably to give himself some income tax relief, and until this firestorm erupted, every one of them was cashed, I’m sure.  When things go public, everyone grows a conscience.

This guy should get the boot from the NBA just on principle:  most of his employees are black and he obviously hates people of color, or at least doesn’t want them in the crowd at games or living in his real estate holdings or posing in pictures with his girlfriend (although he did approve sleeping with them if she should choose to do so, which to me is a bit confusing coming from a racist).

But there is a bigger question that must be answered:  if everyone knew this guy was a raving bigot, why didn’t someone take decisive action before now?  Money.  If you have money, you can pay for your ignorant views, your impolite beliefs, your moral failures by slipping a little cash under the doors of some charity or political campaign.  It is amazing the silence that can be bought for some moola.

It is also interesting to note that no one had a problem with Sterling until the Clippers were in serious playoff contention.  Over the last few seasons, the franchise has undoubtedly become quite a wealthy organization.  So no one cared when they were the laughingstock of the league, but now that they are contenders and bringing in the big bucks, Sterling is a racist and must be run out of the NBA?  Something does not add up here.

A year ago, I wrote about the Clippers and how I was rooting for them.  I like the underdog, and I was rooting for them this year, too.  I could not understand why no one gave them any respect, even with the way they have been playing.  In this town, everything is Lakers, Lakers, Lakers.  The Clippers have shown far more gumption and less dysfunction on the court than their hoity-toity co-tenants at the Staples Center.  The Lakers are the golden boys while the Clippers are the ugly stepbrothers.  Just once, I wanted the other L.A. team to at least get into the finals.  Now, with all of this distraction, I think it’s already over.  And I don’t know if I want them to win or even show up for the next game, because every ticket sold, every beer, every jersey, and of course, every victory puts money in Sterling’s pocket.  But this is not a problem that will be solved easily.  Sterling will not go quietly.  Ignoramuses rarely know when to take their lumps and slink off into the sunset.  We know this here in Los Angeles after the Frank McCourt debacle.

It is too easy to simply come out against Sterling and condemn racism.  It is too easy to commandeer the podium at the news conference and express outrage.  All the politicians from mayors to presidents have made it clear this weekend that racism must be stopped.  Tell us something we don’t know.  But there is more to this story, you can bet on it.  Yes, Sterling should be forced out as a team owner; yes, he should be penalized financially; yes, the fans are owed something for supporting the team and unknowingly lining the pockets of a bigot.  But what about all the people who knew what Sterling was like, the views he espoused, and continued to look the other way for the almighty dollar?  Given the often morally questionable behavior that is rampant in professional sports, those who have stayed quiet over the years are just as culpable.  The whole thing is a cesspool, and the city and Clippers fans must put up with the stench.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Live At Corvallis High School, For One Night Only

In every way possible for young men in love with women, it was our dream gig:  the chance for our band, cryptically named Time After Time, composed of mostly Notre Dame (all boys) High School students to play a concert for the annual barbecue at our all-girls sister school, Our Lady of Corvallis.  There was Mike the sax player, John the drummer, Bill the guitarist, me on keyboards, and Paul, he of flowing rocker hair, the oldest member and only non-N.D. student, on bass.  All those girls would be waiting for us and we’d take the stage with our modern jazz playlist, jamming live, for one night, or late afternoon, only.

It is inexplicable now across the years why, with all those Catholic school girls we hoped would be in the audience, that I needed to bring a date, but I did.  Carol and I had grown up together through elementary school only to separate when we hit ninth grade; she went to public and I continued on into Catholic high school.  She was petite with brown hair and a dash of freckles, quiet and smoldering in a way I didn’t understand at the time.  We’d never, despite my best efforts, moved beyond the friendship stage, but I hoped if she saw me play keyboards with the band, she would fall into my arms and everything would change.

When we kicked off our set that afternoon, Carol was seated with my grandmother at a table near the stage.  My grandmother usually came to all of our gigs and often let us rehearse in her backyard, although she did not want the guys to use the bathroom because, as she put it, “You don’t know where they’ve been.”  We weren’t exactly rowdy metal rockers, except maybe for Paul, but we managed to sneak in to relieve ourselves when she was occupied elsewhere in the house.  I was not embarrassed at all having a senior citizen and close relative be our main groupie, and I was happy Carol had someone to keep her company while I was up on stage.

The crowd was a little confused by us.  We weren’t a rock band, and our jazz arrangements cribbed from the bands we watched play in clubs around L.A. were mostly unknown to the audience of girls and their families.  Mid-set, in response to a girl who caught his eye, our saxophonist, Mike, wandered off the stage to follow her to some secluded location.  We continued to play on.  When I looked over at Carol, she looked bored.

Eventually, Mike returned and we finished our set to tepid applause.  Since our performance did not generate the rabid response we’d hoped for, we packed up and reconvened at a pizza restaurant near the Studio City campus to review our set and console ourselves.  Carol remained aloof and cool with me even as I made sure she got the pizza she wanted and plenty to drink.  Deep down, I knew this would probably be it for us because we just didn’t click.  It was weird because although we had been friends for years, we knew little about each other’s life.  She never told me about school.  I only knew that she was in all honors classes and was considered one of the brightest kids in her science program.  To me, she seemed always somewhere else and when we did talk, she was obviously more worldly and experienced in life than I was, and I think she looked down on me as a sheltered Catholic school boy.  During our pizza feast, she said little as we all ate and discussed the show.

Mike, ever the ladies’ man and also the craziest of us, made jokes and kept us entertained.  His nickname in the band was “Weed,” for obvious reasons.  Carol laughed at his antics and although she seemed to be ignoring me, she liked Mike, and it was clear he was performing for her.  I got up to get us another pitcher of Coke and when I returned, Mike had slid over next to Carol in the booth effectively blocking me from my date.  He was whispering into her ear while she giggled and blushed.  I demanded that Mike get out of my seat, but he refused leaving me to try to save face by acting like I didn’t care.  I slid into the booth opposite them and tried to make small talk with the others while Mike and Carol groped each other under the table.

By the time we were all ready to call it a day, I was hissing steam out of my ears.  Mike pulled me aside while Carol went to the bathroom.  “Listen, dude, I’m sorry but she really digs me,” he said, as if this were the most logical and ethical conclusion.  “If you want, I’ll take her home and save you the gas.”

So generous an offer, but I was having none of it.  “Forget it,” I snapped.

“Forget what?” Carol asked as she rejoined our group in the parking lot.

“Why don’t you let her decide, dude,” Mike said with his crooked grin.  He was tall with blond hair that hung seductively in his eyes.  Carol nestled under his arm and stared at me with defiance.

“I’m taking her home,” I said evenly.  I didn’t want to take her home at this point, but to let it go meant admitting defeat and our parents were good friends.  I was sure Carol’s mother would call and complain to my parents if she returned home with a stranger.  Plus, I was sure they would not be going straight home, and I did not want to think about what they might be up to in some vacant parking lot somewhere.  I did not know Carol, I was coming to understand, but I knew Mike and what he was capable of with a willing partner.

Carol gave me a hateful look and then turned to kiss Mike deeply on the mouth.  Tongues intertwined, and out of disgust, I turned away and started walking to my car.  “Call me,” I heard Carol say before she followed me.

On the freeway going home, Carol maintained a vow of silence.  I was so angry the blood was pounding in my head.  I left the radio off and let my anger build, mile after mile across the San Fernando Valley.  Up ahead in the hills, a brush fire had broken out and we could see the flames leaping into the night sky giving the horizon a bruised, orange and purple tint.  The tension in the car was unbearable.  “I guess it’s a brush fire,” I offered lamely.

Carol did not reply and kept staring out the passenger window.  I glanced at the rearview mirror; it would not surprise me to find Mike behind us.  I’m sure Carol hoped he was.

I let her out at the curb with a curt “Goodbye.”

“Bye,” she replied, slamming the door.

I never dated her again, and saw her only once or twice again before we drifted out of each other’s life.  Our families also went their separate ways.  I did see her older sister once in college, and she told me, without elaboration, that Carol had “issues” but was trying to work them out.  I didn’t care enough to ask for more information.

Our band eventually broke up.  Mike became an insurance executive.  Our drummer now lives in the Bay Area and plays in a Star Trek-themed punk rock band.  Our guitarist works for the Los Angeles Archdiocese and teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University.  The bass player, who had that long, gorgeous glam-rock hair, went on to join the punk group Bad Religion.

All of this goes to say, our lives moved on, and to a greater or lesser extent, music became a hobby or a distant memory for us.

Our Lady of Corvallis High School graduated its last class in the 1980s.  The closed campus existed as a movie set for a while before becoming a satellite school for a Japanese university.  Currently, it is back to being a private school, although a non-Catholic one.  Notre Dame High School, my alma mater, went co-ed shortly before Corvallis closed, which many believed hastened the demise of our sister school.

Corvallis was also my wife’s high school.  I knew her during our teenage years and I actually saw her the day we played our one and only gig on campus.  Years later, after we were married, we were going through boxes of old pictures when I stumbled upon a number of photos taken at our concert that day, including the one I’ve posted above.

“Oh my God,” I said upon finding them, “this is us.  My band, Time After Time.”  I was shocked and pleasantly surprised.  At least one beautiful woman was into us that day.

“Oh yeah,” she responded with an air of nonchalance.  “I took them of that bass player.  I loved his hair.  He was hot.”  I’m not sure she remembered that I was even there that day.  Unlike Carol, though, this girl stayed with me and later, agreed to join with me in the holy union of matrimony.  In the end, I got lucky after all.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Baked Potato

We’re coming up on prom season, and that always makes me think of The Baked Potato.

This may come as a surprise, but I never went to my high school prom.  Such a good looking, debonair man-about-town didn’t go to his prom?  What happened?  An accident?  Social fatigue?  I’d like to say I was too mature to get sucked into the biggest high school event of the season, but I’d be lying.  Truthfully, I was a dweeb, a social failure.

In real life, I was desperate and dateless.

(My wife of 26 years went with another guy from my class and told me I didn’t miss much, so that has been some consolation through the years.)

On the night of one of the most quintessential events of the high school experience, I was in a smoky jazz  club in North Hollywood.  I was so cool.  I wore a hat.

We were a group of misfits, all male, who stuck together throughout high school.  Musicians, one and all, we played in bands, went to concerts, snuck back stage, made mix tapes for each other, frequented shadowy dives after bribing bouncers, and dreamed of the gigging life.  Shaggy hair, dark sunglasses at night, hunched over a keyboard or a bass guitar—that was living large for us.  We named our bands Time After Time, or Not Here (as in “Ladies and gentlemen, the band is Not Here.  Sardonic, no?).

The Baked Potato was the center of our universe, and Don Randi and Quest, the taciturn studio legend and his rotating band of L.A.’s best studio musicians were our sun and stars.

I don’t remember which one of us discovered the place or that management would look the other way and let us in, but for music aficionados in Los Angeles, The Baked Potato was legendary.

The guys from Toto jammed there after hours.  Lee Ritenour and Dave Grusin played sets that thrilled audiences.  All the laid back, West Coast studio cats wandered into its postage stamp interior and wailed away until the wee hours of the morning.  We had to get there at 7:30 for a 10 PM first set so we could get seats close enough to the stage to interfere with fingers on a fretboard just by breathing.

There was the time I lost my hearing during an Alex Acuna timbale solo.

There was the band Baya and George Cables on piano, rocking us gently with Afro-Caribbean rhythms percolating under those soaring horn lines anchored by Carlos Vega’s crisp drumming.

Back, forth, up, down, it was face-melting, endorphin-drenched ecstasy for a bunch of wanna-be high school musicians who spent their days dreaming of taking the stage while going through the motions of a marching band rehearsal.

For a modest five buck cover and a two drink minimum, we enjoyed two sets of music and all the vibe and atmosphere we could inhale.  Of course, we were too young to be there, since we were only high school kids.  So the rules were clear:  shut up, don’t draw attention, sip your Cokes, and tip well.  No problem.  We were undercover cool, or so we assured ourselves.

The place did serve food, although we rarely had enough funds to partake of the fare.  Mostly, the entrees consisted of giant, football-sized russet potatoes stuffed with cheese and meat, and smothered in tomato sauce.  They looked good, but we weren’t there to eat.  We did not want to draw blood away from our eyes and ears to waste on digestion.

In those days, smoking in clubs was permitted.  We’d stumble out of the place at two in the morning reeking of secondhand smoke with ears whistling.  We were blown off the planet by what we’d heard.  Everyone was talking at once, six or seven guys piling into a Toyota hatchback swearing that Miles Robinson was the best drummer on the planet or that Chuck Camper hit notes on the saxophone that only dogs could hear.  We were young and vibrantly alive, and more than anything else in our lives, we wanted to be good enough to get at gig at The Baked Potato.

In our own bands in garages, we copied Don Randi’s arrangements and set list.  (No one outside of the club ever quite understood our Latin-jazz inflected version of the “Theme from MASH.”)  We closed our own gigs with Randi’s Hawaiian send off, “Mahalo!”  (No one got that either; my mother kept insisting, “But you’ve never been to Hawaii!”  Trivial detail.)  The place, the musicians, the vibe, the essence, it got into our blood, it was our heroin.  We would mainline and then live the week out reminiscing and trying to copy the licks.  We were stoned, mushroomed, wasted on music.

So on the night of my senior prom, our destination was not some hotel ballroom.  No one would be getting laid.  No bonfires at the beach at sunrise.  We were too cool for school.  We were going to The Baked Potato.  Shh, don’t tell anyone.  As if anyone cared.

After graduation, I did manage to get a few dates.  Of course, we went to The Baked Potato.  I’d like to think my chosen destination set me apart from other guys the girls might have dated.  They took them to the movies or to a nice restaurant.  I went in for live music in a smoky club.  That was unique.

The years led me away from music and The Baked Potato.  Somehow, with the passing of years, the place lost its magic for me.  I haven’t been back now in some time, and my own music career never quite got off the ground.  My keyboard is in storage, and I gave away my drum sticks and percussion equipment.  Now, when I hear music, I am likely to drift away in my mind and envision what that other life might have been like.  For a few brief seconds, I relive the dream.  But that is not my life anymore.  Some may say I gave up; I would say I grew up, and it was time to put away childish dreams.  What I learned over all those years of schlepping my equipment from dive bar to dive bar is the dream is rarely so beautiful and sparkling when you attempt to live it.  Sitting so close to those incredible musicians at The Baked Potato, watching them launch into yet another play-through of a Latin-jazz version of “Norwegian Wood,” I did not realize that the music life is hard and the competition fierce.  The marginally talented do not win the day, and there is a reason they call themselves starving artists.  The truth is, one day you wake up and understand that no matter how much you want the dream to come true, it’s a tough world out there and when our dreams fail us, we must move on and make do with what we have.

The Baked Potato is still alive, still offering music most nights of the week.  Don Randi and Quest still perform on rare occasions.  He is the owner of the club and is mostly retired now.  I didn’t think musicians retired; I thought they just died after the lights went down and the set was finished.

There are moments in our lives that are transformative, that shape our experiences, warp them, even, and on a micro-cellular level, we are altered inexplicably for the remainder of our days.  Music can do that to us.  The Baked Potato did that to me.

The senior prom?  I didn’t miss a thing.