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Arts & Entertainment

Tucson sounds: September Boy (for Mario)

A tribute to Mario Cordova, 1967-2022

When it came to finding true love, the Internet was Mario Cordova's wingman. Especially when one of his favorite bands was involved.

He met and got to know his former wife Heather through an online fan forum for Australian psychedelic pop wizards the Church. In fact, he got to know the band themselves that way, somehow achieving the ultimate rock fan dream of getting a direct message from one's songwriting hero stating that his lyrical interpretations were more or less spot-on and would he like to have a one-on-one conversation. And, sure enough, the Church were involved when he "met" yours truly via digital intervention. 

At the time, your humble narrator was in her first "real" band as well as helping to book shows once a month at a local dive bar. With an eye toward networking, booking more bands and generally becoming more rooted in the local music scene, this writer was accepting Facebook's "suggested friend requests" with a vengeance and at some point friended a certain guitarist/bassist with whom I clearly shared a lot of musical and literary favorites and a good 300-plus mutual friends on social media. 

A few weeks after this "blind friending" I was working from home on a Sunday morning and posted my playlist d' jour which was rich in Australian bands, including a couple of early Church songs. Lo and behold, this new acquaintance popped up in the comments to let me know that he *knows* the band. His profile, in fact, included a picture of him playing Church frontman Steve Kilbey's bass. It was the beginning of a series of fateful run-ins in the comment sections of both our own and other people's posts, as social media kept roping us into shared conversational threads, including musings on Gram Parsons, the Velvet Underground, the Pixies, Jimmy Carter,  Yoko Ono, philosophy and God. 

Then one night I was at a show at Hotel Congress, there to support the other project of my band's drummer. And I felt a timid tap on my shoulder and looked up to see a tall, dark haired, wild bearded, bespectacled man with a psychedelic print button-down shirt and an intense expression. "You're Julie, aren't you? I'm Mario."

To which I said something strange and awkward that I don't exactly recall, other than its very awkwardness, which in fact caused me to post later about how eloquent I am on paper and tongue-tied and inarticulate in real life. Which in turn, apparently, charmed the man and eventually changed both our lives vastly for the better. 

A few weeks later I found myself enmeshed in yet another 4 a.m. Facebook thread about Lord knows what, possibly the merits of the Psychedelic Furs vs. Echo and The Bunnymen or something of the sort. And I got the sort of random unexpected private message that almost never turns out well for a girl, but this time around, actually wasn't so bad.

He said he'd been happy to finally meet me in person. And then he asked me, as a neophyte bass player, what my favorite bassline of all time was. To this day, I'm not sure if that would only ever work on me or if it's the most genius pickup line that anyone has ever imagined. And I couldn't choose an exact song, but said that it would probably have to be something by Bruce Thomas from Elvis Costello and the Attractions. And then we never went another day without messaging or talking from that moment until the day he died. 

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Mario Lizarraga Cordova was born on September 26, 1967, into a West Side Tucson family with two older siblings (Grace and Conrad) and about a zillion cousins. He went to Tucson High and majored in skipping every class except for choir and drama as much as he could get away with. He had a beautiful voice once upon a time and was second chair tenor in the state at least one year, but a freak accident horsing around backstage in the drama department senior year left him with hemorrhaged vocal chords and a change in plans. A skilled musician even then, he gave up on singing and decided to double down his efforts playing bass and, eventually, guitar. If he couldn't sing with his voice, he could sing with his fingers, after all.   

Mario shared a birthday with Bryan Ferry and loved Roxy Music, but not as much as Echo and The Bunnymen, except maybe more and then again maybe Peter Gabriel era Genesis or Love or Patti Smith or the Who or Gram and Emmy or Jeff Buckley or the Velvets and/or Nico or Kate Bush or the Pretenders, or Television, or Blondie, or the Chameleons or the Cure or Neil Young or Merle Haggard or U2 or 10CC or Cheap Trick or Big Star or John Cale or Johnette Napolitano or the Brothers Everly or Walker or Flying Burrito and anyway none of those musicians were his favorite, which was the Beatles but was also Queen, but was also the Church. 

The big joke was always getting him to name all 20 of his top 10 albums or bands or songs or movies or whatever the list at hand might be. He couldn't decide. His favorite filmmaker was Terry Gilliam, hands down. Never budged on that, for some reason.

He was a thinker and a muse and a goofball saint, a would be professor of music and myth and important films and planets and sharks and art and philosophy and the moon and the sacred qualities of the color blue and the number 4 and horror movies and weird arcane bits of trivia. He was serious as a heart attack and absolutely ridiculous, often in the same moment. 

"It's because I'm a Libra," he'd say when you caught him mid-impossibly contradictory statement. He was a grown man with a sizeable stuffed animal collection along with an enviable record and movie collection and a wall of books that includes multiple complete works of Shakespeare and copies of the Golden Bough and rock biographies and anthologies of world mythology and compendiums on world religions and Joseph Campbell books and Tom Robbins novels and two full shelves of William Blake alone. He loved baseball and meticulously hand scored games in a distinctly personal, flourishing style of invented calligraphy that looked more like the work of a medieval monk than a modern-day Cincinnati Reds fan. 

A veteran of countless Tucson bands, Mario was never the "rock star" but always the arranger and inspiration and gracious supporting player. He considered it his sacred duty to make his bandmates shine. 

Among the highlights of his "illustrious career" were an early teenage collaboration with Mike and Chris Mihina, later of Cosmic Boogie Tribe, and a stint as bass player in the earliest incarnation of the Resonars with lifelong friend Matt Rendon, with whom he later collaborated in Unlikely Sons and Freezing Hands. He also did time in experimental Phoenix music collective Widows and Orphans and played bass, guitar or both in countless Tucson bands including  Still Life Telescope, Some Of Them Are Old, a duo with yours truly called BreakingGlass and, with close friend and repeated collaborator John Matzek, Ghost Lodge, Kicking Leaves, Watercolor, La Cerca, and maybe his best-known local project, How To Build A Rocket Ship. 

Beyond the bands that he was part of, Mario was also an avid collaborator on epic cover projects, including playing in every single incarnation of Tucson's Great CoverUp and a multi-musician reimagining of Pink Floyd's "The Wall."

During his many years as a retail clerk at Borders, Bookmans, Beavers Band Box, a series of local record stores, Mario was that guy who always knew everything you needed to know (and about another dozen things you probably didn't) about what record or instrument you needed to listen to or what bands you would love or what book you needed to read, not just if you were a regular customer, but especially if you were a co-worker. He made sure that if you were his friend, you left his presence a bigger and better person, ready to write or make music or at very least learn, read and meditate on something that would make you see the world a little differently. If you were a new in town musician or artist, he'd make sure you met the perfect collaborator, who he just happened to know well. If you had a side hustle or a small business, he'd have your card in his wallet for "someday" and he'd tell everyone he knew how great you were and how they should check your stuff out. 

This faith and pride and inspiration most definitely extended to your humble scribe. When I began writing for the Sentinel he was my biggest fan and greatest champion. He bragged incessantly about my work serving as a volunteer DJ and helping to run a small radio station. He was even proud of my inexpert, rudimentary efforts as a late-in-life, baby musician, praising my songwriting from the start and never once shirking from adorning my clangy simple bass playing with sparkling psych-pop guitar tapestries and Entwistlesque melodic "second" bass parts.

He loved and believed in me in ways I still cannot fathom and strive to be worthy of some day.

Mind you, he was far from perfect and he could also be quite quarrelsome at times. God forbid you utter an incorrect historical "fact" or make a grammatical error on the Internet. Once we got in an argument because I rather noisily put away some dishes during a viewing of the Exorcist and it "ruined the integrity of the silence of the film." He could be an absolutely cranky bastard. And, my God, I loved that about him, even when it infuriated me.

When 2020 came around, we thought it would finally be our year. My youngest daughter was graduating and we had jobs we loved and plans to downsize and simplify. Most importantly, we were talking about finally getting married — on or close to our 5th anniversary, on the Fourth of July.

Instead, when July 4 rolled around, Mario was freshly home from the hospital with the first of multiple bouts of a debilitating neurological condition called CIDP. Eating grew difficult, walking was painful, day-to-day tasks became exhausting and leaving the house might as well have been climbing Everest. The past two years became a spiral of lost appetite and sore feet and time spent bedridden or couchbound while my role shifted from beloved partner to exhausted caregiver. My writing largely paused. Mario picked up his instruments less and less often and eventually quit picking them up entirely. 

Marriage became a pipe dream, as combining our incomes put his Medicaid eligibility at risk. We talked about going to Garden of Gethsemene west of Downtown and reciting some vows to God and the sky and hoping that would be close enough. But even that pseudo ceremony never happened, as the walking it would have required was too much for him at that point.

But even through pain and discomfort and disappointment, Mario was Mario and full of opinions and mini-lectures and music and philosophy history lessons. He lit up like Christmas morning watching YouTube videos of 10cc and the Church live with an orchestra in Sydney and the Bunnymen playing in front of a moat and the Who's last live performance and old footage of Genesis with Peter Gabriel dressed as a flower and countless other sacred songs which carried long memories and longer stories and a magic that made sense to no one else in the world in quite the same inimitable way. 

And even when he'd had a bad day and we'd lost patience with each other and lost hope that the next day might be better, he'd tell me he adored me and loved me and was so lucky to have me helping him through it all. And I told him that I knew he'd do the same for me and he'd swear that he absolutely would.  

Mario Cordova was... and is the most beautiful, ludicrous, spiritual, loving, hilarious and insanely talented madman I will ever meet and the absolute love of my life. On Monday, May 2, 2022, his breath gave out and then so did his heart and he left the world listening to Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks," which is more or less the way he always said he'd want to go. Because, although he'd teasingly accuse me often of doing most of the talking, the truth is that I always listened. 

Mario Lizarraga Cordova was 54 years old when he died and he didn't regret a single day. I know, because I asked. No one will ever call me "Sweet Pie" again, and I'll never get to see him frown again when I refer to his favorite margarine as "I can't believe it's not better." My world is a thousand percent lonelier and still somehow I feel like he's more present than ever.  

And so what I will do and can do is what he'd tell me I do best. Writing about the people who need to be written about and playing good music on the radio and writing and playing music with my own hands and my own voice and cheering you all on in your efforts and trying to be that person he adored until my own dying day. 

If you want to honor Mario's memory, you should know that his (other than the Beatles) favorite band, the Church, are playing the Crescent Ballroom in Phoenix on Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. and they're undoubtedly going to be brilliant and worth the road trip up to see them. So maybe you ought to see them.

And this Saturday, May 14, at Steinfeld Warehouse, 101 W. 6th St., in Downtown Tucson, KMKR Radio is holding a "Super Mario Party" featuring Mario's records, a whole lot of memories and your favorite extremely melancholy local music writer. The party starts at 4 .p.m and a suggested donation of $5 to $10 at the door will benefit KMKR Radio and the Cordova family's forthcoming memorial expenses. 

I love you, Tucson, and Mario loved you too.

Your friendly (but melancholy) neighborhood music writer, JJP

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Michael Ely

Julie plays bass while Mario plays a rainbow

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