The ghost of an old music professor recently reminded me of his influence on my writing career. I have his green handwriting to prove it.
Bob Cowden, who passed away last January at the age of 88, taught at SJSU for many years. He was an old-school intellectual and a rigorous academic historian with a massive book collection.
All through my SJSU undergrad life, Cowden’s upper division Music History class was generally regarded as the most difficult and the most dreaded class in the whole program because he worked the students really hard and inspired everyone to do serious research and serious writing. He didn’t suffer fools. There were no shortcuts. The lazier types and the stragglers often flunked out of his classes because they just couldn’t do the work.
But I lucked out. In that class, he gave me an “A” for a 14-page paper I wrote on 20th-century threads in radical art history. The opening sentence was the Sex Pistols dropping F-bombs on television. The rest of the paper mentioned art movements like Dada, Italian Futurism and the Situationist International, plus original-era industrial noise artists like Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Einstürzende Neubauten.
This was 1993. The World Wide Web did not yet have pictures on it. You couldn’t just Google Luigi Russolo’s Art of Noises manifesto from 1913 because there was no Google yet. I found most of the books I needed in the old Clark Library, including the seminal Greil Marcus work, Lipstick Traces, which had just been published a few years earlier. That book became a huge influence on my entire half-punk, half-academic voice, as I evolved through a decade of college. As a result, much of the paper for Cowden’s class was inspired by Lipstick Traces.
And Cowden let me do the paper. I can’t stress how insane this felt in music school. The rest of the class was trying to write about, say, if Mozart had gone to the Mannheim School, would he have used more tremolo in the strings, or something similar. And I’m opening up my paper with the Sex Pistols saying “fuck” on television. Cowden was an upmarket dude. An opera guy. He didn’t know the Sex Pistols from silly putty, but he encouraged me to follow my passion. And he loved the paper, even if it included youthful naïvete and sweeping generalizations.
I’m now regaling you with this information because I still have that paper, 3o years later, in its original form. After learning Cowden had passed away, I went and dug it out from a box, where it was mixed up with piles of other college-era homework assignments, miscellaneous notes, DAT tapes, floppy disks, hand-written drafts and music theory exercises. The paper was still stapled together, with Cowden’s handwriting in a green fountain pen.
I never really thought about it until now, but in retrospect, at that time, 1993, I had no plans to ever become a writer. I can now definitely say that paper put me on the path. It was the first time any teacher anywhere allowed me to write in my own natural voice, and research something I really wanted to research, covering material I would already be talking about anyway. You can trace a line from that paper all the way to the column you’re reading right now.
A tough grader, Cowden rarely gave anyone an “A” on anything, but in this case, he did. He wrote: “Try applying yourself with this much commitment and enthusiasm in everything you do.” I wish I had followed that advice. He also told me to get out of San Jose as soon as possible and go to grad school somewhere else. At times, I wish I had followed that advice also, but this doesn’t mean I’m sitting here afflicted with the “coulda, woulda, shoulda” condition. At least I hope not.
Anyhow, Cowden’s ghost knows his influence remains, and that all phenomena arise due to the coming together of previous phenomena. He knows the work I did for him was worth the trouble. And he let me write the F-word in the very first sentence of my paper. For that, I am forever grateful. Long live Bob Cowden!
Thank you so much Mr. Singh! As the family of Bob Cowden misses him greatly, we are nonetheless elated and gratified to hear that his inspiration lives on just has he continues to inspire all of us. He would be immensely pleased to hear your kind words and to know that he had such an impact.