|Mighty Mighty Nate|
When he isn't studying for exams, rock guitarist Nate Albert writes music and performs with one of the hottest bands in the country.
Nate Albert knew it was time to return to college when he stood on a stage last summer in Köln, Germany, and watched his band, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, almost fall apart. In front of him 10,000 people, most of them adolescents, screamed, waved their hands, and tossed their bodies around in defiance of fundamental rules of physics. On stage, Albert clutched his Les Paul electric guitar to his chest and laughed without feeling any joy. He had just watched the band's saxophonist fly into a rage, kick over Albert's amplifier, and begin smashing his own instrument to pieces. Even though the concert had just begun, the saxophone player, Kevin Lenear, left the stage. A Bosstones roadie righted Albert's amp, and the rest of the band, shaken and exhausted, started playing the songs they'd been performing for the past seventeen straight months.
"Kevin did what we'd all been thinking about doing at different points on that tour," Albert said several months later, lighting a cigarette at the kitchen table of his tidy, sparsely furnished third-floor apartment just off campus. "Here we are, standing in front of this huge crowd and we can't even talk to each other anymore. All I could do was laugh. The daily grind of being on tour is utterly mind-numbing. You spend most of your time in recovery, trying to get in shape to play again."
Lenear's tantrum marked the end of what had grown into an endless, if hugely successful, tour. The Bosstones, who have sold more than two million records, had been back and forth repeatedly across the United States, played a series of shows in Japan and Australia, and traveled from one end of Europe to the other more times than anyone in the band could remember. During much of this constant motion, the eight band members had slept in the same tour bus as their five-person crew. "It wasn't very glamorous," Albert says. "It's pretty disgusting to climb into a bunk that's still warm from the person who just left it."
After all that success and moving around, Albert was eager to find stability and anonymity. He thought he might find them at Brown. While he was still on the road with the Bosstones, Albert tracked down and submitted an application to the University's Resumed Undergraduate Education (RUE) program. He was twenty-five and familiar with academic routine - he'd dropped out of Hampshire College in 1992 during his senior year - but he had left his studies to pursue his music. Still, Albert had never shaken the feeling that he'd left something unfinished. He was building a repertoire of original songs and establishing a reputation as a premiere rock guitarist, but he was also bored.
His wish to go to Brown was sorely tested. As the date when Albert expected to hear back from the University about his application drew near, the Bosstones' popularity soared. Their 1997 album, Let's Face It, drew rave reviews, and the video for their hit single, "The Impression That I Get," appeared on MTV every few hours. Just when everything was going Albert's way musically, his acceptance letter arrived in the mail. "How cool is that?" he says. "Mercury tells us we're selling 45,000 records a week, we make the top rotation on MTV, and I get in to Brown - all in the same week."
But Albert wasn't sure his bandmates were going to share his enthusiasm. He didn't speak with anyone in the band about it for a long time, he says, and then he delayed his matriculation for a year - until last fall - putting off the conversation even further. Albert didn't want his fellow Bosstones to question his commitment to their music. "It's kind of like being in a serious relationship with someone for a lot of years," he says. Going back to school was like "suddenly asking to make it an open relationship. You feel a bit weird just asking."
After the concert in Germany, however, Albert didn't have to ask. It was clear to all that the Bosstones needed a break from the road. The only question left was how to spend the time off.
Professor Edward Beiser's course, Political Science 116, or The Politics of the Legal System, is notorious for heavy reading assignments, arduous essay exams, and the professor's tendency to call randomly on students and give them a public depantsing if they haven't done the reading. On the first day of the spring semester, Albert joins the throng of students piling into the lower auditorium of the Salomon Center in hopes for enrolling in Beiser's class. After finding a seat in the back row, Albert stows his coat and bag, nods to a few of his fellow political-science concentrators, and pulls out a spiral-bound notebook. He watches Beiser begin to speak, his pen poised over the notebook. Albert is hopeful, he murmurs to a neighbor, that the course will be as challenging as he has heard. Beiser begins with the requisite first-day scare speech: "This is not a good course if you're already busy. To understand what is going on in the branch of government called the judiciary you have to know the detailed stuff before your opinion is worth having."
Albert chuckles and leans back in his chair. This class, he later says, is exactly why he has come to Brown. Albert is a case study in the hazards - and potential payoffs - of freedom. His background has prepared him for the loose improvisations of rock, but it has also left him hungry for the discipline and rigor of intellectual inquiry. The same split is evident in his family background: Albert grew up with his mother, Joan, a photographer, in Cambridge's Harvard Square; his father, Stephen - who Albert says comes from "real strict, kind of grim, German stock" - is a school principal in Pennsylvania. Albert started his education at the Fayerweather Street School, where for one semester he was allowed to choose what he wanted to learn. (He opted for skateboarding and songwriting.) Classes were only slightly more traditional at The Pilot School - the same Cambridge high school attended by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck - and at Hampshire, Albert says, "School was totally about freedom. But for me it ended up being a little too loose." He came to Brown to find what he calls a "real liberal arts education" - a straightforward approach to learning.
About six feet tall, with a short scrub of blond hair receding into a widow's peak, Albert wears a small silver hoop in each ear. Stockily built, he nevertheless moves and speaks with a jaunty quickness. When talking about his classes, he erupts with an unrestrained, almost giddy enthusiasm: "I am so psyched about being here. There are so many courses I want to take, I could be here for ten years." Hardly the kind of talk you'd expect from someone who's already had a taste of both fame and fortune without the benefit of a college degree. But then Albert displays little of the self-absorbed coolness that afflicts so many rock stars. As he says, "I don't get that excited anymore when people tell me I'm rad."
Ironically, it is his rock-and-roll success and the inane encounters it has prompted that have reinforced Albert's desire to get back in school. He has always been interested in politics, but there is a vicious irony, Albert says, in the way media treat the opinions of people who happen to be popular musicians. During a Bosstones press conference in Italy, for example, he was once asked whom he supported for a local election. "I have no idea," Albert snarled at the reporter. "Go ask someone who knows something about it." Albert understands that notoriety has nothing to do with wisdom; but that rarely stops reporters from asking musicians their views on current events. "I mean, for example, what makes Michael Stipe qualified to talk about this stuff?" Albert asks of the politically opinionated lead singer of R.E.M. "Thank God I agree with [Stipe's] politics, but why aren't those reporters here asking people like Ed Beiser what they think?"
In many ways Albert is an ideal, if unusual, student. Without the pressure of having to find a job right after graduation, and having already experienced a great deal of the world, he is free to learn for learning's sake. And according to Professor of Political Science Nancy Rosenblum, who taught Albert in two courses last semester, he is not approaching the assignment lightly. "Nate is proof of that old adage that college is wasted on the young," she says. "He likes hard work, he's utterly engaged and enthusiastic, and he has a spirit of appreciation that isn't always there for students who are thinking of college as a continuation of their high school experience."
"It's an incredibly luxurious position to be in as a student," Albert says. "So many of the students I meet are so concerned about getting a job or paying for student loans that they don't stop to listen to what's really going on in class. They have no idea how lucky they are. To be up by 9 a.m., talking about Rousseau - I have been so thirsty for that."
f you're under forty, you probably know who the Mighty Mighty Bosstones are, even if you've never heard of Nate Albert. If you're over forty and have teenage children, you might ask them for a briefing. If no teenagers are within easy reach and you're still reading this article, here's a primer: A seven-piece band with an eighth member who does nothing but dance frenetically during live performances, the Bosstones play the kind of loud, fast-paced music that goes well with drinking games and slam dancing. The band's sound combines many different musical styles: rock, reggae, hard-core punk, ska, heavy metal, and jazz, to name a few. Bosstones songs are full of curious changes. A tune that starts out with a steady bass line punctuated by an upbeat lick from the horns section may speed up into a kind of heavy-metal duel between Albert on guitar and Dicky Barrett, the gravel-voiced vocalist - only to return to the horns and bass a few measures later. The resulting style can be a phenomenal blending - as in "Someday I Suppose" or "The Impression That I Get" - or, at its worst, can sound something like a car wreck.
This fusion of musical styles, says Albert, is what the Bosstones are all about. He collaborates on most of the band's music with bass player Joe Gittleman and Barrett, who writes lyrics. Albert first met Gittleman when they were in grade school at Fayerweather, and the bond they formed in childhood - "we learned to play our instruments and write songs before we became self-conscious about it," Albert says - has lasted ever since. The two spent innumerable hours in the attic of Albert's house listening to such punk bands as the Clash, Black Flag, and the Circle Jerks. They then discovered ska - highly melodic, brass-and-bass heavy reggae music - through such early 1980s bands as The English Beat and the Specials.
The Bosstones formed in 1984, when Gittleman met Barrett at a show in Boston. The singer was a few years older and got the band gigs through his connections in the music scene. Albert, just about to begin his freshman year of high school, suddenly found himself in clubs where cocaine was as readily available as Budweiser. "Everyone in the band kind of kept an eye on me," he says. "I was like everyone's kid brother. I remember getting out of clubs at 2 a.m., riding my skateboard home, and getting up in the morning to make it to classes on time." The band broke up in Albert's junior year, allowing him to concentrate on his studies long enough to get into Hampshire, then reformed after one of their earlier recordings landed the Bosstones a deal with an independent European label in 1989. By the time Albert was a senior at Hampshire, the Bosstones had put out two records and earned a formidable reputation for their panic-attack stage energy. He hadn't given up on school because "we all thought it was going to end pretty quick," he says. "But it just kept on cranking." When the Bosstones signed a deal with Mercury Records in 1992, Albert decided it was time to make a choice: school or music. The choice became obvious, he says, during one of the band's trips to Italy. "It was dawn," he recalls, "and I was up reading a book on the bus about the unification of Italy. There was this really pretty light on the landscape, and I thought to myself, I need to be here. I need to enjoy what's in front of me right now." He dropped out of Hampshire that week.
But Albert didn't stop learning. He simply changed his focus of study to more practical matters. While on tour with such bands as Hole, Sonic Youth, Green Day, and The Stone Temple Pilots, he "picked at everyone's brain" about recording contracts, touring schedules, and the business of the music industry. Members of the more experienced bands they toured with "schooled us on how not to be a rock star," Albert says, "but how to be a musician and treat your band right." An acute understanding of the business of making music, he adds, lets you keep the important things protected and in focus.
In Albert's case, the most important thing was - and is - songwriting. Even though he is the band's only guitarist, Albert's first passion is for good songs, not overbearing guitar parts. For example, the music for "Royal Oil," from Let's Face It, was written entirely by Albert. A catchy, melodic, ska-inspired tune, it is backed by unremarkable, rhythmic chop on guitar. "If you listen to a really great song," he says, "the guitar solos are usually the most boring parts. I really like to write cool horn parts," he adds. "I can stand on the other side of the room, smoke a cigarette, drink a cup of coffee, and just listen."
On stage, however, Albert's enthusiasm for his hollow-bodied Les Paul is less restrained. When Gittleman and Barrett were in the studio producing the Bosstones' recently released concert album, Live from the Middle East, they decided that Albert's presence needed to be punched up on the band's next album. "Our records change a lot from album to album," Gittleman says. "But there's no question - Nate's easily one of the best guitar players out there. We want that in our next record."
he Bosstones are currently recording their seventh album, and because he is at Brown, Albert is writing less music then he has in the past. He is coming up with a few songs, working over the phone with Barrett and Gittleman in the evenings, and driving up for practice sessions with the band in Boston, where he owns a separate apartment. Albert worries what the other members of the band think of his having less time for them, but at least one of his colleagues - Gittleman - has been reassuring. "Joe's been a real cheerleader and facilitator about school," Albert says. "I'd worked out in my head that it just wasn't going to work. But he saw a need for me to do this, not so much on a pragmatic level but an intellectual and spiritual one." Still, Albert worries.
"Nate thinks about that more than he needs to," Gittleman says matter-of-factly. "It's not like we're sitting around waiting for him to grace us with his presence."
On campus, Albert works hard at keeping as anonymous as possible. Ambivalent about even appearing in the BAM, he wants nothing more than to be accepted as just another RUE student, despite having bought an apartment close to campus and a new Volvo station wagon. Most of the fifty RUE students at Brown have had to sacrifice some part of an already full adult life to get an education, and Albert is no exception - even if what he's given up is rather unusual. Not having as much time to write music means the possibility of earning substantially less money on the Bosstones' next album: royalties for the use of a song elsewhere are paid to the one or more musicians who wrote it.
Taking a break from the full-time rock life has also given Albert the chance to pay back an emotional debt to his mother. Five years ago, she was diagnosed with a tumor on her spine and told that she would live another two years. She still hangs on in Cambridge, but is in a slow decline. Albert and his older brother, Martin, split up caring for her. Recently, they have been trying to brighten up her house by buying new furniture and hiring one of the Bosstones' drum technicians to refurbish her kitchen.
Albert's mother has been the biggest proponent of his decision to go back to school. "My mom has always been into that whole follow-your-bliss thing," he says. "She knew how frustrating I found the brain-dead side of being in popular music. She kept pushing at me to do something about it." His mother's illness has been a part of Albert's life for a long time, but she refused to let him curtail any of his musical ambitions because of it. He is glad to be back and staying put, he says, as things draw to a close.
A few weeks into the semester, Albert is learning it's not that easy to leave the rock life behind. Like anyone who's been successful at a career, he finds that responsibilities keep chasing him down. Between band practices, trips to the Crate & Barrel to buy new furniture for his mother, discussions with Gittleman about how to handle Pizza Hut's allegely stealing a Bosstones' song, and working on a new tune on the phone with Barrett, Albert has difficulty squeezing in enough study time to prepare for his first in-class exam in six years. He has already been forced to drop his course load to three: a poetry seminar, a class in modern architecture, and, of course, Beiser's political-science juggernaut.
When the exam results come back, Albert learns he's missed scoring an A by two-and-a-half points. "I'm so bummed," he says about his B plus to another student after class. "I guess I should just say 'Grades-schmades' - but I can't.
"I really wanted that A."