O My Passion


"FOR THREE YEARS NOW Martin Kilson has expressed the desire to become my agent," Richard Lyon '75 says. The joke is funny partly because Lyon is past the need for the kind of support Harvard can provide--his agent is Leonard Bernstein's sister. At 8:30 p.m. tomorrow night, Harvard will get a taste of Lyon's professionalism when he sits down at the piano in Adams House dining room and begins to play. Backing him will be a 20-piece orchestra and two members of the Kuumba Singers called the Gatson Sisters. The House will be packed, Lyon predicts--the result of an extensive publicity blitz that ranged from posters in the Pizza Pad to professionally-engineered-in-New-York commercials on WBCN-FM.

Lyon writes all his music himself, and a few of his lyrics. Most of them, though are written by Tom McNamee, winner of the American Academy of Poets Younger Poet Price in 1969, who is now employed by Columbia Records. A typical McNamee lyric goes something like this: "I set my sleep in neatly ordered rows/She scatters dreams like the ashes of a diary page./I don't keep no records, don't look back./She comes she goes I don't keep track. /The floor is covered with her empty clothes./O my passion! O my rage!" Under McNamee's aegis. Lyon recorded two demonstration tapes for Columbia in 1970 and 1971. They are still in the can. After a lucky break ("I called up Columbia one day and told them my name and expressed the desire to audition, with the intention of making an album and becoming a star at 17. They said, 'Come on up.'") Lyon's relations with the record industry have been "a series of rejections."

Big names like David Geffen (founder of Asylum Records) and Nat Weiss (The Beatles' American manager) praised and encouraged him, but told him his songs weren't right for the tastes of the current pop market. "The real watershed occurred two years ago when a large publishing company made a substantial offer, the contingency being that I break up with McNamee," he says. "They felt his lyrics were too intellectual for the general pop audience, and specified that I work with their house hacks."

Lyon, the son of a Washington lawyer prominent in the Democratic Party, sees himself as the product of a new phenomenon in the music business, a system that generates stars out of the middle class. "Look at James Taylor," he says. "His father is dean of the Medical School at University of North Carolina. Or Carly Simon, of Simon and Schuster. You don't have to grow up in the ghetto any more to be a pop star. The pop star doesn't climb a ladder to success any more. Lots of people who attended elite colleges go on to become very good and successful professional musicians." Going to Harvard has neither helped nor hindered his musical development. In the face of the immobility of pop record executives, though, Lyon has turned to theatrical music. Currently he has the book for a musical called "Sirens" (co-authored with McNamee) that he hopes will soon be produced in New York.

LYON SAYS HE CAN'T work within traditional formulas and defends the individuality of his music passionately. "We simply so what we do without consideration of what others have done," he said testily in reply to a suggestion that his songs sounded something like Randy Newman's. "In 1970 it was Elton John, in '71 Laura Nyro. And the last few years Randy Newman. And the only thing we have in common is that we all sing and play the piano." Lyon says his music has been influenced very little by white rock 'n' roll except for The Beatles, and that theater music, soul and his three years as a cantor have left more of an imprint on his songs.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Lyon is not his musical work alone, but the way he maintains along with it simultaneous footholds in politics and academics. Lyon helped organize a rally in Harvard Stadium for George McGovern early in his freshman year and worked last summer as special consultant for media affairs to Washington's Mayor Walter Washington. The difficulty of being respectable in both the political and musical worlds at once disturbs Lyon.

"Look at the derision and laughter in the Democratic Party when a Paul Newman or a Marlo Thomas decides to make a political statement," he says. "It's as if a political statement by someone in the arts is bogus or without intellectual foundation. If I leave Harvard and decide I want to be a musician, suddenly any political ideas I have will be suspect. People will see me as a musician, not someone who's studied government at Harvard."

There are ways, though, to mix politics and music--Lyon's first public appearance was at the big antiwar moratorium rally in Washington in November 1970. And for the moment, anyway, Lyon can have it both ways.