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The Long and Winding Road, Part IV
My parties have all the big names
And I greet them with the widest smile
Tell them how my life is one big adventure
And always they're amazed
When I show them round the house to my bed
I had it made like a mountain range
With a snow-white pillow for my big fat head
And my heaven will be a big heaven
And I will walk through the front door.
— “Big Time,” Peter Gabriel
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It’s a Saturday afternoon and I’m in Glendale, California, driving down what seems like an endless street lined with palm trees. It’s the furthest east I’ve dared to drive since moving to Los Angeles, and although I feel a little worried to be so far away from my new home base, this place feels more like civilization. It’s less crowded and a lot prettier than the neighborhood where I’m living in out in The Valley, with broader lawns sprouting greener grass, and absolutely nobody here has concertina wire-topped walls surrounding their properties. Absent the palm trees, it could almost pass for Honor Heights Park back in Muskogee.
I’m out here this afternoon because I’m on a mission. I’m looking for an address that I’ve scribbled on the back of this week’s Penny Saver magazine, and I finally find it at the end of a very long, very sharply inclined driveway which is backed up against a hill. When I knock on the screen door of the house, the darkly tanned, shaggy-haired blond who answers the door looks like he’s just rolled in from the beach, decked out in the cool-dude uniform of 1990 - white t-shirt, surfer shorts, and sandals.
“Hey, you found us. Hope the directions weren’t too bad.”
“No. Pretty easy drive from Van Nuys, just a lot of traffic.”
“Yeeeeeeeah. Fuckin’ Saturday, man.” He nods his head towards the back of the cottage-sized house. “C’mon, she’s back here.”
I follow him as he shuffles into a back bedroom, throwing on the lights before angling towards a desk where his prize awaits…a Yamaha TX81Z FM Tone Generator. It seems a lot smaller than I’d expected, but until this moment I’ve never laid eyes on one outside of the pages of Keyboard magazine. Before I even can ask, he thumbs the power button on, powers up a keyboard that’s next to it, then motions for me to take up the position to play.
“Have at it, bro.”
I try out the opening bars of a composition I’d written for a girlfriend who shredded my heart a year ago. The unit has a shimmering, absolutely perfect electric Rhodes piano sound, showing its sonic kinship with its bigger, beefier cousin, the Yamaha DX7. I spin through several other patches.
“You’ll wanna try LatelyBass. That one,” he says. “That’s a thumper.”
He’s right. It’s a sound that will make the TX81Z famous over the next decade. Patch after patch after patch, everything sounds amazing. I have to admit I didn’t really expect such a small unit could compete with a traditional keyboard, but there are a few sounds on it that I like even more than my beloved DX7. And it’s similar enough in architecture that learning how to program it with new sounds will be a breeze.
“So I have to ask the annoying question,” I say reluctantly. “I mean, is there anything wrong with it? Does it have a short or something? You’re not asking that much for it…”
He shrugs. “It’s just fine, it’s just…bills, man. I gotta let her go.”
I’ll repeat some version of this conversation dozens of times over the next few years, waiting in someone’s living room, or their bedroom, or their garage, fiddling with gear as they sigh behind me with crossed arms, pinched expressions, and misty eyes. When you’re a musician, your gear is as dear to you as a pet or a child. It’s your livelihood, your goddamn ticket out. But what’s going on in this moment is the cold, unblinking judgement of Los Angeles, the story of hundreds and thousands of musicians who flock here every week, every day, all of them cocksure they’re going to land that recording contract that’s gonna make them rich. They are the anointed ones. They’re just one shitty club date, one demo, one night at some sleazy agent’s pool party and then it’s gonna be cars, and girls, and weed, and MTV ‘til the end of time. But for most people, this is how it actually ends. Not with your name up in lights, or on the cover of a Billboard Top 40 album, but in a tiny, tiny classified ad in unreadable type in the back pages of Penny Saver, going out with a desperate little whimper of grief instead of a rock ‘n roll scream.
“Your ad said you wanted $275?” I reach for my wallet and start to pull out some money.
He licks his lips, probably thinking about the groceries he’s not bought in a week or two, and how good it’s gonna be to eat something real for a change instead of ramen and a convenience store burrito. Maybe he can even keep the lights on this week.
“Yeah, but if you’ve got cash, it’s yours for $250. I’ll even carry it to your car.”
THE POWER OF FOUR - The sound architecture of the Yamaha TX81Z was similar to that of the full-size Yamaha DX7, but was purely a “tone module,” meaning that it had no keyboard of its own and an external keyboard or a sequencer hooked up with MIDI cables would be required to trigger its onboard sounds. Despite using a similar FM synthesis architecture as the DX7, however, the newer TX81Z only uses four operators instead of six, and features new waveforms that give it a lot dirtier and meaner sounds.
I am fortunate that I’m not in LA to break in as a musician. I don’t have the mental stamina to put myself through what these guys and gals do all the time, let alone the amount of talent it takes to register even as a blip on the radar in this amazing city. I instead have the luxury of being able to enjoy making music purely as a hobby. My paycheck isn’t riding on it, and it doesn’t matter if I’m great or if I suck. Living as I am on the periphery of America’s rock capitol, however, I’m lucky that I’m close enough to the heart of things that I can see how the pros actually do it.
It’s another Saturday, and I’m in North Hollywood, waiting to cross Sepulveda Boulevard. I’m at an intersection where an unholy number of streets converge at disturbing angles - navigating it would challenge even Escher’s comprehension. For me, this intersective hellmouth is LA in a nutshell, everything coming loudly at you all at once with no clear notion of where you are or where you’re supposed to be going. If I had the option, I’d go another way, but where I need to get to is just the other side of this nightmare. When the traffic light that I think is pointing my way turns green, I punch the accelerator and pray for divine intercession.
The house to which I’m journeying today is a run-down rental where my buddy Matt Harris lives with Jimmy Hollingshead and Mike Shyers, both old friends of ours from high school (and incidentally, both alumni from my Uncharted Regions audio drama series.) They’re practically on top of each other down here, but they’re not as concerned with material creature comforts as I am. They’ve even got an old, dead VW bus parked out back that used to belong to my brother Gene, but these days Jimmy and Matt use it like an extra room, going out there to talk, think, and make plans about conquering the world.
In the handful of years that had flown by since Matt and I last hung out in his makeshift Sand Springs studio, he’d made a lot of progress with his own musical journey. He’d worked with Neil Young, sang backup vocals for a New Monkees album, and done pretty much everything on his older brother Sam’s most recent album - yeah, that Sam Harris, the first winner of Star Search. Now Matt has an amazing band of his own, and it feels like he’s about to get the big break that he’s absolutely earned for himself.
As he talks, I am quickly reminded how Los Angeles is a melting pot where the music and film industries have become almost indistinguishable. The drummer in his band is Frank Avalon Jr., son of Frankie Avalon, best known for being the crooning onscreen boyfriend of Mouseketeer Annette Funicello. As if this alone isn’t surreal enough to me, our conversation is interrupted when a jeep comes bouncing into the driveway behind us, and I turn around and lay my eyes for the first time on Matt’s then girlfriend, Abi. She’s absolutely stunning. She’s got huge warm brown eyes, a devilish grin, and a sweet face framed by a wild cascade of windswept hair. As she hops down out of her ride, I can see she’s perfectly tanned, dressed in a diaphanous hippie mini-dress and boots, and she’s sporting an oh-so-tasteful gold stud in her nose. If rock and roll has angels, I think, then this chick has to be one of them. Once she’s kissed Matt hello and thrown a flirty wink my way, she tells him she needs to use the rest room and disappears inside.
After I have a moment to recover my state of mind following this entrance, Matt smiles at me. “She’s a cool chick, isn’t she,” he says.
“You are one lucky dude.”
“Here’s something I know you’ll dig. She’s Claude Rains’ granddaughter.”
I wonder in that moment if there’s anyone in LA who isn’t related to someone famous.
After a short while, he asks me if I’d like to go over with him to the recording studio where he works, and where his band has been putting together some new material. I hop at the chance, not only because I want to see the studio, but also as his biggest fan, I want to hear Matt’s latest stuff.
When we get there, I’m a little surprised by what passes for a recording studio in Los Angeles. We’re in what feels like an alleyway, and there’s no indication at all of what lies through the door that we use to enter. The only time I’ve ever been in a real recording studio before now was when I’d visited Leon Russell’s Church studio in Tulsa to look at a DX7 II they had for sale (sadly the price for that holy gear was out of my reach at the time.) By comparison, everything here is just so small and dark and black as we cram inside. Despite the lack of decor, however, the control room has enough slick-looking toys that I quickly lose all awareness of my surroundings. This is gear head heaven. While I’m gawping at all the knobs and buttons and LED indicators, Matt slides behind the console to cue up a reel-to-reel player, then unleashes it with the stab of a button. What comes out of the monitors are a flood of new songs from my buddy’s band that sound so bright and so clear, it nearly takes my breath away. This is as professional sounding as any album I’ve ever bought, and it astounds me to think that all of these tracks have been laid down in this carpet walled closet.
After a while, he fishes a tape out of a cassette deck and tosses it to me. It’s got a plain green label, and he’s marked his name on it with a sharpie, but it’s just about the most treasured album I’ll ever own. I’ll play it several times a week (alongside his original demo tape) for the next several years until a thief steals my cassette box out of my car in Eugene, and I lose one of my most important mementos of this time with him in LA.
At my workplace at New World Computing in Woodland Hills, I stand in my boss’ corner office and stare out the window. From here, my view is of cloudless blue skies, palm trees, and the snaking gleam of the 101 freeway. At times I think none of this can be real. I know there are people who would give anything to live in endlessly sunny Los Angeles, but I’m not one of them. I’d never wanted to live here. I’m a thunderstorms, forests, and mountaintops kind of guy. But all it had taken to entice me to leave Oklahoma after college and come here was a phone call with a promise that I could write science fiction and fantasy on a salary. And so out I had come with the expectation that I’d just be telling stories, and not realizing that my knowledge of electronic music production would actually play into my job.
My desk is in an open area divided by a partition that separates me from Alan, Ben, and Paul, our three person QA department. On my side of things, it’s just me, a laser printer, and a Japanese computer that I’ve been using to help with the translation of Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan into English. After about a month though, a new programmer, Todd Hendrix, moves in next to me. He’s a thin, pale dude who looks for all the world like a real-life incarnation of Scooby Do’s Shaggy. This first impression will only be strengthened by the staggering amount of time that he and Allen chat over the partition about the benefits of weed.
Todd’s been called in to wrangle the sound code for all of New World’s games. This covers everything from sound effects, to Sound Blaster driver support, to the integration of MIDI. It’s a huge amount of stuff to understand, particularly since there are so many new audio standards competing for dominance in the world of computer gaming. I, of course, am very interested in what he’s been called in to do, particularly once he plunks a Roland MT-32 sound module down on his desk. Like my Yamaha TX81Z, it’s essentially a keyboard-less synthesizer controlled by MIDI, but it’s designed specifically to be a cheaper unit used by non-musicians to enhance the music and sound capabilities of computer games. Compared to the sound chips that ship with most computers at the time, it represents a huge leap forward in sound quality.
While Todd knows his way around the code, he isn’t a musician, and he’s still in the process of learning MIDI (the standard that allows musical instruments to pass data between each other.) I, however, have spent the last five years swimming in MIDI as it’s been a necessity to understand how to control my Yamaha DX7 with my Atari 520ST or with other sequencers and synthesizers. It’s practically my second language. Whenever Todd gets puzzled about how certain things work, I do my best to fill him in with what I know or can generally tell him where to find the answer if I’m at a loss. It’s one area where I get to enjoy being the technical expert for a change.
THE GEEK ORCHESTRA - Although the Roland MT-32 first appeared by the mid 1980s, support for it only began to become ubiquitous in the early 90s. In time it evolved from a luxury item into something every serious gamer decided they needed to have.
As development was progressing on my game Planet’s Edge: The Point of No Return, it had been decided that we wanted to hire one of the best-known composers in the industry. George Sanger, professionally known as “The Fat Man,” had already provided the scores for huge hits like 7th Guest, Maniac Mansion, and Wing Commander, so it seemed like he’d be the best choice to do the music for us. Although I’d already banged out a simple version of a theme for Planet’s Edge in my home studio — which by this time had grown to include a Yamaha DX7, a Ensoniq Mirage, a Roland Alpha Juno 1, and a Kawai K1 — I knew I didn’t really have the time to score the full game. So, in the spirit of giving him a general idea of what we wanted, I ran my demo theme down to a cassette, slipped it into an envelope with a letter of introduction…then promptly forgot all about it. I don’t recall having any direct contact with him as he worked to complete the score.
Flash forward to March of 2019. I get a Facebook message from an archivist who is currently trying to catalog all of the music that Sanger had provided for New World Computing. He’s contacting me because I was a designer on Planet’s Edge, and as such he’s hoping I can answer the question. He’s got a track labeled “nentiam” that wasn’t composed by Sanger or his associates, and it’s the song that plays at the very end of the game. Did I happen to know who composed it?
At first I’m not recalling anything, and I apologize for drawing a blank. The sad truth is while I designed the game, I’d left for another game company before the music was laid in, so I’d never even heard the final product, and after all the testing I’d already done on it, I hadn’t felt inclined to play it since I’d already been through it dozens of times. The note simply wasn’t enough for me to go on.
Three months later, the archivist messages me again, but this time with a copy of the letter I’d originally written to Sanger on official New World Computing letterhead, and my signature is affixed to the bottom. It explicitly references the demo track that I’d mailed to The Fat Man.
EXHIBIT A - The letter to Sanger.
Along with the letter, he’s also provided a link this time to the song on YouTube. Quickly I race over there and have a listen, and the memory of writing it races back to me. While it’s dinky-sounding in its MT-32 arrangement — a pale shadow of the epic track I’d composed with a rack of synthesizers — it’s still unmistakably my tune. It had been published and distributed in a best-selling, award-winning game in 1992, and I had been absolutely oblivious to the fact.
The Many Worlds of Neal Hallford is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.