Night at the Opera - the birth of Mr. Gasoline

In 1980 I was working in Athens as an architect designing a large section of a new city to be built from scratch in the desert in Saudi Arabia.  This new city was to have a projected immediate  population of 500,000.  It was going to be constructed on a site adjacent to the Red Sea, that at the time, held a single  one-pump-gas station  on the two lane road to Jiddah.  My responsibility was to design twelve public buildings including a police station, several government office buildings, a supermarket, a large parking structure, a medical clinic and miscellaneous structures and systems.  Each person on the fifteen member team had similar responsibilities.  Each team members performed more  design work than most architects do in a career. There is fast track project scheduling, there is hyper-track and there is warp-track, the Yanbu project was warp-track.  We were in the un-air conditioned office every waking hour for the first six weeks of the  summer  completing the schematic phase.  It was an intense, very high-pressure experience for an architect just one year out of school.  At one point during the early autumn I got incredibly frustrated on my design team and sought an alternate creative outlet away from the architecture.

This new outlet manifest itself very late one night while on a date with a Greek aristocrat.  We spent the hours after a candlelight dinner strolling around her Athens.  We walked down streets where she pointed up to the sign, her last name!  We walked through farmer’s market stalls (Greeks shop late into the evening) she pointed to fruit stands that bore her family name (they owned entire islands thus the fruit species name) She told colorful stories of her dashing father’s exploits during WWII, of her mother dating famous American public figures.  Heady stuff. It was a drizzly night at first then later a full moon was revealed as we walked and talked for a few hours.  At around one in the morning we were walking near the American Embassy compound not far from the office where I worked.  There was an opera house under construction.  I was curious.  We entered the site and walked into the darkness and up stairs trying to find the stage.  The place smelled of lumber, concrete form oil, familiar smells from my time on construction sites.  The moon had come out so there was a bit of light that allowed us to sidestep large openings in the floor and edges that were many feet above adjacent spaces with no railings.  We stepped over debris on the floor and around puddles.

We finally made it to the stage.  The roof had not been built yet so I could look out in blackness to the dim back of the hall and see the moon rising.  I began to test the reverb time in the space by singing a few bars of spontaneously invented blues melody.  The hall had great acoustics even without a roof.  Geez, I sounded great.  This was much better than any shower.  I didn’t know I had it in me.   I began to sing louder and more rhythmically.  Then months of creative frustration burst like a dam and I began singing at full voice some deep, raw, gut-bucket blues.  Channeling B.B. King, Albert Collins, Muddy Waters.   I looked over  to my friend who I hoped was amused but I could hardly see her in the darkness.  After about three songs of loud and resonant Delta shouting I saw shadows moving in the back of the hall.  UH -  OH !  WTF !  I stopped singing and stood frozen on the stage watching the shadowy black profiles move toward the stage.  My God! There were more than just five.  There were waves of them.  Must have been  twenty figures dressed in black converging at my feet.  My heart was beating like hell.

These figures in black each had a machine gun pointed at my head.  A bold voice called out in Greek.  It was Greek to me,  but my date understood and we both jumped off of the stage to greet the Athens Chief of Police surrounded by the entire Athens SWAT Team with their weapons still raised.  My date and the police chief had a brief conversation during which she let it be known who she was and that I was her nutty American date for the evening.  The chief motioned for the SWATs to lower their weapons.  She assured him that we meant no harm, that we were not protesting the American presence in the Embassy across the street and that we would go home immediately.  WHEW! - she kept me from getting arrested or shot or both, thanks CM!  This was the beginning of the songwriting career of Mr. Gasoline.

Footnote:  Twenty eight years later while I was teaching at Montana State University in the architecture program, the University held a gala “International Festival Banquet” where students from all over the world who were in attendance dressed in their native costumes and served native cuisine.  I walked over to a group of Saudi Arabian Students and, of the five, three were born and raised in the city I had designed, Yanbu.