When alums run through the luminous list of famous names who have passed through Harvard’s ivied halls, a few rockers sneak in among the Supreme Court justices, laurelled writers and high-ranking politicians: Bonnie L. Raitt ’72, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello ’86 and Weezer frontman and sometime Harvard student Rivers Cuomo all did time by the Charles. But few would likely mention Jacob H. Slichter ’83-’84, whose years in the music industry have left him far from a household name—and yet, as the drummer for power-pop trio Semisonic, Slichter has left his own indelible mark on listeners’ minds.
Remember “Closing Time”? Those are Slichter’s insistently-shaken maracas in the first verse of the tuneful 1998 hit, his exploding backbeat charging the song from the moment the first chorus hits. Fellow alum and bandmate Daniel D. Wilson ’83, meanwhile, propels the number—which he wrote along with most of Semisonic’s three-album catalog—with his high-pitched earnestness.
For a time, as most current undergrads began to navigate high school, “Closing Time” and a follow-up single or two made Slichter’s band positively ubiquitous, in a faceless kind of way. You’d never recognize them on the street, but it was their tune whistling in the background of countless malls and dances. Just as quickly, of course, the fickle charts dropped Semisonic, and critical acclaim could do little to keep the trio in the spotlight.
Now, with a recently-published memoir of his still-unfinished musical career getting raves in venues including The New York Times, the Washington Post and Playboy, Slichter is making one more bid for the public’s attention.
FASCINATING NEW THING
So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: How I Machine-Gunned a Roomful of Record Executives and Other True Tales from a Drummer’s Life (Broadway Books, $21.95), based on online road diaries Slichter penned while Semisonic toured, opens a good-humored conversation about an often overlooked side of fame. Neither dominating pop culture for any substantial amount of time nor laboring away without any success, Semisonic and Slichter have walked a much more subtle path. The stories he has to tell of the music business’ endless convolutions are not quite sordid, but neither are they ever boring—Slichter’s voice is vicariously thrilling at the highs even as it chronicles the maddeningly banal roadblocks to chart domination.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that Slichter has a unique take on the nature of fame. After all, the subject’s been on his mind his days as a joint concentrator in Afro-American studies and history at Harvard in the early 1980s.
Back then, he remembers spending his free time playing in “a lot of sort of funk cover bands,” with a sometimes-unfocused eye towards the stars.
“I wanted to be the most critically and commercially successful person I could be,” Slichter recalls when reached by phone at his New York home. “My plan, to the extent I had one, was—‘Well, I’ll just be really special and that will somehow work out to me being successful.’ It doesn’t quite work out that way.”
It would be years before Slichter left his post-grad day jobs to join John Munson and freshman-week friend Wilson in the band that would become Semisonic. Still, by senior year at Harvard he had hit on two-thirds of the Semisonic formula, playing gigs with Wilson and another in The Floating World, which Slichter recalls now as an Anglophile act “with a sort of r-and-b approach on the drums.”
The Floating World didn’t take Slichter far upstream, though, and he says he spent most of his years in Cambridge watching a “pretty lame” music scene at the College go by with occasional highlights. An extra year studying jazz composing and arranging at the Berklee College of Music, he says, turned out to be “more like a boot camp for musicians.”
Slichter’s memories of academics by the Yard are no rosier. He recalls rewarding hours of study on topics including intellectual history—reserving high praise for Trumbull Professor of History emeritus Donald Fleming, Cabot Professor of English Literature and Professor of African and African American Studies Werner Sollors and Plummer Professor of Christian Morals Peter J. Gomes. But in his memoir, Slichter refers to the College as “a place for which I was poorly prepared and which in every regard…annihilated my self-confidence.”
A part of one of the first classes subject to the Core Curriculum, Slichter says now that those requirements were the least of his worries.
“If there was a controversy I never heard about it,” Slichter says. “You have to fill in your squares across the bingo board, and the Core is one of then, so just shut up and do it. I went through Harvard in such an academic daze that none of that affected me one way or the other.”