When I was 12 years old I bought my own piano with earnings from a newspaper route.
Actually, my mom & dad made the purchase with a $200 deposit in 1975. Eventually I paid the balance of the $1100 price tag for the Yamaha console piano. The instrument lived in my tiny bedroom and I spent hours pounding out simple pieces, none of which I remember how to play. I was a lonely, insecure kid, and that piano was a necessary appendage which kept me grounded.
Only one bit of music from that era survives, a piece inspired by my high school girlfriend (circa 1979). I made this recording in 1989, before I forgot how to play it forever. Perhaps it’s no particular crime for these immature pieces to be lost to time.
The start of the ’80s also ushered in my deep and abiding love affair with electronic pop music. By 1984 I jilted my piano for a shiny new synth when I purchased the first generation Ensoniq Mirage DSK.
I also purchased a Tascam Porta One Ministudio and finally had a tool for multitrack recording.
I lacked formal musical training, but needed to keep track of what I was doing. Using a series of dots on lined paper, I improvised my own sheet music.
First Multitrack Music Demos
I began to churn out my interpretation of pop music … simplistic, overwrought songs of hope and yearning. Two pieces from this period would end up on vinyl a few years later, but for the most part, these were rough demos that never had any real potential of becoming anything more.
3rd Row Center
In 1986, shortly before my move to California, Dave Davies and I created a movie review show for public access cable TV called 3rd Row Center. In addition to co-hosting the show I created the theme song. We only finished one episode before I moved across the country.
Student Film Scores
When I arrived in Cupertino, California in May of 1987 I was overwhelmed but invigorated. I signed up for film classes at De Anza College, walking distance from our apartment. De Anza is a junior college which was, in the late ’80s at least, widely known to have a very good film program. I took Advanced Super 8, 16mm and Advanced 16mm classes during my time there. However, aside from one super 8 film of my own, I took on the role of composer for a number of my classmate’s projects. The work I did was deemed essential enough by the instructor, so I received the same credit for this work as I would have if I had made my own films.
Shadow Show: A Real Vinyl Record!!
It started as a joke.
It was 1990, and I was living in a veritable commune with 6 other 20-somethings in a 3-story/6-bedroom Edwardian the Inner Sunset district of San Francisco. The majority of the housemates had migrated together from Michigan to California, with a couple new friends thrown into the mix. And, being 20-somethings, we tended to spend our meager earnings on beer and pool at a local pub.
The joke in question was hatched during an evening at said pub, and was based on the band Book of Love (one of my all-time faves). We drunkenly sang the Gilligan’s Island theme song, but as performed by Book of Love. The band had a trademark of using digital delay at the ends of phrases, so we would sing:
“Here on Gilligan’s Isle -Isle -Isle -Isle”
I was quite tickled by this joke, and swore I would create the track myself. In other words, I would do an imitation of Book of Love doing a cover of the Gilligan’s Island theme song. It was ridiculous and funny.
So I did it. And it turned out … not half bad!
I started thinking about recording it, along with a couple other original songs that had been hanging around since the mid ’80s. Perhaps I could make a record! Was that crazy?
I had always wanted my own songs on vinyl. The time I spent in the ’70s and ’80s with those grooved platters was magical, and they were now in danger of disappearing forever with the advent of CDs.
A friend of a friend recommended the book This Business of Music, so I purchased the then-current version and set to work learning the necessary steps to make a record of my own.
One of my first challenges was to acquire rights to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. As a child of the ’70s, I grew up seeing the name Sherwood Schwartz everywhere. He not only created shows like Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch, but he also wrote the theme songs for those shows. To this day I am a huge geek for both shows, so I knew he was the composer.
I had to figure out how to get the rights to release a cover version of that theme song, or this whole project would be sunk before it began.
As it turned out I had to contact Mr. Schwartz directly, so I wrote him a letter and enclosed a cassette demo of the track. Weeks dragged by, and I received no response. By this time I had set recording dates with the studio, and I needed confirmation that I would be able to publish my version of that song. So I wrote another letter that said, in part:
“I am scheduled to be in the recording studio next week to lay down the tracks for this project. As I have not heard anything to the contrary, I will assume that I have the necessary permission to proceed.”
This finally prompted a response, a personal letter from Sherwood himself, not only giving me permission, but chatting about his busy schedule as he put the finishing touches on the failed Bradys dramatic series which was just about to hit the airwaves. The show was cancelled after six episodes, but I watched every one, of course. To this day, receiving that letter is one of my favorite things that has happened to me. A letter … to me … from Sherwood Schwartz!!
Armed with the correct rights and paperwork I dove headlong into the process. I hired Pyramind Studios to record, Fantasy Studios to cut the master lacquer and Rainbo Records to manufacture the final product. I chose Rainbo when I discovered they were the company responsible for the records on the backs of cereal boxes in the ’70s. I loved those records!
Once the order was placed with Rainbo Records, the waiting nearly killed me. Finally, I received a thin box containing test pressings, which I approved and sent the job to press.
Eventually my cartons of 300 cellophane-wrapped 12″ records arrived on my doorstep. In anticipation of promoting the release, I had even created t-shirts and keychain flashlights emblazoned with the album cover art. But I was exhausted from the experience, and aside from submitting the records to a few DJ pools across the country (which garnered some nice reviews), I was simply too tired to actually do anything with the records once the project was complete.
In those days, you had to have your product in record stores in order to sell, but records stores wouldn’t take your disc unless you were getting radio play. Also, it was nearly impossible to be a recording artist without also playing live gigs. I was asked once to open for Voice Farm (one of my favorite bands) at The Edge in Palo Alto, but without an act I had to decline the invitation.
The process was long, stressful and expensive, and I certainly didn’t do it completely alone. I had help from friends and professionals along the way. Check out back of the record jacket to see the complete credits.
Post-Vinyl Pop Demos
Even though I had given up the idea of forming a live act, I continued creating demos, partially inspired by unrequited crushes. When my heart was broken, I was able to create new music.
The incomplete demo called “She Waits” was based on a poem given to me by my friend Randy when I started my first (failed) gender transition. It was a sweet, thoughtful gift, and I tried to use his lyrics as the basis of a song. I never could get past this rough musical sketch, but I always liked the general idea.
As a kid, I had always loved the song Rock Me Gently, so I decided to create a cover. I was still unable to record vocals well (or sing for that matter!), so I never moved beyond a rough demo. This track represented the end of my pop music experimentation. I stopped creating tracks in this way immediately after completing this demo.
My music-creator life went mostly into hibernation from 1994-2001. During that time I started building websites, and finally started some serious vocal training. I became a stage performer in 2002, working steadily until my self-imposed retirement in 2007 when I started my gender transition in earnest.
Around that same time, Molly Bell was pregnant with her first child, so we both had a vested interest in finding a way to continue our theatre lives without having to perform steadily. We decided to write together, and ultimately created the musical comedy Becoming Britney.