Interviewing the president of one of the largest universities in the country comes with its complications. It’s not that Michael V. Drake is an intimidating man—his thin, wire frame glasses and warm, earnest smile begging the contrary—but one can only wonder what goes through the mind of a person entrusted with so much responsibility.
For us, in this strange and beautiful moment, we don’t rush into administrative politics, his thoughts on the election, or how to fill the giant shoes of a gregarious bow-tied legend. We get more personal—dissecting that one thing that gives makes him feel human, temporarily letting him escape academia, at least for a moment of brevity during his morning commute—the passion for music.
“It’s a wonderful thing that we as humans can kind of respond to music,” he said with a perky elation. “It’s great that music has a way for us to communicate with each other and connect with people and carry on messages that are hopeful, or political, or soothing, or optimistic. It’s always been a fun part of my life. Music can be an escape or pathway or zone or place.”
Did you know that President Drake is a Pink Floyd super fan? How about that he is on the board for the Rock N’ Roll Hall of Fame, and once played an invite only show where he covered Prince? Did you know that he was also once an aspiring race car driver? Well, neither did I, so I decided to look deeper into the history of Drake’s relationship with cars and rock n’ roll.
It starts with a young man living in Sacramento.
Drake grew up in a significant time in the world of music, specifically for the genre of rock and roll. California was a pretty crazy place to be in the ‘60s—a mixture of psychedelic and British invasion and experimental jazz were invading the ears and minds of a generations, supplying a soundtrack to a movement of pissed off people, generating something that meant a lot more than taking drugs and banging on guitars and saxophones.
“Motown was the big influence and it was just hot and hitting; The Beatles and the British invasion were a huge influence. When I was in high school, the San Francisco music scene then arose just hot and hitting; the psychedelic music from just down the road arose when I was in high school, so I heard those three types of music a lot. Earlier I had listened or heard more kind of straight R&B because of my older brother and sister. But then my brother became a real modern jazz fan so at home I heard a lot of Miles Davis and John Coltrane, so all of the bands of the late 50s and early 60s.”
While influenced by many now iconic musical artists, Drake worked at the legendary and now defunct Sacramento location of Tower Records while a student at Stanford University.
“I started working there when I was in college so all of my colleagues there were mostly from my high school. They all played rock and roll and I tended to play jazz mainly for relief because we’d play records all day. So I played and listened to lots of jazz through the ‘70s and ‘80s. It was really Miles, Coltrane, and lots of Herbie Hancock. My purchases were more jazz until we had children.”
For Drake, he wanted to pass his passion along to his children, enriching them with the same cultural experiences he had in his own life.
“My children are music lovers. My older son is a great pianist because he grew up in a house where we listened to music all of the time, so he always wanted to play the piano. He was classically trained although he primarily plays jazz now. When he was eleven he became interested in the opera, so we started regularly going to the opera and got much more interested in opera in those years.”
According to him, exposing his children to a variety of sounds at an early age gave them not only joy, but also insights into the world of sound.
“Children and babies like music before they even know what they are supposed to like. I can play a little of something at home and my one year old little granddaughter starts to dance. She’s barely talking but she hears a little music and she thinks that she should dance. It’s great to see the way music touches people from all around the world and how we all listen to different types of culturally different music.”
Of course, Drake was an adventurous child. He had an insatiable curiosity and, from what he tells me, a need for speed—kind of like Dale Earnhardt, or Vin Diesel from Fast and Furious.
“I always wanted to go after my hobbies. We had a go-cart when I was child, so I thought I’d be a race car driver. We had an 8mm camera so I made home movies with kids in the neighborhood, so I thought that’d be a good thing to do. And then I thought I should go to medical school because I thought medicine would be a good job. I knew what that was and knew how to do that. I thought I would do that and keep the other things as my hobbies. I always thought I was going to go to medical school in high school and I was pre-med always from day one. I was 24 when I graduated medical school.”
As the dust in the office begins to settle, and my precious 30 minutes comes to an end, we finish the interview on a high note. I ask Drake what advice he has for students that feel overwhelmed by the endless anxieties of a postgraduate life.
“Relax, breathe, and center yourself as you’re thinking about your future. You have a lot of unexamined choices that you’ve probably made. Remember to imagine yourself as a part of the future, but not the future as it looks to you without you in it, because you are able to change it. Allow yourself to get centered, look at the future you’d like it to be, put yourself in that future, being who you’d like to be, and then the pathway towards that becomes relatively clearer. Whether or not you get to that thing, you can at least aim towards it in life that in moment to moment is fulfilling and to try to enjoy and be really engaged in your life. Then the outcome is the outcome. It creates a place you can live as you move forward.”
Thanks Drake, I feel a little better already.