The Golden Child

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Back onstage, Mars plays a synthesizer version of "Also Sprach Zarathustra," a.k.a. Elvis' Vegas-era intro music, then jumps behind the drum kit. Phred kicks into Jimi Hendrix's "Fire," and Mars plays a credible approximation of Mitch Mitchell's jazzy drum part. He doesn't do this in the actual show for fear of coming off as a circus act. "Bruno's got good feel on the drums," says his brother, before adding with a laugh, "but I blow him away."

Finally, Mars lets the band go for the day – it's time to embark on his man date. "Good job, guys,"he says. "We'll change everything on Monday."

Much like Alvy Singer, Bruno Mars never had a latency period: He was always into girls. As a kindergartner, he was mesmerized by the pretty singers in glittery dresses he'd see backstage. "I was like, 'These girls don't look like the girls I go to school with,'" he recalls, eyes lighting up.

Right from the start, he loved everything about performing with his family's band, the Love Notes. "I would look forward to getting out of school," he says. "Just looking at the clock, waiting for it to hit 2:15." Mars would memorize videotapes of Elvis, James Brown and Michael Jackson, and to this day, he plays Brown's T.AM.I. performance or Hendrix at Woodstock or Prince singing "Purple Rain" before he goes onstage.

One night when Mars was five, he forgot to pee before the show, and found himself wetting his jumpsuit while he sang "Can't Help Falling in Love." The audience tried not to laugh, and his mom cried – afterward, his parents briefly wondered if they were making a mistake. Mars himself never wavered.

The Love Notes, who specialized in doo-wop and other Fifties music, were as successful as a local cover band could be. Mars' dad, Peter, paid the group members $1,000 a week at their height, according to one member, family friend Bobby Brooks Wilson. Peter was also doing well as an entrepreneur, with businesses ranging from a temporary-tattoo parlor to two huge memorabilia shops. Mars' dad is handsome and smooth-talking – he met Mars' mother, Bernadette, at a Polynesian revue. "He was a Latin percussionist," recalls Mars. "Mom was a hula dancer. And he put the charm on her."

At the peak of his success, Peter had seven Cadillacs, and the family lived in a big house in Kahala. "Bruno had a room the size of most people's living rooms," recalls Wilson. "And he had a little drum set, a little guitar, a little piano, you know, some percussion. He'd take me in his room: 'Bobby, look! I can play this!'" Wilson remembers Mars pouting backstage when he was seven or eight – he was furious because he had a bad cold, and his mom had benched him for the night.

Around the time Bruno was 11, the band broke up, and his parents' marriage did the same. For reasons Mars doesn't elaborate upon, his father's many businesses also tanked. All their money was gone, and Mars moved with his dad to "the slums of Hawaii." It was a tough adjustment. "But you know what? I realized I wouldn't trade it for anything, man," he says, sipping a beer in Soho House. "Because I feel like I can enjoy this so much."

Mars had been accustomed to being a star among his old classmates, but at his new school he found himself being bullied. He acquired a nickname, "Peter Pan Hyma Dingier" – the first part playing off his pixieish looks, the second part still inexplicable. "Even the nerds were calling me that!" He laughs. "Oh, man, it was rough. I didn't even want to go to school. But then the guys that called me that became my good friends." He was popular for the rest of his school days – his best friends were the alpha jocks – but he never forgot what it felt like to be an outcast.

Through it all, Mars' dad never lost faith in what he seemed to see as his boy's destiny. One day, he and Bruno made a last-ditch effort at selling the remains of his Elvis memorabilia at a swap meet, earning a total of $125. At the end of the day, Bruno pointed out a Fender guitar at the next stall priced at $115 – and his dad bought it for him on the spot. "It was literally all the money he had," Mars says.

His dad taught him Ventures, Chuck Berry and Carlos Santana songs on guitar, even as Mars was getting into more modern music, gravitating toward the Neptunes' and Timbaland's production. His dad started up a band again; Mars would get up and sing songs like "My Girl," and also opened with his own 'NSync-style boy band, the School Boys.

During a pep rally in his sophomore year, Mars got onstage and sang Ginuwine's "Pony." Teachers yelled at him for singing the word "horny"; girls went nuts. Mars felt reborn. "After that, I walked around the halls like I was Sinatra," he says. "I was like, 'OK. I'm not just an impersonator.'" He pauses, then cracks up: '"I can also impersonate Ginuwine!'"

Mars found himself back in what passed for the big time of Hawaiian entertainment, making $75 a show while still in high school as the opening act for a big magic show, and playing Michael Jackson in a celebrity-impersonators revue. He was eerily good at the latter, as YouTube footage demonstrates – he's a far more gifted dancer than he shows now. "Just because I can moonwalk," he says, "doesn't mean I should moonwalk." He was also in a position to act on his backstage fantasies: According to Wilson, Mars started dating a backup singer in her early twenties when he was 16, concealing the relationship from his mom. Mars is more circumspect about his youthful success with women. "My mother and father taught me that a gentleman doesn't kiss and tell," he says.

In the corner of Mars' living room, near a fireplace that's blazing despite the perfect weather outside, is a Steinway piano made of rich, dark-brown wood – an instrument so opulent-looking that Elton John might wonder if he could afford it. It sounds pretty good, too: Mars is sitting at its keys, demonstrating how he wrote his fifth Number One single, "When I Was Your Man," right here. He's justifiably proud of the fact that the record is just his piano and voice.

It's also the most personal song ever released by Mars, who's been wary of getting too confessional. "I'm not a fan of self-indulgence," he says. "For me, music is 'I want to feel good' or 'I want to dance,' as opposed to me singing about me growing up in Hawaii and 'my struggle to relate.'" He mockingly sings that last bit. "Ain't nobody trying to hear that. I'm not even trying to hear that, and that's my story!"

With extreme reluctance, Mars reveals that he wrote "When I Was Your Man" about his current girlfriend, model Jessica Caban – he felt in danger of losing her at the time. The song started with simple chords and a line that reflected his regrets: "I should've bought you flowers." He's so awkward at talking about this, though, that at one point he actually buries his head in his arms on the table. "I'm not answering any questions about this song," he protests. "It's too close to home."

The song's narrative is exaggerated: Caban never actually left him for another dude. In real life, he says, "It was a happy ending." But he finds the song hard to perform. 'You're pouring your guts out, and you record it. And you're so proud of it. And then when you perform it, you know, you're bringing up these emotions again. It's just like bleeding!"

With his tour approaching, his relationship is about to be long-distance again.

"When you find that one, you buy them flowers and you hold their damn hand," he says, quoting himself. Even if it's over Skype? "Yeah," he says, singing, "I should've Skyped you, and gave you a tweet."

In his early years in L.A, he ran pretty wild: That's what "Young Girls," on the new album, is about. "You begin to lose yourself, you know," he says. "In that Mike Tyson documentary, he says something like, a lot of men think the more women they get, the better. But he says you lose a piece of yourself with every time you do that. And that's true. If you're out there wilding out, drinking and partying, that's not real life." Now, he can see marriage and kids in the future. "That's happiness," he says.

Mars was a late bloomer as a songwriter – it was the final piece of his puzzle. He left Hawaii after graduating (barely) from high school, signing a deal with Motown, which turned out to have no idea what to do with him. As that collapsed, he realized he'd have to start writing, and hooked up with Lawrence, an accomplished lyricist. The intention was to help Mars get signed again, but when they ran out of money, they added Levine and plugged into L.A's hits-for-hire scene, writing for Sugababes and Sean Kingston. Two of their best productions – "Nothin' on You" and "Billionaire," essentially choruses and beats, with blank spots for rappers – became smashes, with Mars singing the choruses. They rushed to get his first album out while the songs were still on the charts.

Now, Mars is pretty much done with writing songs for other artists. "That part of me kind of died," he says. "Because, you know, it's not a sport." He says listeners are tiring of the very "L.A. circuit" that led to his success. "I think people want to hear the artist talking," he says.

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