Icons teach children well at collegiate schools of rockFordham Law School in USA Today, April 06, 2011
By Mary Beth Marklein, USA TODAY
Todd Rundgren strode on stage wielding a guitar and wearing a graduation gown. His appearance was billed not as a concert but as a recital. And while fans know him as A Wizard, A True Star, students at Indiana University called him Professor.
College towns have always been an important venue for rock stars. But Rundgren, 62, wasn't just passing through on tour. The performance was a culmination of his two-week gig as a Wells Scholars Professor, one of Indiana University's most prestigious honors.
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Lately, it seems, a steady stream of rock 'n' roll icons are bringing their expertise into college classrooms. Tommy James, 63, who rose from obscurity when a Pittsburgh radio station played Hanky Panky in 1966, has spoken to students at several colleges near his home in New Jersey and is in talks to visit more campuses in the fall. Blues rocker Steve Miller (The Joker), 67, helped develop a curriculum for budding musicians at the University of Southern California. Melissa Manchester (Midnight Blue), 60, teaches a songwriting class there this semester. And Mark Volman (Happy Together), 63, of The Turtles, who began college at age 45 and holds two advanced degrees, chairs the entertainment industry studies program at Belmont University in Nashville.
If today's college students don't recognize the names, well, they probably know the songs. And while their parents and many of their professors grew up with the music, there's more going on here than a trip down memory lane. For better or worse, rock 'n' roll is getting respect from academia. The '60s and '70s marked rock's golden age, and these guys are the elder statesmen.
"There's never been a time quite like it, and there probably never will be again," says Indiana University music professor Glenn Gass, who arranged Rundgren's visit. "It's rock's classical period, the same way Beethoven, Mozart and Haydn were classical musicians. We've got a chance, while the artists are still alive, to benefit from their experience."
Artists such as Bo Diddley, Lou Reed and local boy John Mellencamp have dropped by Gass' classrooms since he began teaching rock history in 1982. But in recent years, rock 'n' roll has been embraced more formally, particularly on campuses based in the heart of the nation's music industry.
New York University, where James spoke in February, opened its Clive Davis Department of Recorded Music in 2003 to focus on the entrepreneurial side of the business. Two years ago, USC launched a bachelor's degree program in popular music performance. Belmont's entertainment studies program started in 2007. Fordham University's law school this week sponsored a conference on Bob Dylan and the law. In some cases, the pilgrimage to the classroom is a matter of parental pride. USC nabbed John Fogerty (Proud Mary, Fortunate Son) for a class session in February because his son, Shane, goes there.
He says he was happy to pass on what he knows. "For years and years as an adult, I walked around saying, 'Man, I wish I'd had that, a relative who could show me how to get started,' " he says.
Lessons for next generation
It's also a way to reach a coveted audience. "That's where the next generation of music fans is coming from," says James, who has spoken at NYU, Rutgers and Montclair State University. "The college radio market is one of the last bastions of sanity in the music business, the last place where there's independent thought."
And, as pioneers who came of age during a tumultuous time for the music business, they have lessons to share. If there's a single message they're sending, it's that success requires far more than musical talent.
"Friends of mine had more talent, but they were lazy," says Motown hitmaker Lamont Dozier (Baby I Need Your Loving), 69, who gives master classes at USC. "You have to put the work into it, and you have to want it really bad."
In some ways it's ironic that these legends, many of whom made it big without benefit of a college degree, are endorsing rock music as a college subject.
"When I was young, the academic world very much looked down their noses at rock 'n' roll," says Fogerty, who tried junior college briefly. Being a rock singer "became sort of a badge of honor. You were fighting the good fight even though everybody seemed to be against you."
Miller, who had a band while in school, attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for four years but left six credits shy of an English degree. He says his best education occurred in high school and on the road. "College was just an opportunity for gigs," he says.
Now, as an artist in residence at USC, he treats his students as if they're business majors. The first lesson he gave students was about starting their own publishing company so they own their work. This summer, they're invited to come backstage before his show in Los Angeles.
"They all have this fantasy they're going to be rich, or (life will be) like some video they've seen on MTV," he says. "I want them to understand what it is you have to do when you want to do this. I want them to see the trucks drive up and the (crew) unload the grimy equipment."
Others tell personal tales of losing millions of dollars by signing away rights to their music. In his talks, James explains his anguished and sometimes "scary" relationship with Roulette Records founder Morris Levy, who eventually was convicted of extortion in 1988 in a case unrelated to business dealings with James.(Levy, who died in 1990, was the model for Herman "Hesh" Rabkin, the Mob-connected record mogul in HBO's The Sopranos who defrauded musicians.) Volman and bandmate Howard Kaylan lost rights to not only their songs, but also their names. (They performed with Frank Zappa as Phlorescent Leech & Eddie.)
"We were so naïve and so unskilled and unschooled that we were ripe to be taken advantage of," says Volman, whose program teaches intellectual property and copyright law alongside composing and music theory.
Rundgren, too, makes for a rich case study. After '70s hits Hello It's Me and I Saw the Light, he moved away from radio-friendly music, and promptly lost a big segment of his audience. He found commercial success as a producer for other bands, including Meat Loaf and Patti Smith, and maintains a devoted fan base.
"He knew he let a chance at heartthrob stardom slip by, but the longevity of his career is largely due to his unending curiosity and creativity — the unexpected twists and turns that made being a Todd fan so demanding at times, but ultimately so rewarding," Gass says.
While on campus, Rundgren co-taught a course on his life and music, participated in a class on The Beatles, offered production advice and stumbled across Nick's English Hut, a popular student hangout.
During halftime at a home football game, he led Indiana University's marching band on his song Bang the Drum All Day.
"I got completely immersed in it," Rundgren says. "I enjoyed the experience of spending time with intrinsically intelligent young people. They don't have a whole lot of experience, but they have a whole lot of knowledge."
And he gained new insight. Senior Esther Uduehi, 21, who was unfamiliar with Rundgren's work before the course, challenged his unflattering views of today's pop-culture stars (think: Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber).
"Being an artist can mean you are conveying a message that attracts the audience you want," says Uduehi, a Rhodes Scholar. "For instance, Justin Bieber's songs are meant for teenager and young girls, so his lyrics and overall image should reflect this." Rundgren says her pushback prompted him to "look a little harder" at today's pop charts. "I had only been listening to the more obvious and hyped kinds of examples of contemporary music," he says. Later, he adds, "I don't think all contemporary artists can be lumped together, but I confess that when I look at Justin Bieber, all I see is a hairdo."
Credibility in classroom
At Belmont, students say Volman's perspective as an insider gives him credibility.
"Everything he tells us is stuff you want to know or need to know instead of just textbook stuff," says music business major Raven MacDonald, 22. "The first day in class, I was like, 'This is an actual rock star instructing us.' "
A "borderline C" student in high school who figured he would do sheet-metal work like his father if his band didn't take off, Volman visited a college with his oldest daughter and saw himself there, too. He earned a bachelor's degree from Loyola Marymount University in 1997 and a master of fine arts two years later.
"I really began to realize that I could combine what I had done in my life and was doing in my life into a process where I could give people an understanding of the business I have been in," he says. Volman still tours, but says, "I feel like at this point I'm a teacher, and I'm proud of that."
Among his rock-star peers, Volman is a minority. Along with Rundgren, Dozier and James, he made it big before he ever set foot on a college campus. Fogerty "dabbled" in junior college, and Manchester spent a semester at NYU (where she studied alongside Paul Simon and actress Olympia Dukakis) but found that work "was simply more filled with adventures."
Most have no regrets.
But a parent can still hope, James says. "My mother, until the day she died, was waiting for me to come to my senses and go to Notre Dame, waiting for this music thing to be over."