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.