Chapter 5

 

When I arrived at New York School of Sound, afternoon classes had just ended and the evening classes were about to begin. Students went in and out of the building’s single glass door, and some gathered on the sidewalk in small groups. The school occupied the three floors above a D’Agostino supermarket in Greenwich Village several blocks north of New York University. During this busy part of the day, cars crowded the street and moved slowly, and the supermarket’s sliding doors remained mostly open as shoppers hurried through for quick stops on their way home.

NYSOS had engineered its reputation as a nerve center for budding industry hopefuls. Aggressive advertising in the popular audio recording magazines lured students from across the country to its audio engineering program with promises of state-of-the-art facilities, world-class training, and a shot at entry-level positions at recording studios, production companies, and small record labels throughout the city. It was unaccredited, so whoever could scrape together the money was admitted.

I was interested in the school’s bulletin board, which was as famous as the school. Anyone starting out in the music industry in New York knew of this valuable help-wanted resource and made a pilgrimage to see it.

As I approached the school, my attention went to a small group of students standing in front of one of the supermarket’s brightly lit display windows listening to someone speak.

Silhouetted against the window, leaning against it with one foot cocked back on the sill, stood a man with long black hair wearing a pair of Wayfarer sunglasses. He wore black from head to toe — black jeans, black pointed boots, a black leather jacket with a mandarin collar. Judging by how captivated the students were, he had some degree of celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him.

“Don’t become a victim of things that are too familiar,” he said to them.

I slowed down. I was still on my guard after the three-card monte crowd, so I didn’t want to get too close. But I was drawn by the students’ intrigue with this sage who apparently had achieved a notable degree of success.

“And when you can,” he continued, “be an original source.”

One eager student spoke up. “I think your idea to sample drum loops is the most brilliant thing ever in recording.”

“Ah, on that I was not the original source,” said the man. “Which brings up another point in this business: Start with truth before adding flattery.”

The group burst out in laughter.

He answered their questions with a nurturing kindness. Between drags from his cigarette, he spoke carefully, Zen-like, in words assembled as adages.

As one student broke away to leave, I asked him who this man was.

“That’s Ronnie Yoshida,” he said without stopping, his tone implying I should know everything about him.

When I looked back, Ronnie had raised his sunglasses and rested them on his forehead. Thin lines of gentleness and giving framed his eyes.

The stairs to the second floor, narrow and worn, took me to the school’s lobby and office area. In the middle of a short and narrow hallway I found the bulletin board. It was tiny, no bigger than the cork board in my bedroom growing up. I walked through the other hallways to see if I’d found the right one and finally asked a young woman at a bank of school lockers.

“That’s it,” she said, accustomed to the question. “That’s the one.”

Postings pinned three layers deep in places covered the bulletin board, with many of the hand-written notes, business cards, flyers, and postcard ads hanging over the edges. “Heavy metal band needs EXPERIENCED bass player.” “Guitar tech needed. Three-week tour. See Florida!” “Tama Drum Set: Must Sell.” “SIT IN ON SESSIONS! Interns needed. Nights and weekends.” “Come out and see Trounce — Groovy folk funk band. Mon & Tue at the Bitter End.” One I found quite bold: “Personal assistant needed. Hard work, no pay. Would it be worth it? Ronnie Yoshida.”

“Excuse me,” I said as the young woman walked by, zipping up her backpack on her way out. “Who is Ronnie Yoshida?”

“He teaches here once a quarter,” she said.

“He’s a teacher?”

She looked at me as if to say, “You poor thing.”

“He’s … Ronnie Yoshida. He’s, like, one of the godfathers of hip-hop.”

Ronnie had worked as an audio engineer and producer with a number of successful hip-hop artists early in their careers. Many people in the industry pointed to him as the first engineer producer to recognize hip-hop as an art form and use technology in innovative ways to contribute to its rise. He knew how to hook up and operate all the studio gear, identify creative minds to collaborate with, and talk it up to the right people in the record business.

“He’s generous with what he knows,” she said, pushing open the door to the stairwell, “and he helps us find jobs.”

I looked back at Ronnie’s help-wanted ad. All of the contact tabs at the bottom had been torn off.

I spent the next hour looking through the bulletin board, lifting up postings to read the ones underneath. A handwritten ad on sky blue paper caught my eye:

 

Girl singer, creative and marketable. Already have studio time. Looking for songs/songwriters. Need pop $ong$ with $trong hook$.

 

I tore off the phone number and walked outside to find a payphone.

 

For three days, this creative and marketable girl singer never answered her phone. Her answering machine picked up each time. When I finally reached her, she sounded as if I had woken her from a pleasant dream. It was shortly after two o’clock on a dreary Wednesday afternoon.

“I saw your ad — the bulletin board at New York School of Sound?” I was calling her from a payphone on 7th Avenue, just around the corner from the Y. “Are you still looking for songs?”

“Yeah, maybe,” she said as she slowly came to life.

“I’m a songwriter, and I think I might write the kind of stuff you’re looking for.”

“Oh wow, great,” she said, yawning. “Would I have heard any of your songs anywhere?”

“Probably not.” She listened patiently as I told her about the Mollies and that I’d been writing songs for as long as I could remember. I tried not to oversell but wanted to convince her to listen to my material. “I’ve got everything on a cassette — all my songs and ideas and stuff.”

“What did you say your name was?”

“Dal.”

“Okay,” she said. “I’m Sibyl.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” I said, instantly regretting the unnecessary formality and telling her quickly I had never met a Sibyl before.

“There aren’t many of us. I changed my name when I was in the tenth grade.”

I waited for more, but she didn’t explain.

She told me she was working on her demo and that she had free studio time at a small recording facility on Mercer Street called Downtown Sound. She was working with several songwriters but having no luck with any of them. She wrote some of her own songs but wasn’t a prolific songwriter and wouldn’t be able to create enough good material during the remaining time she had in the studio.

“I mean, I have one or two songs,” she said as she moved about her apartment, “but these days you need an entire album’s worth.”

“I have some that are already finished that might work for you. And I can come up with ideas pretty quickly. Usually.”

“Pop?”

“Yeah, mostly.” I thought of her ad. “I like your dollar signs, by the way — ‘pop $ong$ with $trong hook$’.”

“Yeah, or else why bother, right?”

A picture of creative and marketable began to emerge.

“How’d you come up with the name Sibyl?”

She hesitated, and then spoke tentatively, as if peeking out from behind a shield. “The inspired prophetesses in Greek mythology. They were called sibyls.”

I knew nothing about Greek mythology.

“Are you a prophet?” I said halfheartedly, encouraging the amity that appeared to be forming.

“Prophetess,” she corrected me. And then she played along. “I might be.”

“Then you might be able to tell me if I’ll be a successful songwriter one day.”

“I don’t know. I’ll have to hear your songs first.”

She was playful, but it was her self-possession that captivated me.

“I’d love to know more about these prophetesses,” I said.

Delighted, she stopped what she was doing. “Really?”

Her apartment was quiet and produced a slight echo. From what I could hear of her movement, I let myself imagine she was curling up against a big pillow.

“Alright.” She sipped something from a glass. “They wrote their prophecies on tea leaves,” she said, eager to tell the story but thoughtful of her pacing, “prophecies that were so beautiful and so poetic and so prescient. And there was this one sibyl who lived for so long that when she bound all her tea leaves together, they created nine gigantic volumes, which she ended up destroying. Or most of them, anyway.”

“Really? After all that work?”

“Yeah. She tried to sell them to the king of Rome at some outrageous price, and he laughed at her. So, she read him one of her prophecies and went away. When the prophecy came true, she burned three of the volumes, and then offered him the remaining six for the same outrageous price. He thought about it, but again he said no. So, she burned three more. Meanwhile, the king learns about her reputation, and when she took him the last three volumes, he paid her the original asking price to save them.”

“She was a strong negotiator,” I said.

“She knew what she was doing,” said Sibyl. “Besides, she could remember every prophecy she’d ever written, so it was no loss to her. Anyway, the king locked these three volumes in a temple, and he consulted them whenever Rome faced any sort of crisis.”

We talked for close to an hour. Sibyl asked if I would bring my cassette over, so we arranged to meet in a few days at her apartment in Brooklyn, on 8th Street between Bedford and Berry. At the end of the call, I finally convinced her to hold the phone to her stereo speaker and play for me a song she had just recorded in the studio, one she had written. I blocked out as much noise from 7th Avenue as possible. I tucked my head between the payphone and its enclosure, stuck my finger in one ear, and pressed the receiver tightly against the other. I heard a tiny echo when she pressed the play button, and then her song filled the room. Her singing voice was extraordinary. The timbre was a high but not sharp or shrill, and a hint of coloration gave her voice a raw but singular identity. She traipsed in and out of falsetto seamlessly, and no vocal impediments or bad habits detracted from her performance. The melody of the song was oddly original, yet easy to follow. Right after we hung up, I thought the song itself was too simple, but for the next several days, I couldn’t get it out of my head.

 

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