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Rock 'n' other roles

These are no one-note musicians. They're magicians, salmon farmers -- and that's Professor Graffin.

August 17, 2008|John Albert | Special to The Times

In APRIL, Greg Graffin, a professor in the UCLA life sciences department, arrived on the campus of Harvard University to accept an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, an honor that had gone to Salman Rushdie the previous year. The studious-looking Graffin stood at a podium and delivered a thoughtful lecture on the history of humanism and its meaning in his life. It was, he says, one of the highlights of his academic career.

Weeks later, Graffin is in Irvine addressing a very different kind of audience. He stands in front of 20,000 rock fans at a concert known rather appropriately as the Weenie Roast. It is nearly 100 degrees, and Graffin is pacing back and forth as the members of his long-standing punk band, Bad Religion, play behind him at breakneck speed. He raises the microphone and sings to the crowd: "If there's a purpose for us all / it remains a secret to me / don't ask me to justify my life." As he does, thousands of young fans, many of them wearing Bad Religion shirts, sing along. The band leaves the stage to thunderous applause.

Graffin signs autographs, then retreats into an air-conditioned trailer. Asked what it feels like to have such a passionate following, he seems unfazed. "If you don't have good self-awareness, being in a successful band will really screw you up," Graffin says. "I don't have any control what people think about me. And I understand that they don't really know me. What you saw out there were thousands of totally different experiences. But my goal has always been to elevate the art form. If a fan tells me they did a term paper on evolution because of one of my songs, it's very touching."

There's a notion that rock musicians who have tasted even the smallest amount of success will, like the proverbial high school quarterback, spend their remaining days yearning for past glories and lamenting what might have been. It can be nearly impossible to replicate the rush of performing in front of a rapturous crowd, and anything like normality can seem a devastating comedown.

So they cling. Scan the music listings on any week and you'll find reunion shows, many for bands that hardly warranted attention even in their prime. Retread, not reinvention, is too often the rule. But there are, of course, some notable exceptions.

Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, managed to parlay an interest in recording technology into a career as one of the nation's leading counterterrorism experts. Queen guitarist Brian May returned to school, received a PhD in physics, contributed to a book on the big-bang theory and was recently appointed chancellor of a university. Alannah Currie, the geometrically coifed singer of new wave ensemble the Thompson Twins, is now an artist who, among other things, designs furniture made from roadkill. Jethro Tull singer and flutist Ian Anderson now runs a consortium of successful salmon farms.

It's an odd assortment of pursuits entirely consistent with the individualistic spirit of the music -- and proof that, for those willing to look forward, life after rock needn't be an inevitable descent into drudgery and stagnation.

Sometimes, what's required is a rekindling of interests held before music careers took off.

At a coffee house near the UCLA campus where he teaches, Graffin explains how hebecame interested in evolutionary biology as a high school punk rocker in the San Fernando Valley. "I had big questions about where we come from. The things that religion usually satisfies, I was learning from science. The band had started two years before that, and it was really a good synergy because we were talking about Bad Religion, and it's implicit in evolution that there are no gods."

On one of Bad Religion's earliest recordings, a teenage Graffin reveals that fascination with evolution: "Early man walked away, as modern man took control, their minds weren't all the same, to conquer was his big goal. So he built his great empire and slaughtered his own kind. Then he died a confused man, killed himself with his own mind."

Graffin says he fully expected to pursue an academic career with the band remaining as a hobby. But in the early '90s, Bad Religion recorded an album called "Suffer," which almost single-handedly ignited a punk rock resurgence. Suddenly the band's audience was growing and its records selling more than ever. In response, Graffin put his academic pursuits on hold and concentrated on his music career.

Since then, the band has had a number of radio hits and maintains a large international following. Amid all this, Graffin eventually earned a PhD from Cornell University and became tenured at UCLA. He now divides his year between teaching and playing with Bad Religion.

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