Rock on: Graduate student Nick Rubin applies his musicology and teaching skills to a 20th-century art form

Jan. 9, 2007 -- What happens in life happens this way: we’re on our way to do one thing and a single errant step changes our destiny. And that’s exactly what happened to Nick Rubin. He was on his way to see a movie but stopped by the Wake Forest library to return some books. He picked up an issue of the Journal of Musicology. In it, he found an article about French composition between the World Wars, and the writer’s contention that French music conservatories were reservoirs of political thought. Rubin’s own thought, as clearly as he can remember it, was, “Wouldn’t that be cool, to study all the great composers and their influences — what if my job was to study the history of music?”

Now, as a doctoral student in music at U.Va., he’s well on his way.

I met with Rubin at his sunny little house, and as we settled into a rhythm of talk and laughter and lyrics, he put on the Brahms we had just been comparing to the “progressive rock music” of King Crimson, Yes, Genesis and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, where the emphasis, said Rubin, was on composition. Asked how close Rock was to Classical music, he said, “It’s easy to say things like, ‘Oh, Beethoven was the first Punk.’ Or ‘So many Beatles songs are written in a classic sonata form.’” But it’s harder, he added, to see that “certain patterns repeat.” So it’s not a stretch to say we hear strains of a Brahms movement in the songs of a band like Genesis.

Rubin applied his musicology skills to the work of Genesis and its 20th-century compatriots in a class he taught in the history of rock and roll last summer. “The first day we went back to the beginning of recorded music up to about 1927. Second day, 1927 ’til the ’40s and ’50s.” And the earliest recordings? “Songs by the Carter Family and artists like Jimmy Rodgers and Sleepy John Estes.”

One of Rubin’s goals was to show the chronological progression of Anglo-American Rock. Another was to illustrate that “there are innovators; then everyone copies the innovators until someone with a new idea comes along.” Last, because of the text he was using, which was, Rubin said, “Rockist,” he tried to “give a fair hearing to all parts of Rock and Roll, especially the parts that were seen as a step backward: the girl groups, Doo-Wop and Bubble Gum. They are sometimes talked about as ‘degenerative.’” Rubin and his class looked at each decade for its inherent leaders, then beyond what was popular into what was “bubbling underground.”

Even though our talk took us from Mozart to Motown, through early Punk influences such as Gang of Four and The Ramones to Ashlee Simpson on “Saturday Night Live,” I was interested to note that the photographs on Rubin’s den walls included Stevie Wonder, the French composer Erik Satie and Ween. “Ween happened to me in 1993,” said Rubin, who liked them immediately. “They do some pastiche of Rock canonical stuff, but they make it original.” Ween’s detractors say they are a merely humorous cover band. Rubin disagrees. Besides, “What’s wrong with humor?” Rubin asked as he walked me to the door.
What Rubin found when he began the study of musicology was new and “fertile ground for academic inquiry.” What I found when I met Nick Rubin was a teacher who moved fluidly from the academic to the casual, whose comments ranged from scholarly to dude-ish and whose love for his subject was tangible. The history of Rock and Roll includes Brahms, Beethoven, Haydn, The Velvet Underground and Big Star, and somewhere in there, The Carpenters. And, according to Rubin, “You have to talk about all of it.”