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Al Martinez

Music in the Night

August 07, 1986|AL MARTINEZ

It was one of those misty Santa Monica nights that remind me of San Francisco, when fog wets the streets and mutes the ordinary sounds of traffic. People were walking around with their collars turned up and even a loud laugh sounded intrusive.

Voices ought to be low when the fog rolls in.

I had just come from a performance of something called "Tomfoolery" at the Burbage Theater in West L.A., which I thought might make a column for me, but it didn't. I was naturally depressed.

Not that the performance was bad. In fact it was pretty good, but I just couldn't buy all that spunk and perkiness to tunes by Tom Lehrer, probably the best satirist in the last 50 years.

None of the ironies came through, and if you don't have irony you don't have Lehrer.

So I was drifting around at midnight when I decided to stop for a late one at Bob Burns', because there's nothing like hunching over a Glenlivet on the rocks when a mist is on the ocean. It's a perfect time for self-pity.

That's where I met Mario.

I was sitting in a corner sipping Scotch and listening to Doug Sprague play the piano, when suddenly this fat man stood up.

Doug noticed him and said "Mario" without missing a beat and handed him a mike, then flowed into one of the Beatles' tunes, "Yesterday." Perfect.

Mario, who had been sitting at one end of the piano bar, began to sing.

He was in his shirt sleeves and his shirt tail was half sticking out, so I figured he was probably one of the patrons and not part of the act. Also, he had tatoos on both arms.

There weren't too many people in the place because Thursday is not one of your big drinking nights. Mario was not exactly performing to a packed house.

But that didn't seem to bother him a bit. He closed his eyes and really got into the tune, kind of swaying and moving his free hand in a wavelike motion.

I began to wonder who he was beyond being a fat guy with tatoos, because I was thinking he is not half bad. I mean, maybe he's Bruce Springsteen or Robert Goulet, neither of whom I would recognize.

But then I think, no, if he were Bruce or Robert they would not call him Mario. It is that kind of logic, you see, that makes me a columnist while you are still selling shoes in the Broadway.

I made it a point to talk to Mario after he was finished doing a duet with Doug. That's when I found out who he was. A guy with dreams on a foggy night.

His name is Mario Reyes. He is 32 years old, the son of people who own a Mexican fast-food restaurant in East L.A., and when he was a kid he used to sleep with his radio on, he loved music so much.

By the time he was 12 he had learned to play the guitar by ear and pretty soon he was organizing his own band, something called "Black Magic Express."

For years he did his damnedest to make it to the big time, knocking on doors and playing the dives at $10 a shot, but it just didn't happen. As he put it that night at Bob Burns', "I never broke through."

So Mario went to work in the family restaurant.

Now a lot of guys would just let it go at that, if you know what I mean, forgetting the boyhood dance with dreams to stumble along like everybody else on the long, hard road of reality.

But not Mario.

He could still hear the song in his heart, see, and he could still imagine himself in front of a crowd, swaying like he does, with his eyes shut, making music.

"All I need," he would tell everybody, "is a chance."

Mario is a night creature and he and his pals took to partying at the Santa Monica Pier, so it was natural that pretty soon he would discover Bob Burns', just a whisper from the ocean.

It's a decent place to drink and Doug Sprague plays the kind of music meant for night-prowlers.

"I began harmonizing with Doug kind of on my own," Mario said, "and then one night about a year ago he says 'This is made for a duet' and shoves a mike at me.

"I start to sing, you know, and it feels good, and I've been coming in ever since."

It is not usual that a performer will willingly share the spotlight with a guy who wanders in off the street, so I asked Doug why he does it with Mario.

"I like him," Doug said. "He's different."

You know what I think it is? It's Mario's dream that comes shining through.

He wants more than anything to be making music about midnight in a place like this, and he does it for nothing just to keep the hope burning, the way a fighter stays at it even when he knows he'll never be champ.

We can all relate to a guy who won't give up, who can schlep tacos in the daytime and sing at night, because a lot of us yearn for Mario's kind of tenacity, in the dark places of the soul where our own dreams are buried.

I listened for a while longer, finished my Scotch and left, feeling oddly better about everything because the fat man was at the mike and Doug was letting him be there. That's not bad.

That's not bad at all.

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