life on mars

It’s a godawful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair

This morning as I walked into Tim Horton’s – this one is actually inside a gas station on Elmwood Ave on my way to work – to wait in line for my usual half-decaf half-regular coffee and toasted bagel with veggie cream cheese, breakfast of champions! – David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” slipped onto the muzak. Usually the music is a bland but uplifting amalgam of Lionel Ritchie, Le Chic, Five for Fighting deconstructing the last 40 years of Top 40.

I only discovered Bowie’s “Life on Mars” a couple years ago – an online friend, who’d been raised in England, was all about the BBC series named after it as BBC America was replaying the 2-season limited series.  She was even asking me what I thought this clue or that clue meant, based on her describing things to me.  By the time I upped my cable tier to include BBC America, it was off, and I found its sequel, Ashes to Ashes, only after the fact on it’s On Demand lineup.

The song for me knots my unfulfilled connection with her, and my fascination with that sort of brash, flushed and thickly dreamy 60’s music – I love Dusty Springfield and Petula Clark and Scott Walker, and The Monkees.  It is more about a feeling from my childhood when that kind of music was what me parents had on the car radio.  “Life on Mars” is a bit later than that, and infused with Bowie’s hyper-intelligent charisma.

The song – which I’m pretty sure was more popular, or at least more regarded, in England – was even covered by Barbara Streisand in an oddly produced version with the vocals buried way in the back of the mix in some fog beyond the thumping piano, which was a style in the late 70s which meant a song in intended to be played loud.   It’s on her Butterfly album, the one whose cover is the hyperrealist painting of a fly walking on a stick of butter.

“Life on Mars” haunts me.  Like his “An Occasional Dream” – deliberate but dreamy, piquant, full of fully rendered imagery – it strikes an embarrassingly powerfully resonant chord in me.

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

The BBC series Life on Mars was about 2000’s police detective Sam Tyler who gets hit by a suspect’s car, and finds himself in 1972.  He gets messages from, and we get glimpses of, his being operated on back in our time.  He has a hell of a time adjusting to the 1972 pre-politically correct Harry Callahan style of police work.   All the while trying not to let on that he doesn’t know what the hell is going on and seriously being unsure what year is real and what year is the dream.  Kinda like I feel a lot of the time.  He hears his mother’s voice on the radio while tuning between stations, thinks her hears someone passing on the street mutter that his girlfriend’s in danger without him, things like that.

I haven’t seen it.

I did watch most of the 8 or so episodes of the American ABC version.  I am sure it was more ham-handed and unsubtle than the award winning British original.  It was probably Harvey Keitel’s first regular series television work.

And when ABC decided to take it off the air mid-story, they did have the courtesy of tying it all up, answering everything, and giving it a real ending.  The ending was obviously put together at the beginning assuming this situation developed.   It was a Philip K. Dickensian cheat.

The DVDs of the BBC original just came out for the U.S. player format.  I got it from Netflix two weeks ago, haven’t watched it yet.  I keep putting it off.

I have so much invested in the song, and in the series, (and I just glanced over the online friend here…), I’m embarrassed.

Worried that I’ll be abysmally disappointed to finally watch it.  Or, like Sam Tyler, that I’ll be finding clues to guide me back to my real life…

But the film is a saddening bore
‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It’s about to be writ again…

Is there life on Mars?



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