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Rock ‘n’ other roles

Special to The Times

In APRIL, Greg Graffin, a professor in the UCLA life sciences department, arrived on the campus of Harvard University to accept an Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism, an honor that had gone to Salman Rushdie the previous year. The studious-looking Graffin stood at a podium and delivered a thoughtful lecture on the history of humanism and its meaning in his life. It was, he says, one of the highlights of his academic career.

Weeks later, Graffin is in Irvine addressing a very different kind of audience. He stands in front of 20,000 rock fans at a concert known rather appropriately as the Weenie Roast. It is nearly 100 degrees, and Graffin is pacing back and forth as the members of his long-standing punk band, Bad Religion, play behind him at breakneck speed. He raises the microphone and sings to the crowd: “If there’s a purpose for us all / it remains a secret to me / don’t ask me to justify my life.” As he does, thousands of young fans, many of them wearing Bad Religion shirts, sing along. The band leaves the stage to thunderous applause.

Graffin signs autographs, then retreats into an air-conditioned trailer. Asked what it feels like to have such a passionate following, he seems unfazed. “If you don’t have good self-awareness, being in a successful band will really screw you up,” Graffin says. “I don’t have any control what people think about me. And I understand that they don’t really know me. What you saw out there were thousands of totally different experiences. But my goal has always been to elevate the art form. If a fan tells me they did a term paper on evolution because of one of my songs, it’s very touching.”

There’s a notion that rock musicians who have tasted even the smallest amount of success will, like the proverbial high school quarterback, spend their remaining days yearning for past glories and lamenting what might have been. It can be nearly impossible to replicate the rush of performing in front of a rapturous crowd, and anything like normality can seem a devastating comedown.

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So they cling. Scan the music listings on any week and you’ll find reunion shows, many for bands that hardly warranted attention even in their prime. Retread, not reinvention, is too often the rule. But there are, of course, some notable exceptions.

Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, guitarist for Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers, managed to parlay an interest in recording technology into a career as one of the nation’s leading counterterrorism experts. Queen guitarist Brian May returned to school, received a PhD in physics, contributed to a book on the big-bang theory and was recently appointed chancellor of a university. Alannah Currie, the geometrically coifed singer of new wave ensemble the Thompson Twins, is now an artist who, among other things, designs furniture made from roadkill. Jethro Tull singer and flutist Ian Anderson now runs a consortium of successful salmon farms.

It’s an odd assortment of pursuits entirely consistent with the individualistic spirit of the music -- and proof that, for those willing to look forward, life after rock needn’t be an inevitable descent into drudgery and stagnation.

Sometimes, what’s required is a rekindling of interests held before music careers took off.

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At a coffee house near the UCLA campus where he teaches, Graffin explains how hebecame interested in evolutionary biology as a high school punk rocker in the San Fernando Valley. “I had big questions about where we come from. The things that religion usually satisfies, I was learning from science. The band had started two years before that, and it was really a good synergy because we were talking about Bad Religion, and it’s implicit in evolution that there are no gods.”

On one of Bad Religion’s earliest recordings, a teenage Graffin reveals that fascination with evolution: “Early man walked away, as modern man took control, their minds weren’t all the same, to conquer was his big goal. So he built his great empire and slaughtered his own kind. Then he died a confused man, killed himself with his own mind.”

Graffin says he fully expected to pursue an academic career with the band remaining as a hobby. But in the early ‘90s, Bad Religion recorded an album called “Suffer,” which almost single-handedly ignited a punk rock resurgence. Suddenly the band’s audience was growing and its records selling more than ever. In response, Graffin put his academic pursuits on hold and concentrated on his music career.

Since then, the band has had a number of radio hits and maintains a large international following. Amid all this, Graffin eventually earned a PhD from Cornell University and became tenured at UCLA. He now divides his year between teaching and playing with Bad Religion.

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“I actually think it’s made us a far more interesting band,” he says. “And I think it’s possible that if I hadn’t maintained my academic pursuits, the band would have burned out earlier. But in terms of satisfaction, there’s no difference to me between lecturing and performing. It’s all entertainment. You’re just trying to inspire people.”

--

For his next trick . . .

To FIND Dave Lovering, drummer for the Pixies, at his new job, one first arrives at a large Victorian perched above the lights of Hollywood. You walk through a hidden door in a bookcase, winding up in an ornate bar filled with people in formal dress. Then it’s a roundabout route to another stairway that descends into what appears to be the basement. Lovering is there waiting in a dark suit and a tie. His hair is closely cropped, his beard full. His co-worker, Rob Zabrecky, stands next to him, pale and gaunt, wearing a similarly dark suit. The two introduce themselves, then disappear.

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The room fills with people, most carrying cocktails. Soon a dissonant song plays and Lovering and Zabrecky reappear on a small stage along with a third man called Fitzgerald. For the next 30 minutes, they perform a blend of illusion, dark comedy and something resembling performance art. At one point, Lovering straps a blinking antenna to his head and identifies playing cards concealed by audience members until his head begins to smoke. The act, called the Unholy Three, has been performing in the basement of the Magic Castle every week now for nearly five years.

Upstairs over dinner, Lovering says that, like Graffin, he never intended to have a career in music. He had graduated college with a degree in engineering, and a subsequent job building lasers was interrupted by the band’s unexpected success. When the Pixies disbanded in 1993, he moved to Los Angeles. It was here that the longtime science buff and practical joker was introduced to magic by local musician Grant-Lee Phillips, who took him along to a local magic convention. “I saw stuff there that just completely blew me away,” Lovering says. “There was one particular card trick that I just couldn’t get over. I had to learn how to do it.”

Around that same time, his cohort Zabrecky was in New York recording the third and final album for his alternative pop band Possum Dixon. Far from being distraught over the group’s impending demise, Zabreckey says he knew exactly what direction his new career would go. In fact, during that last recording session, producer Ric Ocasek had to remind Zabrecky that they were there to finish an album, not perfect his magic tricks.

Back in Los Angeles, Lovering and Zabrecky were introduced by mutual friend Phillips. The two auditioned for and became members of the Magic Castle, and since then they have spent most of their nights making friends with, and learning from, the veteran magicians who use the place as an unofficial clubhouse. “We arrived here as total outsiders,” Zabrecky says. “We came from the rock world, which was really different than most magicians. It’s sort of like if two old magicians suddenly formed a rock band, just this total fish-out-of-water thing.”

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The walls of the Magic Castle are adorned with art and posters featuring noted magicians from all eras. Hanging among them is a caricature of the Unholy Three. “It took us four years of steady performing to get that,” Lovering says proudly.

“I think it shows that we’re finally accepted up here,” Zabrecky adds.

In 2004, Lovering’s band the Pixies reunited for a successful tour, playing sold-out shows around the world. Asked his preference between playing music and performing magic, Lovering strokes his beard thoughtfully. “When I’m playing drums in the band, I’m up there with three other people,” he says at last. “It’s not all me. I love playing music and I’m not saying anything bad about it in the slightest, but I’m so much more involved in the magic. Creatively it’s more fulfilling for me, so I think I would choose magic.”

The conversation turns to the difficulty so many rock musicians face in finding new pursuits. Lovering and Zabrecky have each seen friends fall on hard times when their music careers stalled. “It’s definitely tough to change any career path when you’ve been doing something for so long,” Zabrecky says. “Most of us had been trying to be rock stars since we were kids playing air guitar in our bedrooms. You really have to be open-minded and willing to completely reinvent yourself. But if you do, you never know what will happen.”

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