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 part of the past 45 years, but most poor boys (and girls) are lucky to achieve only a fraction of their seniority, senior being the operative term. Generally a career spent in rock and roll has a limited lifespan usually less than that of a professional athlete, only slightly longer than an FPL utility pole during a weak hurricane.
There are plenty of reasons why this line of work provides only minimal growth potential. If you don't garner a buzz early on, the record company will dump you. So too, it's one thing to be twenty and slogging it out in some dark, beer-stinking, piss-hole dive every night until 5:00 a.m. It's quite another when you have a wife, kids, and a mortgage, and suddenly you're staring at your middle-age 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. Lenny Kravitz dabbles in interior design. Diddy does fashion. Jon Bon Jovi acts. Elton John and Billy Joel take on Broadway. David Lee Roth and Little Steven play other people's records on the radio. Bob Dylan divvies up his back pages writing best sellers. Paul McCartney pens children's books. Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell, and Ron Wood show off at art exhibitions. Bob Geldof sets himself up for sainthood.
Warren Zanes, a founding member of the Eighties roots-rock band the Del Fuegos, made an even more unlikely leap by transitioning into academia. Despite the group's critical acclaim and the accolades for his first solo album, Memory Girls, the financial rewards failed to follow. Now he's a professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, while he draws on his music CV as vice president of education and public programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Zanes claims he knew early on what to expect of a career in music. "I remember being seventeen, 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," he explains.
"These other musicians, some of whom were my closest friends, provided me with a kind of cautionary tale," Zanes 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!
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"I didn't get the girl. But twelve years later I had a bachelor's degree, two master's, and a Ph.D."
Still, Zanes didn't forget his dream entirely. His new 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."
But Zanes admits the segue is far from easy. "The most significant adjustment I had to make when transitioning out of music was in shifting from a gambler's worldview to something more practical. In general it's not an easy shift. If you've tasted the fruits, it's hard to go back to porridge."
It didn't take being a scholar for Zanes to appreciate the lessons learned. "Last night I did an interview with the great drummer Hal Blaine," he muses. "As he insisted, the trick is not in building a career; the trick is in finding a graceful way to allow it to diminish. The euphoria will end. That goes for everyone. And it's hard to understand the end of euphoria as a positive thing. Hence the disappointment, the bitterness ... it's hard to make former glories a thing of pride rather than an index of how far one has fallen." Zanes continues, "Most don't pull it off. You can begin to understand why and how transition is very, very complicated. The greater the success, the more challenging it will be to see that success trail off. I find myself grateful that I'm managing to stay active as a writer and a player, as a dad and an educator. The situation is one of bounty, believe me."