Chapter 10

 

The lower end of Mercer Street was poorly lit. I walked past Downtown Sound twice before seeing, under the dim glow of a gooseneck sconce, the studio’s small sign, a piece of stenciled steel the size of an album cover, riveted onto a black metal door. I pressed the buzzer next to the door and got a response that was more of a crackle than someone’s voice. After the crackle told me that no one from Studio B had arrived yet, I judged from trying the door again and finding it still locked that I was to wait outside.

Downtown Sound was a small, compact facility made up of three recording studios, each with its own set of soundproofed rooms. Different artists, along with their producers and engineers, navigated its narrow hallways to work undisturbed in their own studios on album projects. The studio was hailed by the students at New York School of Sound for its earlier successes with artists whose work there had catapulted them to stardom. But Downtown Sound’s glory was a prior one, and those acts had moved on to better, more modern recording studios. Now, with its aging equipment and outmoded acoustics, the studio attracted mostly first-time acts with little money or has-beens staging a comeback.

Having arrived a few minutes early, I decided to wait for Sibyl on the nearest stoop, which was across the street under a wall of construction scaffolding. Shortly after I sat down, a dark figure rounded the corner from Howard Street and approached the studio door. In the faint light, I could see a man with long dark hair dressed in black. He rang the buzzer and gave his name to the crackle: “Ronnie Yoshida.” It looked like the patron saint of hip-hop had business at Downtown Sound as well. Sibyl would get a kick out of this.

After about fifteen minutes, tired of sitting on the stoop, I walked up the block and back down, keeping the studio door in sight. I had just leaned against a crossbar of the scaffolding when I spotted Sibyl coming down Mercer Street wearing her Walkman. As she got closer, the high-pitched leakage from her headphones filled the otherwise peaceful street. I crossed over and met her at the studio door as she was pressing the buzzer and saying her name.

“Did you just get here?” she said, pulling her headphones down around her neck.

“Sorta. I was across the street.”

The latch clicked and she quickly pulled the door open.

In the cramped reception area, gold records lined the walls, hanging evenly over cracked woven wallpaper, paying homage to the artists who had recorded their albums here during the studio’s heyday nearly a decade earlier. Only a few of these artists were still on the charts; most were just a memory. Some, like Dana Minor, had been forgotten completely. After twenty years in the business and almost as many genres, Minor finally broke through with a successful dance hit in 1982. The single earned her, at the age of thirty-eight, both a gold record and the opportunity to go out on top — or at least the farthest from the bottom she had ever been. The only people regularly reminded of her were those who saw her gold record hanging on the wall at Downtown Sound.

The front desk intern, a young man wearing a grey t-shirt printed with a picture of Nancy Reagan covered by a red “no” symbol, stood to greet us.

“Hey, Vaughan,” said Sibyl. “This is Dal. He’ll be working with us.”

Vaughan raised his hand hello as Sibyl walked behind the desk to empty into the waste basket from the pocket of her sweater the peeled rind of an orange she had eaten on her walk.

“We’re in Studio B tonight, right?”

“Yep, you’re all set up,” replied Vaughan, the voice of the crackle.

As we tunneled our way down a long hallway, I heard music pounding from behind the closed doors of studios A and C. At the end of the hall, we pulled open a thick, heavy door with a wide rubber seal to enter Studio B’s sound lock, and then, just beyond it, we passed through an identical door into the dimly lit control room. Sibyl’s engineer sat at the recoding console with his back to us, making track notes on the console channels with a Sharpie. Through the studio glass beyond him, I saw a large live room containing a drum kit, a baby grand piano, rolling sound baffles, and a battalion of mic stands. Thumping loudly through the large speakers facing the engineer came a bass line I recognized instantly. The song, sparsely recorded with only bass, drums, and a thin-sounding keyboard, was a new version of one I had written and played for Sibyl in her apartment — a ballad called “Overblown Rose.” The engineer rolled his chair sideways to the end of the console, at which point Sibyl waved her arms to get his attention. He stopped the tape machine and spun around to face us.

It was Ronnie Yoshida.

“Dal,” Sibyl said to Ronnie, pointing to me with her thumb as I stood beside her. “Dal, Ronnie Yoshida.”

Ronnie, sitting with his ankles crossed, dropped his hands into his lap and bowed respectfully. His long black hair, brittle and carelessly arranged, appeared synthetic from the direct glow of the recessed lighting above.

“Really good track,” he said quietly and with the same kindness I’d heard on the street outside New York School of Sound. “It’s great to meet you.”

“Same here.” I raised my hand awkwardly, as Vaughan had done in the lobby.

He nodded, then turned back to the console and buried his hands into a nest of patch cables.

Sibyl went to the back of the room, where she placed her Walkman on a large, fluffy couch.

“Ronnie and I started recording ‘Overblown Rose’ last night,” she said uneasily, almost hurriedly.

She looked at me to see my reaction. She wrapped herself into her unbuttoned sweater by grabbing its edges and crossing her arms. As she came back to the center of the room, she assumed a calmer tone. “We’d like to record a scratch vocal for it tonight, then lay down more instruments this week.” She hesitated. “It could end up on my demo.”

Ronnie’s hands stopped moving; he tilted his head slightly to listen as Sibyl continued.

“We want you to … you know, hang out. You know? And maybe co-produce the song. With Ronnie and me. If you want.”

The glow of the console meters and LEDs warmed the room as candles would. I had not heard from Sibyl in days. And now, deluged by relief from seeing her again, I faced a proposition I could hardly understand. Produce the song, with Ronnie Yoshida?

Sibyl sat down at the producer’s desk behind Ronnie.

“I played Ronnie your tape — I hope that was okay.” She began spinning the pencil caddy, fidgeting awkwardly. “And I thought you’d probably be available to work with us.”

What remained unsaid between us weighed heavily. She couldn’t speak freely in front of Ronnie, just as I couldn’t think clearly in the surrealism of the moment.

She finally looked up at me and spoke in a whisper. “It’s the only time I’d ever really get to see you.”

I glanced at Ronnie and caught him grinning; he quickly distracted himself with a digital reverb unit.

Sibyl shrank from embarrassment. “It’s not funny, Ronnie. You agreed with this.”

“You lovebirds have to keep me out it,” he said, still smiling.

I didn’t know what to say. Remembering Ronnie’s ad on the bulletin board at NYSOS — “Hard work, no pay. Would it be worth it?” — and having gone through emotional tortuousness in the days since my night with Sibyl, I understood clearly what I might be in for.

“Are you kidding?” I said. “I’d love to help out.”

Sibyl rose with her fists pressed together joyfully under her chin, flashing the sunny smile I’d been waiting for since seeing her on the street.

Ronnie, relieved, centered himself in front of the console. “Time to turn this into a hit,” he said in a subtle but commanding manner.

Sibyl grabbed my hand and led me to the live room.

They worked efficiently together. Ronnie established a rough mix of the few instruments they had recorded the night before while Sibyl set up a microphone, headphones, and a music stand.

“We have to work fast each night,” she explained as we surrounded the mic stand on three sides with tall rolling sound baffles. “Ronnie’s working in here during the day with another band, so we stop every night around two o’clock and he runs home to get some sleep.”

The band, called The Stains, were recording their first album for Pacific Records, the record company who was paying for exclusive use of Studio B, day and night, until Ronnie finished producing the album. But as Ronnie had done his entire career, he was taking advantage of the downtime at night to work with a new artist on a demo.

While Sibyl finished adjusting the pop filter in front of the mic, I asked if the band knew that they were working on her demo in here at night.

“I leave all that to Ronnie,” she said. “Probably not.” She spread lyric sheets out on the music stand, then slipped away to the restroom.

I stood in the middle of the live room isolated by soundproofing from the rest of the studio. In that strangely quiet moment, I wondered how many of the artists with gold records hanging in the reception area had started in this spot, building from this very silence, note by note, those songs that had rifled through our lives. The hobby craftsmanship of the wooden sound diffusers on the walls and the egg-crate acoustic foam tiles placed in guesswork patterns between them spoke to the studio’s outworn appeal. But even if Downtown Sound had lost its mainstream appeal, participating in a session at a place like this was beyond anything I could have imagined when I tore Sibyl’s phone number from the bulletin board at New York School of Sound.

A soft melody of flutes blended into the silence as I recalled the first movement of a piece of classical music my mother would play at home when Nehemiah and I were growing up — Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. It begins quietly, like droplets preceding a rising storm, then builds dramatically as the tempo accelerates in the final movement. Standing there in the live room, I felt the droplets. I felt an anxious rest, a titillation, anticipating the fulfillment of a storm’s arrival.

When I opened the heavy door to join Ronnie in the control room, a thunderous blast of sonic distortion knocked me senseless. Ronnie was listening to something very different than “Overblown Rose.” I closed the door quickly behind me.

I’m recording this,” he said loudly over the music. He stood in front of the console. The tempo was frenetic. His thumb, the only extremity dexterous enough to keep time, tapped rapidly on the edge of the console. “The Stains. Four guys in black suits playing speed metal. Two songs in and they’re dripping in sweat.

So, you produce a lot more than just hip hop?” I yelled back.

He nodded and held up his hand. When he pressed the stop button, we stood in a deafening silence. My ears had to adjust from loud to soft like the eyes do from light to dark.

“Yes,” he said quietly as he rolled a second chair over for me to sit in before taking his. “Any genre that lifts the spirits.” A subtle grin formed in the middle of his broad face. “Paying the bills lifts the spirits.”

“I’m not sure what you guys are talking about,” we heard Sibyl say, “but beware that the real Ronnie emerges when the music stops.”

Through the studio glass, we saw her standing in front of the mic smiling, ready with her headphones on.

“Dal, this is just a scratch vocal,” she said, speaking into the mic. “You’ll coach me, but we’re not trying to get it perfect. We’ll come back and record the real vocal track after we record all the instruments.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Here.” Ronnie pointed to the talkback button I was to press in order for Sibyl to hear me through her headphones.

Got it,” I said again, too loudly, while pressing the button.

Sibyl needed no coaching; she nailed the entire song in two takes. I would have accepted her performance as the final one, but as I would learn in the days ahead, the final vocal track would consume several hours of drawing from Ronnie’s experience and Sibyl’s talent to perfect the phrasing and producing the level of emotion a pop song needs to push a listener deeper into their seat.

When Sibyl came back in to join us, she brought with her an acoustic guitar from the live room. Ronnie and I had resumed our conversation.

“What about you? What’s your next horizon?” he said to me.

“What do you mean?”

“Where do you want your songwriting to take you?”

His question puzzled me, and he watched as I struggled to give him an answer that wasn’t simply that I wanted my songwriting to lead to more songwriting.

“Limousines and blowjobs?” he said, jokingly.

I couldn’t think. “I just want to be successful as a songwriter.”

He nodded. “But after that. Let’s say you’re already a successful songwriter.” He sat still in his chair while I spun left and right in mine.

This was when I first felt his wisdom tightening the mechanics inside me, preparing me to prepare myself for all the opportunities that lie ahead. It’s why the students at New York School of Sound thought highly of him. He made them better. He did this with anyone he worked with, regardless of where they were in their career. One of my favorite adages came from Ronnie, which he recited to me some time later: “Be in service of the person facing you.” Since meeting him, I can’t recall a time when Ronnie wasn’t in service of me.

“Play ‘Kiss Like That’ for Ronnie,” Sibyl said, holding out the acoustic guitar. “He hasn’t heard that one yet.”

Still working through an answer to Ronnie’s question — imagining my success and where I wanted it to take me — I took the guitar.

I strummed the opening chords before remembering I had a cassette with me of the finished song, one I’d made in my room at the Y with just me on guitar. I stopped abruptly and pulled it from my pocket.

“I have this,” I said.

Ronnie inserted it into the cassette deck and adjusted the monitors. As blank tape hissed by, Sibyl explained to Ronnie quickly that the song had “just popped out” of me one night.

Several times during the song, they glanced at each other without expression. When it ended, Sibyl fixed her stare on Ronnie, who was squinting his eyes and nodding his head slowly. They said nothing.

I broke the silence gently by telling them the next song on the cassette was a quick idea, one I had low expectations for at the start. But its hook was solid, and they should at least hear it. I didn’t mention what they would soon recognize, that its lyrics were coated in the heartache I had experienced while pining for Sibyl after our night together. It was called “I Try to Hide.”

When it ended, Ronnie and Sibyl again looked at each other without saying anything, as if excluding me from a telepathic conversation.

Ronnie finally spoke. “These should go to on the list.”

“No question,” Sibyl replied.

“And we already have musicians coming tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” she said. “We better hurry.”

They went into action.

Ronnie had lined up musicians to record the instrument tracks for “Overblown Rose” and whatever other songs Sibyl had on her list. Adding my two songs meant we needed to record guide tracks for both — drum machine, bass, guitar, and Sibyl’s scratch vocal. These would serve as a reference for the arrangement and feel of each song so the musicians could lay down the main parts quickly.

Ronnie grabbed a drum machine and Sibyl pulled out her notebook to write out the lyrics. Within minutes, Ronnie and I were sitting together at the console as he picked away on bass over a drum loop with me playing guitar and calling out the chords.

We worked until four in the morning. When the session ended, we had completed the basic arrangements and recorded the tracks. Ronnie left quickly to get some sleep while Sibyl and I returned the studio to normal. Vaughan appeared and helped by resetting each of the console’s knobs and buttons to their default positions. An hour later, with the room showing no sign of us having been there, Sibyl and I said goodnight to Vaughan and walked out to the street.

In this moment before twilight, a garbage truck, a man walking a dog, and the blinking lights of a car double-parked interrupted the stillness of Mercer Street. The sounds of a new day echoed from surrounding parts of the city. Standing beside each other on the sidewalk in front of Downtown Sound, Sibyl leaned into me with the push of her shoulder, just as she had done when we sat beside each other in the booth at Marlina’s Mexicana.

“Go, Dal,” she said, her smile inward and flirtatious.

I didn’t know what to say. In the afterglow of this heady night, with elation succumbing to fatigue, my mind was clumsy around the idea of whether if any of it had really happened.

“It’s got to feel good,” she said.

“It does.”

When she threw her arms around me, I wondered how real her hug might be.

“We can get a taxi on Canal Street,” she said. She grabbed my hand, and we started walking.

“So, what’s next?” I asked, unclear about what I was saying. I didn’t know if I meant what’s next with the sessions, or for me, or for us.

“Ronnie brings his guys in to record, then we mix the songs, and then we shop the demo to record labels. Which I’m hoping Ronnie will help with — because he knows everybody.”

“Is there any reason he wouldn’t help?”

“Sure, if it turns out like crap. He’s not going to risk his reputation peddling a crap demo.”

Sibyl flagged a taxi and quickly opened the door to get in. There was no kiss goodbye.

“C’mon, get in,” she said to me, sliding across the seat to the other side. She called out her address to the taxi driver through the partition window. “Brooklyn, 8th Street between Bedford and Berry.”

 

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