His thirst for knowledge is so insatiable, he once drank an entire library — through a straw. He excavated the Great Sphinx of Giza, just because he could. He's so inquisitive, his thought bubbles are visible to the naked eye. His grandfather wrote the first 19 Hardy Boys books — for $100 a pop. He co-produced and arranged one of the most divisive songs in pop history. Several of his ideas have spontaneously materialized into their own parallel universes. He coaxed the most feared man in boxing to sing, "I wanna hold you till I die, till we both break down and cry" — and filmed him doing it.
He is ... the most interesting man in Nashville.
OK, so we ripped off a popular Dos Equis commercial series, and maybe took a little artistic license. But sit back and hear the tale of Matthew McCauley — producer, arranger and Emmy-winning composer; co-founder of one of the leading organizations advancing archaeological research in Egypt; a major player at the vanguard of 3-D modeling — and we think you'll agree we make a compelling case that McCauley could be ...
... well, you know.
As legend has it, roughly 3,400 years ago, young Thutmose IV fell asleep under the head of the Great Sphinx of Giza, at the time buried up to its neck in sand. In a dream, the Sphinx told the young prince — one of the sons of Pharaoh Amenhotep II and Tiaa, but not the chosen successor to the throne — that if he cleared away the sand and restored the monument, he would be the next pharaoh. So Thutmose gathered a team, dug out the front paws, and his destiny was fulfilled: fancy headdresses, multiple wives, sedan chair rides for life.
Almost two millennia later, on the other side of the world, another adventurous youth felt the pull of a prophetic vision involving the Sphinx. Only this time the vision wasn't his own.
The time was the early 1970s. The place was Toronto, home to a kid named Matthew McCauley. Inquisitive and energetic, McCauley was fascinated by all things involving the supernatural. His interests led him to the writings of Edgar Cayce, the controversial Christian mystic and clairvoyant from Kentucky. For McCauley, then 15, it was as if a secret door had opened.
"I was mesmerized by the discovery of metaphysics," McCauley tells the Scene one afternoon at the coffeehouse Crema, nonchalantly sipping his cappuccino. "I thought, 'Oh my gosh! People are psychic!' "
But one specific prediction, made by Cayce some 80 years before, grabbed him above the others. In 1998, someone would discover a chamber under the Sphinx's right paw. It would house the so-called Hall of Records, a library containing the history of the lost continent of Atlantis.
As the Ark of Covenant is to Indiana Jones, as fried butter is to Paula Deen, so this vision would captivate the Toronto teen over the years to come. If someone were to unearth ancient secrets beneath the Sphinx's paw, Matthew McCauley decided, he would be that someone.
"I was 15, reading this and going, 'What?! OK! A library under the Sphinx! I'm going,' " recalls McCauley, a trim 58-year-old with graying temples and a disarming smile. His life experiences are one-of-a-kind, and yet he's a familiar type in some ways: a career veteran who moved to Nashville a few years ago, lured by his daughter and several of his longtime music-business friends — bringing with him a Zelig-worthy list of unlikely accomplishments and credits. No wonder his table companion leans closer as McCauley finishes the wind-up: "So I started getting books and learning about Egypt."
For most teens, this would have been a passing curiosity. Matthew McCauley was not most teens. He gleaned every tidbit of information about the Sphinx he could find, extrapolating from various sources. He pored over historical and archaeological texts. With the single-minded determination of Richard Dreyfuss sculpting the Devil's Tower out of mashed potatoes, he then took layers of Mylar film and designed a geometric overlay of the entire Giza Plateau, including the Sphinx and pyramids. When he was done, he sent the whole package to the Edgar Cayce Foundation in Virginia Beach, Va., bubbling with enthusiasm.
At this point, Cayce had been dead for more than 20 years. But McCauley's rendering caught the eye of Cayce's eldest son, Hugh Lynn Cayce. Impressed by the teenager's ideas and resolve, Hugh phoned McCauley in Toronto.
"He said, 'What you've done here is very interesting,' " McCauley says. "We've just hired a young anthropologist to go to Cairo to finish his degree. So we'd like you to be in touch with him about this work you've done.' "
That young anthropologist was Mark Lehner, a fellow Cayce devotee studying at American University in Cairo on a Cayce Foundation scholarship. In 1974, Lehner and McCauley met for the first time in Tahrir Square, now famous for its role in the Egyptian Revolution of 2011.
"I was on one side of the iron fence that separated the sidewalk from the square," Lehner tells the Scene. "Matthew got out of a black-and-white taxi. He was so excited to see me that he put his hands on the fence and vaulted over it."
Though eager to meet his fellow Sphinx-ophile, Lehner was a bit flustered by what he saw. The longhaired 19-year-old hurtling over the iron fence hardly looked the part of a budding Egyptologist. He looked more like a cross between Jesus, a surfer dude and a young Jerry Garcia.
"He was wearing very short shorts, Levi cutoffs," Lehner remembers. "He was a hairy guy, a big mass of black hair and a beard. Just really hairy. I'd been in Cairo now for about six months, so I was kind of taken aback by him looking like something out of California."
Though it may have lacked the drama of Stanley meeting Livingstone on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, a remarkable partnership was born that day. In 1977, McCauley and Lehner would begin excavating the Great Sphinx of Giza, while embarking on the most comprehensive mapping initiative and archaeological study of the Giza Plateau to date. Both men were driven by the same tantalizing dream: finding the Hall of Records that Cayce said would be discovered under Sphinx's right paw. They possessed the sort of invincible can-do spirit that seems like youthful naïveté — until the can-do actually gets done.
For most folks, being at the forefront of such a groundbreaking project would be a pretty full plate, if not the culmination of a life's work. For a 23-year-old Canadian kid with no college education? It was nothing short of remarkable.
But that's not even half of the story. Because that same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, McCauley's other career was about to take off.
Edgar Cayce and Sphinxes aside, Matthew McCauley was first and foremost a musician.
Born in 1954 in the Canadian capital, Ottawa, McCauley came into a family that had curiosity and adventure practically hardwired into its DNA. His great-grandfather, also named Matthew McCauley, arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, in the 1880s after a 21-day ox-cart ride, and his ensuing experiences could have provided material for a few good Deadwood episodes. The town had no law enforcement agency, and claim jumping was rampant, so some of the town's citizens formed the "Protective Association" to restore law and order. As captain, they elected Matthew McCauley. As legend has it, when one scalawag brandishing a pair of revolvers refused to leave, McCauley and his men knocked his shack off its foundation and sent it hurtling down the riverbank. McCauley became Edmonton's first mayor in 1892, and went on to serve in legislative assemblies of both the Northwest Territories and Alberta.
Things were just as colorful on the other side of Matthew's family. His maternal grandfather, Leslie McFarlane, was a journalist, novelist, screenwriter, and most famously, author of the first 19 Hardy Boys books, under the pseudonym Franklin W. Dixon. (Some sources suggest he may have written as many as 29.) With Hardy Boys book sales estimated at more than 70 million copies, that must have produced a nice payday, right?
"He got paid a $100-per-book buyout," McCauley says. "It exploded after he'd finished writing them. That was good money then."
McCauley got his start in music working with his father, a successful composer and conductor who provided scores for Canadian TV shows and more than 125 films. As director of a concert hall, the elder McCauley introduced his young son to stars such Harry Belafonte and the Carpenters.
"My dad had a doctorate from the Eastman School," McCauley says. "So while I was growing up I learned about writing music and arranging and orchestrating. ... I was doing TV scoring under his tutelage when I was in high school."
During his teen years, McCauley became friends with another budding musician. His name was Dan Hill.
"I guess we were about 12 when we met," Hill says. "We lived just a few streets apart. ... There weren't too many people I could find that were really fascinated with creating music. ... I was very, very lucky to find Matt, because he was just so inspiring, so bright, so ahead of the curve."
A few years later, Hill brought another budding studio talent, Fred Mollin, into the mix. A musical union was born. As Mollin tells it, the three men first started working together when Hill asked him to produce a demo.
"We met at this little place called Captain Audio in Toronto," says Mollin, who, like McCauley, eventually wound up living in Nashville. "Already there was someone there besides the engineer. He had a lot of hair — really long hair. He had a beard and a mustache. Young guy. I'm looking at him going, 'Who is this guy? Why is he here?'
"And he was there because Dan had done something clever. He created a blind date, a creative blind date, for Matt and me, because he felt we'd be a powerful team."
In the same way that McCauley and Lehner had become kindred spirits in the world of Egyptology, McCauley and Mollin would become kindred spirits in the musical world. The duo produced Hill's self-titled debut in 1975, when they were all just 21, and Hill's second album, Hold On, the following year.
But it was Hill's third effort, Longer Fuse, that would prove a career-defining moment for everyone involved. Released in 1977, the album featured the lead-off track "Sometimes When We Touch," a heart-on-sleeve tale of young romance that Hill had co-written with legendary songwriter Barry Mann. In addition to co-producing, McCauley provided the arrangement. It would become one of the most revered (and mocked) love songs of all time.
Revered: No Hit Sounds of the '70s infomercial is complete without a wet-eyed couple canoodling by a soft-focus fireplace while Hill croons how "the honesty's too much." Mocked: "Sometimes When We Touch" has earned a spot on many "worst song" lists. On AOL Radio's "100 Worst Songs Ever" list, it came in at No. 40, and music journalist Matthew Wilkening has an explanation: "There isn't enough room to run down the oversharing, self-mythologizing and total sissy-ness displayed here."
Even the singer himself is conflicted about the song. In an entertaining and very personal 2010 story in the Canadian weekly MacLean's, Hill offered an unflinching examination of the legacy of "Sometimes When We Touch," which he began writing as a smitten 19-year-old trying to win over a girl. Among his observations:
I've long ago grown more than a little weary of my signature hit — its lyrics now about as relevant to me as a poem or diary entry a teenager might have scrawled out in high school — and its refusal to go gently into that good night. ... Men who at first loathed my song went on to despise it — and me — with a passion that crossed into something else, something deeper. As if by singing in that breathy, vulnerable voice, "I wanna hold you till I die, till we both break down and cry," laying down my palpable "unmanliness" and braying insecurity for millions to hear, I had breached some unspoken male code — and, in doing so, tainted all men by association. ... "Sometimes" grew inexplicably larger, more iconic, with the passing of time. That goddamned song not only changed my life, it came perilously close to defining it.
McCauley laughs when asked about the song's mixed legacy. "[It] was a kind of pop sonar device," he says. "The echo that bounced back from each person could reveal something hidden beneath the surface: a romantic, a cynic and everything in between. There were a lot of people who wouldn't admit that they'd sing along to it."
Whether it made you want to make out or throw up, however, it made its makers a fortune. McCauley and his family had invested in Hill's career from the start: "They paid for my first album," Hill says. What's more, the family music company, started by McCauley's father, owns the masters to "Sometimes When We Touch," as well as the publishing rights to Hill's half of the writing credit. The song has become a hallmark of the love-ballad canon, and has been recorded by everyone from Barry Manilow, Engelbert Humperdinck and Donny Osmond to Tammy Wynette, Rod Stewart and Tina Turner. Suffice to say the hit song provided significant financial rewards and a certain cachet for its 23-year-old co-producer and arranger.
But while the song was making lovers swoon and others groan, in 1977, McCauley had bigger fish to fry, 6,000 miles away on the cusp of the Sahara.
So how exactly do two twentysomething upstarts from North America — inspired by an alleged psychic's outrageous prediction, no less — manage to get permission to dig out the Great Sphinx of Giza? Like many of history's watershed moments, it involved a lot of determination. And a little bit of luck.
"We had a very fortunate coincidence," McCauley says. "The archaeology inspector for the Egyptian government at that time was a guy named Zahi Hawass."
Though Hawass didn't share McCauley and Lehner's interest in Edgar Cayce, he respected their intelligence and drive, and the three men became friends. "As we advanced our little project," McCauley says, "Zahi was actually rising in the echelons of archaeology. So he would grant us sort of incremental permissions to do things." Hawass eventually rose as high as Egypt's minister of state for antiquities affairs.
In late 1977, the excavation of the Sphinx began. "As a result of a series of fortuitous circumstances (and some youthful perseverance), we were actually able to fund and carry out three events concurrently," McCauley says. "First, a full-scale physical clearing of the Sphinx. Second, a remote sensing study, performed by Stanford Research Institute. And third, drilling under the Sphinx, performed by a company called Recovery Systems International.
"We had something in the range of 100 workers with baskets clearing sand (this was the traditional method), and once the site was cleared, SRI began remote sensing. There was one anomaly identified that was particularly tantalizing: an apparent cavity under the right paw. With proper permissions in place, RSI (Recovery Systems) set up their equipment to drill."
For McCauley and Lehner, two men brought together by their mutual fascination with the prophecy of Edgar Cayce, the moment of truth had arrived.
"There was great anticipation as they pierced the cavity," McCauley says, "and a special camera was lowered into the space, revealing ..."
— drum roll, please —
"... a natural rock fissure. And no library."
Bust. Though the revelation (or lack thereof) proved disappointing, it was a pivotal moment in their lives. "We both thought, OK, we better do this a different way," McCauley says. "We better gather our evidence first, and then build a story around it, rather than having a story and looking for evidence to fit.
"It was the turning point for me — the RSI drill being the metaphoric nail in an ideological coffin. So at 23, my interest veered sharply away from the metaphysical, toward what has become a lifelong interest in advancing science."
Turning point indeed. As their taste for divine prophecy soured, McCauley and Lehner's hunger for scientific discovery deepened. They continued to explore the origins of the Sphinx and the surrounding pyramids over the next few years. In the mid-'80s, they decided to map the entire Giza Plateau — the Sphinx, all three pyramids, the quarries where the stone came from.
According to Lehner, that's when McCauley came up with the idea of incorporating the operation as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. And thus Ancient Egypt Research Associates was born. The two men co-founded AERA in 1985 at the Harvard Semitic Museum, where it was headquartered for many years. They now have an office in Boston and their own building on the Giza Plateau by the pyramids, and they've been carrying out excavations at Giza nearly every year since.
AERA's greatest accomplishment has been the excavation of the Lost City of the Pyramids. As Lehner describes it, the Lost City was essentially the company town for the pyramid builders. "No one had thought much about where the company town should be," he says. "The pyramids, Sphinx and surrounding tombs and temples were approached as a kind of art-historical site, kind of like an outdoor museum."
But to build these ancient skyscrapers, there must have been housing or accommodations for tens of thousands of people. Where did they live? How were they housed? How were they fed?
So AERA approached the plateau as an anthropological site. Between 1999 and 2002, in what Lehner describes as an archaeological marathon, AERA discovered and salvaged much of the footprint of the Lost City — an area comprising roughly 7 hectares (a little more than 17 acres). The central features are several long, narrow galleries that they think were barracks for workers or a royal guard force. Lehner says the project wouldn't have been possible without the involvement of McCauley and several other key supporters.
The picture of early Egyptian civilization painted by AERA's findings at the Lost City is far too complex to outline here. (A detailed explanation and map can be found at the organization's website, aeraweb.org.) But Lehner evocatively sums up the scene in a single sentence: "It must have been a real Cecil B. DeMille epic!"
For the last 10 years or so, AERA has been running a field school on the Giza Plateau. "We work with Egyptian students who are coming up through the ranks," McCauley says. "We have become an institution there. A lot of Egyptians are involved. We have hundreds of people who've gone through our program who now represent much of the hierarchy of archaeology in Egypt."
In addition to fostering goodwill with their Egyptian hosts, the school provides an essential resource: trained workers. "Three years ago we had over 200 people working on our project," McCauley says.
In addition to running AERA, Lehner has gone on to become one of the world's foremost experts on Egyptology. If you've seen any NOVA or National Geographic specials on the pyramids, you've likely seen him.
McCauley remains active on the board, and still gets to Egypt on occasion, though not as frequently as he used to. As always seems to be the case, he's got several pans on the fire.
Ever since Recovery Systems International discovered the cavity under the right paw of the Great Sphinx during the 1977 excavation he led with Lehner, McCauley has been fascinated by the field of remote sensing. So when he found out about the work of GeoSim Systems, an Israeli company at the vanguard of 3-D modeling, he was intrigued.
Headed by Victor Shenkar, former head of research and development for the Israeli Air Force, GeoSim has developed the world's only large-scale, high-precision, fully interactive 3-D city modeling process. "One of our clients calls it Google Earth on steroids," says McCauley, who is now one of the company's principal investors. "Entire cities are laser-scanned (which can include indoors) and then can be freely visited online. It's a powerful tool for sustainability — and a lot of fun to fly through."
The experience feels like a high-tech video game, except the milieu is a precise reproduction of a real city, down to the centimeter. "You freely navigate where you want to go," McCauley says, while demonstrating a model of Philadelphia. "We have tools inside the software, if the city is using it, where you can actually put a marker here and a marker there and it tells you the exact distance. It tells you if from one window to another window there's a clear line of sight or if anything's occluding it. Any building you click on, there's information for what's in the building."
GeoSim is currently working on Virtual Vancouver, British Columbia, which is scheduled to finish in about just under two years. "The city is highly involved," McCauley says. "I think that will be our first where there's a high level of integration."
He also serves on the board of directors of Viewpoints Research Institute, a nonprofit headed by renowned computer pioneer Alan Kay. As McCauley explains it, Viewpoints is pushing the frontiers of computer programming in ways that will facilitate computers becoming better teachers. "The software has been implemented very widely in the One Laptop Per Child program," he says. "It's a $100 laptop, developed for Third World countries, and they run our software."
Naturally, his musical career has taken a backseat to all these other commitments, right?
Not by a long shot. Along with Fred Mollin, McCauley co-produced a couple of albums for the band America — Alibi (1980) and In Concert (1985), a live recording from a performance in Santa Barbara. He won an Emmy for his score for Squeakers, a documentary about new methods of teaching. And he composed the music for 110 episodes of the Gene Roddenberry sci-fi series Andromeda.
Just recently, McCauley teamed up with Grammy winner Casey Wood to co-produce local prog-rock band Sound & Shape's brand-new album Hourglass. McCauley, who's lived in Germantown since moving to Nashville in 2009, met the band's frontman, Ryan Caudle, at the neighborhood coffeeshop Drinkhaus, where Caudle was working. Impressed by Caudle's intellect and musical knowledge, he decided to pick up one of the band's albums.
"A couple of days later," Caudle says, "I see his truck pull up, and he pops out and runs in and says, 'Hey, I just wanted to shake your hand. I'm impressed.' And it just kind of went from there."
So how has Matthew McCauley managed to amass such an unusual range of experiences and accomplishments? He has a simple answer.
"Life meanders," he says.
It's an ordinary explanation for an extraordinary life, but that's typical of McCauley. In conversation, he has little interest in trumpeting his own accomplishments. He seems far more interested in finding out what makes you tick. It's not that he's falsely modest — he just seems to possess an infinite curiosity about the people and world around him, and discussing himself would waste valuable time he could spend learning about others. Furthermore, he's usually too busy looking forward to look back.
But when he does talk about the past, he's quick to point out that all his accomplishments have been the result of working with enthusiastic, interesting people who were willing to take chances.
"I hope that if there's any sort of take-home message from an article like this, it's about collaborating in life, and the great things that come out of that," he says. "I'd like to think that people would read it and come away with, 'Hey, maybe I should try that thing I've been thinking about.' "
McCauley was reminded of the power of collaboration a couple of years back when a guest on Jimmy Kimmel Live! performed "Sometimes When We Touch" for a national TV audience.
The guest in question? International boxing great Manny Pacquiao, who would later say that Dan Hill's biggest hit was his favorite song. (Boxing legend Joe Frazier also was a fan, and was known to perform the song. Apparently the line "A hesitant prizefighter / Still trapped within my youth" resonates with boxers. )
So last year, Pacquiao and Hill went into the studio to record a duet of the song, with McCauley and Fred Mollin at the helm. They even made a 26-minute minidocumentary chronicling the recording session.
Matthew Wilkening, if you're reading: We'd pay good money to see you discuss the song's "oversharing, self-mythologizing and total sissy-ness" with the dominant prizefighter of his generation.
In fact, we'd pull up a ringside seat.
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