Here’s another story from the Enigma Files, about the mysterious studio owner I knew in my late teens and early twenties.

Not long after the shooting incident,  a room opened up in the basement of the biggest music store in town, and Enigma jumped at the chance to rent it.  When they were negotiating the terms of the rental, the store’s owner told him that if any kind of disaster affected the store, Enigma would ‘totally be covered’ by the store’s insurance policy.  Enigma asked a few times if he could get that in writing, but the owner always waved his hand dismissively and told him, “Yeah, yeah. . .some other time.”   Enigma thought that was fine; what was the likelihood that anything would happen?  They could always figure it out some other time.  He would occasionally remind Owner about their deal, and Owner would always postpone.  I was there during a couple of those conversations, and I remember them well.  I knew Owner a bit, by association, and I had a friend or two who worked in the store.

Enigma had his studio in the basement for two or three years.  It was mostly electronic, which is to say that it was computer-based rather than tape-machine based.  That’s the norm these days, but in 1991, it was pretty rare.   He had a Mac Classic computer with a synthesizer or three connected to it, and that was how the majority of his projects were started.  If he needed to record drums or anything really big, he’d worked out a symbiotic deal with the drum teacher who rented the room next door.   He’d pull out his tape machine and mixer and run cables through the hall.  Here’s a picture of the studio at that time.  I’m the person in the middle, wearing the weird sweater.  My drummer friend Half-A-Bee (that’s an inside joke) is on the left, and Enigma is on the right.

It was much smaller than the other place, but the location was better, and he saw an instant jump in the number of clients that called on him.  That meant that he also called me more often to play on songs.  By then, my band had essentially broken up, but I had a bunch of songs of my own that I’d been working on, and I banked all the time I’d earned from working on all those other peoples’ sessions into my own blocks of studio time.

One thing about recording studios is that they usually have multiple projects going on simultaneously.  Large studios will sometimes be booked by record companies for weeks or months at a time, but most people these days are financing their projects themselves.   My current studio setup (otherwise known as my living room) puts Enigma’s to shame, and I can spend as long as I like working on songs, for only the price of the equipment.  Back in 1991, however, even the ancient Mac in the picture would have cost a couple thousand dollars.  It was all pretty state-of-the-art back then, and Enigma had lots of people working with him.

My ‘day’ job at the time was the night clerk at a video store.  That was one of my favorite jobs, and I worked there for quite a while.  One afternoon, my co-workers and I heard an unusual number of fire and police sirens racing across town.  We looked out the window and saw a huge plume of smoke rising from the direction of downtown.  We asked the customers as they entered the store if they knew what had happened, and someone was finally able to tell us that the music store was on fire.  My blood turned to ice, and I grabbed the phone to warn Enigma, and to tell him to get over there.  He didn’t answer, but he got my message (he told me later) and raced downtown to hopefully salvage whatever he could.

As afternoon turned to evening, the fire raged at the limits of control, and it took the firefighters until almost dawn to extinguish it.  As soon as the surrounding roads were open, my friend and I drove downtown to survey the situation, and the smoldering remains of the building were pretty terrifying.  Enigma’s studio didn’t burn, but it was buried was under fifteen feet of sludgy water and charred debris.

Remembering their verbal agreement, Enigma tried desperately to contact the building’s owner, who was unreachable for days.  Once the water had subsided a bit, the police allowed Enigma to go to the basement and retrieve what he could.  Most of his stuff, including his tape machine, was completely destroyed, but he was actually able to salvage some of his gear.   He wrapped everything in black garbage bags and carted it to his mom’s living room, where it sat for months while he completely disassembled every piece and cleaned it up.  The computer actually came back to life, eventually, and the mixing board only needed some slight repairs.  Amazing.

After a week or two (if memory serves), he was finally able to track down the owner of the building, who had managed to conveniently forget about their permanently postponed contract.  I told Enigma that I remembered those conversations, and that I’d be happy to testify in court if it came to that.  The owner continued to balk, so Enigma had no other choice but to sue him.  He invited those of us with studio projects in the works to join in the lawsuit, so that we could also be compensated for the amount of time and money that we’d lost.  Some people only lost a song or two, but some of us lost a significant amount of music in that fire.  I had accumulated about three thousand dollars’ worth of studio time, and there was a hip-hop guy whose album was completely finished and ready to be sent to duplication.  Of all the studio’s clients, his loss was by far the most devastating.

The details of the case were these:  the owner had let an employee and some friends dink around in the store after it had closed for the day, and that employee had been smoking a cigarette while he was in there.  I don’t remember if the guy dropped the cigarette, or if he left it in a garbage can and thought he’d extinguished it, but the cigarette was thought to be the cause of the fire.  The police suspected arson, which seemed especially credible since the store owner skipped off to Florida with his two-million-dollar insurance settlement, and couldn’t be tracked down for the next few years, by which time our case had been dropped since the lawyers couldn’t find Owner.  I will go to my grave believing it was arson, because if it HAD been an accident, Owner would’ve been outraged (which he was not), and much more willing to fulfill his responsibilities to his various tenants.  As far as I’m concerned, foul play is the only thing that explains his bizarre behavior, and his unwillingness to deal with those of us who were left high and dry.  Not to mention the fact that the owner was able to salvage a great deal of his inventory and have a huge ‘fire sale’ a month or two later, so he recouped a sizable amount of that money as well.  Yakima’s online newspaper archive only goes back as far as 1997, unfortunately, so I wasn’t able to find this story, but I would really love to find out how they reported the story.

One funny thing about this story was our lawyer’s name.  It was the kind of name that only appears on cheesy TV shows.  I can’t tell you what it really was, since she’s still around and practicing law, but I can tell you that her name sounded like “Money Law.”   Isn’t that cute?

Every once in a while, I search for Enigma online, and I find him.  Sometimes I think it’d be nice to reconnect, but then I remember some of the weirdness, and I lose any motivation to contact him.  Best to let sleeping dogs lie, I’d say, in this particular case.