The Corporate Empires

Once we were The Corporate Empires.

Today, Bob does fiber-optics research in Arizona. Chester works at the U.S. Patent Office, refereeing intellectual-property fights over wastewater systems. I work for a newspaper. There are wives (current and ex-), children, and mortgages.

Every summer, the remains of the Empires reassemble for an afternoon of ragged interpretations of Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones. We usually wrap up with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” whose narrator, noting the street-corner parade of ordinary working stiffs, declares, “Me, I’m in a rock-and-roll band. Huh!”

The Empires never really walked on the wild side. I was the sort of first-born son so obedient that I never dared to ask my parents for a set of drums. Night after night, I listened to the Stones on my headphones, air drumming with a pair of No. 2 pencils. When I got to Harvard, one of the first things I did was spend $100 on a dented four-piece Ludwig drum kit. I dragged it to the basement of Pennypacker Hall and learned to play, or at least to play very simple songs: two kicks on the bass pedal, pop the snare—repeat ad infinitum.

Paul Barrett '83 plays rock.
Courtesy of Paul Barrett

Meanwhile, my high-school friend Chester had set off for MIT, similarly devoid of musical skill but, like me, fantasizing about playing in a band. As luck would have it, one of his fraternity brothers, Bob, a math-and-music whiz, agreed to teach Chester how to play electric bass. With Bob on guitar and vocals, we had a classic power trio.

It was late summer 1980. We practiced for a week straight before sophomore-year classes started. Then I precipitously arranged for our debut at a back-to-school party at the Crimson, where I spent most of my time and to which my parents should have been sending their tuition checks. In certain circles at the Crimson, I had a reputation as a precociously sold-out political moderate. On the night of the party, an older, more leftist colleague dubbed our band The Corporate Empires. The name stuck.

At our best, we were not very good. But we showed up on time, and Bob didn’t talk a lot between songs.

Harvard was bursting with musical talent: student orchestras, jazz groups, and rock bands that, unlike The Corporate Empires, played their own stuff. I felt a little embarrassed when I crossed paths in the Lowell House courtyard with a group of real student musicians, who always seemed to be accompanying a visiting Leonard Bernstein to a master class. My aspiration was to keep 4/4 rock songs more or less on the rails.

But people did come to hear us play, as my punk roommate Tom noted ruefully at the time. Tom led his own earnestly cacophonic threesome, The Not. Most audiences found The Not a little more than they had bargained for.

The Corporate Empires played the Stones’ “Live With Me” in dining halls after football games, Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” at frat parties, and “Sweet Jane” for the Northeast convention of the National High School Model United Nations. “Some people, they like to go out dancing,” Lou Reed’s hip narrator says in “Sweet Jane.” “And other peoples they have to work.” To our amazement, we got people dancing. Maybe they saw how much fun Bob, Chet, and I had stepping out of character for the night, impersonating a rock band. Maybe it was the beer.

I wasn’t kidding about the late Leonard Bernstein [’39, D.Mus. ’67]. He seemed to be at Harvard every other week. One Saturday night, The Corporate Empires were playing a party in the Lowell House dining hall, and who should materialize on stage but the maestro himself. He and a slender male companion were both dressed in black tie and opera cape.

We were in the middle of our two-song Kinks medley (“You Really Got Me” followed by the grindingly similar “All Day and All of the Night”), and I was god-damned if Leonard Bernstein and his friend weren’t doing the twist right there on the bandstand. When we thundered to a conclusion, a flushed Bernstein came over to my drum kit and said, “You guys have really got the beat!” He shook hands all around, and then, as suddenly as he and his pal had arrived, they disappeared. [For more on Bernstein, see “Spear-Carrier,” page 84.]

Between The Corporate Empires and my bohemian older girlfriend—whose affections, I suspect, had something to do with my band membership—sophomore year came very close to a young man’s idea of heaven. But the call of the first-born overachiever’s conscience is strong. The next fall, I quit the Empires to devote more time to internecine power struggles at the Crimson. It was one of my larger mistakes in life.

Bob and Chet found another (better) drummer. I later played music with other people. But it was never the same. The Empires died after that glorious 1980-81 academic year.

Some years back, we started our reunions, and the Empires gained a second life. Now, every summer, we gather in a rehearsal studio in Manhattan and barrel through the old set lists in four-hour marathons that to an outsider might appear strangely businesslike. Children and spouses are welcome for the final 15 minutes, but otherwise we don’t like distractions. There’s a lot of material to get through, and it feels like we should play everything we can remember.

I never sang with the band and don’t normally search rock lyrics for deep meaning. But in preparation for this summer’s reunion, I looked up “Sweet Jane.” I discovered that it isn’t a condescending hipster’s portrayal of the workaday world, after all. The song seems to question whether the rocker’s pose is any more real or original than that of Jane, who is a clerk, and her banker boyfriend, who together save their money and listen to classical music. We all choose parts to play, Lou Reed suggests. “And anyone who ever played a part/ They wouldn’t turn around and hate it.”

The Corporate Empires were always pretty conventional, even when we were 19 and pretending to be rockers. Still, I have never felt more like myself than I did on those Saturday nights.

~Paul M. Barrett


Paul Barrett ’83, J.D.’87, a feature editor with the Wall Street Journal, lives in New York with his wife, Julie Cohen, and dachshund, Ginger.  

Paul Barrett ’83 plays rock.


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