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This morning I was standing in front of the mirror brushing my teeth when I heard a buzzing coming from the sky. I knew immediately what it was.

A blimp!

I dashed out of the house, toothbrush still in my mouth, and looked up toward the sound, just in time to catch a glimpse of tail fins as the airship slipped behind the trees. I had seen the blimp fly over a few weeks earlier, so I wasn’t too surprised by its appearance. The blimps use the nearby Capital City Airport as a way station on their stately passages to cover sporting events. Still, it’s always cool to see something that big pass slowly overhead.

The weird thing, though, is that just this morning I listened to Thomas Dolby’s “Budapest by Blimp.” Usually I skip over that song when I’m walking because it’s rather slow and contemplative and not conducive to getting the blood flowing and the feet moving. But this time I listened to the whole song and really enjoyed it—which shouldn’t be surprising, because Dolby is a truly underrated artist.

Dolby will probably always be remembered as a gimmicky one-hit wonder because of “She Blinded Me with Science,” his breakthrough song. It must have come out in 1983 because it was a radio staple when I was working in Boston’s Kenmore Square that spring. My workplace place was a restaurant that specialized in soups and salads. I had just move down to Boston from Maine, where I had been floundering around in my post-college existence, living with my parents and making a few bucks substitute teaching. When a room opened up in a group house a bunch of my college friends were renting in Brighton, I jumped at the chance. Sure, I would have to live in the unheated top floor—the room did have a space heater—but it sounded like fun.

And it was. Fortunately I got the restaurant job pretty quickly. The place was right on Kenmore Square, sharing the block with the Rat and Strawberries (where Aimee Mann worked as a cashier). I could either take the bus to and from Brighton or I could make the long and exciting bike ride down Commonwealth Avenue, weaving in and out of traffic and trying to avoid trolley tracks. The work wasn’t too demanding—I told everyone the recipe book was pretty much limited to hitting button #5 on the microwave to zap pre-made dishes. I also dished up a lot of soups to go with the salad bar up front and made the occasional pita pizza. The portions for the sandwiches were all portioned out and wrapped, so all I had to do was do a quick smell test before dropping the meat on the bread. (If I didn’t get whiplash when recoiling from the smell, I figured the meat was fresh enough. Wouldn’t want to be wasteful.) Before Red Sox games the pace could get pretty wild as the hordes stopped in on their way to Fenway Park, but it wasn’t too bad, overall, even if it did seem like a strange way to utilize the B.A. in Cinema Studies I had earned at the University of Southern California.

The radio was always on in the kitchen. There were two cooks per shift and we listened to either Emerson College radio or WBCN. The songs we heard over and over included “Electric Avenue” by Eddie Grant, “I Melt with You” by Modern English, “Red Sky at Night” by the Fixx, “China” by Red Rockers,” and “Everywhere That I’m Not” by Translator. Every time I hear those songs I think of my stint in Boston. “She Blinded Me with Science” was also ubiquitous. Whenever it came on we would stomp around the kitchen and shout “Science!” I liked the guys I worked with and we had a lot of laughs. Life was reasonably good, without a lot of demands. The manager even said he could get me on the restaurant chain’s management track. I thanked him but told him it wasn’t exactly how I saw my career progressing. Actually, I had no idea what I was going to do with my future but I fervently hoped it would not include much more time in the food service industry.

I finally quit the restaurant when I was told once too often that I had to do the “special cleaning” on the night before the chain’s owners drop by for an inspection. I literally began banging my head against the wall and immediately gave notice. I had already begun editing a little rock magazine on the side and I moved on to supplement my meager income as a security guard. The only thing I missed about the restaurant was the free food and laughing with the other guys in the kitchen. And shouting “Science!”

I later bought The Golden Age of Wireless, the album that included “She Blinded Me with Science,” and I got a review copy of Dolby’s next album, The Flat Earth. I listened to it just recently. It is an excellent album, with Dolby’s cover of Bill Hicks’ “I Scare Myself” a particularly great cut. Highly recommended. It also includes a vocal cameo by Robyn Hitchcock, as the voice of Keith” in “The White City.” That was my first encounter with the former leader of the Soft Boys. It wouldn’t be long before I heard “Insanely Jealous” on WZBC and became a fan.

Dolby’s Astronauts & Heretics, too, is another superb album. Because of his one big hit, Thomas Dolby is often remembered as a guy who did goofy novelty songs, but his albums have a lot of depth. Just listen to “I Love You, Goodbye,” the opening track of Astronauts & Heretics, with its Cajun fiddles and air of wistful melancholy. Its’ a beautiful song.

“Budapest by Blimp” is from Aliens Ate My Buick, another excellent (and characteristically overlooked) album. Aliens was probably hurt by its jokey title and cover, but its songs have unexpected depth, from the misogynistic-with-a-twist “Airhead,” to the rueful “My Brain Is like a Sieve” (which includes a guest appearance by actor Ed Asner, who whispers the word “murder.” I hope he gets royalties). Dolby even collaborated with funkmeister George Clinton on “May the Cube Be with You.”

Last year Dolby released a new album, A Map of the Floating City, but I haven’t heard it yet. Maybe I’m past the days when I feel like I have to be a completionist. Maybe I’m just more patient. I have added it to my wish list, though.

I finally finished brushing my teeth this morning and drove off the work. As I topped the crest of a hill I could see the blimp way off in the distance, a tiny silver dot in the blue sky. It was a long way from Budapest.



September 2012
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