Mark Baker went from the wrong end of the street to the top of the New York nightlife pile, writes Salvador Bali. Photo: spencerhansen.net.
SHOW time …
Mark Baker, 50 years old and born in Brighton, England.
Let’s get a bit of your background.
When I was eight I started travelling with Chipperfields Circus. I did that for two-and-a-half years. For a young boy, it was filled with wonderful and terrible things – it was an insane and unusual upbringing.
What happened to your schooling?
There was no schooling. My job at the circus was publicity. They dressed me as a clown, sat me on the roof of a van with a loud speaker and drove around the towns we played at. My father died when I was very young, along with most of my relatives. My mother had a nervous breakdown, so there was no one really to stop me …
What about the authorities?
Well the circus is a place where people sort of hide and I met all kinds. There was a murder in a town the show was at, and police came to question everyone. When it came to my turn I was immediately sent home, but a week later I was back. I got the travel bug very young and learned to take care of myself quickly by becoming street-smart.
How about the academic side?
There was a wonderful Russian trapeze artist with the show who tutored me occasionally, and as time went by I became self-taught. I did go to primary school, which was a horrible experience. Mrs Brockway, a freaking monster, totally took advantage of me.
… I had one of those too, a Mrs Prescott.
I think we’ve all had one of those. With all that’s happened in my life, I have forgiven everyone, but Mrs Brockway, never. The way she singled me out and tortured me was unforgivable – there was no one to protect me. Eventually my mother managed to get me into one of the most prestigious schools in England. I was a charity case – two a year and I was one of them. I was light years ahead of the other boys because of my experiences. I was way ahead of my classmates and got expelled for sleeping with one of the Portuguese kitchen workers. I was 12.
She was hot, what can I tell you! And I fell madly in love with her. She was 17. I did my share of fighting as well, so I was classified as an undesirable. That was for nine months and the end of my illustrious career in school.
Then what, pray tell?
From that I went back to Brighton and started skateboarding. I was 14, then at 15 I met up with the Dog Town Boys from Venice Beach, California, who were leading the whole skateboarding movement. I started to go on tour with them around the world doing shows, and I became one of the top three skaters in the world … definitely the top skater in Europe… I was called Mad Mark Baker.
A name that stuck …
At that point I had no idea what to do with my life. I started inventing stuff on the skateboard in pools and pipes and so forth, and so there was lots of publicity – magazines, television and movies. It ended when I was 19, and I found myself back in Brighton with no education, in a tough town filled with queers, peers and racketeers. I had no money left so I worked selling insurance for six months – the most torturous time of my life. Horrible.
Okay, so by this time you’re in your 20s?
I was in Greece and ran into some New York guys who invited me to come and visit them, and I loved that idea. I had an old Porsche at the time, so I shipped that with me and headed for the Big Apple, where I found out there was a demand for grey-market cars. So I started importing Jaguars, Rolls Royces … the works. But I still had no money. I was importing these flash cars but had no money for gas. We had to do the siphoning trick. I remember coming into New York City the first night … there was this rumbling of energy that I will never forget, under the tunnel straight to Manhattan, then to this nightclub called Area. It was the craziest, wildest freak show I’d ever seen – a thousand people standing outside waiting to get in. I looked up and saw Jules, one of my skateboard buddies running the door. I shouted at him, and we were whisked in by the security guys. That was the turning point of my life, entering that club. I said to myself, this is my town and I’m never going to leave it. I stayed for 30 years and made that my business.
And now comes the nitty-gritty of this interview …
For a living, at the beginning as I said, was importing cars and eventually everything got smashed up by my partner, so we went into the furniture business. I was delivering into the worst neighbourhoods in the Tri State area and really getting to know New York. Back then when it came to the Bronx, man, it was like going into a war zone, and I became the repo man. Eventually it became too dangerous, too many crazy crack heads shooting at us … end of that story. I was hanging out at this super cool restaurant on the Upper East Side called Café Pacifico. Mick Jagger, David Bowie and the like were there. This was the beginning of the ‘80s and I still had the Rolls Royce and I went to the lady who owned the place – Gloria De Mann, a notorious New York nightlife icon – and I asked her for a job. She let me join the team and I started working as a waiter and became friends with the staff who were going to all the after-hour clubs in New York. Then one night I spied this 300-pound guy having the time of his life surrounded by models. His name was Frankie Scinlaro and he was putting on model shows with all these top girls. Man, I wanted his job. I started to build a network of friends who knew people and started to do parties with models who knew models and it started to blow up. During that time I had built up my finances and became the general manager of Café Pacifico and then bought into the place as a partner, and so it began.
At what point did Bali come into the picture?
Every year I used to take two, three months off and travel around Asia – Thailand and surrounds – I was also training kick boxing with my travel partner, Alan … it was a way to keep healthy and fit. Bali was always a dream for me and I knew one day I would get there, and when I did I fell in love. I knew I would one day return to Bali and stay. Always had love and respect for the island and its people.
So now we’re back in New York?
During that time span I had built up the hottest club in New York called Metro C.C. on 17th Street. Again with the hottest models, celebrities, you name it, and the whole supermodel thing was just blowing up … so it was a question of the right place right time. Then disaster hit, I had a terrible motorbike accident, laid up for nearly a year – physically and mentally broken. During that time there was a big crackdown on the nightlife scene due to a big fire in one of the illegal clubs in the Bronx … a hell of a lot of people died at an illegal underground club. With all the hullabaloo and press, my place was a prime target – that was in ‘95. My place was shut down, then the crash. I came back to Bali to heal and fell in love with it even more.
That led to the Millennium event you did here in 2000?
Yes, I’m a workaholic and I had been promoting events all over the world – opening clubs during Grand Prix, film festivals, fashion weeks, so I thought to myself, why not bring something to Bali where my crowd could share the festivities. There were enough people here then, so why not? The event lasted for 10 days … dinners, spiritual happenings, parties. I had 1,000 people come down for the millennium paying good money and most were quite demanding, so I wanted to give them the best. Before the party we enlisted the help of all the local priests – our rain insurance – that was one non-stop party. It nearly broke me. I didn’t sleep for a week. In any case, it was a rude awakening getting things done in Bali. At 11.55 on New Year’s eve with a big production of DJs, 30 twenty-foot papier mâché ogoh-ogoh figures, seating on the beach, fireworks and floats, helicopters and sailing ships, with the priests chanting … and just at that moment the electricity went out. Freaking out, five minutes to go on the millennium and all you could hear was the bells and smells of the incense and chanting of the priests. I have goose bumps telling you this – it was the most magical moment of my life. You could see thunderstorms all around us, and lightning and not a drop of rain came on us. At the same time our competitors’ parties got washed away, and at exactly 12 midnight the electricity came on. Fireworks, DJs, everybody just lost it, unbelievable.
I presume this gave you a shot in the arm, so to speak?
Absolutely. Back in New York for the next 10 years I started owning and operating some of the most well known venues in nightlife: Lotus, The Mansion, Double Seven, Life, Buddha Bar, Metro, Flowers and the Bowery Bar … on and on. Then I ended up opening the meatpacking district as it was the last stand of nightlife.
You’re at the top of the pops, the Godfather of NY nightlife, then you stopped … why?
I just started to burn out … it took a toll on my personal life. I had just got married and had a honeymoon in 2005 in Ubud. I was still wild and working in New York. And my marriage wasn’t working out. I took a year off and re-evaluated my whole life. The main thing was how to continue in this business in a healthy way … it’s brutal physically and mentally; relationships and so on. What do I do? I don’t know anything else, I know the club business and marketing, that’s what I know. So after much deliberation I came to the conclusion to dive back into the business, make myself very healthy, cut all the bad habits out and spend the next five years climbing my way back to the top again. So this led to us making moves in Asia and ending up in Bali.
You’re setting up an exclusive entertainment venue here …
Well it’s not so large so it will be somewhat selective, it’s a lounge but not a disco, and we create amazing cocktails, and, of course, the energy level goes up as the night goes on. People can jump up on the tables and dance, but they can also sit down and have a cocktail, and even hear each other talking, it’s hopefully the next level – somewhat sophisticated but fun and sexy …
Do you have a name for the place?
Yes, the Town House. I think Bali is in need of an upscale lounge and restaurant, and a gourmet cafe and juice place as well.
Any other projects?
Construction is about to start with an amazing beachfront restaurant, deck and spa on the Bukit, next to the Karma Kandara. That will start sometime this summer. Again it will be about quality, not quantity … upscale. Also working on producing festivals and events in a responsible way without upsetting the authorities. We have great relationships, not only here, but with people in Jakarta and throughout the region.
Mark, good luck to you …