Prof left rock culture to study it alongside American studies' academic superstars
Lisa Rhodes has gone from living the rock 'n' roll life to researching it, writing about it and teaching it.
Granted, academia doesn't offer quite the same thrill as jamming with Joan Jett and the late Stevie Ray Vaughan, playing to crowds of 30,000, being 21 and hearing the Neville Brothers record one of your songs, or notching a respectable 90 on American Bandstand's "Rate-a-Record."
Really, what possibly could?
Rhodes, though, has no regrets about leaving the music business for academia.
"Music only fed half of what I needed to be fed. It only used one side of my brain," said Rhodes, an assistant professor of American studies at Temple University. "Academia is much different from music. It's affirming to you without being egotistical. It's satisfying teaching and advising students. And there's more room for a lot of people at the top.
"In the music business, being good is just your ticket in the door," Rhodes continued. "You also need a lot of luck. It's just like lightning striking you."
Rhodes wasn't struck completely, but the ride was jolting, she said.
"I had my face on the cover of Billboard magazine. I was in People magazine. I did shows for 30,000 people, and played for thousands more times than I have fingers and toes," Rhodes said. "There's nothing unlucky about me."
Lisa Rhodes | SHIVERS
A native Texan, Rhodes grew up idolizing her older brother, who had a garage band. She already had been playing guitar for three years when, at age 15, she saw Bonnie Raitt on the Houston PBS show "Broadside."
"Up until then, I had never seen a woman hold an electric guitar," said Rhodes. "And there was Bonnie Raitt, the baddest slide player around, playing her Fender Strat.
"I was so floored. It was like having someone pat you on the back."
Rhodes, whose family is Czechoslovakian and Irish, grew up in Port Lavaca, Texas listening to her mother sing "old Southern stuff": lullabies, Methodist hymns, Southern songs. But she got her taste for popular culture singing along to pop music on the radio.
By the time she was an undergraduate at the University of Texas, she had already played school dances and church events. At UT, her band, The Sirens, played parties for $20 a night and "sometimes just for free beer," Rhodes said with a laugh.
She quit school halfway through her sophomore year when a management company offered her a five-year contract to pursue music full time.
In those years, she cut an album, "Shivers," released in 1985, toured with the Neville Brothers, opened for the likes of Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul, and also played with Vaughan, Jett and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
In 1984, the Neville Brothers recorded "The Dealer," a song she co-wrote with Art Neville.
"The theme was that God's a cosmic card dealer," said Rhodes. "I was 21."
"Born Rich," a song from "Shivers," was featured on Bandstand's infamous Rate-a-Record segment. During the segment, two dancers rated records on a scale from 35 to 98.
"It got a 90. But the Fine Young Cannibals got a 98," Rhodes said, not begrudgingly.
(For the record, the Beatles' smash "She Loves You" rated a mediocre 71.)
Despite her on-stage success, Rhodes said her best experience in music happened when she was alone.
"I was living in Dallas and had just put the record out. I was flipping around on the radio dial and realized the song I was hearing was me. "
"I had listened to the radio my whole life, and there I was," she continued. "It was a real satisfying experience, a really nice moment."
As the music business became more big business, Rhodes realized it was time to pursue other work. She went back to the University of Texas to finish up the bachelor's degree in liberal arts she had abandoned — "I took the nine-year plan," she said — and was considering graduate work in history when she stumbled upon American studies, a discipline that absolutely fit her varied interests.
"I had a lot of different interests and American studies gave me focus," said Rhodes.
Electric Ladyland: Women and Rock Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press), Rhodes' new book, grew out of her doctoral dissertation, which she defended in 2001. She pursued the research, which examines groupie culture and how women in rock were portrayed in the popular press in the 1960s and '70s, when her initial project on a female silent film star didn't work out.
"I thought, 'What can I do that I know a whole lot about? I'll go and read old Rolling Stone s,'" said Rhodes, who teaches Temple courses on celebrity culture, television, the media and women in the media. "I wanted to see how the magazine evolved. The book brings together my interests in journalism, media history, music history and the history of gender. There aren't many disciplines that can do that."
After teaching night school for adults in California and working on her book — Penn Press asked her to expand her dissertation to include research on the Village Voice as well as Rolling Stone — Rhodes landed at Temple in 2003, eager to work with faculty who would be considered rock stars in their respective fields.
"I liked the idea of coming to Philadelphia and working with (department chair) Miles Orvell, who is one of the big guns in American studies.
"And, I mean, I'm across the hall from (science fiction novelist) Samuel Delany," Rhodes said, clearly impressed.
- Barbara Baals
Read more about Electric Ladyland