Song Of The Day 3/1/2017: Thomas Dolby – “The Key to Her Ferrari”

The Final 29

Extreme Makeover: Patio Edition

I went back to San Francisco and lived on a patio.

For what it’s worth, it might have been the most livable patio in town. Or at least in the part of town where I lived, which was the Lower Haight. I moved in with my friend from Sacramento—she was an adjunct friend of the MCW/SST crowd I hung out with, though she was never in the program—and another guy who worked in… law? Accounting? Something. I think it was law.

We were on the third floor of a building on Haight near Laguna, and since its two bedrooms were already spoken for, the only inhabitable room left for me was the covered patio. It was at the top of a stairwell that connected all three floors of the building. It was just big enough to hold my twin bed, a couple of milk crates of clothes, and some books I brought with me. (I kind of left Sacramento in a hurry.)

The patio wasn’t nearly as uncomfortable as you might think. I had an electric blanket, for one thing. And rent was cheap. Right now that patio would probably go for about $1900 a month. I wish I were exaggerating. Of course, it’s probably not a mixed-use patio anymore. They’re probably actually using the wash basin for its intended purpose and not as auxiliary storage. I had to improvise a lot in those quarters.

We all got along but I was a terrible slob. Again, I’d like to say that slovenliness has improved, but it hasn’t. I just conceal it with a zeal for life now.

More Fun With Audio Engineering Instructional Institutions

I got a job in San Francisco right away, and amazingly enough I think I got it through cold calling. It was at the College for Recording Arts, on Harrison Street south of Market.

CRA had a lot of history, some of it confirmable, some of it not so much. The facility opened up in 1964 as Golden State Recorders by a Czech-born producer, Leo de Gar Kulka. He was known in the industry as “The Baron.” He started out in L.A. with one of the first multitrack recording facilities in the area, and allegedly its first stereo mastering facility. He recorded Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Nat “King” Cole, Herb Alpert—a bunch of people.

Golden State opened up just in time for the San Francisco scene to take advantage of his talents. Leo worked with Sly Stone a lot, with the earliest Family Stone sides and the Great Society, who were the precursors to Jefferson Airplane. Allegedly the first version of “Somebody to Love” was recorded near where I used to answer the phone. He recorded the Grateful Dead and the Beau Brummels. I probably have a lot of stuff in my archives with his name on it.

Leo was an extremely nice man. He looked like a more robust Kojak. He got irked at me once when I was reading the San Francisco Chronicle at my desk, but it was morning. There was nothing going on yet. Other than that he was always very friendly and supportive to me. In my one and only performance review he said, with some concern, “Paul, people like you, all right? Get used to it!” I don’t remember what made Leo say that, or what was going on, but I’m guessing he saw something about my general aura at the time that made him feel he had to reach out. Another life lesson I was too punk to breathe in. Leo passed away 19 years ago.

My official title was administrative assistant. At the time I thought, man, that sounds like a real title! Hot damn! My friends poked fun at me when I repeated the title in reverence one night like it was part of an incantation. Basically I was a glorified receptionist who held the fort until Leo's wife, Patricia, came in. Most of the rest of the time I worked with the accountant, Patsy, a great old woman from the South who was more than a little exhausted with what office gossip there was. Since CRA was affiliated with NARAS, Patsy and I used to pore over a monthly order form we got from the Academy that offered a lot of new albums for half the price. Oh, the dirty thrill I got from getting Aztec Camera's Stray on cassette for a mere four dollars.

The College itself was more, well, collegiate than the Recording Workshop, and a lot more focused on the technical details. The mastering facility was just as much a draw as the studio. I got to know a lot of the students, since I was younger than, or the same age as, most of them.

Golden State Recorders had a grand piano in the studio. It was a Bosendorfer, which Leo loved. It’s the kind Tori Amos plays. Tori’s talked about Bosendorfers before (including with me) and she’s right. It’s not like other pianos. It’s the closest to a living, breathing entity as any piano I’ve ever played. I spent a few nights, after everyone had left, playing the Bosendorfer. Hours at a time. Like a Keith Jarrett concert.

The Golden Age of Lecturing

I had my first official dealing with a rock star at the College. A French student named Charles told me he had connections with Thomas Dolby, best known in the States for “She Blinded Me With Science,” and a little bit of a technical maverick in his time. I’m a huge fan of his album The Flat Earth, which came a few years after “Blinded/Science.” But nobody bought that one because “Blinded/Science” wasn’t on it (although Robyn Hitchcock makes a cameo).

Anyway, Charles got Thomas Dolby to come and do a lecture at the College, and I had to more or less make the arrangements. He was a good first rock star to deal with. The particulars of his lecture to the students were sketchy—I don’t think there was any technical information, which we naturally would have eaten up. But we were among the first people to hear selections from his album Aliens Ate My Buick, including today’s song, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Non-Classical Arrangement.

We all went out to dinner and drinks afterward with Leo, Charles and other staffers. I tried to ask Thomas a question about songwriting, as it was a big interest of mine at the time. He told me it just happens. Goddamn it.

Other Vital Information

Other things that happened when I lived the Lower Haight:
  • I ate at It’s Tops Coffee Shop on Market Street a lot. They had grease-addled fare that was right up my alley. Once I was eating at the counter, and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane/Starship was seated a couple chairs down. A little African-American kid walked into the café, muttered something in a foreign tongue, lit an entire book of matches, threw it on the floor, and walked out. Paul and I were both perplexed. The matches went out and nothing got damaged.

  • I went to a couple of meetings of the American Humanist Society. I was recruited on the street. It wasn’t anti-religious or anything, nor particularly hippie-related. In fact the guy who recruited me wore a blazer. I gave a speech once and it was well-received. Then I left.

  • I dropped about 25 pounds within six weeks of moving back to San Francisco. The standard 20-year-old-in-poverty diet.

  • My Uncle Walter died of primarily alcohol-related causes. I traveled to Modesto and was one of his pallbearers on my 21st birthday. That night I went to my first actual bar, the TraveLounge in San Francisco. Really, I probably got all the information I needed to know on that day, but I didn’t write it down.

  • I passed Robin Williams one night, walking past him on the street as he was dining at Zuni Cafe. Our eyes met. I gave him a smile although I wasn’t feeling particularly happy.

  • I went on a date with a girl and took her to see the movie Orphans. Terrible choice.

  • And I started up at San Francisco State again. This time I finished the classes. One of them was “History of Rock and Roll” with Chronicle critic Joel Selvin. It was a loose class. Selvin was an avid dancer who made some interesting physical choices. A girl dropped out because she was made a class target over her defense of the Carpenters as a rock band. I think she got the sense that the class had the collective belief that rock=“good,” and all else=“bad,” but I never thought that at all. I felt bad for her. I mean, she was being difficult, but so were we.

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