Thomas Dolby's 'The Speed Of Sound' is not like most rock memoirs

Much as the Parisian bourgeoisie of the late-19th century lived in an era of the novel, we are living in an era of the rock 'n' roll memoir. In the past six months alone we've gotten self-penned accounts by Bruce Springsteen, Robbie Robertson, Johnny Marr, Maurice White, Phil Collins (his sadly titled "Not Dead Yet"), Brian Wilson, John Fogerty, and a host of second-tier protagonists from the 1980s new wave (the drummer from The Cure, the bassist from New Order, etc.). Within our lifetimes there may be nothing left to tell about the glory that was rock, but until then we can look forward to reading—what's left? Two hundred and fifty pages of Joey Fatone's side of the story. A book of wistful reminiscences along the lines of Patti Smith's "Just Kids" by the one from Slipknot with pins coming out of his face. "My Life in Yellowcard." And so on.

I am drawn to rock memoirs, but because they can be as formulaic as rock itself, I like to enhance the experience of reading them by keeping my eyes open for the one or two most sordid, debased sentences their authors commit, mentally cataloging them for future inclusion in an anthology of such lines that I expect advanced civilizations will study like the aphorisms of classical philosophy.

Our Baltimore neighbor Thomas Dolby's memoir, "The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology," is very clean on this front compared to most, I can report. His entry in my collection will come not from the details of anything like a cocaine binge with the lead singer of A-ha, but from the aftermath of a graceless attempt to water-ski on the Aegean Sea while vacationing with family in 1983:

"When we finally came to an abrupt halt in the shallows, I had the horrible realization that I must have imbibed at least a quart of seawater through my anus. I made a frantic dash for the reed beds, and the floodgates opened."

No, Dolby's memoir is not like most. And the distinction doesn't begin and end with butt chugging.

The unnecessary candor of the water skiing anecdote—the dad-like oversharing—is a good representation of Dolby as we meet him in "The Speed of Sound." Like a parent, he has lots of accrued wisdom to offer from years spent walking five miles to school in the snow with a PPG 340/380 Wave Computer under his arm. He also has war stories from his tour of duty in Silicon Valley, like the one about the wild and crazy guys who attended the first Digital Media Convergence Conference in 1994 ("Suddenly there was an explosion from across the table. 'MARC, THAT'S FUCKING BULLSHIT AND YOU KNOW IT!' It was Gates."). And like a parent, he can be a little embarrassing when he goes on for a bit too long about the size of the fish. See the following passage, where Dolby takes a ruminative moment in the mid-'90s after his digital music company, Headspace, completes a major project to score the website of 7UP:

"I went and sat alone high up on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific. Gentle waves broke on the rocks below, and sea otters played in the billowing kelp beds. As the sun sank below the horizon I stared out over the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean and thought about the true implications of interactive music on the Internet."

That's a contender for an anthology of some sort, though which I'm not sure.

Unfortunately for us and unjustly for him, Dolby will always be best remembered for his 1982 hit 'She Blinded Me With Science' and its video, which received heavy rotation on MTV and remains a high-water-pants mark of pop dorkiness. Dolby is mostly to blame for that, of course, since he wrote the damn thing; this book (perhaps not by accident) gives plenty of evidence for the song as one of the less adventurous, less inspired things he ever did in music. But if Dolby ever felt tarred by the brush of "one-hit wonder," he seems to have made his peace with the success of 'Science,' as he calls it. One of the funniest episodes in these pages describes the day of the video's filming and its attendant stresses, including an accidental self-dosing of Dexedrine and the gesticulating old professor ("SCIENCE!") acting less like the scientist he was hired to be on set and more like a massive pain in the dick.

Michael Jackson loved the song; he "assumed I was a black guy," Dolby learns when they meet at a London studio that year. (Readers of enough of these books will recognize that, bar none, there is no higher praise for white musicians in the rock world than being favorably mistaken for a black man by a black man.) Dolby left with Michael's home number scribbled on a piece of paper like an admittance letter to Hogwarts.

Speaking of Dexedrine, a less favorable review came from another one-hit wonder of the class of '82, Dexys Midnight Runners' extraordinary singer Kevin Rowland (whose memoir I would seriously clear the week of my first child's birth to read). In public and to his face, Dolby recounts, Rowland "launched into a rant about how . . . you knew it had all gone to shit when all the radio played was crap like Thomas Dolby." The pettiness here is astonishing, especially coming from a man dressed in his music video like an Edwardian chimney sweep.

Many more artists besides Michael Jackson were attracted to Dolby's sound and vision in the mid-'80s, and his comfort behind the boards kept him busier as a producer and collaborator than as a solo artist. These were the days when making computer-generated music still demanded a level of expertise within the domain of bona fide nerds; who better to represent that tribe than Dolby? A partial list of his collaborators is evidence enough of how coveted his talents were across a range of styles: Mick Jones (of Foreigner, not The Clash), Def Leppard, the Thompson Twins, Robyn Hitchcock, George Clinton, Lene Lovich, and Joni Mitchell, among others. Later came the likes of Jerry Garcia and Eddie Van Halen, who, with his "automated hot dog vending machine, an electronic dartboard, and a row of four Grand Prix Racer arcade game machines, so the band could have races," comes off about as impressive as a bowl full of M&M's with the brown ones taken out.

Dolby found his Ronettes in the English band Prefab Sprout, whose songwriter Paddy McAloon could match Dolby's idiosyncrasies while keeping him moored to the sanity of three-minute pop songs. The first of Dolby's Sprout productions, 1985's "Steve McQueen" (released in the U.S. as "Two Wheels Good"), belongs to its own genre of bejeweled schmaltzcore, buffed to an outrageous gloss. I expected Dolby to appear up on a ladder soundproofing the studio with batts of cotton candy and egg cartons brought in from Cadbury Creme. Hear Wendy Smith's backing vocals mixed to near-ASMR levels of whispery-ness, like on 'Hallelujah'; hear McAloon, in 'Moving the River,' sing "I'm turkey-hungry/ I'm chicken-free/ And I can't breakdance on your knee." It's a deeply weird album and it's my favorite of all Dolby's work, in part because it demonstrates that his ideas about the right way to do pop music were among the boldest and brashest of a very bold and brash era, despite the fact that they never found much lasting expression in the charts.

In 1985, Dolby played the Grammys next to Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, so it could only have been so surprising when the call came from David Bowie later that year with an offer to join his band at Live Aid. Bowie ("disarmingly civil and gracious," I read, with tears) assembled his band at the last minute, hardly rehearsed at all, and had the unenviable task of following Queen after 72,000 people at Wembley Arena surrendered a virginity they didn't know they had into the sweaty, exposed arms of Freddie Mercury. Find the video of Bowie's performance on Youtube: there was no refractory period. Note that while Bowie is introducing the band before they close with "Heroes," he saves Dolby for last, offering him to the loudest cheers from the crowd. To dream of being David Bowie himself is pointless, like imagining what it would be like to inhabit the mind of God, or, obviously, an alien life form. But to be the object of David Bowie's professional admiration and desire—to be the one he introduces to the room—that's a dream that only Dolby and a very special crew have sailed.

If another forward-thinking keyboardist, Brian Eno, hadn't taken it already, a good title for this book might have been "Before and After Science." Dolby's uneasy relationship with his own music-making post-'Science' finally resolved itself after a move to California and a final album in 1992. He didn't another album until 2011. It wasn't an easy decision to leave music, but it was reasonable: He had made his mark, some had stuck and some hadn't, and there were kids to feed. A year later, Andy Partridge of XTC asked him why he wouldn't return to pop while he was still so missed by his fans. Dolby writes what he wish he could have brought himself to say in response:

"Andy, I can't make music right now because of the pain. The pain… of the commercial failure of the music I am most proud of… and my revulsion at the state of the record industry, which is rotten to its fucking core."

Fair enough, but as a replacement Dolby turned to the ethical bastion of… the Silicon Valley tech industry! Nearly the entire second half of the book is occupied with Dolby's concerns as the chief of Headspace and later Beatnik, pioneering enterprises in the field of music's integration with the Internet and, the real cash cow, cellular ringtones. We're meant to understand the second half of the book as a seamless continuation of the first—which it is, of course, both because the tech industry was the perfect outlet for Dolby's lust for innovation and new toys, and because Silicon Valley was the logical slaughterhouse of Dolby's most hated enemy: the established record industry. These chapters should interest readers curious for a portrait of the carefree days of Netscape Navigator and the Apple Newton, but I found myself longing for an asshole as glorious as Rowland from Dexys Midnight Runners. And who among the business-casual gurus of Palo Alto could ever compare to David Jones, Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke…?

Back in 2014, when Dolby arrived in Baltimore to take his current job as Homewood Professor of the Arts at Johns Hopkins, City Paper observed that he moved through Station North like a man with no idea where he was or what he was getting himself into, with manners and sentiments both common and dangerous around these parts. What his presence in the city has been like since then, I don't know; I'm not in Station North often enough to ask anyone. (I did once creep up to him during an Alloverstreet event at the Station North Tool Library, looking no doubt like Sirhan Sirhan approaching Bobby Kennedy in kitchen of The Ambassador Hotel, armed with an obscure question about Prefab Sprout.) Whatever worthy services he's rendered as a teacher, I would speculate that Johns Hopkins has needed him for its image more than Station North—the neighborhood, not the idea—has wanted him for his advocacy. And that's a shame for all of us. A predictable, neoliberal shame, maybe, but still.

Baltimore is mentioned only in the very last sentence of this book, like a kind of yellow brick road leading to three-quarters of a blank page. Something hit home, though, in this earlier reminiscence of Dolby's pre-fame days, when he was thinking about what kind of artist he would become:

"I imagined living under a repressive regime, where free speech was prohibited and everything rationed. Would there be a resistance movement? A secret society of freethinking artists and writers, lurking in the ruins of abandoned factories? Of course there would, and I would be the one to write their anthems."

Well, Mr. Dolby, look around and stick around, for the hour has come in our Station North. We've already hosted one Francis Scott Key. Come back to us with an anthem. Let's make it happen: a benefit for the Bell Foundry.

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