Sunday, October 21, 2012

Wesleyan's Music Mafia

The moments of fame for my alma mater, Wesleyan University, have been fleeting and often for accomplishments outside academia. Dana Delany and Bradley Whitford (a newly elected trustee), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men) and Joss Whedon (Buffy) have cast some Hollywood luster.
Then there is the sports trivia department. “Which college has produced two NFL head coaches?” Answer: Wesleyan University for Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini.

And you may recall this scene from an episode of NBC’s “30 Rock” last season. The subject was Liz Lemon’s new boyfriend who is trying to raise money for a gourmet hot dog wagon in New York City.
Jack: You know, he probably went to Wesleyan.
Liz: You mean the Harvard of Central Connecticut?

Now Wesleyan (the first of some 37 similarly named schools founded by the Methodists in this country) is getting a newly burnished reputation for its graduates making big names and solid careers in the music business.

This current wave probably began in the mid 1990’s with the success of folk and alt-country recording artist, Dar Williams who has toured with Joan Baez and Patti Griffin and whose work prompted The New Yorker to describe her as “one of America’s very best singer-songwriters.” She was followed by Amanda Palmer of The Dresden Dolls who created a performing style described as punk cabaret and pop-new wave singer Santi White whose stage name is Santigold.

Andrew VanWyngarden and Ben Goldwasser began playing guitar and keyboard in a dormitory courtyard for their classmates. Five years later, as MGMT, they were named a Top Ten Artist to Watch by Rolling Stone. Two Grammy nominations followed and in today’s measure of success, You Tube Views, their catchy tunes and psychedelic videos are monster hits. One video for “Kids” shows nearly 40 million views and “Time to Pretend” lists 27 million views.

Their classmates at Wes, Himanshu Suri and Victor Vasquez chose the route of rap and performing as the group Das Racist had similar success via the internet with their first hit, “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell.”

The other newcomers, including Bear Hands and Francis and the Lights have combined to give Wesleyan newfound clout in the pop music world. In 2009, The Village Voice headlined an article: “The Wesleyan Mafia: How a Connecticut liberal arts school became the epicenter of surrealist Brooklyn pop.” (If you have heard of someone by the name of Rihanna, it is because Wes alum Carl Sturken discovered her for his company SRP Music.)

Among those who have helped put Wesleyan on the map of American music was John Cage who did two stints as an artist in residence. The sixties also produced John Perry Barlow, co-author of many Grateful Dead hits, and Darius Brubeck, one of the legend’s sons. That decade began with four Wesleyan folk singers who, as The Highwaymen, rowed that boat Michael was in all the way to #1 on the Billboard Charts.

That decade also produced a garage band with perhaps the best moniker of all time. Uranus and the Five Moons was what today we would call a great cover band, able to knock out the hits of the Stones, Chuck Berry, and the Rascals along with blues riffs from BB King and Paul Butterfield. It was music you could dance to and they would play as long as there was beer left in the keg. I am sure that much of my hearing loss was inflicted while listening to them in fraternity living rooms but mere mention of their name brings back some fond memories. To travel to campuses across New England, they bought a 1955 Cadillac hearse, a real measure of rock and roll success.


  1. Outstanding post!
    A great tribute, piece of music history and hip. Your music library is rich.
    The band in the photo is a classic if only for their brass. Thanks.
    The Development Office will be in touch.

  2. Hey Frank, great blog. If you're interested in Wesleyan's musical history you want to check out m for pics of Joni Mitchell at McConaughy (1969) and this archive of the 1970 Foss Hill Grateful Dead concert and LSD-fest I remember U & the 5M fondly. - Mark