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?

Dick Haymes


Dick Haymes came up today online. Some friends were discussing their favorite singers of the crooner age, Frank Sinatra and all that, but it was Dick Haymes that got the exchange going. How he replaced Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey’s band, and what a superb singer he was, and how those were different times. And they were. People don’t really sing like that anymore. The jazz singers are much more jazz, everyone else has a lot more blues and rock and soul in there, and it’s all much more syncopated than it was back then. Sometimes in those days a band could play so softly, and a crooner croon so mellow, that you could hear the dancers’ shoes slide on the floor. Then the band would belt it out on some hard swinging number. That we can appreciate now, the wailing swing…but it’s the pianissimo passages that are so alien now. Crooning doesn’t stir the kids today. Nor in my day. Blame it on Elvis. Blame it on Basie. Blame it in the thrill of driving a big powerful automobile really fast. Those were different times. The world was at war, hell bent on self-destruction, and people needed to be crooned to. Dick Haymes was one of those who crooned to them, one of the best.

But Dick Haymes always reminds me of a strange little jazz party in Beverly Hills. Right downtown, in fact, with Rodeo Drive a block away and city hall a few doors down. The apartment–yes, a jazz jam in a Beverly Hills apartment building–was packed with people and instruments, lots of food, too much liquor. Med Flory was there with his alto, and Barry Zweig showed up and played. There was a very dapper elderly gentleman there, a retired network executive right down to his grey suit and perfectly shined shoes, and I wound up sitting next to him. He requested the band play a Dick Haymes tune. Med laughed. Dick Haymes? Who? And he blew a frenzied chorus of Ornithology. The man requested Dick Haymes again. Med ignored him, and there were no singers, anyway, and even if there had been none of them could have sung a Dick Haymes song. So as the band argued over the next tune the old man stood up and sang “Laura”. Just a verse or two. His voice was surprisingly deep and full. But the words escaped him and he looked a little bewildered and sat back down. Then he turned to me and began telling me his Dick Haymes stories.  A few minutes later he told me the same stories. Then the same stories again. Alzheimer’s. But I listened each time like I’d never heard them before, because they were good stories–concerts he’d seen in the war days, or after the war, in posh Manhattan clubs, or the times he met him, though sometimes I wasn’t actually sure if he’d met him at all. This went on all night, between blasts of bebop, he’d come up and tell me about Dick Haymes, and each time with a genuine intensity, a youthful ardor that was stirred up after half a century. Dick Haymes is pretty well forgotten now except by swing buffs and music historians. But that day I got a glimpse into the connection he made with his young fans way back in the day. It was vivid, passionate and, like all teenaged fandom, maybe a tad ridiculous. It was unfiltered by mature, adult and slightly cynical wisdom. That’s the thing about Alzheimer’s, it loosens memories from the perspective of time, and that old man was right there at the Palladium again listening to Dick Haymes, seeing him, maybe he was even back there and not in a living room in Beverly Hills, and the orchestra played the arrangements flawlessly and the girls swooned. After a while his son came by to take him home. The old man gave me a firm handshake and looked me right in the eye, though I don’t know if he remembered me, and walked slowly out the door humming “Laura”.

Press thing

So Channel 36 is showing a gig from the John Anson Ford Theatre here in Hollywood–something called Jail Guitar Doors–and there’s all these bands and they don’t give any of their names. There were two rock bands I liked, then this Jackson Browne kinda deal that was, um, a little rough in the playing and harmony thing, and I’m telling my wife there’s some band here trying to sound like Jackson Browne–she can’t stand Jackson Browne–and suddenly they really did sound like Jackson Browne and no wonder, it was Jackson Browne, the real one, not the wanna be, running on empty, and I guess that was David Lindley. Then it was another act. No idea who. The crowd was up on their feet, following orders, and seeming to dig it. I was kinda uhhh but they jammed some on one tune which was cool. Still no hint who anybody is. They’re mostly young. I also don’t know what Jail Guitar Doors is, aside from a Clash b-side.

It just occurred to me that when I was at the LA Weekly I would have known who all these people were. They’d have this press thing, we’d all go, meet the promoters, a few musicians, be mugged by ill-clad samba dancers (well, that happened once), get a tour of the joint, be fed little finger things and drink lots of wine. One of those events where you’re just some bum on Cahuenga until you pull in and your name is on the list and you’re somebody and hanging with Lee Solters at a tiny table and eating pizza. Lee Solters, baby. One degree from Frank Sinatra. Hollywood. I said I’d tell that story some day and I just did. Ya know, the music press lives for this kinda shit. Free food, wine, samba dancers, people kissing your ass. And I always liked that event, but I had to be so nice back then. Not anymore. The less you get invited, the meaner you can be.

Uh oh, all the musicians are on stage doing a Kiss song. I wanna rock’n’roll all night and party every day. This is where I would have left, pulled out onto Cahuenga and been a bum again.

rear view

Those same samba dancers. Or three of them were, anyway. And maybe mugged is an exaggeration. This is from the Queen Mary, though. I was at this event. The table was right about where the photographer is standing. It was a tough gig. I was with a lady who was wearing about as much as these girls were. Weird things happen to jazz critics.