Deserted Downtown Denver

In the mid-1980's I was the entire "post-production audio" department for First Films, a small film company which existed in Denver for a couple of years. Their office was located in one of the then new downtown skyscrapers, blocks of which had been built optimistically in the early 80's but ended up mostly empty for years. The film people, a married couple who were a few years older than myself and had once been hippies, had become marginally sucessful in their business, and seemed to me - in my peniless situation, incredibly rich and well-off.

In fact the company struggled along and they could barely pay me, but we liked each other, and they recognised my devotion to my craft, and my ability to get things done with almost gear and on a shoestring budget, so they bought two Fostex 1/4" 8-track tape machines and a 16 channel Soundcraft mixing desk, and let me set it all up in a spare room there to work on their films...that is, when they actually had something for me to work on, which was not very often. More importantly for our story, they gave me a key to the office/studio so I could come and go as I pleased, and since they couldn't afford to pay me much, let me use the equipment for my own projects. In fact I recorded and mixed much of Thinking Plague's In This Life and Hail's Turn of the Screw there, and would often keep one of the Fostex machines in our rehearsal space which was just a few blocks away. For that I will be eternally grateful - thank you Michael Kreuger! (1951-1990)

It's hard to imagine now, but in those days - the early-mid 80's - downtown Denver was still strictly a 9-5, Monday-Friday affair; after 5PM and over the weekends all the normal office people with clean clothes who could afford to do things like buy shoes or soap or even food, left their offices and went home, and the downtown streets would become utterly empty, quiet, and deserted. There were no shops, no amusement parks or stadiums like there are today, no bars except over on skid row. Deserted streets like canyons lined with towering blank steel and glass walls, silent, still escalators, empty parking garages....I remember days when I walked for hours, probably weekend afternoons in September, exploring rooftop parking lots, pedestrian bridges between buildings, plazas, stairways, tunnels...without ever encountering another living soul. This was still in those pre-"surveillance society" days; no security cameras which cities are full of today, so the chance of me being chased away by a security guard while poking around somewhere members of the general public weren't meant to be was extremely unlikely, it never happened.

Of course it wasn't all modern glass and steel, in the older sections of cracked sidewalks with weeds growing through there were blocks of empty, crumbling buildings and warehouses, blank empty windows whose glass had broken out years ago, boarded-up doors smashed or burned. If one were to peer into the grey obscurity inside, one might see remnants of collasped ceilings, chunks of plaster fallen from the mildewed walls, undefined shapless heaps on decaying wood floors glittering with broken glass ...

Into that strangely captivating world I would take my cassette recorder - not a portable one, it was the sort you'd have in an 80's home stereo, requiring 120 volt AC...and the cheapest Radio Shack mic I could afford, and wander those deserted downtown canyons, plugging the cassette recorder into the electrical sockets here and there which I knew could be found hidden amongst shrubberies next to skyscrapers. I would record the squeaky gates of empty, echoing parking garages, the strange ambience of distant traffic on I-25, fake churchbells played back through the terrible-sounding loudspeakers in a church tower over on Broadway, a loose manhole cover clanking under the traffic over at Colfax and Lincoln half-a-mile away, something from another world with humans in it. Sometimes I'd hear, and record, a strange, forlorn, high-pitched wailing sound...animal or mechanical? A lost soul going mad in some dismal alley? Something in the distant abandoned no-man's-land of the railyards? All filtered and echoing strangely, bouncing off the empty glass and steel buildings as a discarded newspaper blew along the empty street on the warm, late summer evening.

When I'd finish collecting a cassette-full of sounds, I'd head to the skyscaper housing the film office, and using my key, unlock the absurd, heavy golden door. The security guard in the silent lobby would wake up from his late afternoon nap and look suspiciously at me - a scruffy, skinny guy in dirty clothes and broken shoes wearing a tattered backpack, then nod to me as he remembered it was just that guy who worked for the film company. I'd take the long elevator ride up to the 30th or 40th floor (or wherever it was) of the mostly untenanted tower complex, and let myself into the little studio. There were big windows in there that didn't open, looking out over the rooftops, the absolutely still and unpeopled streets far below. There I'd copy my freshly recorded cassettes onto the Fostex 8-track, and add some more sounds - dropping things down the building's echoey concrete stairwell (I knew nobody else was in the building so no one would care or complain), make some drones and other noises with the film company's Korg K1 synth, finally mix it all to cassette using the little mixing desk, and here it is.