BALI, Indonesia — It was 7:30 a.m. and we were deep in the jungle. Mark Baker, his wolf and me. “Dawn used to be the enemy,” he recalled, as we descended a steep slope of slippery rocks.
We weren’t on a tourist path, a dirt path or any path. One misstep and I would have rolled down the ridge into a snake pit.
“That sun coming up in Manhattan and the dumpster trucks and the phone started to ring and I’m still sitting there with lockjaw,” Mr. Baker said. “It was not pretty. It was horrible.”
I first met Mr. Baker late one night in the bad-boy mid-1980s, at Indochine in Manhattan. He was hosting a dinner for a colorful group of people, surrounded by the supermodels Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington. I was with my best friend, both of us 16 going on 45, soberly looking on. My friend had a crush on him. She was tall and striking, and he came over to say hello.
Mr. Baker was a gatekeeper of the scene back then. But he didn’t seem as shallow as the world that he presided over, and he wasn’t the imperious sovereign, insulating himself from the commoners. What distinguished him then is what distinguishes him now. He engaged. His big round blue eyes would focus only on you, even if only for three seconds. He made sure it was a genuine moment, a connection.
“Sure, it can be draining,” he said of such efforts, offering a muscular tattooed forearm for me to grab on to as I crept around the vertiginous ridge. “But that’s different than lonely.”
Thirty years have passed since our first encounter, and he is still wired to please.
The pace of New York night life was, as always advertised, relentless. Being accessible all the time, 18-hour days, seven days a week; fueled by alcohol and cocaine. There was, too, a self-imposed burden of responsibility: making sure everyone was having fun.
“If I’m in a room with nine people who have had a good time, the one person who didn’t will bug me for the rest of the night,” Mr. Baker said. “And the next day. I’ll focus on that. I read body language pretty well. And I can feel people from across the room.”
Sayan, the region of Bali where I visited Mr. Baker, is his sanctuary. He first started coming here in the late ’80s. It was mystical place he had heard about from “friends in the know,” and this particular valley was a refuge, where he would spend weeks alone, decompressing.
Then he would pick up his phone, get on the plane, and return to the party promoting, event organizing, being “on” and giving people want they wanted: a service that was both replenishing and depleting.
‘A Couple of Overdoses’
When we met again, Mr. Baker was barefoot and wearing his current uniform of a black sarong, sweat-soaked black T-shirt and wooden Buddha beads around his neck.
He stopped on the ridge, turned around, politely waited and called out: “Come on, love, you can do it!”
Before Mr. Baker co-owned and ran clubs like Lotus and Double Seven, before he became a founding partner of Juice Press, the company that began as a storefront in the East Village (he would bicycle around Manhattan dropping off bags of free cold-pressed green juice at modeling agencies so that the models would be photographed drinking it), and before he arrived in New York from Britain in 1983, he was known as “Mad Mark Baker”: revered and admired by skateboarders for his fearless risk taking and daredevil tricks.
Part of the original Dog Town Boys skate crew, he was famous in that crowd for being among the first to attack vertical empty swimming pools.
Skateboarding, he told me, saved his life. At 16, it was an outlet for his restless energy. “We’d put on a show: bigger, higher, harder,” he said. “I definitely would have ended up in prison otherwise.”
Instead of ending up in prison, he ended up on the cover of The New York Times Styles section, in 1994, anointed as a champion scene maker. “No one had ever referred to me as Mr. Baker before,” he said, still sounding astonished.
After safely making it down, we were standing in the valley near the Ayung river. A Balinese farmer in a straw hat popped up from a rice terrace across the raging waters, spotted Mr. Baker and gave a smiling hello.
Mr. Baker chatted for a while in Indonesian with the farmer, Putu. He has known him for 20 years, since he first started to do this walk.
We pressed on. Mr. Baker wanted to show me a special place: “It’s magical!”
The smell of incense was in the wind, and there was a distant jingle from a prayer bell. He scooped up the bottom of his sarong so his “bits” weren’t on display, whistled to Merlin, his wolf, and rhapsodized about wasabi caviar, whitefish salad and the sturgeon from Russ & Daughters, which he misses.
That, and going to the opera. His love of opera came from visiting the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow in the 1990s when he was recruited to bring a “glam crew” to the opening of a nightclub, Manhattan Express, in Red Square.
We headed into the woodlands, past mythical old trees. Along the way, he collected stray plastic bottles that had been left behind, depositing them at a Hobbit-like house that belongs to an ancient toothless woman.
“Well, we don’t go out to lunch together but yeah, over the years I’ve gotten to know her. I advised her to ask tourists for donations. We’re marching through her home and she’s got 50-kilo bundles of wood on her back every day. ”
In well-informed detail, he told me about the farmers and the birds fighting.
It’s a significant change from the kind of gossip Mr. Baker trafficked in circa 2000, when he opened Lotus in the meatpacking district and items appeared on Page Six seemingly every day.
“That upstairs room at Lotus — the Peter Beard room — I have seen everybody you’ve ever heard of doing something they shouldn’t have been doing in a state of undress or just being human,” Mr. Baker said. “The reason why we had such a celebrity following was because we never exposed anyone. I felt paternal towards them.” He paused. “We took the cameras out, by the way.”
Because? “There were some well-known celebrities doing coke in there, and we didn’t want that being found.”
He described what sounded like a vault: a sealed room where only three people knew the code. The drinks went through a hatch so even the bartenders couldn’t see what was going on inside.
What was going on inside?
“Oh …. There were a couple of overdoses where we had to call private ambulances and have them shipped out the back door, treated privately, but I never judged anyone because pretty much everything they were doing I had done, or was doing.”
By 2004, Lotus was the nightclub headquarters for the fashion, art and entertainment industries, and it was full of people partying hard.
Though many took advantage of the vulnerable in these scenarios, Mr. Baker said he was vigilant. “I was always protective of the younger new faces who made their way to our scene,” he said. “I kept an eye on the innocents that could potentially be taken advantage of. It was my responsibility.”
“Mark’s a good guy,” said the writer and director Oliver Stone, who spent time with Mr. Baker in the 1980s and ’90s, in a phone interview. “He’s always been upright, and in that business it can get pretty shady.”
Upon reflection, Mr. Baker could not consider himself truly friends with his customers. His purpose was to provide the fun. “When you’re there and you’re hugging and it’s midnight and everyone’s a bit tipsy, I get to be in a place where I’m only interacting with people — or was interacting with people — when they’re having a good time,” he said. “I’m not selling them insurance. I’m not pulling their teeth out.”
We arrived at a stunning spot that overlooks the Sayan River Valley and has one of the oldest temples close to the river where farmers grow papaya and bananas.
Mr. Baker’s survival skills were cemented in a childhood filled with adversity; he was the younger son of a widow who struggled to take care of him and his older brother, Chris. He pointed to a faded tattoo of five dots, meant to symbolize a boy within four walls, that he said he did himself when he was doing time in a borstal, a youth detention center. “I was carrying an air pistol when I was 8,” he said. “The streets of Brighton were a rough place. Sinister characters around.”
When Mr. Baker was 9, the Chipperfields circus came to town. He knocked on the door of the caravan and asked for work with the advance crew.
“We would drive around in this van with circus music blaring. I dressed up in a gorilla suit. Then I would jump off the van and go running up the street scaring people. With the circus music … it was nuts.”
When the show left town, he went with it, traveling for about a year and a half. Then, as a teenager, he discovered skateboarding, which provided an escape from the mischief in Brighton. As the sport grew more popular, he got paid for it by demonstration shows, streetwear companies and other sponsors and began to travel.
Then, in 1983, the circus of New York. He had come to visit some friends he’d met in Mykonos, Greece, shipping over the Porsche he had bought from skateboard earnings to sell for a profit. And there he stayed.
“Mark gave wonderful parties,” Mr. Stone said. “And then he had the cocaine problem. It’s hard to stay out of that in that world. It’s very rare to make it through a lifetime in New York City night life. It’s a tough business.”
In 2012, in the early stages of a relationship with the woman he hoped to spend the rest of his life with, he had to choose between her or the drugs.
“I really wanted to commit to stopping. Someone had given me a big bag of coke, and I came home and I was in tears.” he said. “I said, ‘What do I do?’ and she said, ‘Mark, it’s up to you,’ and I wept. With this big bag of blow in my hand. I didn’t know whether to do it or flush it down the toilet. She looked at me and she said, ‘It’s your decision where you go from here.’”
The coke was flushed. “I started going to meetings, got my sobriety of 90 days,” he said. “And then the whole juice thing kicked in, and my life changed. For the better.”
He still drinks wine and beer but hasn’t touched cocaine, he said, since teaming up with Marcus Antebi and opening Juice Press.
Sourcing the Straws
On a Saturday at 9 a.m., Mr. Baker was seated alone at the long wooden table in a luxurious villa overlooking the beach. His reading glasses were perched on the bridge of his nose, and “Madama Butterfly” was playing, every so often punctuated by the ding of his phone.
“Let me turn that off,” he said. Mr. Baker receives around 500 text messages a day, and responding while at the red light on his scooter is not unusual. But now, he pointed out, he will go on a walk lasting several hours without his phone.
He has been busy, sourcing material for grass straws from Vietnam to replace the bamboo ones that people keep stealing from Beach Garden, a breezy, open-air restaurant. He is one of its owners, and it also sells another brand of cold-pressed juice, In the Raw.
His dream is to develop an eco-resort, organic farm, wellness center and animal sanctuary on land that he has bought in the north of Bali.
In 2013, when Mr. Baker relocated here, things were different. He had spent a year raising capital for a nightclub called Townhouse, housed in a five story building with a cafe, rooftop and bar. He had planned to get married and have children, but it didn’t work out.
The nightclub opened with a bang, but mounting costs meant profit was minimal. He attributes this to paying the staff New York wages as opposed to Bali wages, which seemed like “slave labor,” he said, and that his focus was on front-of-house duties. “As usual, I never signed a check, I never looked at the books,” he said.
Mr. Baker had always relied on others to handle the business side of things while he did what he did best: marketing, promoting, organizing and hosting. (In the 1980s, people were not generally in business school studying how to run a club.)
A year after opening, his partners in Jakarta took over.
“I wanted to say take it — and watch them fail — but at the same time, I wanted to get my investors’ money out of there,” Mr. Baker said. “I made sure everyone got paid. With the last of my savings. Every penny. But at least I could hold my head high.”
Soon after, his girlfriend left to return to New York. Then his beloved cat, Simba (also from New York), disappeared.
He took a room at a modest bungalow-style complex with a community pool a few minutes from the beach and slowly began to reboot. After 10 days, the cat reappeared. The girlfriend did not.
“This is my little home,” he said, showing me into a private area while cuddling Simba in his arms.
There is a small garden he tends to with his trees and plants and a closet full of sarongs and shirts. “No girls ever come in my bedroom!” Mr. Baker said with a laugh.
Above his bed is a photo of a lion cub in the desert with a beautiful woman, by Christian Schmidt — “The next Peter Beard” — and on a shelf there are 20 different kinds of Tom Ford cologne. “My only extravagance,” Mr. Baker said.
He spritzed himself with one that has a jasmine scent and declared: “Your teeth have got to be nice, and you’ve always got to smell good.”
Upstairs, an office-to-be is filled with plastic crates and dusty boxes, some containing press clippings and photos. “One day I want to sit and look at them all and say, ‘Wow. that was fun.’”
On a shelf in the modest kitchen downstairs there are three triangle-shaped party hats on a shelf, mementos from his 57th birthday. The guest list: Merlin and Simba. “It was the first time since I was 20 years old that I didn’t throw a big party and stress,” he said.
Master of Seating Arrangements
Mr. Baker was back on the move. We were in the village of Canggu, where people waved at him and his wolf on the scooter. He moved effortlessly between locals and expats — alternating the Namaste two-palms-together head bow with the double kiss on the cheek. He was also frequently handing out tips, T-shirts, tote bags and juices. You need an avocado? He’s on it. It was like trailing Santa Claus.
At lunchtime the master of seating arrangements sprang into motion, adding chairs and expanding the table at Beach Garden to accommodate 12.
Within minutes, the table had grown three times. At one end, Polish models, models from Paris, boyfriends of models and “the top night life guy in Moscow.” Midtable was Russian, Katty Q: voted “the world’s sexiest D.J.” in an online poll. Near my end of the table was Mr. Baker’s back-of-house partner, Martin; Gail Elliot (an elegant former model) and her husband, Joe Coffey; and another expat, the fast-talking native New Yorker Kelly Leighton Ackerman. She also first met Mr. Baker in Manhattan in the mid-1980s, with her mother.
The master of seating arrangements did not himself take a seat. He can’t eat at these lunches, he said, because he gets indigestion from anxiety. He moved around in a ballet of attentiveness.
“This is the most settled I’ve ever seen Mark,” Ms. Ackerman said. “It’s a fraction of the stress he used to deal with.”
Across the room, a young man was celebrating his 25th birthday had reserved a table for 10 but only five of his guests had shown up. Mr. Baker adjusted the table quickly to make sure his young customer wasn’t stuck with a reminder of having been stood up. “My heart goes out to him,” he said.
At noon the next day, Mr. Baker was heading toward Uluwatu, on the southern peninsula, known for breathtaking views of the Indian Ocean, on a single lane road with a police escort he arranged to beat the traffic. The sirens were blaring, Snoop Dogg was playing, and Mr. Baker’s arm was around his wolf in the back seat. A trip that would take two hours was accomplished in half the time.
“He’s an old-school influencer,” said Paul Hugo, Mr. Baker’s boss and the director of marketing and events for the Hakkasan Group Indonesia. They first met when the Hakkasan Las Vegas team was assembling the team for the Omnia Dayclub Bali.
Mr. Baker gave me the tour of the club’s swim-up bars and infinity pools crowded with beautiful women.
He pointed out that soon it will be the “golden hour,” which means the sun will set and the light becomes highly Instagrammable.
Mr. Hugo explained why Mr. Baker is an important part of the jigsaw puzzle. “He opened a lot of doors for us,” Mr. Hugo said. He described introductions with people of influence locally that produced their instant good will. “He knows everyone.”
Yet when asked what his official title is, and if he has one, Mr. Hugo hesitated.
“Hmm.” Long pause. “He’s our ambassador.”
Ambassador of? Fun?
“Yes,” Mr. Hugo said. “You can say that. He’s our ambassador of fun.”
In the D.J. booth, at the peak of Deep House Tech hour, Mr. Baker jumped up on the console, music thumping, his arms waving in the air, rousing the crowd like a pumped-up air traffic controller. His shoulders were moving, he was shouting over the dance floor. And then his palm hit a shiny red button and a nitrous blaster went off.
Perspiration rolled down Mr. Baker’s temples and into the creases of his neck. He was grinning — and there was Katty Q. She too joined in, gyrating to the beat in her tight red dress.
There was a smattering of women in neon bikini tops that Mr. Baker maneuvered around, bouncing and leaping onto an adjacent couch so as not to neglect the cabana behind us, separated by a plunge pool of aquamarine chlorinated (one hopes!) water where more bikini-clad 25-year-olds were waist deep, torsos swaying, champagne flutes in the air, responding to his enthusiasm.
“I’m 57 years old,” he shouted jubilantly into my ear, “Why is it I’m the one who has to energize all these people?!”
At 8 p.m., it was time to move on yet again, but not where you might think.
“I’m happy now for the first time in my life,” Mr. Baker said. “I don’t have to go to another nightclub. I’m going to go home and cuddle my wolf.”
Source: Read Full Article