In the song ?Street Fighting Man,? Mick Jagger wrote a lyric that seemed to suggest an employment opportunity: ?What can a poor boy do but to sing for a rock ?n? roll band?? Indeed, the Stones have slogged it out for the better of the past 45 years, but most poor boys (and girls) are lucky to achieve only a fraction of their seniority. For the most part, a career spent in rock ?n? roll has a limited lifespan, usually less than that of an aging athlete, only slightly longer than the moron who tries crossing Tony Soprano.
There are plenty of reasons why this line of work provides only minimal growth potential. Those that don?t garner that buzz early on will find themselves dumped by the record company quicker than the time it takes your average politician to scurry away from a scandal. Indeed, it?s one thing to be 20 and toiling in some dark, beer-stinking dive every night ?til 3 a.m. It?s quite another when you have a wife, kids and a mortgage, and suddenly you?re staring at your middle-aged mug in the bathroom mirror.
That?s why wiser rockers explore other options to sustain them after the adulation fades and even the diehard fans abandon them. So when Warren Zanes, a founding member of the ?80s roots rock band the Del Fuegos, made what may be the most unlikely leap of all by transitioning into academia, he had good reason. Despite his group?s critical acclaim and the accolades garnered for his first solo album Memory Girls, Zanes found that financial rewards don?t necessarily follow. These days, he?s a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and simultaneously drawing on his music CV as VP of Education and Public Programs at the R&R Hall of Fame and Museum.
Zanes claims he knew what to expect early on. ?I remember being 17, playing guitar in the Del Fuegos, feeling exuberant about the punk club scene? and recognizing that there were some fellow musicians who were 35 years old and doing exactly as I was. We were drinking from the same cup, literally. More than twice my age, they were just waiting for their ships to come in, and frankly, there wasn?t enough room in the harbor for all the ships that we hoped would be arriving soon.
?These other musicians, some of whom were my closest friends, provided me with a kind of cautionary tale,? he recalls. ?Don?t get too old waiting for dreams to come true, particularly if you?re waiting on a bar stool. When I quit the Del Fuegos at 23, my initial plan was to stay in the music business. Thankfully, fate intervened in the form of a young woman who warned me not to ?put all my eggs in one basket.? She felt that a music career held too much in the way of potential disappointments. Though her advice was much too practical and had the whiff of parental admonitions about it, I was fixated on this particular gal and wanted to please her. So, in the name of getting the girl, I signed up for a few college courses. I would broaden my horizons!
?I didn?t get the girl. But 12 years later I had a bachelor?s degree, two masters, and a Ph.D.”
Still, Zanes didn?t forsake his rock ?n? roll dream entirely. His latest album, somewhat aptly titled People That I?m Wrong For, marks a stirring return to that previous posture. ?My interest in music didn?t diminish,? he insists. ?In fact, I found that I wrote some of my best songs while I was working on my dissertation. There was a productive balance at which I had inadvertently arrived. I vacillated between writing academic material from an intellectual standpoint and writing songs from an emotional standpoint. Eventually this vacillation became something more like a cross-fertilization, the two modes of writing informing one another to some degree. I do think my academic work made me a better songwriter.?