Sunday, June 13, 2004

Why Die? 2

I'm mad at more than one dead guy. My most recent dead friend is/was Ed. I met Ed over 25 years ago. We took a class together, and got to be friends while working together on some educational things.

Ed was the most brilliant electronics guy I've ever met. One day when I visited him he showed me what appeared to be a regular old Bic-type cigarette lighter. He flicked the wheel and it lit up feebly and went out.

"This", he declared, "is a bug. I've got it transmitting over 300 yards." My stupid look prompted him to continue.

"Yeah, you know there's this capacitance problem most engineers have with an antenna this small, but I figured out a way to use that to my advantage to get it to trasmit so far. I even made it work like it's just out of fuel. The idea is the guy throws it in the trash in his office and then we listen in. Battery is good for a few days. I had to shave down a few parts to get them to fit."

You might be thinking by this time, how awful!, but I thought it was pretty cool. I asked Ed why he'd done it, and his reply (so typical of him) was that he just wanted to see if it could be done.

For many years, Ed worked at Rocketdyne, the Aeorspace-era complex in the far north-western part of the San Fernando Valley where rocket engines were developed throughout the 60's, and on into the 80's. I don't know -- maybe they still make rocket engines, but Rocketdyne faded from its prominence over the years, as did the majority of early Aerospace efforts.

When I was a very little kid living in that area, they used to test their new rocket engines, and we'd hear them roaring and rumbling from over the hill where we lived. For minutes at a time, the resonant whooshing would continue while an ominous white cloud billowed from the direction of the sound, causing visitors to look about worriedly (perhaps it was commie jets coming to start The Big One?) But just like most long-time Californians are hoo-hum about earthquakes, we had gotten used to it and hardly noticed.

However, Ed didn't work on rockets. He maintained the enormous electricity provisioning facilities of the complex. He described to me buildings housing capacitors the size of large water-tower tanks. I occasionally heard gruesome tales of electrocution, but Ed remained unscathed.

I eventually came to understand that Ed had an arrangement with electricity and electronics. They'd do exactly as Ed demanded, and they wouldn't bite Ed. In exchange, Ed promised electricity fame, fortune and an opportunity to do extraordinary things. Electricity could not turn him down, and so their paths were subsequently and irrevocably intertwined.

Then along came Boston. Not the city, the rock group. Or I should say, rock project, headed by engineer and electronics maven Tom Scholtz. Those of us into rock at the time know how revolutionary the sound of the band was. Their guitars had a certain something nobody had captured before. Their first record sold about a gazillion copies.

Tom Scholz made it perfectly clear that he had a Secret Process by which he modified the bands equipment to get their signature sound. Everybody wanted it, and to capitalize on the demand, Scholz created the Rockman -- a small device that one plugged a guitar into, and which reproduced the sound of Boston's guitars (or a somewhat reasonably similar sound). It was a huge success, but there was a problem -- the rather complex device had a variety of tiny little switches that selected variations of sound. The box was clearly intended to be operated by hand, using one's fingers to flip the switches, but when on stage you needed to select sounds by pressing buttons with your feet. The Rockman was not a "stomp box", and needed to be one.

We wrote to Scholz, but go no answer. Ed offered to modify my Rockman into a stomp box, if I would part with it for a while. Neither he nor I knew what we were getting into, but hesitantly I parted with the precious bit of electronics. With a show coming up, I told Ed I'd need it by then. He assured me I would not go without.

But the electronics inside the Rockman were a bit odd, and there was a lot of them. Ed got absorbed into the project and vanished for days at a time into his lab. The date of my gig was approaching, when Ed called me and insisted I come over. I went.

On the bench in his lab was my Rockman, splayed open like an autopsy. Hair-thin wires ran hither and yon on the exposed circuit board, and there was a new, crude circuit board added to the mix. From there it went to a box on which was mounted several push-butoton switches. Ed had an old electric guitar I'd lent him for the project, and in the span of the next few minutes, he proudly showed me how his box of switches controlled every combination of sounds the thing could make.

It was fabulous. And it was the day of my gig, with the Rockman clearly in no condition to be used. Ed promised me it would be ready; he'd meet me early at the gig with switch-controlled Rockman ready to go. Doubtful, I thanked him and left.

That night, sure enough Ed showed up before the gig, at the club. He had with him a clunky sort of box with switches. A thick cable connected this to another sheet-metal box which had a power cord. The whole thing looked terrible, but this was it. We set up on stage, and as we started our first song and I pressed the button on the box ... nothing. At least for a moment. And then a loud, grating buzz came out.

I quickly unplugged the box, and looked up to see Ed, a crazed look in his eye and a battery-powered soldering iron in his hand, leap onto the stage and tear off the cover of the switch box. Totally absorbed, ignoring me, the band, the other people in the club and everything else, Ed eyed the maze of wires and circuit boards, stabbed the tip of his soldering iron onto a spot in the box until a thin curl of smoke lifted into the air, and then slammed the cover on the box. He stood, patted me on the shoulder, and jumped off the stage.

I plugged in, clicked the button, and got that sound. If you don't play electric guitar (or some other instrument), you might not know how much the sheer sound of it can provide inspiration. So take my word for it -- this was it.

The rest of the evening went off without incident. Ed decided to make a business of it, and dubbed his invention the Rockbox. People all over the world sent him their original Rockman devices, and Ed modified them, getting the whole thing into an elegant looking switch box. Over the years, the business (never particularly profitable) dwindled as Scholz himself finally came out with foot-switch controlled effects units. I'm happly to say I still have the first production unit ever made, although I haven't played it in a very long time.

Some years later, Ed told me he was sure he had an idea about anti-gravity. From almost anybody else I would have humored them sincerely. But like I said, Ed was the cleverest, smartest electronics guy I knew. And he had that special arrangement with electricity. He had an idea about counter-spinning something-or-others, and was going to work on it. I allowed the possibility that he might just crack the code. I don't know how far he got.

So why am I mad at Ed? He had a beautiful, bright daughter. His wife took care of him, the daughter and the house, and also worked. After his Rocketdyne job finally faded away, Ed started his own electrical and electronics business, doing wiring for homes, offices, and other things. He hired people, ran several crews, and it looked like this was going to take off.

But Ed couldn't just have success. He had to f*** with it. This was true of his business, his marriage, and more. It was too boring for things to just go well. Always a bit on the heavy side, he went on a bicycling kick that got him into the best shape of his life. And then Ed had to mess around, and you know what I mean. His business wasted away as he stopped working it. He destroyed his marriage, and we (all his friends) let it just happen.

When I heard he was dead, I was surprised, but not totally. It was just a dot on the zero-line of the graph showing the trajectory he'd been on for a while. As he'd been heading down, I saw less and less of him -- sometimes not once in a whole year. It just seemed safer. On the day I was told about it, I hadn't seen him except for an accidental meeting in almost two years -- the longest in the entire time I'd known him.

Ed had gotten very, very drunk in his apartment, tripped and fallen. His head had hit a table or something. I was told one eye was a mass of blood and... you get the idea, right? His girlfriend had found him that way, already dead.

I attended his tiny memorial, absent his wife and daughter. I don't blame them. I just remember being so incredibly pissed off I could barely speak.

At a funeral or memorial, there's almost always less of a somber feeling among the attendees than one might think. Usually after the ceremony there's some laughter, and people are just getting along. And so it was at Ed's memorial. But I wanted to get right up into every body who smiled or laughed and yell, "that f***ing BASTARD! IT ISN'T FUNNY!" I couldn't believe they weren't as angry at him as I was.

Ed took himself out, with the tacit consent of his friends, letting him slip away, giving us every clue that he needed... something. And it was the stupidest possible way for a guy like him to die. He should've gotten electrocuted by a Tesla coil he'd built as part of his anti-gravity machine. Except that would never happen.

So yes, analyze away. I was mad because I'd let my friend go down and just "handled" it by drifting away. I was mad because he died stupidly. I was mad because other people were going to just get on with their lives and so what? And I was unspeakably mad at Ed himself, for not taking advantage of his friends when he must've needed them.

But I'm so damned mad at Ed, I don't know what to say. I've got heavy musical gear to move around, so I really need that anti-gravity stuff.

I know Ed would've had it ready just in time for a big gig, but now I won't get to be the guy with the very first one.

A. Biker


Anonymous said...

re: Rockbox

Do you know anyone who might be able to part with one? I am into a retro kick and would love to buy one, or at least learn how to make my own.


Angry Biker said...

Sorry man -- I just gave my RockBox away to a buddy who also knew Ed. It had just been sitting there for the past year getting dusty, and pissing me off reminding me of Ed. I don't think there are a whole lot of these around.

sarzie said...

i have a rockbox for sale if anybodys interested-email me at i checked out the inside of this thing and only a sheer genius could design something like this! cheer up brother,there is another dimension and when you see him again you can boot him in the ass! i have a friend im going to boot in the ass too!

sarzie said...

i have a rockbox for sale

RP said...

Yo, I found this because I just bought a rockman and want to put AC power to it and it doesn't appear to have a jack... but who cares? I dig what you are saying. I've had two friends do what Ed did and sometimes I think maybe I am slacking to the end myself instead of staying engaged and LIVING. Man, stay angry and push your friends to stay angry...

aman said...

my rock box is lost
in the woods

help me

its here cant you see


aman said...

its here sorry

Anonymous said...

This is a fascinating story! Both from the rock / electronics point of view and the story of Ed himself.

It sounds like he was a genius.

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