The Drums' Jonny Pierce on Wendy Carlos: 'She's a Pioneer of Living With Grace, Courage & Conviction'
June is a time to honor the LGBTQ community’s rich history and highlight its remarkable achievements. To celebrate Pride Month, Billboard asked modern music stars to pen essays about their favorite queer icons, and how their sounds, lyrics and overall images influenced a new era of artistry.
When you live in a small, dirty town in upstate New York, and you're gay and poor but still trying to look stylish and inventive, where else do you turn but to the local thrift store? Where I grew up, we had a giant Salvation Army -- so big, you might think it was one of their flagship locations. I don’t support The Salvation Army anymore (the organization is fundamentally anti-LGBTQ), but at the time, it was my go-to for curating my teenage wardrobe.
Over the years, “Salvo” was where I bought all my 501s and work pants as well as vintage t-shirts and jackets. Believe it or not, the Adidas sneakers that I wore in The Drums’ "Best Friend" music video were from that very spot. However, I would be remiss to not mention the most important role the thrift store played in my life -- it was my record store, too.
When I was a kid, I found an old, dusty synthesizer in my parents' basement and quickly developed a more than modest obsession for electronic music -- specifically that which was made in the genre’s pioneering years. At least once a week, I would go to my thrift store’s vinyl section and meticulously flip through each and every record, hoping to find anything with the word “Synthesizer” on it. If the album credits merely mentioned the word “Moog,” “Oberheim,” “Sequential Circuits,” or “Arp,” I would buy the album -- no questions asked. I did end up with some stinkers, but I also hit the jackpot from time to time. Kraftwerk, Jean-Michel Jarre, Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder were big finds for me, but really, the one teenage musical discovery that still fascinates me more than any other is the mysterious electronic music composer and pioneer, Wendy Carlos.
When I discovered Wendy (born Walter Carlos), I was in the thick of realizing that I was gay. Both my parents were homophobic, born-again preachers and so I dealt with a lot of emotional abuse at home. I did not have a community to go to or even a single supportive friend at the time. Wendy’s story -- even with the little I knew of it -- spoke to me and encouraged me to be myself. I felt a connection. I mean, come on! We were both misunderstood LGBTQ New Englanders with an undying passion for monophonic analog synthesizers!
These days, when I gush to my friends about Wendy Carlos -- even my musician friends -- I often find that whoever I’m talking to is pretty clueless on the subject. Most people don’t know her name -- much less her lasting influence on modern music. There was a time, though, when she was somewhat of a household name -- composing and recording top-selling soundtracks for movies like The Shining, A Clockwork Orange, and Tron as well as releasing a wide range of her own original works.
Wendy was born in 1939 in Rhode Island. At 14 years old, she developed her own home-built computer and won a science-fair scholarship. After graduating from Brown University, she went to Columbia University and met another hero of mine, Bob Moog -- whom she formed a partnership with and advised during his time developing the groundbreaking Moog Modular Synthesizer. Wendy offered up ideas such as implementing Touch-Sensitivity for better musical dynamics which, of course, are mainstays in todays electronic keyboards.
In 1967, using a monophonic Moog Synthesizer, Wendy went on to record and release an album made up of entirely electronic versions of some of Bach’s finest pieces. The album, released on Columbia Records, was called Switched-On Bach, and it was the first of its kind. Switched won four Grammys and was No. 1 on the Billboard Classical charts for three years. It shattered notions that electronic music could only be abstract, and it ushered in a brand new wave of personal electronic music making around the world. For the first time, synthesizers were being regarded as proper musical instruments.
When I sat down to write this article, I was familiar with most of Wendy’s work. I was already a fan. Heck, my band released a “b-side” a few years back simply titled, “Wendy.” I wanted to dig deeper and see what I could learn about the personal life of Ms. Carlos. Who does she hang out with? Has she ever been in love? What was it like coming out as trans in the '70s? What is her greatest regret and her greatest source of pride? To be honest, I have a hundred and one questions for Wendy, and I’m sure I’m not alone, but there isn’t much personal information out there. All in all, she keeps it quiet -- and that's alright.
I’ve realized that I don’t need to know everything about Wendy -- and neither do you. Often, people who have gone through the very personal transition that Wendy went through just want to live their lives in private tranquility. Maybe she doesn't want to be defined by her physical transition. Maybe Wendy knows that living her personal truth, day-to-day, is enough. For me, she’s a hero. Not only is she a pioneer in electronic music, but she’s also a pioneer of living with grace, courage, and personal conviction in the modern age. On behalf of all the LGBTQ artists out there, I honor you and I thank you, Wendy.