If you think you know all there is to know about Thomas Dolby based solely on his biggest commercial hit and MTV video, “She Blinded Me With Science,” his memoir, The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology, offers nearly 300 pages to enlighten you about the musician, video director, producer, soundtrack composer, tech innovator and musical director of the TED Conference.
Appropriately, it starts with Dolby making music. At the beginning he’s living in poverty, patching together discarded electronic equipment. By the book’s end he’s living the country life, making the most out of a 21st DIY digital world.
In between those two scenarios he fills in the details of his exploits in the music world – early American tours with Lene Lovich and as a solo artist, playing keyboards for David Bowie at Live Aid, contributing parts on a Foreigner album and getting a taste of rock ‘n’ roll excess, a visit to Michael Jackson’s house which reveals unsettling houseguests.
With one opportunity coming (almost) immediately after another it’s almost as if Dolby made a pact with a higher (or lower) being and good fortune follows him everywhere he goes.
Despite his desire to be a successful musical artist, his reaction to the record industry’s shady business dealings is understandably repugnant. Decades later, he becomes just as frustrated with the business dealings of the tech world.
Dolby couples his fascination with technological advancements with a pragmatist’s approach of how to apply them. Frustrated by the number-crunching side of music that “kills” the artist, he finds himself a part of the nascent digital and internet environment. In this section of the book he does his best to reduce the language of the computing world into something even non-geeks can wrap their minds around.
Like his concise, hooky songwriting, he has an efficient writing style that quickly moves from one life-changing moment to another. While he’s strong on details he’s not very revealing in regards to his personal life and its effect on him. Peppered throughout are brief mentions of his background as well as his punk rock days, a transgender child and the stress on his family due to him traveling the world and obsessing over getting his tech company to become an indispensible part of the internet and cellphones.
The closest he comes to this turns out to be “Speed of Sound”’s most clever chapter. An extended description of how each of his poker buddies plays a hand transitions into Dolby finally ridding himself of an ego-inflated co-worker. He then discusses his poker playing method, which preaches patience and waiting out your your opponent for a big payoff.
The book comes full circle as Dolby recognizes who he really is and, through technology, the artist is able to become his truest (and happiest) self possible. It is a content and tranquil scene he makes for himself on the coast of England where nature, artistry and technology greet him each day, but it’s also one that makes for a satisfying end to a lively engrossing tale.