If you’re old enough to remember the early days of MTV, you no doubt recall Thomas Dolby’s pioneering music video for his song, She Blinded Me with Science.
What you don’t know about Dolby could fill a book, and his new memoir, The Speed of Sound, is that book.
It’s about as thoughtful, honest, entertaining, and above all humble a memoir as was ever penned by a rock star.
Dolby comes from a long line of academics, who gave him perhaps a greater level of curiosity about life than his rock and roll peers, who stereotypically were most interested in getting girls, getting high, and setting the amplifier to 11.
Dolby was interested in those things, but he was especially fascinated by both the art and science of sound. Back before the Internet was a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, Dolby was experimenting with sounds made by synthesizers and transmitted by rudimentary communications technology, in addition to writing and performing songs.
He made a rapid leap – at least it’s rapid in retrospect – from roadie, techie, aspiring musician, and backup instrumentalist to world-famous rock star. In the first half of his memoir, he recalls in exacting and fascinating ways his precipitous climb, and subsequent battles with the utterly corrupt music industry.
It’s almost as though Nick Hornby had written the story for him, considering the utter lack of pretentiousness and ego in the storytelling. My sense, though, is that Dolby, unique among celebrities of all stripes, had no help in the writing of the book and did all the hard work himself.
Along the way, Dolby, like most young people and certainly like most young musicians, loves and loses, and the details of his relationships are offered with a Flaubertian keen eye for detail.
We see how the video came to be, and how Dolby, a rock and roll everyman, finds himself not just at the top of the pops, as they say in Britain, but playing alongside boyhood heroes like David Bowie and hanging out with Michael Jackson, only to be savaged by the vagaries, politics, and infighting inherent in the music industry.
And then comes phase two of Dolby’s career, detailing his move to Silicon Valley and his struggles to establish himself as a tech entrepreneur with a specialty in sound.
If the music industry was tough, Dolby suggests, the tech startup world of the 1990s was scarcely easier. Dolby describes in painstaking and often painful detail the money and personnel struggles attended to launching a new venture capitalizing on the increasingly popular internet.
An anecdote about a feral Bill Gates at a Washington dinner party for tech execs is worth the price of admission. No spoiler alert necessary here; you’ll have to read it for yourself.
When success finally comes, it’s heralded not by a massive IPO but instead begins with an unnoticed fax from Nokia inquiring about technology that led to ringtones.
The best entrepreneurs recognize trends long before the rest of us, and Dolby is no exception. He realized that in Europe and Asia, teens were decorating their newly-purchased mobile phones as fashion accessories, a fact lost on the wealthy technoscenti of Northern California.
After a bunch of dry wells, the Nokia ringtone deal became the gusher that Dolby – and every tech startup founder – dreams of.
Dolby and his family now divide their time between his native England, where he composes, and Maryland, where he teaches what he knows about the sound of music and the music of sound as a university professor.
But here’s my advice –drop what you’re doing and enroll yourself at Johns Hopkins University, so that you can study with Professor Dolby, or just do what I did. Get the book and read it.
If you love music, it’s the book of the year.