John T. Hamilton has the studied look of the stereotypical Harvard professor. Draped in tweed, with a vest underneath and elbow pads on his coat, he puffs insistently on a wooden pipe outside his office in the Department of Comparative Literature.
But before Hamilton picked up Homer and Virgil, he was picking guitar, and long before he came to Cambridge, Rolling Stone magazine had tapped him as an up-and-coming musician. For Hamilton, academia was an afterthought—during the first fifteen years of his adult life, he wrote, performed, and recorded rock music.
“It’s a very similar lifestyle,” Hamilton says nonchalantly.
He leans back in his chair at the kitchen table of his spacious Arlington house, painted purple on the outside. The sounds of drums and electric bass filter in from the basement, where his two sons, ages 11 and 15, are improvising rock riffs.
“Communicating, improvising, trying to sense people’s expectations and trying to meet them—those are all important issues,” he adds.
“It’s definitely not banking,” chimes in his wife Donna from across the table.
“It’s bankrupting,” she laughs.
John and Donna have been together for more than 30 years, but not just as husband and wife—“we’ve shared a life,” Hamilton says. Since meeting in high school, they’ve played in four different bands together, including Tiny Lights—a critically-acclaimed act that toured nationwide and released seven albums between 1983 and 1994.
“It was a really great way to grow up,” says Donna as Hamilton heads down to the basement to make a song request.
Dave Dreiwitz saw John and Donna play for the first time at a nightclub in Hoboken when he was 15 years old.
“I thought they were amazing,” he says. John and Donna, both just 18 at the time, were playing with a jazz fusion group called Low Key. “They seemed experienced,” Drewitiz adds.
Dreiwitz, now the bass player for the rock group Ween, became the third founding member of Tiny Lights a year later, in 1983.
“We liked a lot of the same kind of stuff,” Dreiwitz says. “We were all jazz heads.”
But Tiny Lights quickly grew into a group that defied genre, even when it came to instrumentation: Dreiwitz knew trumpet and bass, Donna played violin and sang vocals, and Hamilton wanted to incorporate non-traditional rock instruments.