By Dr. Nancy Berk
Rock stars are notorious for shocking their fans, but Tom Scholz, the musician and mastermind behind the band Boston, wins the prize for cool surprises. That's because his back story is about as far away from a rock star as you can get. I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Scholz for my podcast Whine At 9, where we discussed his unusual and fascinating journey from MIT-trained engineer to stadium rocker and force behind the legendary band.
Tom Scholz and Boston will mark the band's 40th anniversary with a North American tour (kicking off April 29) that will celebrate the music that has made the band a multigenerational favorite. Few are as surprised as Scholz when it comes to the longevity and growing fan base of the band that made "More Than A Feeling" a '70s rock anthem. In fact, Scholz wasn't expecting much when he began working on music at night after his "real" job as a product design engineer for Polaroid.
"Actually, I was expecting nothing. What I was hoping for was that, at some point, I might record a song that would get played on local radio stations," he says. "And then I could go out on local stages, and I could play in a band and play a piece of music that people knew--That was mine. And that was sort of my goal. It was very modest."
The six-plus-year process included enough negative feedback to make the best of musicians reconsider their dreams. Scholz recalls those days as being filled with "absolute, total rejection.
"I got no interest from any source--anything in the music business," he says. "I had dozens upon dozens of rejection letters. Submitted countless demos. Wrote lots of songs. And no one was more surprised than I was that when I finally did get a chance to make an album, that it was actually successful. I was so sure, after six years of basically being knocked down--I was so sure that I had nothing to offer to the general public, that after I finished recording the album in my basement in a Watertown [Massachusetts] apartment, I went back to work at Polaroid. And I planned to be staying--working at Polaroid.
"I think I was smart enough to know that [success] was extremely unlikely," says the legendary musician and sound technology genius as he shares his story. "At one point, when I was working at Polaroid, my boss caught wind of the fact that I was making demos and trying to break into the music business. And he came around to talk to me about it, and I told him it was not anything he had to worry about. It was a one in a million shot--which he reminded me of later when I was leaving, by the way."
Of course, Scholz's one in a million shot skyrocketed with Boston's 1976 debut album (recorded in Scholz's home-grown studio with equipment he built and designed) breaking all sales records at the time--17 million copies.
I have to think that Scholz probably had more than a feeling that he was onto a unique musical breakthrough. He admits that while his musical aspirations were a long shot, he also put intense energy and finances behind his efforts. And, like a pragmatic scientist, he also set a deadline.
"I spent a lot of money on it--basically all of the money that I could make working six years as an engineer…and an enormous amount of time. And a lot of that involved working through the night and then getting one or two hours of sleep, and then going to work at Polaroid. Which they probably weren't too happy about some days. There were many times I rolled in there about 10 or 10:30 in the morning. But I think the fact that I was realistic about the probable outcome--and I had a definite ending. As I was approaching my 29th birthday, I said, 'You know, I've got to face reality. I gave it a really good shot, and I don't think it's gonna happen.' And the last demos that I recorded were going to be, literally, my last demos. I had already planned to sell off the equipment that I had. And in fact, I really finished the last two songs of the demo series just sort of as a formality, because I had gone that far and I just wanted to finish what I had sort of planned to do. And one of those two last songs was "More Than a Feeling." And when Epic Records heard it, Brad Delp (lead singer Delp died in 2007) and I were signed within a matter of weeks."
Perhaps the real secret behind Boston's success was that Scholz was never a wannabe musician looking to shed his techno-slide rule past. In fact, the MIT graduate (Scholz holds a bachelors and masters degree from the institution) couldn't take engineering and science out of his musical equations. He worked tirelessly on creating tools to make the sounds he was shooting for--from a studio to gadgets and musical instruments. (FYI: There's a Gibson Guitar named after Scholz.) And consciously or not, he also approached the competitive game of breaking into the business from a scientific angle.
"There's a well known fact in science and engineering that you have to put yourself in a position in order to make a discovery--and whether that's a discovery of some new scientific fact, or a solution to an engineering problem, or just something new--you have to do a lot of work, you have to fail… you have go down all those wrong roads and try all of the things that don't work to put yourself in a position where you will be prepared to recognize the discovery when it happens. And that was very true in my case," explains Scholz.
Soon, the reflective guy with the soothing voice that channels the wisdom of a professor will hit the stage and the road and become a rockstar again. He says he doesn't consider himself one, but he's thrilled and surprised to be celebrating Boston decades after his band made music history. "I was amazed from day one that anyone else took an interest in this music that I had done. I'm incredulous that 40 years later people are still excited about it and the fact that we seem to have more demand than ever. And that's why we're going out for a 40th anniversary tour."
After a lengthy conversation with Scholz, I feel comfortable enough to corner him with my nagging question. What was it like going from pocket protector to electric guitar? "Geeks on stage," laughs Scholz. Funny it didn't seem that way when I watched him so many times back in the '70s and '80s. "That's my alter ego--sort of like Batman, you know--go back into the cave." Explains Scholz, "It is funny, that comes out when I get on stage and then goes away again."
The upcoming tour promises to give fans old and new exactly what they love--the milestone hits that bring back memories and create new ones. "We're going to play a little bit longer set with a few more songs in it to cover the songs that people have let us know that they really want to hear," he says. "And we have some exciting new effects too…I'm not going to spoil the surprise, but you will be surprised."
He won't budge on details, but assures me, "It will be safe and yet scary." Spoken like a responsible rocker with a little science under his belt. I can't wait.