What happens when you gather 200 of the world's most serious scholars, isolate them in a wooded compound, liberate them from all the mundane distractions of university life, and tell them to do their best work? Not much. True, a lot of cutting edge research gets done at the celebrated Institute for Advanced Study near Princeton. Due to the Institute's remarkable hospitality, there is no better place for an academic to sit and think. Yet the problem, according to many fellows, is that the only thing there is to do at the Institute is sit and think. It would be an understatement to call the IAS an Ivory Tower, for there is no more lofty place. Most world-class academic institutions, even the very serious, have a place where a weary bookworm can get a pint and listen to the jukebox. Not so the IAS. Old hands talk about the salad days of the 40s and 50s when the Institute was party central for Princeton's intellectual elite. John von Neumann invented modern computing, but he is also rumored to have cooked up a collection of mind-numbing cocktails that he liberally distributed at wild fetes. Einstein turned physics on its head, but he also took the occasional turn at the fiddle. Taking their cues from the Ancients, the patriarchs of the Institute apparently believed that men (as they would have said) should be well-rounded, engaging in activities high and low, according the Golden Mean. But now the Apollonian has so overwhelmed the Dionesian at the Institute that, according to many members, even the idea of having a good time is considered only in abstract terms. Walking around the Institute's grounds, you might trip over a Nobel laureate or a Fields medalist. Given the generous support of the Institute, you might even become one. But you can be pretty certain that you won't have a drink and a laugh with either.
All that changed in 1998 when several bored IAS members concocted a radical plan to break the grip of academic tedium. What the staid Institute needed, they believed, was a red-lining, full-blown, hard-driving Rock band. It was not as if there was no music at the Institute when this idea was hatched. There is a musician-in-residence, the renowned pianist Robert Taub, who gives the occasional concert. Yet the tastes of most of Taub's audience run more to Mozart than Motley Crew, so his repertoire is limited to dead white males, mostly from Austria or thereabouts. The band conspirators thought that (as one English historian put it) "music in the popular idiom" would compliment Taub's classical menu. Indeed. And it might be more fun at parties, were there any. The fact that several of the would-be rockers had never played their instruments was not seen as a considerable obstacle -- the Sex Pistols couldn't play theirs and none of them held a Ph.D. in math. So the Institute's first (and, no doubt, last) band was born. It took the name "Do Not Erase," after the small signs IAS members use to prevent janitors from wiping clean the next E=MC2 from their office chalk boards.
After a month or so of practice, "Do Not Erase" was ready for its debut. The obvious forum for a first appearance would have been the annual "Mid-Winter Ball," the biggest event of the Institute season. Inquiries were made, but in the end the syndics wisely decided that a light jazz combo and disco DJ would be more appropriate. No Hard Core, thank you. It was then that David Hogg, a noted astrophysicist and 5-year member, entered the picture. In the spring of every year Hogg holds a get-down-and-dirty house party. You may not get oysters on the half shell, but you will have the opportunity to dance till it hurts and drink your fill. In "Do Not Erase," Hogg had found just the right house-party band.
No one at the Institute remembers anyone ever slam dancing before Hogg's party on March 6, 1999. Mosh pits also seem to have been unusual, even in Von Neumann's day. Yet as any attendee of the Hogg fest could attest, things got pleasantly out of hand that night. Beer was spilled, bottles were smashed, fights broke out, girls flirted, boys bird-dogged, and everyone had a hell of time. It was, as one party-goer said, a kind of geeky freak show. "Do Not Erase" played through the whole mess, very loudly and very fast. For a moment, the IAS seemed like a place where one might have good fun in addition to doing one's best work. The band played a few more gigs -- in Harry's bar (opened by special dispensation for the event), at MIT, and at a party in New York. Now "Do Not Erase" has split. The band members are (or soon will be) in England, Ireland, France and in various parts of the US. A reunion is rumored for next year's Hogg blow-out. All of players agree that "Do Not Erase" was their best work while at the Institute.
DO NOT ERASE is:
Carol Namkoong: drums, backing vocals
Marshall Poe: vocals, rhythm guitar
David Renard: lead guitar
Konstanze Rietsch: vocals
Peter Trapa: bass
Lindi Wahl: vocals
Special Thanks to: Ramesh Sreekantan, Terry Fuller, Roger Crum, Shahn Majid, Allen Salkin, Sam and Hogg, Pat Trapa, Andy Compton and the IAS.