Rocking librarian once played by ear, not by book

Monday, December 1, 2008

If books can’t be judged by their covers, librarian Ted Widmer certainly can’t be judged by his title. Though the soft-spoken demeanor of the John Carter Brown Library’s director seems to fit the part, his enthusiastic nature makes it easy to believe that he once sported a powdered wig and platform shoes as “Lord Rockingham,” guitarist and vocalist for 1990s rock band – and 18th century aristocrat impersonators – The Upper Crust.

“I love the two things separately: rock and roll and history,” Widmer said. A former speech writer for Bill Clinton with five historical books to his name, Widmer was a founding member of The Upper Crust, a hard rock band formed in 1995 whose members assume the roles of outlandishly outfitted fops on stage. His short-lived on-stage escapades ­- he left the band in 1997 – brought him unexpected success and fame, including an appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and an opening slot for Aerosmith.

“It’s not the worst thing to make a little noise, even if you’re a librarian,” Widmer said.

Widmer, who had been in bands since the 1980s, said at the time The Upper Crust began, it seemed like anyone could start a band and become famous. Widmer attended Moses Brown School in Providence before graduating from Harvard in 1984, and ultimately earned a doctorate there in American Civilization.

Widmer had been in a few “imaginary bands” in high school, he said. “But we never actually had any songs. Or gigs. Or practices.”

The Upper Crust began after college when he and his bowling league buddies wanted an excuse to hang out more often. Widmer said the members were all involved in other bands, but “of course, my most embarrassing band was the most famous.”

With four guys and one outlandish theme, the Upper Crust was founded as an “insignificant other band,” Widmer said. “No sane person would put on a powdered wig and an 18th-century outfit and expect to become popular.”

But Widmer and many of his Upper Crust cohorts were fortunate. A lead singer in another band that Widmer belonged to, called Mente, was married to Kim Deal, bassist for the influential alternative rock band the Pixies. That connection helped Upper Crust get gigs, Widmer said.

Under aliases that Widmer said the group members thought up in “about three seconds” before their first show, the band members took the stage in powdered wigs and 18th-century outfits fashioned by their girlfriends. Widmer chose the moniker “Lord Rockingham” after a historic British barony, one heir of whom died falling off his horse, Widmer said.

Widmer played guitar, which he learned from his younger brother and improved with the help of Deal. Though he sang for the band, “I never learned to sing and still don’t know how to,” he said. “But if you turn your guitar amp up loud enough …”

Widmer eventually left the band in 1997. As a graduate student, he made connections through freelance journalism and a weekly column in the Providence Phoenix that eventually led to a job as a foreign policy speech writer in the Clinton administration for three years and then as a senior adviser from 2000 to 2001.

He interned with the JCB before joining the band, and returned to the library as director in July 2006 after working as a history professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Md.

Though he is enthusiastic about his current job, he said he is often tempted to break into song in his office.

“Fortunately, I’m able to suppress those urges,” he said.

While with the group, Widmer said he and his bandmates wanted to bring back “that foot-stomping style” of music. He wrote in an e-mail to the Herald that he has diverse taste in music.

His interests include African music from the 1970s, the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Undertones, AC/DC, Al Green and “everything that was ever recorded by Stax (Records) in Memphis.”

He said The Upper Crust’s tunes are “tongue-in-cheek hard rock of the 1970s” and more British-style than American. As one of the songwriters, Widmer said he penned songs about the 18th century. Band members spoke in faux British accents and “wandered in and out of character” as aristocrats.

Rock audiences were forgiving, he said. Starting out playing small Boston clubs, Widmer said performances were “just people having fun on slow nights.”

But once the group’s popularity began to grow, they started playing larger Boston and New York City venues. There was talk of movies and television appearances.

The group appeared on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien,” playing a song that Widmer remembers with a laugh as two songs disguised as one because each piece was too short. A documentary entitled “Let Them Eat Rock” – named after their debut album – followed the band for a few months in 1995.

Though Widmer no longer plays in the band, three of the original members remain in the now four-person group.

Their song “Eureka, I’ve Found Love” was featured in the first installment of the wildly popular video game “Guitar Hero,” a fact Widmer said he was aware of, though he has never played the game.

“I need someone to teach me,” he said.

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