Celebrity life at Yale is no piece of cake. Ask Claire Danes or Barbara Bush if they like the kind of attention they get. Arriving here with pre-assigned notoriety, with or without the mantle of a famous relative’s public image or a fan base, is not an easy thing to live down. However, building that notoriety during one’s undergraduate years within the student community results in a kind of recognition that is equally as daunting as well as more intimate. Sam Grossman ’03 is earning this kind of fame within a growing group of music appreciators at Yale.
Although only a sophomore, Sam’s fan base spans the whole of the University. Self-described as an “urban country” performer with influences from Hank Williams to Beck to Dr. Dre, Sam is nothing short of a wonder to his fans. Trained in guitar and well-practiced in writing poetry, Sam has a self-developed stage presence that magnetizes his audiences with an elusive power even his biggest fans can’t pin down. He is an anti-rock star. Wearing dog-eared tweed caps, cowboy boots and given to late-night pacing with a cigarette around the Davenport courtyard in pseudo-Burberry duds, a Mick Jagger or Willie Nelson impersonation he is not.
Despite this natural originality, he can talk endlessly of his inspirations and early influences. His dad sang him to sleep as a young child with Beatles songs. He worships Yeats’ poetry, Woody Allen movies and New York City. The cultural variety of his grandparents — New York Jews on his father’s side and all-American Protestants on his mother’s — figured prominently in the formation of his world view and sense of humor. He acknowledges the impact other artists and styles have made on him and heaps praise on his idols Bob Dylan and Nashville musician David Berman. His individual spirit overcomes any potential tendency toward imitation, however.
“I would never want to write like my idols. I want to write like me,” he says.
This he does quite well according to his many admirers. Combining country twanginess with poetic metaphor and a John Lennon-inspired love of puns, Sam’s lyrical style is a form both complementing and separate from his musicianship. The following lines from “Pretty Close to You,” arguably his most popular number, reflect his genre-crossing style: “No, I don’t know why the chain-links are unbroken/ Or why we’re being followed by the moon/ And the only reason I can see we ain’t there yet/ Is that destinations never come too soon.”
Fellow sophomore Jeannine Ruby explained his appeal. “His lyrics are really clever, and he kicks his foot out when he’s playing. He has a confident, charismatic stage presence.”
Grossman’s musical career came about almost by default. He ran for class president of his New York prep school, Fieldston, and lost. The blow to his ego was quickly assuaged by his involvement with his first band, Seamus McNasty. Although an occasional song writer and student of guitar beforehand, it wasn’t until his political career was squashed that he truly began to pursue music. Despite having never been one of the “cool kids” and losing to an opponent who was simply more charming than he, Sam looks back on his high school years with fondness and attributes some of his present talent with the creative freedom Fieldston afforded him.
Upon arrival in New Haven, he was bandless and temporarily unsatisfied. First semester went by filled with uncertainty and self-doubt. He began to indulge his fanaticism for the Beatles with his similarly obsessed roommate, smoke pot regularly and study Bob Dylan’s folk stylings. Another musical project began soon enough with the formation of The Pin-Ups, his short-lived, inaugural Yale band experience. He also joined Tangled Up in Blue, a student folk group whose creative limitations (they only play covers) were overcome by the good friendships he found among its members.
These days, Sam is playing solo shows, and in a band called Gooden with Itzhak Perlman’s son (a student at Brown). He still believes bands offer a wider range and greater sum of talent to audiences, but realizes his own vision of musical nirvana is not always compatible with that of former bandmates. The fame so many find alluring is a by-product of making good music to Sam.
“There is something worrisome about making lots of money,” he said about the trappings of stardom so many find attractive.
The attention he has drawn at Yale is often more frightening than gratifying. He does succumb to the occasional rock star vice, be it marijuana, groupies or mild self-love. However, he keeps himself grounded in remembering what he has yet to accomplish, and what goals he has set for the future.
“I like most to write about the truth. I’d like to be able to actually write the truth, but I feel like I’m still busy figuring out what it is,” he said.
Bookish, prone to impish laughter and self-effacing humor, Sam’s stage presence and rapport with the audience is comfortable and confident, despite his high school failure in the charm department. Pierson junior Oana Marian describes his onstage persona as “totally confident and feisty, especially in the middle of his rap song. People with all different tastes can find something they like about his shows.”
What began as a guy with a guitar playing alone outside Vanderbilt has been growing over the last year and a half to a phenomenon much larger than Sam or his close friends imagined. As the buzz builds up around him, he remains the stoic, eccentric, scruffy-chinned cult hero, exuding mild charm toward an ever-growing crowd of would-be groupies.
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