Keep On Rockin' In The Academic World

Nov 21, 2019

Texas Tech English professor Bruce Clarke once had a nickname. Bruno was his band name back in the late 60s when he attended Columbia University in New York City and played bass as a member of the band Sha Na Na.

The group’s high point during Clarke’s time was opening for Jimi Hendrix on the last day of Woodstock in August 1969. Clarke now sees that as just a part of his life’s story.

“I now live my life as a full time academic, as a scholar, doing what I always wanted to do and what I left the band to pursue. It began when I was 19, I was a freshman, so I had no idea what I wanted to do. The band was an amazing miraculous happening that I found myself in the middle of so I happily took that ride, and I had already been rockin’ and rollin’ since sophomore year of high school.”

Clarke is the Paul Whitfield Horn Professor of Literature and Science. He recently returned from a 10-month appointment in Washington, DC, where he was the astrobiology chair at the John W. Kluge Center in a collaboration between the NASA Astrobiology Program and the Library of Congress.

Sha Na Na played doo wop music, a style of rhythm-and-blues and rock-and-roll vocal music popular in the 1950s and ’60s. When he joined the band, he recognized he was around talented musicians.

“The guys in the band had been playing in bands for years, and the singers had been singing together for years. We just melded together. The material is absolutely inspiring because it’s just so, you know, it’s the cream of this wonderful genre of doo wop and early rock and roll, so much fun to play.”

At Woodstock, Sha Na Na was scheduled to perform Sunday evening for 30 minutes. But an unscheduled band went on instead. Sha Na Na played early the next morning to far fewer fans than the night before. They were the warmup band for Jimi Hendrix, who closed the show.

Clarke says the first movie about Woodstock – in 1970 - was inaccurate but helped Sha Na Na.

“We went on in the middle of the movie and they never showed the crowd, or enough of the crowd to realize that we in fact did not play at the height of the event at all, we played at the very end. And that was, I thought, was a lucky editing choice for us. So it really looked like we were in the middle of the whole thing and we were just as hip and groovy as all those truly hip and groovy bands like The Airplane, and the Dead, and The Band, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.”

Clarke says he continued to play bass after he left the band, including in a garage band. He sometimes played at local bars. These days, he says he plays with friends in living-room settings.

This past summer he received a huge wooden crate in the mail that contained “Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive,” a compilation of more than 35 CDs.

He found the CD with Sha Na Na’s performance on it and popped it into a player.

“We’re great! We’re so good! And the thing is I was half dead, I was just trying to stay awake. I was just trying to stay upright and make it from one song to the next. I’m killing these bass parts and I’m unconscious!”

Clarke recognizes he has a unique heritage through his experience with Sha Na Na and from playing at Woodstock, which is widely regarded as a pivotal moment in popular music history as well as a defining event for the counterculture generation.

But he says, he’d rather be known for his scholarly writings.

“Instead of practicing my instrument, I’d rather read a book! I’m where I was meant to be. Absolutely no regrets, an occasional twinge is as far as I would go.”