Tiny Lights at the End of the Tunnel

Between his overflowing bookshelves, working on his laptop in preparation for an academic conference, Assistant Professor of Literature John T. Hamilton looks like a typical Harvard professor. There’s no sign amidst the academic chaos that he was once a rock star. During what he calls a “nine-year reading period” between leaving college and enrolling in graduate school, Hamilton played guitar, wrote songs and toured with his acclaimed rock band, Tiny Lights.

After getting together in 1984, the band started recording the following year and made a total of seven records, with such delectable titles as “Hot Chocolate Massage” (Absolute A Go Go, 1990) and “Milky Juicy” (Doctor Dream, 1994).

Hamilton describes his band as “pretty innovative, I think,” and critics apparently agreed. The band was featured in Rolling Stone and Spin, and had a large following within the indie music scene.

Tiny Lights shows would generally open with free musical improvisation—an atypical opening for a group classified as a rock band. “We tried to keep it as open as possible,” Hamilton says of the Tiny Lights signature improvisational rock style. “We took a lot of risks.”

Hamilton met his fellow band member and current wife Donna Croughn when they were music-loving teens attending different high schools in New Jersey. The two started a band together and eventually joined up with three other musicians to form Tiny Lights, with Hamilton on guitar and Croughn on vocals and electric violin.

Hamilton describes the Hoboken, New Jersey music scene where Tiny Lights originated to be “a really good scene for us” because it was a vibrant musical community that was open to new styles.

After twelve years of touring, the members of Tiny Lights went their separate ways, in a break-up that Hamilton says went “quietly and peacefully”. At the time, Hamilton was living in Germany and beginning work on his doctoral dissertation, and he and Croughn had just had their first child. They did not have as much time to devote to touring and recording with the band.

Each of the band’s five members went their separate ways. Tiny Lights cellist Jane Scarpantoni went on to play with high-profile bands and performers including REM, Bruce Springsteen, the Indigo Girls and Natalie Merchant.

Dave Dreiwitz, the band’s bassist and trumpet player, now plays with the band, Ween.

Hamilton, of course, is now part of the Harvard Faculty, teaching courses such as Literature 112, “Egypt in the European Imaginary”, Comparative Literature 135, “Literature and the Visual Arts: Iconophilia and Iconoclasm,” and the sophomore tutorial for Literature concentrators. Next year he will teach the Comparative Literature course “Melopoeia: On German Music and Letters”, which will examine German literature and philosophy as well as music, familiar ground in Hamilton’s personal life. “Now I’m a legitimate academic,” he chuckles.

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