Steve Perry stood outside Oregon Hall with a single thought roaming through his head: This is a bad idea. I'm not sure I can do this.
It was spring 2002, and over the preceding decade, Perry and his band, Eugene's Cherry Poppin' Daddies, had sampled nearly every delicacy the music business was capable of serving up. After years of independent album releases and grinding it out on the U.S. club circuit, the group emerged as one of the progenitors of the so-called “swing revival,” resulting in a number one Billboard single (“Zoot Suit Riot,” 1997), sold-out world tours, multiplatinum record sales, a nomination for an MTV Video Music Award, and even a “Weird Al” Yankovic parody (“Grapefruit Diet”). Not bad for a bunch of guys who irregularly attended the UO early in their academic tenures to pursue the glittering but ephemeral rock 'n' roll dream.
But lately, that dream had faded: in 2000, the group's more eclectic follow-up album, Soul Caddy, had failed to register with the mass audience generated by their swing material (the Daddies' new fans proved largely unaware of the group's early stylistic zigzagging, which included songs that jumped easily across the ska, funk, rockabilly, and punk genres). The band's major-label record company, Mojo, hadn't helped matters any: “The label was concerned,” Perry remembers with a sardonic chuckle. “They told us ‘it's good, but not like the Cherry Poppin' Daddies people know and love.' Their brilliant idea was to issue our next single, ‘Diamond Light Boogie,' with no band listed on it whatsoever. It was comedy—we ended up really disappointed, because you work really hard to make something you're proud of and then give it to the Keystone Kops, watch them bump into each other, and fall down. That's where we were at the time.”
Burned out and bummed out, Perry retreated, moving to New York City, where he spent parts of more than two years “chilling out anonymously. I basically just needed a vacation!” he explains. “It was a good time in my life in that it allowed me to heal. But I missed everybody back in Eugene—my friends and a lot of people who loved me took it personally, like I'd turned my back on them. So I came back to Eugene but didn't have very much to do: I wasn't going to make another record. My main memory of that time is my brain feeling like a smooth lacrosse ball: no wrinkles in my cortex at all. I felt stupid!”
And this is how Perry—having waked up one night bathed in a sweat, wondering Oh my god, what am I going to do with myself?—decided to pursue his backup plan by returning to the campus he'd left in 1983, when, washing dishes, attending Black Flag shows in someone's basement, and the call of the rock 'n' roll life had proven stronger than his will to study.
He'd go back to school.
So there he stood that fine spring day, steeling himself for the pitch that followed. “I remember laughing through the whole thing,” Perry recalls. “I walked into Oregon Hall and told 'em my story: I used to be a rock star, and I want to see if I can come back to school. But I'm pretty stupid now. I'm not sure I can pull it off. Can I take a few classes and see? Maybe I can get the degree I'm interested in pursuing.” By the time he left, it was official: Steve Perry had dropped back in to the UO.
Just like starting over
Like most of Perry's endeavors—such as giving his band a name guaranteed to generate controversy or writing songs in a variety of styles that would force the group to learn entirely new musical genres—his chosen field of study reflected a desire to challenge himself to the maximum degree possible. Perry would pursue an undergraduate degree in molecular biology.
As it happens, the apple didn't fall far from the tree, intellectually speaking. “I have a tendency to throw things in front of me that are hard, put weights around my ankles,” Perry explains. “My father's a scientist—he worked for years at IBM in upstate New York—and the value of an education is something that had been drilled into me as a kid, but I had basically walked out on all those values in 1983. At that time I was going to be a chemistry major. It was just the beginning of the DNA revolution and of course the UO had all the heavy hitters of molecular biology as faculty—Frank Stahl, George Streisinger, Aaron Novick. By the time I had returned to campus, genetics had exploded and was much more interesting [than chemistry], much more my bag.”
Diving headlong into his new task, Perry aced his first few classes, developing a focus that surprised even him. “Anyone who's an older student knows this, but when you're older, your study habits are better—I'd pretty much gotten all my ya-yas out in my other world. You're also more willing to be the irritating person who asks the dumb questions everyone wants to ask. I was basically Socrates: ‘I know zero, I'm a rock 'n' roll guy, you're going to have to explain this to me.' I went to several of my professors and gave them the same pitch I did before: ‘I've been out of school a long time, I'm pretty stupid, and I'm not sure I can do this. But I'm going to try. So if I'm ever in the way or something, just tell me and I'll drop out.'”
Perry enjoyed a few years of relative anonymity on campus. “I have a general tendency to hide my identity, not to use the fame thing,” he laughs, “but when it would come up, the reaction [from fellow students] was almost always, ‘No, you can't be the guy from the Cherry Poppin' Daddies, I've heard them before, and we're in the same class!'”
But then it became clear to Perry that he needed to wrap up his undergraduate career. For one thing, his mother was ill (she died of unknown causes last year) and he could hear the clock ticking. “Not to sound like a silent movie or anything, but I wanted to do it for my parents because when I dropped out to pursue music, my mother told me, ‘Stevie, you can have a vocation and then maybe music can be your avocation.' And I told her, ‘mom, that all sounds good, but it doesn't work that way, at least not for me. It's a 24-7 job. I've gotta wash dishes and play music.' It bummed her out when I dropped out.” And there was a part of him that just needed to do it: “The degree was an unfinished thing in my life. I mean, my dad's a physicist, and one thing I've always liked about him is his sense of wonder and curiosity about how things work. So in many ways it was in me.”
Perry finally secured his degree in spring 2004, mounting a very different stage than the ones upon which he'd earned a living for the entirety of the '90s. “It was such a great day,” Perry remembers. “My mother and father were both there, and although it felt kind of silly—my friends cheered when I received my diploma—it made me feel better about myself to earn my degree. For one thing, it made me feel more secure as a musician—the business has changed so much that people take what you do for free these days—like I could be a lab rat somewhere and do my music if and when I wanted. It was like a safety net. And best of all, I had the sensation of my cortex actually wrinkling a little. It was as if my brain had gotten back into shape.”
Man of words, man of music
Even as he completed his studies, Perry could feel himself being drawn back to his musical roots once again. “At some point during the last year, I was already thinking about doing music again. The Daddies had basically been on hiatus but there was stuff going on—people would call us up and say ‘Hey, come play the Dogwood Festival in Atlanta,' and we'd fly out and play the greatest hits of the Daddies. It wasn't that hard—we'd show up and do it, then everyone could go do their side projects, be with their families. We'd settled into something that was nice but didn't ask very much of us. That's when I decided it was time to do a new record—I'd say ‘Hey, I'm down, is anyone else down to do this?'” Perry laughs. “It ended up being a mixed bag of responses.”
The fruits of this labor can now be heard on the Cherry Poppin' Daddies latest album, Susquehanna, a triumphant return to the musical spotlight in the form of a concept album: a thirteen-track story-in-song that proves to be the band's most reflective, nuanced work to date. “I wanted to go back to doing multiple musical genres,” Perry recounts enthusiastically, “but I also wanted a narrative arc running through it. I was watching this [Jean-Luc] Godard movie Pierrot le fou recently—it starts out as a road film, then out of nowhere, becomes a musical. It's a consciousness-raising disruption, which makes you wonder what Godard really had in mind. My ideas are like that, too; but as you get older, the way you want to do things is subtler. So [Susquehanna is] not really about the different genres—they're just an information-carrying device. It's about the story: the remembering, the loss of innocence. You get a picture of this person who longs to be part of a community but continually runs away. I'm a classicist, when it comes down to it: I like Greek tragedies, Shakespeare. I'm trying to lead you down the path to where I want you to go.”
Wherever his path may ultimately lead—to a recording studio, a biology lab, or both—it's clear that Steve Perry still has a few new wrinkles to dazzle us with.
Corey duBrowa '88 serves by day as the Portland-based president of the PR firm Waggener Edstrom Worldwide and can remember when his lousy college band played on the same three-bar Eugene circuit as Perry's first group, Snakepit.