Book Review: A Place Called The Bla-Bla Cafe
Author: Sandy Ross
Title: “A Place Called the Bla-Bla Café”
Author: Sandy Ross
ISBN #: 0-9777227-0-8
I asked author and songwriter Sandy Ross why she had chosen a Generation X’er such as myself to assess her memoirs of a period devoured by another scene that was ironically also digested and now slowly regurgitated in Los Angeles. Despite my east coast origins, I relate more to the eighties heavy metal and punk scenes of L.A., which Ross notes in her lengthy love letter “A Place Called the Bla-Bla Café,” is a principal undoing of her cultural time and place in American entertainment history.
Perhaps the Bla-Bla Café, like so many clubs and venues throughout the U.S., are all destined to drop in light of the continuous cyclical shifting that plagues this rakish and faux-cosmopolitan society. After all, only The Whisky A Go-Go, The Rainbow and The Troubadour seem to be collectively the immortal apparent at the moment due to their intrigue and sleazy reputations, while Club 54 in New York had its own eclectic woebegone mysticism that is likely to joined any day now by CBGB’s.
When I think of the timeframe in which the Bla-Bla Café operated, I think of why I was so charmed by “Three’s Company” and the Santa Monica beachscape that I grew to love even more the older I got. What was hinted at with “Three’s Company” (aside from an envious swinger’s paradise) is a breezy Steely Dan-esque reeling in the years sensation that rings like a wa-wa pedal to my ears, just like the jazz and R&B sway of George Benson’s “Give Me the Night” preoccupied AM radio and my young ears at the turn of the decade in 1980, only two years before the Bla-Bla Café would ultimately see its demise in its second location.
Maybe this is the reason Sandy Ross, former haunter and talent hostess of the Bla-Bla Café, saw fit to challenge a totally eighties headbanger with her frequently funny, often emotional accounts of a tiny hole in the wall (as compared to the café’s eventual locality to a larger club further down on Ventura Boulevard) that was brought alive with such industry names as Al Jarreau, Maxine Sellers, Gene Nelson, Sandra Bernhard and Robin Williams, to name a few. Her official motivation is to share these chronicles of the Bla-Bla Café with future generations who can only yet relate if they stop a minute in their local coffeehouses to listen to would-be hipsters mouthing their wares to a meager handful of listeners.
Perhaps this is how I personally identify with The Bla-Bla Café, through my adventures on the open mike, and while “A Place Called the Bla-Bla Café” is written in a lighthearted tone, there’s a subtle angst to the narration that is part remorse for the wayward venue and part anxiety for what it means to be a hungry artist in search of an audience, much less a home. Especially true given that most of the characters revolving in the Bla-Bla’s microcosm were all up-and-comers at one point, while some were sadly nevermores thereafter.
For the habitués of The Bla-Bla Café, the food served by Sebastian “Sabby” Massa and his brother Eddie were one of the reasons to frequent the joint, much less the cabaret-style performances of the musicians and comics. Ross paints a picture of a clientele comprised of enough right and left wingers to equip a few hockey teams, much less political contingencies. A place that nurtured the gays with the straights, the weirdoes with the bookkeepers, the artists with the would-be exploiters, the Bla-Bla Café, which operated from 1971 to 1982, was sanctuary to all, a “Cheer”s before such a proposition of simply being a regular made you a hometown hero.
Ross vibrantly recounts moments and memories and then turns the reins to such guests as Al Jarreau and his wife Susan, Jelsa Palao, Lisa Nemzo, Gene Nelson and others, who provide the extra color that Ross merely suggests in her description; behind the scenes lie interesting possibilities that are left to the readers’ imagination. I myself kept thinking that the Bla-Bla encased an entire underworld filled with music, playful debauchery, wild sex and overall camaraderie seldom found in contemporary society. Whatever insecurities Ross and her assemblage may have felt on a stage that was the size of “a postage stamp” in the original Bla-Bla (according to Debby VanPoucke), they were soon checked at the door as recurring performers built their careers or guided others onward through the doors of the Bla-Bla Café. The overall plot is something tailor-made for an HBO original movie.
When looking at the Art Crumb-esque cover for “A Place Called the Bla-Bla Café,” the familiarity to Ross and her compatriots undoubtedly produces warm and bittersweet feelings, while to the average observer like myself who was still a toddler when the Bla-Bla was getting its thrusters going, it’s a valuable time capsule that instills appreciation for what later developed in the high-profile Los Angeles entertainment sector. As the Bla-Bla festered in its final days by hosting heavy metal and punk acts such as Black Flag, Missing Persons, The Idols and Trust, shadows of future icons such as Tori Amos, Sting, Jay Leno and David Letterman along with regular favorites such as Maxine Sellers, Alexandra Brooks (better known as Ki-Ki) and Al Jarreau all left echoes on the minds of the “Blabettes” who hung at the original café like it was a halfway house for the artistically insane. Too bad my point-of-reference at the time was “Captain Kangaroo,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Sesame Street”; what glorious times these must’ve been…
For more information about the author, click on the author’s name at the top of the page.
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