FeatureMarch 15, 2012 at 5:15 am

Takin’ Care of Business

An Accounting professor and his rotating band of student rockers

Nick Gonedes strolls into class a few minutes after its start at 1:30. He walks up to the front, drops his massive stack of papers and file folders on the desk, sets down his Wharton coffee mug and starts fielding questions. “What is the ‘Therapy Session’ on the syllabus?” asks a kid in the second row. The professor has set aside a lecture at the end of the semester to answer any lingering questions. He said he once wore a white doctor’s coat to that class as a joke. He takes care of some more housekeeping before launching into his lecture.

The class is Managerial Accounting, and as one might guess, it’s not the most thrilling offering in the department — well, maybe it is: this is accounting after all. He’s been teaching Accounting 102 for years (he used to teach 101, “Principles of Accounting,” but deemed the material too dry) and by now he knows the course inside and out.

Currently, he’s in an anemic classroom with a sliver of a skylight letting in a few natural rays. The students don’t look all that interested, and more than a few are fiddling with their BlackBerries below their desks.

Gonedes starts scribbling on the chalkboard and poses a hypothetical about vendors and buyers based on the equation. “Why would the vendor do that?” he asks the class. They’re all quiet. “It’s not because he loves you. It’s a business,” he says.

It’s one of those Whartonisms that would make an English major cringe. But he doesn’t seem to embody that business school ethos all too well, despite teaching at the most prominent program in the country for the last 30 years. He’s wearing jeans and a black T–shirt that says “Rockin’ the Bayou since 1969,” with the short sleeves rolled up a few times so you can see his muscles. He has dark Mediterranean skin and a puffy white ‘fro.

Gonedes’s business card may read “Professor of Accounting and Finance,” but everything about this baby boomer screams rock and roll. Sitting in the third row of the class — he’s one of the kids on his BlackBerry — is Jesse Herrmann. He’s the bassist in Gonedes’s rock band, Rail 3.

Campus bands don’t have a long shelf life. Few last through four undergrad years before something splits them up. Even fewer stay together after graduation.

But Rail 3 has been rocking for 16 years now. “I suppose it’s less of a band and more of a student group,” says Nick Cocca, the lead singer and frontman. “You’re in it for four years and then you leave.” But it’s not.

Cocca himself graduated from Drexel a year ago, but still remains in the band. He even drives a half–hour once a week from his home in Yardley, Pennsylvania, to make it to practice. Cocca found Rail 3 through a friend in his a cappella group, the Pennchants, who had fronted the band for a few years but was due to graduate.

Nick had virtually no musical training before coming to college but all of a sudden he found himself singing a cappella, learning music theory in class and taking a chance on a rock band with a graying Greek accounting professor.

“It was a little intimidating,” he recalls of his first practice. “They were like, ‘hey, come sing with us. And if we like you, you can stay.’”

The group has been in constant flux since its inception as members come and go seemingly every semester. “The most common is a time constraint or graduation,” Gonedes says, “or the two guys we threw out.” Gonedes is as hospitable as they come, but even he won’t deal with a drummer who can’t keep time. “You never know; is he going to speed up or slow down? It kind of affects the whole spirit. It’s like ‘who’s enjoying this?’ so we kicked him out,” Gonedes says nonchalantly.

For each of the band’s shows, he puts together an email flyer advertising the concert. At the top it reads: “THE WORLD TOUR GOES ON.” Everyone in the band has a nickname on the flyer. The band’s current iteration reads:

Nick ‘Extreme’ Cocca, vocals

Mark ‘Mark’ Eisen, drums

Jesse ‘Whiz Wit’ Herrmann, bass

McLean ‘Red’ Baran, guitar, synth, vocals, bagpipes

Nick ‘Rock Doc’ Gonedes

Gonedes has been the one name that’s remained on the bill. “There’s a constant turnover, so a lot of times you’re moving ahead and then you’ve got to step back because there’s a new member,” he says. “And then you move ahead again.”

“I was the most recent stepback,” Herrmann chimes in. He’s a senior in Wharton, and even though he’ll only be around for another year, the band was willing to take him just to get moving again. Herrmann walked into Gonedes’s office early in the fall semester to check whether he could use an older edition of the textbook.

“I was just looking around his room, not even listening to his answer, like ‘Oh my god, this Accounting professor has Stones posters and everything all over.’” Jesse mentioned offhand that he played bass, and a few days later he received an email from Gonedes asking if he wanted to join the band. Hermann, like Cocca, had never been in a band before and had only picked up the bass two years before. He laid his concerns out for his professor in his reply. “Obviously my answer is yes but I feel like you should want to hear me play first,” Jesse wrote.

But Gonedes always replies, “don’t worry about it.” Now Herrmann is quickly approaching what will be his first show. “He’ll be fine,” the professor says.

Gonedes doesn’t find himself comparing current members to the past but instead, he likes the fresh approach new members take on songs the band has been doing for years.

“It certainly changes the sound, especially for the originals,” Cocca said. “As every new guy comes in, the song starts to sound a little different. We could have one song and have four different versions of it.”

Gonedes is from the Flatbush Avenue neighborhood of Brooklyn. As a youngster he first picked up a pair of drumsticks, but his mother was worried that the noise would get them thrown out of their small apartment, so she wouldn’t let him pound on anything more than cartons. One afternoon at his brother’s urging, the two went down to the pawn shops on Canal street in Manhattan and bought guitar cases.

“Don’t you want the guitars?” the cashier asked.  No need — the cases were chick magnets. “Ooh, you play guitar?” the girls would ask. “Yeah sure,” Nick would reply. Nobody ever looked inside.

In high school he received a first–class rock and roll education, attending countless big–name venues around New York. He eventually did pick up a guitar, but felt “outgunned” when he arrived at Penn as an undergrad in the mid–60s. The other players on campus had real talent. “I had a lot of catching up to do,” he recalls. He never joined a band at Penn.

Now in his fourth decade of teaching Accounting, Gonedes had no intention of going into academia. “There were times I figured I’d go into the military and become a sniper,” he says. “I swear to God — I didn’t even know what a PhD was.” But a friend from Houston told him that the University of Texas was “looking for Yankees.” He went down to interview for a PhD position and received a grant offer he couldn’t refuse. Two years later, Dr. Gonedes began teaching at the University of Chicago.

“I’m a firm believer that a lot of things happen by accident, and you either seize the moment or you don’t,” Gonedes says of his professional path.

After returning to Penn in 1979, he jammed occasionally, but never started anything serious until Scott Kegler walked into his office. A Wharton senior taking Gonedes’s class in 1994, “Kegs,” as he was known, came to office hours to ask a question and noticed the Rolling Stones posters that lined the walls.

Kegler saw the Forty Licks logo on the door and the two got to talking about music. Gonedes collects vintage guitars and amps (in addition to antique mantle clocks) that he’s found. Kegler and his roommate, Aaron Erter, both played. “Nick was trying to put this band together so I went over to play with him, and at some point Aaron started coming over with us, and Nick found a drummer and a bass player and we started working on stuff,” Kegler says. With two guitarists already, Kegler stuck to vocals. By the second session they had already banged out an original song.

They set a goal of playing a gig at Penn’s annual bacchanal, Spring Fling, and when April rolled around, they did.

“It seems like yesterday. I can’t believe how fast time has gone.” The band hasn’t played Fling since, but Hermann says they’re trying to perform at this year’s festivities.

Through his students and friends of friends, Gonedes has been able to plug the holes and keep Rail 3 sailing. The name came to Gonedes when he was standing in a New York subway station. The original name was Third Rail. ‘That’s it! Power is everything,’ Gonedes thought waiting for a train. However, he was later informed there was another band called Third Rail, and when he found their CD, he thought they were terrible, so he changed the name to Rail 3.

Gonedes estimates that there have been seven or eight different members at each spot in the five–man band, which puts the total since it first started around 40. Over the years they’ve played various bars on campus — Smokey Joe’s and The Blarney Stone mainly — but the gigs never last too long. When the bar gigs dried up, Gonedes created his own venue. 10 years ago, he founded Up On Stage, a monthly open–mic coffee house event held on campus. He schedules three acts for each show — Rail 3 plays one of the three shows each semester — and then afterward anyone is welcome to perform.

When Up On Stage starts at 8 p.m., there are nine people in the venue, not including the opening act. Five are the members of Rail 3, one is in the third band and two are bona fide audience members, one of which is Nick Cocca’s girlfriend. It’s the last week of the semester, a cold December evening, and a Friday at that. Students are either looking for a party or a study carrel, not an open–mic night. Jesse’s parents sneak in during the first act and sit in the back. They’re easily the oldest in the room by about 30 years — well, except for Gonedes. A few more fans trickle in while Slow Dance Chubby, a frat–boy five–piece band, plays their set of originals and a few covers.

Nick Cocca pores over some lyrics he’s written out while nursing a bottle of honey in his hand. Every few minutes he sucks on the bottle to soothe his vocal chords. While he’s never had trouble with his voice at shows, he worries about the lyrics. Once he’s got the first two words to a verse, he can do the whole thing, “But if I can’t remember the first two words, I’m screwed.” In his first show there was a mental lapse on the lyrics to “Sympathy for the Devil.” He stood on stage through eight measures of the intro trying to remember “Please allow me to introduce myself… ” “That was traumatizing,” he said.

Out of nowhere, the room starts to fill up; there are maybe 40 people, just in time for Rail 3. Gonedes says he frequently gets weird looks when he takes the stage. “Usually I’m grabbing my guitar and it’s like ‘what the fuck are you doing,’ like I’m a roadie or something. It’s fine.” He throws his red Yamaha (part of the collection) on over his Stones t–shirt, puts on his reading glasses and goes right into the opening overdrive riff of “Revolution”.

There’s no scream from Cocca, or Herrmann for that matter, and they’re off. Cocca has a poppy sound to his voice — you can hear a little a cappella in it. Four songs in, McLean gets to do his baby, “Sweet Jane.” He’s got a great big orange Gretsch, and he’s doing his best Lou Reed impression. Herrmann looks comfortable for his first time on stage. They sprinkle in a few originals written by Gonedes and Cocca before closing with “Sympathy for the Devil” — of course.

Up to this point you could tell this band is still working on group chemistry. But once they hit Gonedes’s beloved Stones, it all comes together. Herrmann really starts to move on the bass. Gonedes catches his eye just for a second and gives a look of approval. McLean comes in with the “Ooh–woo” on backup. Cocca remembers the words.

A few days after the show, Mark the drummer informs Gonedes that he’s dropping out of the band. He’s got too much on his plate to stay with it. Gonedes is already looking for  replacements. Cocca knows a guy at Drexel who drums; he’s going to come to practice on Friday. And if that doesn’t work out, Herrmann’s got a friend at Temple who might be interested. Another step back for Rail 3. And then they move ahead again.

Calder Silcox is a senior from Washington, D.C. He is a Science, Technology & Society major.

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