Former life of a webmaster

September 19th, 2013

04feature-art-ybr-3College Webmaster Art Upton, right, former guitarist in Bay Area band Yellow Brick Road

Fog and the Vox Phantom

At first, his mornings were spent delivering the San Francisco Chronicle. After he got the job at the estate sale shop, he passed the time on Battery Street. Come lunch, he’d walk to the ferry landing with his meal, take a seat on the dock of the bay — literally — and watch the fog roll out over the water.

It was the evenings that rocked.

Back then, Art Upton spent the nights jamming out at restaurants and venues across the San Francisco Bay Area with his band, Yellow Brick Road. Zack’s by the Bay was the group’s mainstay; for a time, they were the house band, and making music was a primary source of income. It wasn’t a bad gig.

“It was a pretty famous — or infamous to some! — restaurant and bar with dancing both indoors and on the patio overlooking the bay. It had a killer view of the city,” recalls Upton, who was the band’s lead guitarist. “I really don’t lead with that part of my life anymore,” he continues with a laugh.

It’s a decade that might have remained buried in the past had it not been for an unexpected message in early December 2011. It was one that propelled Upton — along with co-workers — to take an amusing trip down memory lane. It also offered a chance to reflect on the unlikely career switch from musician to college webmaster, not to mention the surprising ways in which he still draws inspiration from those glorious band days.

Inbox: a voice from the past


 Upton (second from left) preferred an electric guitar when performing with Yellow
Brick Road. From left to right, members include: Bill Touchstone, lead singer; Upton;
Bruce Felter, drummer; and Bob Mather, bass guitarist.

Upton was clacking away on his office computer when an email caught his attention. It was around 10 a.m. when he got the message. It read: “Are you the guy who used to play in that band in San Fran?”

Upton immediately sent a reply, straight and to the point: “Who’s asking?”

Turns out it was the only other living band member, lead singer Bill Touchstone.

“We started bantering back and forth,” says Upton. “He found me, and he had kept all the stuff from the band.”

It wasn’t long until the boxes started arriving to his fifth-floor office, containing negatives, old promotional shots, recordings even.

“Within a few days I was just amazed,” Upton says.

Back then: Music strikes a chord

As the memorabilia started trickling in, so did the memories.

Like the night the group, which typically performed cover songs at dances, parties and bars, was practicing some rhythm and blues numbers at a local club.

“No one was there, literally,” Upton says. The alleys were foggy, as the mists often rolled in from the bay. The owner decided to open the doors to see if people would come in. That’s when three women drifted in.

“They started dancing and having a good time,” he says. “It was just the seven of us in there, dancing and playing it out.

“You get this small following for a while. It was fun; we were a little community.”

Upton can recall his affinity for his Vox Phantom teardrop guitar, an electric model he used to wow revelers as the group performed pop, rock, folk and dance music across the Bay Area.

He remembers the music most.

“It was fun, but specific memories, I don’t have a lot; just banging out music,” says Upton, who would shift to the harmonica, tambourines, castanets, spoons and washboards for solos when he wasn’t strumming the guitar.

Touchstone offers a fitting description: “I would describe Art as ‘a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll’ with some blues thrown in for good measure. If you can imagine a hippie- rock ‘n’ roll-blues-country kind of guy.”

Now: bringing it all together


Upton, present day

These days, Upton prefers playing the Gibson C-1 classical guitar he’s held onto since childhood.

“I’ve come to appreciate the quieter side of life, since there is usually so much going on in my head!” Upton says. “That’s why I’ve gone to the acoustic.”

Never in a thousand years would Upton have thought he’d make that switch in guitar choices. Then again, he never imagined trading his former life in San Francisco for landlocked Texas, where he would eventually work at a dental school in downtown Dallas, first as a research technician and then by the mid-’90s as a self-taught webmaster during a time when there were less than 200 registered Web servers worldwide. It was an interesting transition for someone trained in biochemistry. A second major in math provided the transition into computer programming and ultimately Web design and management.

It’s a role he’s filled for nearly 20 years now, and despite the unlikely career switch, Upton draws from music to this day.

“The Web has to be able to communicate with people in nonverbal ways, and we do the same thing with music,” Upton says. “You have to consider the way people think as they click through the site.”

Just like musicians, webmasters have to be able to synthesize the seemingly minute details with the bigger picture. If just one comma or period is out of place in coding, the entire website can be impacted.

“A webmaster is an odd bird,” he explains. “You have to be outrageously detailed when you’re writing code. But all the details go into a final, full-blown ‘Web’ that your brain has to somehow see as a whole.

“Musicians have to be in that exact moment, and at the same time, have to be aware of the entire piece. Creative people work that way.”

Despite time and distance, Touchstone says he has full confidence in his former band mate’s abilities.

“I’m sure Art’s artistry and dealing with so many people in those days has helped him in his work today,” Touchstone says.

Recent arrival

It was a Tuesday in March when the last Yellow Brick Road box arrived to the office. Upton clicked through some photo contact sheets saved on the computer. One image shows Upton, with hair a distinctly darker shade of brown, playing the Vox.

“I’d do anything to get that guitar back,” Upton says.

There’s a calendar on the wall behind him. The picture features billowing clouds, and popping out from them is the deep red of the Golden Gate Bridge.

“You do leave your heart there,” he muses. “The ground shakes there from time to time,” he adds, “but then again, we get chased around by tornadoes here.

“You’ve got to go to San Francisco; it’s exquisite.”

— Jennifer Fuentes