By John Baccigaluppi
Photos by Cynthia Connolly

Photo by Cynthia Connolly
If you haven't yet, check out Larry's review in this issue for some insight into the recently published book, The Inner Ear of Don Zientara. I hope you know who Don is. As Ted Nicely says in the book, “Inner Ear Studios is as important and as much of a touchstone as Muscle Shoals, Motown, Stax, and Sun Studios.” Throughout the book, the many, many musicians who Don has worked with in Washington, D.C., repeatedly recount how Don created a safe and inclusive space for people to make music and was always encouraging to everybody who walked through the doors. We could all only hope to aspire to this. I wish I could say that I had a chance to record with Don at Inner Ear, but I never did. I did get the chance to go surfing with Don a few times though, so here's that story:

Before I worked at Tape Op with Larry, I was the music editor of a skateboarding and snowboarding magazine, and at one point I met and interviewed Ian MacKaye of Fugazi. Through that connection, I became "phone friends" (this was before email had caught on) with photographer/artist Cynthia Connolly, who was at that point the publicist at Dischord Records; the record label that Ian had started to put out Fugazi and many other band's records. Cynthia was one of the few PR people who was actually fun to talk with, and we'd chat every month or two on the phone for half hour or so. At one point, I told her how I was just learning to surf and how excited I was about that, and she said how she had always wanted to try surfing, so I invited her to go surfing if she was ever out in Northern California. It came to be a few months later that Cynthia and I spent the day driving to Santa Cruz, CA, and had a nice day of surfing. At some point during that drive Cynthia said to me, “If you're ever on the East Coast, you have to meet my friend Don Zientara. He surfs; you guys would get along.” Of course, I knew who Don was, though at the time surfing with him seemed pretty far-fetched. 

A year or so later, I found myself driving out to Kernersville and Chapel Hill, NC, after the Nashville NAMM Show to photograph Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey for Tape Op, and had planned to cut out to the coast of North Carolina to try and surf. I remembered Cynthia's offer to connect me with Don, and I had just acquired my very first cell phone, so after getting Don's number from Cynthia I gave him a call. 

Photo by Cynthia Connolly

I reached Don at Inner Ear where he was working on a Dischord Anniversary box set [20 Years of Dischord], and we had a nice chat about surfing on the East Coast and in the Carolinas in particular. Don kept saying that he wished he could meet me out there, but he was too busy with the box set. He took my cell phone number in case something changed, and I hung up and put it out of my mind. A few days later, towards the end of my trip, my new cell phone rang, and I answered it. “Hi John, it's Don Zientara. I rearranged all my sessions and I'm headed out to meet you in North Carolina!” So, that's how I met Don. 

We planned to meet in Buxton, NC, on Hatteras Island near Cape Hatteras and the lighthouse there, a popular surf spot. We somehow ended up missing each other in the water (which is easy to do in the ocean) but later I stopped by the hotel where he was staying, and we hung out talked for a bit and had a pleasant afternoon.

The next time I met up with Don was in 2004 after one of the TapeOpCons in New Orleans, LA. Don and I were both there, and I had planned – along with my friend and fellow engineer Chema Salinas – to drive from New Orleans to Key West, FL, over the course of a week after the conference. I mentioned this to Don, and he said that he was going to be in New Smyrna, FL, that week at his parents' summer house and that we were welcome to stop by. By this time both Don and I had cell phones, and I was hoping to get some surfing in on the “right” coast, so we made a tentative plan to meet up. A few days later after diving with manatees in Crystal River, FL, Chema and I met up with Don in New Smyrna late in the afternoon. Don invited us to stay as his houseguests, so we did. What I remember most about that evening is that a storm came in and there was a power outage for a few hours right as we were cooking dinner. Don was completely unfazed, and luckily the stove was gas. He found some candles, finished cooking dinner, and we had a nice evening chatting about music, audio, and surfing. 

The next day, we got up relatively early to a warm, sunny day and restored electricity. We made our way down to the beach, and Chema and I rented boards. No wetsuits needed – a novelty for us Northern California surfers! Surfing with Don is rad. Like everything he does, he jumps in with a super-positive attitude. New Smyrna is a notoriously shark-infested area, and despite loving to surf I'm generally pretty scared of sharks! The most sharky area of the beach is what they call “the inlet.” I did my best to suggest we surf a few miles south of there, but honestly the waves were crappy. “You know, we should go to the inlet,” Don suggested. “But isn't that really sharky?” I asked. “Ahh, what are the chances?,” Don replied, “Let's go for it. It'll be way better than here.” He was right, it was. I was still nervous though. 

Photo by Cynthia Connolly

I'll tell you two more things about Don and surfing: One is that he rides a vintage Bonzer surfboard. I had recently read an article in The Surfers' Journal about the Campbell Brothers, the Bonzer boards they made, and how unique and rare they are. “Whoa, you've got a Bonzer!” I said to Don. He seemed pretty unimpressed, and said it was just something he picked up at a garage sale somewhere. “It works okay for me,” he replied. This is the surfing equivalent of finding a Neumann U 47 at a garage sale for cheap. “It works okay for me.” 

The other cool thing about Don is that he's so tall he doesn't actually paddle for waves. He just stands there in the ocean (with all the sharks swimming at his feet), waits for a good wave, then jumps on the board, takes one or two paddling strokes, and he's into the wave. He caught a bunch of waves. 

So, Don or Cynthia, if either of you are reading this, there's an open invitation to come hang out for a surf in California. We even have a Bonzer board to borrow. You'll need to bring a wetsuit though!


PS: I have no photos from this trip because even though Don and I both had phones, these were only phones in the days before phones turned into cameras. But, Cynthia sent me a few prints from some unique film camera she brought on that first trip to Santa Cruz that did two exposures on each negative, and you can see those below.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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