Power Outage

Power’s been off and on, mostly off, all day here in our stretch of Silver Lake. Gotta love the DWP, delivering juice with all the intermittent excitement of a fourth world capital besieged or maybe Caracas on a bad day for socialism. I made dinner in the dark. Spilled milk. Didn’t cry. Ate in a candle lit room accompanied by our battery operated phonograph. I had listened to Chicago jazz all afternoon–found an extraordinary LP side of Pee Wee Russell, Vic Dickinson, Wild Bill Davison and Bud Freeman from the 1950’s I don’t think I’d ever listened to, with a riotous Muskrat Ramble at be bop tempo, just nuts. At one point I realized I’d listened to three LP’s worth of tracks none of which had been cut less than ninety years ago. An afternoon like that. Then the power came back on halfway through some late forties Ellington. Cat Anderson hit a high note and switched on all the lights. So I put the turntable away and reset all the clocks and started laundry and got online when Elmer Fudd at the DWP tripped over the extension cord again and the whole neighborhood was draped in dusk. As it lingered, ever darker, I lit candles and pulled out the record player again and switched to the two Bowie LPs I have left (I used to have a dozen, but they’re gone) and cringed at Kooks, as always. Then power came back on finally and I put the record player away and blew out the candles and was about to turn on the computer when Jerry Lewis at the DWP beat me to it by falling onto the main off switch with his foot stuck in a waste basket. Darkness again. The whole neighborhood enveloped in darkness. I sat in the living room in the dark and listened to distant light. A siren cut the stillness and coyotes howled and it was like the end of civilization, like Paris in the depth of the 14th century, beset by plague and war and brigands and famine, when wolves haunted the night time streets and snatched the unwary. Like that. Well, not quite like that. It was dark, though. So I lit more candles, pulled out the record player, and listened to the first Buzzcocks LP which I bought forty years ago next year, and it sounded gloriously low fi like it did on cheap punk rock record players in 1978, and I sat in the dark and remembered what a great album it had been to fuck to, but never mind. The second album sounded even better, incredibly creative, and just as Late For the Train reached its swirling, soaring, pounding finish the power came back on, lights on everywhere. Damn, someone at the DWP has groovy timing.

And here comes the epilepsy, a buzzing numbing fog. I forgot.

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Corner of Effie and Lucile, a hill or two over, in another blackout, but you get the idea. That’s Sunset Blvd down there, looking awash in klieg lights. Photo by Armand Emamdjomeh, Los Angeles Times, from 2015.

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Life on Mars

(2014)

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?