Continued from Chapter 6: What Do I Do Now?
I opted not to work the summer after graduating from Carnegie Mellon. I knew it would be my last summer off and I intended to take the greatest advantage of that.
I set up all the musical and recording equipment I could borrow in my parents’ living room and feverishly set about recording the backlog of songs I’d written in the last two years. These were the most ambitious multi-track recordings so far with drums, keys, bass, guitar and multiple vocal parts.
The common four-track cassette recorder of the day allowed recording (as the name implies) four independent tracks, but if one wanted to overcome that limitation, one could combine tracks. For example: I could record bass, guitar and piano on tracks 1, 2 and 3 and then combine (aka ‘bounce’ or ‘ping pong’) those tracks onto track #4. Now, I could reuse tracks 1, 2 and 3 for three more instruments or voices. Unfortunately, this means the song will not be in true stereo.
If you want true stereo, you need two tracks (one for the left and one for the right). So, for example, you can record two tracks, mix them together in stereo and ‘bounce’ them to tracks 3 and 4. Now, you can record new instruments AND the stereo mix back to tracks 1 and 2 (preserving the stereo separation). Theoretically, one can continue in this way and add an infinite number of tracks. But this was the analog eighties and the fidelity of the recording deteriorated rapidly when you did this.
There is a third option to keep the recordings as clean as possible and add more tracks: Use the same track for different things at different times. One example is using one track for both a vocal part and an instrument solo (during a portion of the song where there’s no singing). This is tricky because ‘punching in’ and ‘punching out’ without wrecking the original track is difficult and there was no ‘undo’ command back then (“Hoopieland” was done this way).
Back to the story: I came down to Morgantown to look for an apartment on a particularly hot summer day in August of 1986. I had never been there before and didn’t know anyone who’d gone to WVU so I was pretty much clueless.
With a map from the welcome center and a copy of the Dominion Post in hand, I started making calls and seeing what was available for rent that Fall.
Oh my God! I had never seen such a collection of arguably uninhabitable structures. After three of four of these, I re-adjusted my standards and pressed on until I found one that I thought I could tolerate.
The apartment was in a house in Sunnyside and the rent seemed reasonable so I had the landlord send me a blank lease to sign, but it was so one-sided I complained. The landlord refused to modify the lease and I was back to square one.
Eventually I came across a basement apartment on Protzman Street. It was…OK. It had a little living room, one bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. The only problem was the party animals who rented the house above me. My tolerance for the noise and late nights was greater than it is now, but even I couldn’t overlook the “get-together” that ended with someone spilling a considerable quantity of beer on the kitchen floor. That’s because the kitchen floor was above my bedroom.
Now, I like beer as much as the next guy, but it loses much of its appeal after passing through linoleum, plywood, fiberglass insulation and acoustic tile. I was able to break the lease due to a typo and moved into the third bedroom of a house occupied by three friends as one of them graduated.
Academically, things continued to look up for me. My inherent shyness was overcome by the fact that there were only three students in the Masters program. I literally had entire classes with the three of us in the front row and a professor lecturing. There simply was nowhere to hide and I received the one-on-one instruction I needed whether I was willing to admit it or not.
I made some good friends at WVU but, romantically, nothing had changed. I was still very lonely and aside from the letters I exchanged with two girls I dated in high school (one casually and one…well, NOT so casually) lacked any female companionship.
There was one particular student I had a crush on though. She was from South Africa, petite, dark hair and incredible blue eyes. She was also extremely bright and focused on getting out of WVU with her MS in Mechanical Engineering and getting into the PhD program at MIT.
One other detail: she played the clarinet (or, rather claimed to; I never heard her play). But that was enough to move me to write an instrumental piece for her in the ‘clarinet-friendly’ key of Bb. I originally titled it “Jazz Tune in Bb”, but later retitled it “Song For Larry” when I recorded it in 2000. I can’t remember if I ever played it for her.
Anyway, during the spring semester of 1987, I went to a party thrown by a fellow student ostensibly because I expected her to be there. She was and we started talking about various things including (and I don’t know how we got on this topic) how much we enjoyed having our backs scratched. So, standing in the kitchen, we scratched each other’s backs. Not a big deal until one considers that it had been a very long time since I’d felt the touch of another human being. What made the experience even more tragic to me was that she had just announced that she was leaving for MIT at the end of the semester. That was the inspiration for the song “Before I Turn Around”.