Podcast Episode #8

Warren Zanes
Executive Director of Rock and Roll Forever Foundation, Adjunct Professor at New York University

Christian Sancto, Interviewer

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Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the Working PhDs podcast.

Christian de Mouilpied Sancto: Welcome to the working PhDs podcast. My name’s Christian de Mouilpied Sancto. I’m a PhD student in the Visual and Cultural Studies PhD program at the university of Rochester. My guest today is Warren Hanes. He’s an alumnus of the same program, Visual and Cultural Studies. And I think you received your PhD in 2002. Is that right?

Dr. Warren Zanes: That sounds right. That’s when my first son was born.

CMS: Warren is the author of three books: Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis for the series Thirty Three and a Third, Revolutions in Sound: Warner Brothers Records the First 50 Years and Petty: The Biography, which Rolling Stone named one of the Top 10 Music Books of 2015.

His work includes working at the Yogi Berra Museum, where he developed the online curriculum, “In Search of a Level Playing Field” for middle- and high school students. And he’s the former Vice President of Education and Public Programs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum. Currently he’s the Executive Director of Steven Van Zandt’s Rock and Roll Forever Foundation. He’s an adjunct professor of music and performing arts professions at NYU Steinhardt. And he’s writing a book on Bruce Springsteen’s sessions for his sixth studio album, Nebraska.

I have a quote from you from an interview from a while ago. You said, “I’m a guy who never got a job that I applied for. If I filled out an application, nothing came of it, but all this other stuff came on its own steam.” And I’d like to ask you, how did your current jobs come to you?

WZ: Yeah, well, I make that point to my students on a pretty regular basis that, you know, I’ve never gotten a job that I applied for. But it’s been really important that I apply for jobs, nonetheless. It keeps me thinking about how to present in the world. It keeps me thinking about what I can do that’s an appropriate fit, and what I maybe shouldn’t do because it’s not an appropriate fit.

So the applying has been important work. And it also gets you in the mix, and sometimes people hear about you in the course of your application process for a job you don’t get and they talk to somebody else and that somebody else comes sideways to you and offers you a position. So I feel like I’ve put myself in the world and stuck myself far enough out there. That opportunities came to me, but I sure as hell counted on luck and good fortune.

I guess my point there is like you can train to enter the job market, but I think the best experience there is to remain elastic. And in the past few years, I developed and launched a curricular project for the Yogi Berra Museum focused around sports, because I thought about sports the same way I thought about popular music.

In the workforce, I remain plastic enough to not think it ludicrous that I’m at the Yogi Berra Museum. And trust me, there are people in my life who are like, “What are you doing? Like, why would you do that?” Because I’m not big on baseball, but we’d built these amazing units around immigration, around gender, around financial literacy, around race.

And these are things I studied at University of Rochester. And it took me getting to Rochester to start to study race, class, gender, sexuality, and these days people are starting much, much earlier in the course of their lives. And so curricular materials are needed and sports was one way to do it.

CMS: Let’s go to the PhD actually. So we can kind of contextualize what you’re doing now. You were in the Visual and Cultural Studies PhD program as we’ve established, but your path there was pretty unusual. Could you talk about what you were doing before you came to grad school?

WZ: Yeah, I actually never applied to college. I applied to grad school, but I never applied to undergrad. So, I joined a rock and roll band when I was 17 and my mother made me promise that I would finish up with my secondary education. And I was at Phillips Andover Academy, which was at that time ranked number one in the country. And I was the student at the bottom of my class.

So, I was at the bottom of my class at the top school in the country. And that’s about the kind of person I was. And I managed to graduate by the skin of my teeth and join my brother’s rock and roll band Del Fuegos, and never intended to go to college.

So, I was in the band for five years and, you know, in retrospect I would say it was the most important education that I got. I think I’m still processing it to this day, and I’m 57. I was young. It was very complicated, it was reckless, it was stimulating, it was stupid—it was a lot of things. And I got to have that experience of dreams coming true and facing the realization that when your dreams come true, that might just be the beginning of your problems.

So, after five years of that I had moved to New Orleans to try to get this young woman to fall in love with me. And at a certain point she was getting ready to dump me. She said, “You’ve got all your eggs in one basket. You know, you’re all about music.” And I didn’t even know I had more than one egg, but they were all in one basket, is what she told me.

And I said, “How do you, how do you change that situation?” I didn’t say this in an explicit way, but really what I was saying was, “How do I get you to keep me around?” And she said, “You go to college.” And so I took out a map, because my car had been crushed by a tree in one of the famous New Orleans storms, so I knew I had to like ride a bike or walk and I found the closest university was Loyola University.

And I walked into the admissions office and I said, “Can I just take two classes, skip the admissions process. I’m just trying to keep a relationship together.” And they looked at me like I was crazy. And they said, “Okay.” And then I just never left. And I stayed all the way through undergrad, but by that time, I mean, by the end of those two classes, I was hooked.

CMS: Did you have trouble reconciling the musician and academic side of yourself as you went to college and ultimately graduate school?

WZ: Yeah, well, I’ll tell you, I was sheepish about the fact, like when I was an undergrad, I didn’t tell any of my classmates that I had been in a rock and roll band. The truth was that a year before I entered freshman year, I’d played my second time at Madison Square Garden. But I was kind of ashamed, and I felt like the second I was saying that I was either bragging or, you know. I was like, I just wanted to earn my way. I think I was too young to process it all, but slowly by the time I was at Rochester, I realize I’m gonna have more opportunities because of this past.

So, people ask me, my first published piece was like an essay in an academic collection. And I almost said no to it, because it was based on the fact that I’d been in the Del Fuegos and these guys knew I’d been in a band. And then I went, “What the hell? You know, I earned that.” I did that. It wasn’t pride. It was like just an acknowledgment.

Like it may not have been my favorite experience in life, but I did it use it and I started bringing it into the classroom and it really started informing things. And I think from that point forward, I started to understand my hybridity.

CMS: How did this hybridity play out in grad school? Like, did you keep making music while you were working on your dissertation or anything like that?

WZ: Yes and no. I had been writing songs all along. I just didn’t really share them with anybody. When I got together with my first wife, who was also my girlfriend in boarding school, I wrote her songs and she took them to the Dust Brothers. And the Dust Brothers had done the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, done Beck’s Odelay record, and they’d done quite a lot of stuff. And they were like, we want to sign him.

So suddenly I’m getting into the meat of writing the dissertation and I get offered a solo record deal by the production team that was right then just super-hot. They were doing the Rolling Stones at the same time. I’m, like, a graduate student at the University of Rochester. I’m like, “What am I going to say no to that?”

And so, I went to Douglas and Janet and Michael Ann, and I said, “Hey, I just got offered a record deal. And you know, I don’t want to be stupid and walk away from this, but I’ve got to go do that.” And they were all really cool about it.

I think one of the mistakes is that I could get into the fork in the road thinking I had to make a choice. And I think that is a PhD dilemma. And I don’t think you do need to. I think sometimes, don’t put the thing on the shelf. If it feeds you, if you write songs and you make music, and you’re thinking about an academic career, do both. One might be private, one might not be. But I kept thinking you had to make choices. And life helped me to get past that. It wasn’t some native intelligence; it was just situations. And that was one of them.

CMS: Can you speak a little more about your time in grad school? What skills did you learn during that time that you still carry with you today?

WZ: So, I learned a lot about writing, learned a lot in the seminar room about communicating. Because you’re going in with your peers and you’ve all presumably read the same things and you probably have slightly different takes on it and you want to hear the others. And if yours feels stronger, you are there to not be a yes man, but to be in the gritty world of ideas and challenge others. And knowing when the fight for ideas shouldn’t be a fight.

I just think from my childhood background was one that sent me into the world, fighting for everything. And sometimes I took that fight too far and lost the respect of my peers. That was a hard lesson to learn. But, you know, by the time I’m at a place like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and it’s a staff of about a hundred, I think, I’ve learned to keep myself in check a little. That fight to be right, you can’t take that into the world.

CMS: I’d like to zoom in on the first skill that you mentioned, writing. It seems like that’s one way you’re still keeping your foot in the academic world while still exploring other possibilities. Can you talk a little more about that when you first started out? Did you enjoy writing?

WZ: Not as much as I enjoyed writing now, I don’t have to deal with footnotes anymore. I like that. I got more freedom and I can also be more shameless in bringing my own story. But that’s just to say the academic form wasn’t giving me as much freedom. And my committee, they couldn’t just let me do whatever the hell I wanted. They were responsible to the institution, and I respected that and I still had plenty of fun.

When I teach my students and I make them do persuasive essays. I say, “Look, I apologize. This is the driest fucking form in the history of writing. But if you learn it, there are freedoms on the other side that I promise you will be. But learn the form. It will help you to communicate. It will help you to shape an argument and it will help you to create a through line from the beginning of a piece of writing to the end.”

CMS: Let’s move on to the last part of the interview, which is about advice you would have about non-academic jobs. First, what advice would you give for universities before preparing PhD students for non-academic careers?

WZ: Good question hard question, in part because I had so much good fortune. So, you can’t bank on good fortune. But you know, I think having humility: when I went to work at the Yogi Berra Museum, I knew I was off the radar of, you know, many of the people whose radar I wanted to be on, but I knew it was right. It was in line with my philosophy of the classroom.

So that would be the first thing on the side of the person with the PhD is, take jobs that you might not view as your ideal, and they might lead somewhere. So have some humility in relation to the process and go wide in your sense of what you think you can do.

How the university can support the outgoing PhD, that’s a harder one to answer. You know, when I was at University of Rochester, the connections to the outer world were pretty academic. When I said, “I want to go make a record,” they supported it in terms of saying, “Go do it,” but once I went out into that world, they didn’t have any lifeline for me. If I had gone into writing, I probably could have gotten more active support.

So, you can’t ask your university. You can train in an interdisciplinary way, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to kind of have the infrastructure to support you in a truly interdisciplinary life. You’re going to be lost in the forest and alone at times. Only you can make the connection.

CMS: Warren, thank you so much for this conversation. It’s been great, so much to learn from. Do you have any parting thoughts or last words for our listeners?

WZ: Yeah, you know, I could have been talking to you about not finishing a dissertation. It was much more fate that had me finish, and I’m so grateful that I did. And I’ve bumped into people in music who took on an academic life for a bit and didn’t finish their dissertations and it’s really worth finishing. And part of it is like, let it be less than perfect. Just finish the thing.

CMS: On that note, we will finish. Thank you so much again.

WZ: Thank you, and here’s to people getting lots of degrees!

PC: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our Working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the University of Rochester Humanities Center, and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.