Life on Mars


There was a guy who lived next door way back when, a piano player. Heard him playing all the time, he was pretty good. Piano is a lonely life, and certainly was back then in the hard rocking nineties. Guitar players got the girls. He switched to guitar. He’d obviously never played before, and so began the painful process of becoming a rock star. The first thing he did was buy a full length mirror. You could look out our kitchen window and see it through his living room window. You’d be washing the dishes or getting a glass of water and look up and there he’d be checking himself out as he did his little solos. Every day in front of that mirror getting the fingering right and the look down. His favorite song was Life on Mars. In fact his only song was Life on Mars. He noodled through it slowly, cautiously, painfully, artlessly, over and over and over. It’s a god-awful small affair, he’d play, to the girl with the mousy hair. Da da da da da da da da, da da da da da da da da… I’d find my self singing along, slowly, Take a look at the lawman/Beating up the wrong guy/Oh man, wonder if he’ll ever know/ He’s in the best-selling show/ Is there life on—and he’d hang there, and I’d count off eight, or twelve, or even sixteen–Mars?  One, twice, ten times, twenty times, an entire afternoon’s worth of Is there life on………… Mars?

It was enough to drive you mad.

This went on for weeks. Is there life on……………..Mars? Eventually he put together a little trio…a  bassist and a drummer in his living room. They weren’t loud. But they played Life on Mars over and over. They would all three come to a stop, wait, then Mars? They probably played other songs, but all I can remember is Life on Mars. They really worked on that one, he wanted to get it just right. It was their meal ticket. It would make them famous. They’d be stars. Is there life on………………………………. Mars? The women would swoon. It would be the freakiest show.

Then came the Northridge earthquake. It roared in from the Valley at four in the morning. The cats on our bed disappeared, the cat on the floor jumped up on the bed. For endless seconds the quake rocked us about, and just as it seemed like it would last forever it ended. All was silence aside from the chorus of car alarms. We got up to check on the damage. We walked about waving our flashlights but nothing was knocked over, nothing had fallen. We huddled in the dark, waiting for aftershocks and listening to panicky voices on the radio.

Dawn broke slowly, silently, still. Every few minutes the place would shake. The city was eerily silent. The occasional siren. The smell of distant smoke. Nervous dogs. The mockingbirds started up again. We had no water. No power. No Life on………………………….. Mars? Just wait till the power comes back on, my wife said. I stood at the kitchen sink looking out the window and listening. It was so hushed. The radio said there was destruction everywhere but you couldn’t tell from here. It all seemed the same. Like nothing had fallen down at all. But just then something caught my eye. Or didn’t catch my eye. Something that had been there wasn’t there. The mirror. The mirror was gone. The rock star mirror must have fallen down and shattered into a million pieces.

I never heard another note on the guitar come out of that apartment. Perhaps the earthquake had snapped its neck. Perhaps the falling mirror had busted it into chunks. Perhaps it was an omen. Or maybe playing guitar is no fun without a full length mirror. Whatever. We heard no more guitar. And no more Life on Mars.

After a week or so I heard him back on electric piano. He wasn’t a bad pianist. He’d do pop tunes, some standards, improvise a bit. He’d have no problem picking up lounge gigs. I always assumed that was how he paid his rent. And now, with guitar and mirror most emphatically gone, he went back to worrying about the rent. One night I heard him tinkling through New York, New York. Then through Feelings. He must have landed a new gig. It’s tunes like that that fill tip jars. Might even get a piano player laid.

I wondered about the passionate artist inside him, though. The one who saw the beauty in that endless delay in Life on………………………….. Mars? I admit I couldn’t see the beauty, nor could anyone else I knew who heard it. In fact, most people burst out laughing. Someone said it was like waiting for Jack Benny to say “Well!”, which of course only made it worse. I’d be hearing the guy playing Life on Mars and I’m visualizing Jack Benny being insulted by a chicken. Is there life on…………………… Well!  Still, though, I imagined our neighbor there, in the dark, his rock star career in pieces on the floor. It had been a fun dream while it lasted–he’d even had a girl in there a couple times while he had that mirror–but now he was back to the happy hour grind. All the songs that normal people want to hear when they’re drunk. I heard him going through the Billy Joel songbook one night.

Then one time, he was practicing again, running though the MOR hits and drinkers’ favorites. I heard the little flourish that opens New York, New York–dink dink dink da-dink, dink dink dink da-dink, dink dink dink da-dink, dum–and then he took the melody slow, sonorous, sad–start spreadin’ the news/ I’m leavin’ today–and maintained that tempo through the next two verses. His little town blues melted away very slowly, his brand new start of it took its sweet measured time. But he was just building us up for the signature. If I can make it there/ I’ll make it…..anywhere. Then again. If I can make it there/ I’ll make it………. anywhere. Again, a little longer. I’ll make it…………… anywhere. Finally I’ll make it………………….. anywhere.
We split town for a week right after that, and when we came back his place was empty. He’d moved out. I hoped to New York. He would have landed a gig, run through the Billy Joel songbook, a little Feelings, maybe I Write the Songs. Play that song about New York, New York someone says. And he would, his way, because if he can make it there, he’ll make it anywhere. Is there life on Mars?

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