There is an Eagles song, called "The Sad Cafe" (mock the Eagles if you must, but do not mock "The Sad Cafe," that would just be posing). It was written about the front bar of The Troubadour in Los Angeles, where, as the '60s turned into the '70s, the architects of the 70s California sound were hanging out when not actually playing The Troub. Drinking, mingling, fighting, forming bands, getting together, breaking up. Just starting on their path to riches, fame, and massive cocaine abuse. The song, released in 1980, was an elegy of sorts for the shattered peace and love dream of the '60, a lost youth, and a simpler time. It also explored the bafflement and survivor's guilt that comes with fame: "I don't know why fortune smiles on some, and lets the rest go free..." And though I played the Troubadour many times (long past this heyday), it's not that place that comes to my mind when I hear this song, it's the Iguana Cafe.
In 1990, I was 24 years old and living in Boston. I had a brand new music degree - which, along with a quarter, was not going to get me a cup of coffee, let alone a gig - my band had broken up, my girlfriend had moved out and taken all of her furniture with her, and another New England winter was on the way. So I lit out for the territories, and, like so many before me, landed in Los Angeles. That first year in L.A. was mostly a long slog of fear and culture-shock. I managed to get a beat up car and a job playing piano in a restaurant, so that I could pay my rent. Beyond that, I was a very square peg in a hot, smoggy round hole.
One Sunday night - not more than two or three months after I had arrived in town - I found myself in North Hollywood, at the open mic night at the Iguana Cafe. The place was tiny, done up in classic coffehouse (circa 1968), and full of people and books and warmth and vibe. And what was happening on the stage was nothing like any open mic night I'd ever heard. Everyone was amazing. Singer-songwriters, jazz musicians, poets. All well beyond the open-mic stage of their game - just there because they dug the place. At one point, one poet after another took turns reading while a guy improvised nonstop on a Chapman Stick. It was magical. It was art for art's sake in a town that frowned on that sort of thing. And towards the end of the night, I got up there on the funky old upright piano, and played a song of my own, terrified by all these people who were so much cooler than I would ever be - or at least I thought so at the time. By the time it was over, I had been accepted into this little world - The People's Democratic Republic of Iguanaland. It was at that moment I realized I could get on stage, by myself, and play my songs, and that maybe they weren't so bad after all. And that was really the beginning of all that followed.
By 1995 - it was all over. The Iguana closed for good. I have played and mingled and drank and heard musical magic at many such places in the years since - but the Iguana will always be my sad cafe. I miss it very much.