By Jim Jerome
Like any mechanical engineer, Tom Scholz likes to putter around in his basement. So while the 29-year-old MIT graduate was working days as a $25,000-a-year product designer for Polaroid in Cambridge, Mass., he spent nights at home fiddling with a 12-track tape recorder. What he eventually came up with was rock's newest supergroup, Boston, possibly the biggest thing to happen to that name since cream pie.
The Boston LP that Scholz masterminded and then released with four musician friends last August has quantum-leaped to the fastest debut in rock history, selling an astonishing 2.7 million copies in six months. The two singles mined from the album, More Than a Feeling and Long Time, are smash hits. Though Boston had scarcely played together a year ago, they're now headlining a 50-date cross-country tour.
"It's nice it happened so fast," says Scholz. Not even he was ready for it. Before the group went on the road last fall, he was so uncertain about their future that he cautiously asked Polaroid for a leave of absence in order to retain his medical benefits. He has since quit, blowing $5,000 in severance pay. No matter. So far Boston's grateful Epic label has paid over an initial $300,000 royalty check, offered to renegotiate the group's contract and kicked in $25,000 as sweeteners for each of the bandsmen.
All this is happening to a whiz kid who once thought "heavy metal" meant Plutonium. Scholz grew up (to 6'5") in Toledo, the son of a prefab home designer. He played basketball and built contraptions like a radio-controlled plane with a four-foot wing span "that could beat the crap out of anyone's." But while other rock stars of the future were paying dues, Scholz paid tuition—earning a master's at MIT with a 4.8 in a 5.0 grade scale. It was a slide rule—not a slide guitar—that Scholz took to Polaroid, where he worked on a supersecret instant movie film system.
Though his R&D job was "rewarding," Scholz's real passion was developing "rock gadgets" in his duplex home in middle-class Watertown, Mass. Instead of buying a new house, Tom and his wife, Cindy, 29, a former horticulturist, fed $30,000 into his electronic gewgaws and demo tapes. "Can you imagine the cause for a divorce being a used 12-track tape recorder?" he jokes dryly. "But Cindy always went along with the whole crazy thing," Tom adds. "No one else took us seriously. Even the local clique of musicians in Boston looked down on me."
In the classic Tin Pan Alley cliché, Tom finally poured everything into one last effort. The resulting track Tom made with four friends (though he himself plays guitar, bass, organ, clarinet and percussion) has become the most famous Basement Tapes since Dylan's. Their music, which Scholz shamelessly says is a "direct descendant of at least 30 other groups," is a benign blend of overdubbed harmonies and swirling guitar duets. Tom modestly allows that the breakthrough was "dumb luck." Still, his cool, controlled lab-rat detachment from his heavy rock has led to cynical rumors (which he denies) that he programmed a computer full of hit melodies and wrote the LP cuts from the printout. Of the second LP in the works Scholz deadpans, "I'll just worry about the music and won't be disappointed if it only sells two million."
Tom and Cindy have recently moved into what he puts down as an "El Cheapo" home in the upwardly mobile Boston suburb of Wayland. He still drives an unheated Pinto and clearly looks more at home in his Harvard Square chic—frayed jeans, ski parka and "last year's sneakers"—than in the flashy getups he affects onstage. "I was always resigned to failing in this," Scholz philosophizes. "Like everything else in my life, I have had to work hard—and practice. Nothing comes naturally. This is my dream life—to have enough money to play rock'n'roll full-time."
By Jim Jerome