Rich Joffe: Greaser to Grad Student

When Sha Na Na burst onto the national scene in 1969 with their hair greased back and their tee shirts

When Sha Na Na burst onto the national scene in 1969 with their hair greased back and their tee shirts rolled up, they kicked off the 50's nostalgia craze and the rock 'n' roll revival. They came before "American Graffiti," before "Happy Days," before "Grease"--even before the Fonz.

Although its slogan was "From the Streets of New York, Greased and Ready to Kick Ass," the group originated, not in the streets of New York, but in the halls of Columbia University. Within a couple of years, the group had a national following, complete with network television spots, screaming throngs at concerts and appearances at rock festivals--even the biggest, baddest festival of them all, Woodstock.

Sha Na Na is still on the national music scene. It has produced six albums--one of them gold--and now has a weekly television show which receives fairly good ratings.

Rich Joffe was there at the beginning, one of the group's original singers. But Joffe no longer greases his hair back, no longer sings any leads. He left the group in 1973 and came to Harvard the following fall as a graduate student in the American Civilization program.

Currently, he lives in Beverly and, among other things, is trying to figure out what to write his dissertation on. He has watched the Sha Na Na television show once--just to see if he would be embarrassed--and his only other contact with the group since quitting involved a messy three year lawsuit over ownership rights.

When Rich Joffe arrived at Columbia in the fall of 1968, he was about the last person you'd have imagined to be in the forefront of a rock 'n' roll revival.

Growing up in Maplewood, New Jersey, he was something of an outcast, neither liking nor being particularly well-liked by his high school classmates. He enjoyed folk much more than rock, sang and played a little guitar--mostly at Unitarian church retreats--but never took music very seriously.

As a freshman at Columbia, he became involved in an extracurricular singing group called the Columbia Kingsmen which specialized in pop songs like "Goin' Out of My Head." Through a connection, the group was able to arrange an audience with an agent from Mercury Records at a school concert.

But the group discovered that their repertoire was limited and decided to learn some 50's song--not because they were particularly nostalgic, simply because these songs stressed vocals and were easy to learn.

An older brother of one of the Kingsmen suggested that the group dress 50's style for the concert and, without telling the group, distributed handbills which read, "So you think you're an Ivy Leaguer? Bullshit. Underneath your button-down shirt is the eighth grade greaser standing on the corner, whistling 'Duke of Earl' to yourself and watching the girls go by. Come down to Ferris Booth Hall where the Kingsmen will be reliving the old days. Come dressed up."

Joffe still marvels over the genius of this publicity. "It was the first 50's-oriented nostalgia ever. Now, that kind of stuff is so trite, it would be hard for most people to imagine it as a creative act. But it was brilliant."

And Joffe remembers that night, that first night, when the Columbia Kingsmen, almost by accident, played some 50's songs.

"A big crowd came to hear us. We dressed up in what we thought were greasy clothes at the time--white shirts and turtlenecks. And this bunch of about 20 or 30 jocks were sitting in the corner, basically being rowdy during the first part of our show when we were singing all our usual corny stuff.

"When we did the five Oldies, these people went berserk. From then on, it was simply pandemonium."

Right after the concert, in the streets and bars around Columbia, the effect of the concert was apparent. Joffe recalls stepping outside and seeing "a big group of people with their arms around each other. About half of them were SDS'ers and the other half were jocks. These people had not walked on the same side of the street in a year because this was the year after the big riots at Columbia... when I walked down Broadway, on every street corner, there were groups of people singing Oldies. And, if you went to any of the bars, the jukebox had their one or two oldies on."

Only the agent from Mercury had been unimpressed--his only comment was that it had been too noisy to judge the group.

Over the course of the next several months, the group sought to maintain their momentum and refine their act. They changed their name to Sha Na Na--the background lyric to the song "Get a Job." They learned as many Oldies as they could. The choreography for their show became more elaborate and carefully thought out, complete with flexing and preening, with strutting and scowling, with Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry imitations. And their costumes came much closer to authentic 50's garb, even using D-Y Lubricating Cream to grease their hair back--"a vile substance used only by gynecologists and homosexuals," and the greasiest stuff they could find.

It was a good time to be a local group trying to make a go of it in New York. Medium-sized establishments like the Fillmore East--which has since closed--gave lesser known groups a chance on bills with more popular groups.

But the group's biggest break was undoubtedly Woodstock. A Woodstock promoter happened to hear the group in a local bar and was so impressed that he invited them to play at the festival.

Joffe and the others hoped that a Woodstock appearance would launch them to national prominence. And it did, but not in the way they had expected.

All that they got directly from the Festival was a $300 check--which later bounced. And Joffe's two clearest memories of the festival are both negative--"it was muddy and there was no place to pee."

What they did get out of the festival, though, was a two minute segment in the Woodstock movie which gave their very visual act national exposure and established their reputation as the original 50's revival band.

The next few years saw the peak of Sha Na Na's popularity. Their concerts--and the concept of a 50's revival--were still novel and seemed to generate a certain excitement in its audience, seemed to unleash energy that hadn't been tapped since the shaking and twisting of the 50's.

But many critics attacked Sha Na Na, attacked what they thought it stood for--reactionary impulse, a desire to return to the 50-s, a rejection of the 60's and its counterculture.

"The show was never intended to be straight nostalgia. It was intended to be ambiguous, to have an edge of irony. The point was that it was an amazing thing for us that even the music of our youth was already an old thing... we could make fun of our former selves and indulge in simple fantasies that we knew didn't define us.

"It was the first time the rock culture really got a sense of its own history. It was like experiencing a moment of maturity through this medium everybody had been listening to. It was like a cultural bar mitzvah."

And the members of the group themselves were not reactionary. They appeared at antiwar benefits as Sha Na Na, and many of them had been involved in Columbia's student riots.

But Sha Na Na's appeal was not limited to the counterculture. "Greasers like us too... we'd play at a bar in the Bronx where people came dressed like us not because they were role-playing but because they had never adopted bell bottoms. They were still wearing white socks and beehive hairdos and Cuban heels."

During most of his Sha Na Na years, Joffe was also at Columbia. He enjoyed the double life of being a student and a rock 'n' roll performer, enjoyed the perspective each life gave on the other.

"It was one of the best times of my life. I was a better student then than I was before or after. I'm not sufficiently into school to make it my whole life. By the time we had been playing a year and a half, our schedule was to be on the road from Thursday until Monday... it was neat to arrive at class three hours after catching a plane out of Ottowa, Canada or someplace."

He studied, studied hard--"in a lot of dressing rooms with t.v.'s going and people doing all kinds of things that aren't printable, or on airplanes when everyone else was sleeping or getting drunk"--and ended up graduating summa.

Beside the fun and excitement. Joffe also came to know the underside of fame and glitter--the hypoerisy, the phoniness, the parasitism that comes with sudden adulation and acclaim.

"Suddenly I found myself a pop idol... In high school, I had already experienced being underrated for my lack of superficial hipness... I always tried to follow my own guiding light and yet people's perceptions of me swung from being totally unhip to being awesomely hip."

Nevertheless, for the first few years Joffe was able to maintain and immensely enjoy a many-faceted existence, one that embraced and united apparent contraditions and paradoxes.

By 1973, however, all of the different strands had started to unravel. Instead of a diverse audience that included campus crowds and intellectuals, the audience now seemed confined to "teeny boppers, straight nostalgia buffs, and greasers." With many of the original Sha Na Na members gone and with none of them still in school, some members now saw the group strictly as a serious, full-time business venture. And many seemed to have lost any sense of the group's political awareness, opposing Joffe's suggestion that they play a benefit for McGovern in the fall of '72.

"I didn't see any point in continuing just to make money and get laid and all the other fringe benefits when it seemed to have lost its vitality. Financially, especially with this T.V. deal, it hasn't lost its vitality, but creatively, it died before I left it."

The parting was not without rancor. In the spring of '73, Joffe and a few of the other original members filed suit against the remaining members of the group, figuring that if those who had stayed wished to view the group strictly as a business venture, they would have to pay for the ownership rights. The suit was finally settled out of court three years later.

By the time he quit the group, Joffe had decided to come to Harvard for graduate school. There were a lot of reasons why he chose Harvard, but one seems to stand out.

"I wanted to be able to say to the straight world--and also to myself--that the reason I was different, if I was, was not that I couldn't do it the right way. I wanted to be able to feel that I had given the straight way a chance, knew what its point of view was, and was capable of succeeding on its terms, but preferred to do something else."

Since coming to Harvard in the fall of '73, Joffe has tried to maintain perspective on Harvard as an institution and on the life of a student. He has never lived in Cambridge, preferring to put some distance between himself and Harvard Square. And he has periodically taken semesters off from Harvard to pursue activities very different from the academic routine. He has lived in Oakland and Rochester, has gone to auto mechanic's and welding school, has worked as a delivery boy and a police reporter.

At times, Joffe has been frustrated and disappointed by Harvard, by its emphasis on status and credentials and making a name for oneself.

"I see the same thing at Harvard and many other places--a person is rated on the basis of how many books he's published, how many courses he's teaching, how, much money he gets paid... those people who are agressive and career-oriented and competitive are 'successes,' but the institutions of the elite are far from being the whole story."

As a teaching assistant, Joffe has never been entirely happy. He taught an English 175 section last spring and was teaching one this year but quit it for his present job as a police reporter for a local paper.

Despite his frustrations--or perhaps because of them--Joffe seems to have been an exceptionally good sectionperson. Harry Gersh '80, Harvard's well-known 64-year-old student and a member of Joffe's section earlier this year, remembers Joffe's "refreshing... apprecation of the guts of the novel." Gary Hemphill, another student in that section, remembers Joffe as somebody who was "comfortable and competent in leading a section"--and also remembers him as the only section leader he has had who consistently quoted Bob Dylan to illustrate points about the literature he was discussing.

It has been interesting for Joffe to watch what has happened to the people he went to college with and the people he played in Sha Na Na with. Most have gone on to careers--doctors, lawyers, professor, owners of apartment buildings. Some of those who stayed with the group seemed to have fared worst--one died of a heroin overdose, another had a nervous breakdown.

Perhaps because of what he's seen in his friends' lives, perhaps because of his own life, Joffe has given a lot of thought to the counterculture of the 60's, to its roots in the 50's and its fate in the 70's. He has even formulated a lengthy, complex theory to explain these cultural dynamics, a theory which he some day hopes to publish.

But Joffe remains very uncertain about his future and about any career goals. In that respect, things haven't changed much since the time a few years ago when he was recommended for an award as the graduate student with the greatest promise and answered a question about career goals by writing "NONE"--which might have had something to do with why he didn't win the award.

There are times when Joffe sees himself as "manic, troubled, confused" and isn't sure exactly why Various people along the way have tried to suggest to him that his problems, his continuing confusion and uncertainty, are the result of his early Sha Na Na success and the way that it delayed traditional adolescent insecurities about adapting and conforming, about adjusting and pursuing a career. But Joffe never felt that that analysis rang true.

And it doesn't. Because his confusion represents more, much more, than merely a delayed adolescence. It represents the attempt to lead a life that embraces many of the disparate elements of American culture, a life that seeks to be inclusive rather than exclusive, and a life that struggles, always struggles, to maintain perspective.