JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) – Jacksonville University professor Tommy Harrison has kept his hair long all these years. A good thing: It will come in handy when he takes to the road again, backed by a new record contract, as a head-banging, hair-tossing, heavy-metal guitar hero.
At 47, he has as much fun playing as he did when he was 13 or 14, he says – and he says he knows how improbable this break in the industry might seem.
“It’s best to say that I’m honored and grateful for the opportunity. I’m fully aware that no one of my age gets this type of opportunity, especially in rock music, and I’m also grateful for my students that they’ll be able to have an experience with their professor who’s currently on a major label. That’s unheard of.”
Harrison grew up in Hawaii, and still has that island-surfer drawl to his voice. He did the whole school-band thing as a kid, running through a variety of brass instruments. He then found the electric guitar. And heavy metal music found him.
That was it: the power and magic of distorted guitars. blasting through loud Marshall amplifiers.
To the dismay of his parents – his dad was a decorated career U.S. Marine – he grew his hair long, the better to toss around on stage. He turned up his amps, joined a band, got good, got fast.
There was power to that, a new feeling for a shy kid who was good in school (his dad let him grow the hair in exchange for good grades): “I always felt powerful,” Harrison says, “with my hair and my clothing and the guitar and the amp and the volume. I felt cool, and I felt powerful.”
He chuckles as he shows a picture from those early days, when he was still a teenager with a 28-inch waist. “Those,” he says, “were the years before I discovered Publix chicken wings and beer, not necessarily in that order.”
Still, there was only so far a skinny, shaggy-haired metal guitarist could go in Hawaii. So the teenage Harrison left the islands, on a journey that would see him get a Ph.D. in musicology and a teaching gig at JU as a professor of commercial business, music business and recording.
Yet he never left heavy metal behind: At the University of Salford in England, he wrote his doctoral thesis on Van Halen, which was turned into a book. And now, among other duties at JU, he teaches a class called Hard Rock and Heavy Metal of the 1980s.
Harrison kept playing heavy metal guitar, too – including a stint in Denver with Dogs of Pleasure, which toured the Western states – taking some breaks here and there for studies and teaching and raising a family (he’s married, with two daughters). Then something rather improbable happened.
This fall, the college professor signed contracts to play with three bands on the 405 Hollywood/Atlantic Records label.
The first is with one-time band-mate Raven Cain, a singer who now lives in Utah. Cain’s album, “Oblivious,” is expected to be released Dec. 16. Harrison played guitar and bass, co-wrote songs and produced the album. That led to a contract for another album with a band named Glutton – also featuring Cain – as well as one made up of instrumentals by the professor’s own band, the Tommy Harrison Group.
He’s expecting to go on tour with Cain early next year, going back to what he was born to do.
Peter Mosley, who played in Jacksonville bands Inspection 12, Yellowcard and Canary in the Coalmine, plays bass with the Tommy Harrison Group. He said Harrison is an inventive guitarist who, once he takes the stage, is far from the mild-mannered college professor he plays during the day.
“He’s a kid, a big kid. He likes to get up there and let his hair down and just have fun,” he said. “It’s probably a great breath of fresh air for him, to get back on stage and perform.”
He’s more than a metalhead, though, said Mosley, who met Harrison while attending the music business program at JU: He knows heavy metal as a performer and an academic, to be sure, but he’s also an adept classical guitarist with a deep knowledge of many kinds of music.
“You can sit down and talk about Bach with him. He studies Beethoven scores. He is a composer, he’s dabbled in choral pieces and larger ensemble pieces as well,” Mosley said. “He’s an equal-opportunity music appreciator.”
Indeed. Harrison teaches classes in music arranging, music technology and the music business, and was for three years the dean of the music department at JU. He’s also written six books; his next, coming out early next year, is on American pop culture of the 1980s.
He’s in his natural element, though, teaching the heavy-metal course, a music appreciation class that goes right up to the introduction of Nirvana. It’s not all fun, Harrison says – at one point each semester he shows a barrage of bad videos by bad hair-metal bands, all poses and excess, until students beg him to stop.
And that’s why we had to have Nirvana, he tells them.
Adam Rohrer, 23, a sophomore majoring in music business, said his friends are jealous when he tells him he’s taking a heavy-metal class. Yet it’s not necessarily easy.
“He makes hard quizzes,” he said. “If you’re not coming to class consistently, even if you know a lot about metal, you’re going to have no idea how to answer those questions.”
During a recent class, Harrison paced the stage at Terry Concert Hall in front of 10 students, showing rock videos from Poison and Cinderella before moving on to section 6 of the class – Underground Metal Becomes Mainstream.
That led to some discussion on Queensryche, from the Seattle area. He likes Queensryche, a more thoughtful group than many, and is especially fond of their 1988 concept album, “Operation: MindCrime.”
So much so that he offers extra credit if students go out and buy the CD. Don’t stream it, he told them. Instead, order the actual, physical CD, something you can hold in your hands. Listen to it on headphones – real, serious headphones, not those flimsy ear buds – while reading the lyrics, all the lyrics.
Only then can it really be appreciated.
“Get this,” he urged them. “It’s good for you. Really.”