Getting a college degree is an accomplishment for anyone, but it can be an increasingly difficult milestone to reach once life gets in the way – especially if you’re a world-famous rock and roll star. Touring and writing and recording new music is bound to impede any academic aspirations, and at some point a decision needs to be made between a life on the road and a life filled with books and research.
Some of the entries on this list took a more customary approach and earned their bachelor’s degrees before rocking their way into the limelight; others were less conventional and took their high school equivalencies after dropping out, or returned to university after lengthy breaks. Take a look at these 10 stories and be inspired by their protagonists’ creativity and determination.
10. Duff McKagan – Guns N’ Roses/Velvet Revolver
Michael “Duff” McKagan is best known for his time as the hard rocking, hard partying bassist for Guns N’ Roses. It’s pretty safe to say that this high school dropout had little interest in going to college – and in fact he might never have gone if his pancreas hadn’t exploded in 1994. McKagan was 30 when the consequences of drinking, in his words, “a gallon of vodka a day” ended in severe pancreatitis and an ultimatum: sobriety or death.
Desperate to distract himself and occupy his time without alcohol, McKagan began looking through old Guns N’ Roses financial records, only to realize that he didn’t understand a single thing. McKagan was embarrassed but determined, and so he enrolled in a community college course that piqued his interest in economics. He went on to eventually achieve a bachelor’s degree in Business from Seattle University. McKagan wrote his own financial column, “Duffonomics,” for Playboy.com and has his own financial management company, Meridian Rock. He eventually received his high school diploma in 2012.
9. Dexter Holland – The Offspring
Science and punk rock seem to have their fair share of mutual devotees, including The Offspring lead singer and rhythm guitarist Dexter Holland. Holland got his bachelor’s degree in Biology and his master’s in Molecular Biology from the University of Southern California. Initially, he chose not to pursue his PhD, channeling his time and efforts into his band instead. And that band achieved mainstream success in 1994 with the release of Smash.
Holland admits that the other band members don’t understand his academic leanings and call him a nerd. This hasn’t kept him from pursuing his doctorate, however. Holland continues to work on his dissertation, and in 2013 he co-published a paper on MicroRNA in HIV genomes – research that could well lead to greater understanding about AIDS and cancer. Interestingly, Holland is also a licensed pilot and certified flight instructor.
8. Jim Morrison – The Doors
The Doors vocalist Jim Morrison is considered one of the greatest frontmen in rock history. A notorious party animal, Morrison was known for his alcohol dependency and bohemian lifestyle. To some it might therefore be surprising to learn that he not only went to college but also graduated with a degree in Film. Morrison attended Florida State University in 1962, studying art and psychology, but according to fellow FSU student Gerry McClain, “His whole interest was film. He did some editing work… and would go to the FSU library to read film reviews.”
In 1964, Morrison transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and graduated a year later. In a 1970 interview with Howard Smith for The Village Voice, Morrison asserted, “I think the main key to education is just reading, basically.”
7. Thom Yorke – Radiohead
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke – who also plays in Atoms for Peace with Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea – is a songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who plays piano, guitar, percussion and bass. With his distinctive voice and signature style, he is recognized as a highly influential musician.
Music has always been an interest of Yorke’s: while at school, he and his friends formed a band called On A Friday. Instead of pursuing a degree in music, though, he chose to study Fine Art and English at Exeter University. Then, although he graduated, Yorke didn’t really get a chance to formally use his fine art skills. In 1991, he and fellow On A Friday band members met up and renamed themselves Radiohead, going on to sell over 30 million albums around the world.
6. Greg Graffin – Bad Religion
While some of the rockers on this list haven’t had much of an opportunity to use their degrees, that isn’t the case with Bad Religion vocalist, author and college professor Greg Graffin. In 1979, when he was just 15 years old, Graffin co-founded seminal punk rock band Bad Religion. As it happened, around the same time he also started getting interested in evolutionary biology, which would eventually lead him into the world of academia.
Graffin completed his double major undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Geology and his master’s in Geology at UCLA. He went on to earn his PhD in Zoology from Cornell University in 2003, and he has taught paleontology and life sciences at UCLA. Graffin says he’s come to the conclusion that punk rock and science are related because they both challenge authority. “Science can’t really progress if we don’t challenge the currently held view,” he asserts.
5. Lou Reed – The Velvet Underground
Famous American musician Lou Reed is most well known for his solo work and his time as the lead vocalist, guitarist and main songwriter for experimental rock band The Velvet Underground. In 1960, Reed began his studies in journalism, creative writing and film directing at Syracuse University. He graduated in 1964 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Interestingly, he later claimed his idea was “to bring the sensitivities of the novel to rock music.”
In a 2010 interview with Spin, Reed expounded on his aspirations, explaining, “Hubert Selby. William Burroughs. Allen Ginsberg. Delmore Schwartz. To be able to achieve what they did, in such little space, using such simple words. I thought if you could do what those writers did and put it to drums and guitar, you’d have the greatest thing on Earth. You’d have the whole pie.”
4. Rivers Cuomo – Weezer
Rivers Cuomo took his time getting his degree. In fact, he took classes sporadically from 1995 to 2006. In the end, he graduated from Harvard University at the age of 35, earning a Bachelor of Arts in English. Cuomo has a good excuse for taking so long, however, since he’s the vocalist, guitarist and chief songwriter for popular alternative rock band Weezer, which has sold more than seven million albums worldwide.
As far as his motivation for completing his degree goes, Cuomo says he likes studying, but it’s more about the sense of accomplishment than anything else. “When I was 20 and first going to college, I was really into literature and that’s why I chose that major. I’m not gonna be a professor, I’m not going to be a writer, I’m a rock guy. But I believe in finishing what I started,” he explained in a 2006 interview with Blender.
3. Milo Aukerman – Descendents
Milo Aukerman may not be a member of the most high profile band in rock and roll, but pop punk pioneers the Descendents have played since 1978, earning a devoted and loyal legion of fans around the world. As drummer Bill Stevenson put it, “By virtue of never having been trendy, it is almost like we are aging like fine wine.”
The band’s first album was titled Milo Goes to College – because Aukerman had left for the University of California, San Diego – and featured the now iconic caricature of Aukerman, which has been used by the band ever since. Aukerman achieved his bachelor’s degree in Biology and later went on to earn a PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, leading some to call him “The Nerd King of Punk Rock.” Aukerman divides his time between his family, his research and the band, and even though he sees similarities between punk and science, he says he doesn’t expect to “ever write a song about DNA.”
2. Tom Morello – Rage Against the Machine
In 1982, guitarist Tom Morello, best known for rocking out with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, graduated from Libertyville High School with honors. He went on to study at Harvard University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Social Studies in 1986. Although Morello spent a short period of time at California Democratic Senator Alan Cranston’s office, it only helped him make up his mind not to pursue a career in politics.
That said, Morello hasn’t abandoned politics and activism; he’s merely gone about it a little differently than most. His solo work (performed under the name The Nightwatchman) is what he describes as his “political folk alter ego.” Morello also created a nonprofit political organization called The Axis of Justice with System of A Down frontman Serj Tankian, which he explains is “to build a bridge between progressive-minded musicians, fans of rock and rap music, and local grassroots organizations.”
1. Brian May – Queen
Legendary Queen guitarist Brian May is more than just a master of the strings. In fact, he’s quite the brainiac. May studied Mathematics and Physics at Imperial College London. He graduated with honors in 1968 and began working towards his PhD in astrophysics. May wrote two research papers with fellow scientists, but as Queen became increasingly popular, he chose to abandon his studies.
However, May never lost his love for the stars, and in 2006 he was invited back to Imperial College London to finish what he’d started. He handed in a revised version of his thesis in August 2007. It was approved in September 2007, nearly 37 years after he began working towards his doctorate – which is quite an impressive gap. On October 1, 2007, the Imperial College made May an official visiting researcher. “I have no doubt that Brian May would have had a brilliant career in science had he completed his PhD in 1971,” said an astrophysicist who worked with him. “Nevertheless, as a fan of Queen, I am glad that he left science temporarily.”