Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

Meetings With Remarkable Men, Part 3

In the previous two articles, I wrote about encountering Jack Casady and Phil Lesh as a teenager. Of course, I could write pages and pages about the influence of my father (and my brothers). But there was another person who loomed large in my legend — although we didn’t actually meet until years later. And I’d say this man played a pretty huge role in the lives of Paul McGowan and his pal Gus Skinas, as well.

I’m talking about synthesizer designer Robert A. Moog, of course. Probably nobody of my age can remember where we first heard of the Moog Synthesizer; the name was just in the environment at a certain point. But I know where I first saw one: the Wildwood Convention Hall in Wildwood, NJ in mid-August of 1971. We were there for the day, and we saw that Emerson, Lake and Palmer were playing. My parents paid for my brother and me to go to the show (a whole $4.50 — EACH!), while they went off to the movies (Carnal Knowledge). We’d run into friends down there, and we got seats at the back. Then my friend Glenn and I walked down to the front to look at the gear and…

Oh my god.

I don’t know why it grabbed me so much, but it did. And in those days it was still relatively small. The next day, back home, I got out the Last Whole Earth Catalog, and reread Wendy Carlos’s 2-page spread on synths. And promptly wrote to Robert Moog. (My letter was addressed “Dear R.A…” I was determined to sound as hep and mature as possible — I didn’t want anyone suspecting I was 14!)

I got back a very cordial letter and a 1971 Moog catalog, and a little bit of a correspondence was struck up (along with a daunting price list, showing a list for a large system of $12,500 — two and a half times the price my dad paid for our top of the line Volvo). Gradually, using mostly that catalog, I taught myself to use them. There are certain things that you have to have experience to know, but the broad strokes were all there. I’ll give an example to explain:

The 911 Envelope Generator has 4 controls (three for Time settings, one for the level of sustain). By looking carefully at the photo of an early Moog system, I determined which was the 911 by looking for a module titled with two somewhat lengthy words, and from the description of the module, determined what each of the controls did. Not immediately, of course. I pored over the pictures for months and years, and gradually it came into view, both literally and metaphorically.

Parallel to this, I was slowly piecing together a small collection of electronic music, but most importantly, Carlos’ Sonic Seasonings, a dazzling record of synthesizer and environmental recording, in service to tonal composition. I spent so much time with that catalog that by the time I first got into a lab with a modular Moog in it for a couple hours, I knew what I was doing and put together my first Moog piece. And I went to various colleges that gave me experience on other systems, like EMS and Buchla.

14 years later, I began to fulfill my dream when I acquired the first quarter of of my system (from 1974), and two years later got the remaining 3/4ths of it (from 1967, one of the first systems in California).

These days, they’re available again, and you could buy a system like mine for about $50,000. Like most everything else I have, mine sits unused, except for the occasional museum exhibit.