Music Has Always Been There for Hank Davis ’63

Hank Davis ’63 is a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

“I’ve been listening to music for as long as I can remember, playing it for almost as long, and writing about it for almost as long as that,” Davis says. “No matter where I was or what else was going on in my life, music has always been there.

“Back when I was a student, Art Garfunkel ’65, once gave me a brief but impassioned lecture. ‘It is possible to burn the candle at both ends,’ he insisted. ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you it isn’t.’ He was right, of course. In my case, I’ve worked as both a psychologist (teaching, writing, doing research and therapy) and as a music journalist. I’m glad nobody ever asked me to choose between psychology and music.

“In 1971, I moved to Canada to join the faculty of the University of Guelph. I loved standing in front of a roomful of 600 kids, teaching them about exciting discoveries in the field. It turns out that my careers in psychology and music never interfered with each other. In fact, they probably fed off each other.

“My latest book just came out: Ducktails, Drive-Ins and Broken Hearts: An Unsweetened Look at 50s Music gathers much of the music writing I’ve done for the past 45 years. I hated the thought of all that work disappearing along with the covers of long-deleted LPs and yellowing pages of music magazines. I find that I’m really proud of having done this work. There were times over the years that I felt vaguely guilty about channeling so much creative energy into music journalism, when it could have gone on to the pages of The Journal of Experimental Psychology. I don’t feel that way anymore. I’ve published over a hundred articles in psychology journals and the truth is, I don’t feel quite as excited by them as I do holding this book in my hand. It turns out that Artie Garfunkel was right. I never did have to choose.”

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

When I was a teenager in Yonkers, my admission to the College came down to a personal interview. I had been a screw-up in high school, spending too much time hanging around record company offices and recording studios. My grades reflected it. When the big day came, my mother made me swear up and down that I would do my best to sound “smart” and not say a word about music. I reluctantly agreed but I must have had my fingers crossed. About halfway through, the interviewer asked if I had any hobbies. I told him I played the guitar. He asked how serious I was about it and whether I was any good. I told him I had just made a record. He seemed stunned by that and pressed me for further details. I gleefully reported them, describing the recording session and what it was like to hear my record played on the radio. He seemed utterly intrigued by everything I had to say. About a week later I received my letter of acceptance from Columbia.

I was cocky when I arrived — I often felt like the smartest kid in my high school class. I didn’t have to work very hard to succeed. Those feelings didn’t last long at Columbia. I was surrounded by guys who were also the smartest kids in their high school classes. This was a whole other level of competition and I had to adjust real fast. It was quite a sobering experience.

And sometimes it was a struggle. I still had to make it through the next four years. My mother was afraid that my Fender Stratocaster and that stack of 45s, both of which I played incessantly, were going to undermine her efforts to turn me into a studious academic. She needn’t have worried. I did become an academic, and a fairly successful one, but I never stopped playing the guitar and all those records. And when I was no longer playing the guitar professionally, I started writing about the music I loved. It was exciting to communicate that passion in liner notes and magazine articles. I felt the same way about psychology.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

Living in a suite in what was then called “New Hall” threw four of us together from entirely different worlds. One was a Mormon from Idaho. I so bombarded him with questions that he called in a missionary from his church to try to deal with my curiosity. He didn’t come close to converting me and I probably wore him out in the process.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

Two courses stand out in my mind. One was “Physics For Poets,” taught by a Nobel Prize winner named Polycarp Kusch. He wasn’t above standing in front of a room full of undergraduates and doing shtick to explain a concept to us. It was the first and only physics course I ever took and I got a C, but that was my fault, not his. What I learned most from that course was that good teaching is not rooted in formality or dignity. I took that experience with me as a professor years later. Sure, I enjoyed teaching upper-level seminars, but I also asked for a large section of introductory psychology, geared to kids who would never take another psych course in their lives.

I was also strongly affected by a modern drama course taught by Robert Brustein GSAS’57. It taught me that the enjoyment of theater, music or art could be enhanced when you analyzed it afterward. The simple act of writing a movie review changes your perception of the film. I have the same experience with music and have probably written well over a million words about the music I love. To this day, I barely understand how anyone can play music in the background. Music is foreground to me; if it’s there, I’m listening.

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

I looked forward to regular visits to The Lion’s Den in Ferris Booth Hall. A mid-afternoon burger and root beer float were a good break from studying. In later years I became very involved with WKCR and spent a lot of time at the radio station with my buddy Scott Parker ’64, who co-produced our country and western show, “Tennessee Border.” I was amazed to see that the show, which we had created in the early ‘60s, was still on the schedule more than 50 years later.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

I went back home to Yonkers most weekends and, in doing so, I held on to a lot of my pre-college life and friends. In retrospect, it was probably not a great idea.