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October 19, 2005: On the Campus

Kicking up a Rackett

By Christian R. Burset ’07

Professors Nigel Smith (top) and Paul Muldoon moonlight in a rock band called Rackett. (Photographs by Beverly Schaefer, top; Celene Chang ’06, bottom )

By day, Professor Nigel Smith lectures on Paradise Lost. By night, he plays the devil’s music.

If it seems unlikely that an English professor would play rock ’n’ roll, consider another Princeton faculty member: Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who also writes rock lyrics.

In addition to their impressive academic achievements, Muldoon and Smith form the core of a rock band called Rackett. And they do it loudly.

“Rock ’n’ roll is about noise,” said Muldoon, the band’s lyricist. “It’s about making a lot of noise in a comparatively unsophisticated way.”

But given the band’s membership — which also includes Beckman Rich, associate general counsel for Rutgers University; his son Henry, a co-founder of Oral Fixation mints; Eric Lybeck, an executive with Oral Fixation; and Paul Grimstad, a grad student at New York University — cranking up the volume may not be Rackett’s chief concern. When I saw the band play at an outdoor concert in September, I almost instinctively began taking notes — especially after the first song alluded to King Lear.

Later, Muldoon talked about the music “being in conversation” with previous artists, and Smith discussed the “exciting experiment” of fusing poetry and rock ’n’ roll.

Students, for their part, enjoy seeing their professors outside the classroom. At an outdoor concert in September, Kevin Smith ’07 pointed to Nigel Smith (no relation) hopping around the stage in a black cowboy shirt.

“I can’t think of too many other situations where a world-renowned Renaissance professor could get away with that,” Kevin Smith said, laughing.

Above all, Rackett seems dedicated to the fine art of having fun. “It’s very gratifying to be able to entertain people,” said Smith, who writes Rackett’s music. “It’s a wonderful thing to be appreciated. It’s the opposite of what academics do, which is to give a critical paper met with a critical reception.”

[Click here for lyrics and to hear the title track from the Rackett CD, "Don't Try This At Home."]

Shivana Gupta’s freshman year at Tulane lasted only a few hours. Shortly after she began unpacking, a residential adviser told her that the school was closing for a few days as Hurricane Katrina approached. Gupta and her family drove back home to Georgia, taking only her electronics and a few changes of clothes.

“I recall being so upset that I’d have to miss a week of school,” Gupta said. “Little did I know it would be the entire semester.”

Compared to other parts of New Orleans, Tulane suffered relatively little damage. But after the city’s levees broke, it became clear classes would not begin until the spring, and Gupta began applying elsewhere.

“Princeton was the first one to accept me,” she said. “President Tilghman actually called to welcome me. It was unbelievable!”

Twenty-three undergraduates from Tulane are studying at Princeton this semester. Although colleges across the country have welcomed students displaced by Katrina, many Tulane students praised Princeton’s efforts.

“The admission person I spoke with said, ‘I hope we’re making your life a little easier,’ ” freshman Ryan Felice said. “That says it all.”

Felice and Gupta seem eager to plunge into campus life. The aikido club and radio station have attracted Felice’s attention, and Gupta will play club tennis this semester.

Alexandra Carew found her situation more disconcerting. She never expected to start her senior year struggling to find her way around (she described Princeton as a “jungle of identical buildings”) or knowing so few people around her.

“That was probably the scariest part: being such an old student, relatively speaking, and starting all over again,” she said. “My roommate and I felt kind of silly going to orientation activities.”

It’s easy to understand why Carew is eager to return to Tulane. But even though Felice and Gupta have become more familiar with Nassau Street than Bourbon Street, they are eager to get started at their own school. They view the aftermath of Katrina as a unique opportunity — Gupta said she looks forward to helping rebuild her school and its city, and Felice noted that although the hurricane scattered his classmates across the country, it may also bring them together.

“We’re going to be the most unified graduating class of any college, ever, because of what we went through,” Felice said. end of article

Christian R. Burset ’07 is a history major from Bernardsville, N.J.


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