Fifty years on . . . and the music never stopped.

They met on Old Campus in the opening days of freshman year. They've been a band ever since.

Jonathan Levi ’77 is a writer and violinist in the band Laurasia. They have recorded many albums—the latest is Brotherhood—and will celebrate their 50th anniversary on September 12 at Joe’s Pub in NYC’s Public Theater.

It was the first day of orientation, 1973. September, or it could have been August. Air conditioning hadn’t been invented, and the windows in Durfee were open with the optimism of youth. I had just bagged the bottom bunk in my double, spreading my backpack and violin case on the mattress, when I heard the sound of a guitar from the Old Campus side. Three floors below, a guy was sitting with his back against a tree, legs out in front of him. His hair was black. It was long. So was his beard. He was playing “Friend of the Devil” by the Grateful Dead, the twelve strings of his guitar descending along a G-major scale in octaves that cut through the new air of Old Campus. Cross-legged, in a circle of thrall around him, sat three adoring fans.

It was zero hour: before the beginning of classes, before the beginning of introductions. The curtain hadn’t risen. None of us had friends. None of us had enemies. We were faceless, gradeless, not even freshmen, drawn to the promise of lux and veritas with a common faith in possibility and nothing to lose. I opened my violin case and grabbed my fiddle. Although I had played with a jug band in church basements and secular parties during high school, I was more of a Mozart and Mendelssohn kind of a guy. But the music of the twelve-string guitar, the overripe heat of late summer, the long black beard, the trees of Old Campus, and that cross-legged circle of adoration propelled me down the stairway. You can do that, my feet told me.

As I landed on the ground floor, another door opened. Another long-haired guy with a guitar—as blond as the tree guy was dark. Companions in arrogance, we shuffled down the steps of the center entryway of Durfee and claimed places for ourselves in that magic circle. Without invitation or introduction, we began to jam.

Mathematics to the contrary, late summer ’73 was still part of the ’60s—only a baker’s dozen of years after the Beatles’ first gig in Hamburg. Nixon was president, despite Watergate. The Vietnam War had twenty more months to run until that last helicopter took off from the top of the US Embassy in Saigon. Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, James Taylor, and Joni’s tribute to a Woodstock that was just yesterday were the amniotic music that surrounded us at zero hour. We Elis were all the same at birth, more tie-dyed than buttoned-down. On one Edenic autumn night, 1,300 of us dropped our bell-bottoms and streaked around Old Campus, united in anonymous sexuality, innocent of knowledge.

That first day of orientation, John Houshmand ’77, the black-bearded twelve-string player, and Patrick S. Noonan ’77, ’84MBA, the blond folk-rocker, and I played late into the hot night as the circle around us grew. In the following weeks, we began gigging, giving concerts. First at the Libra Festival on Cross Campus, a typically ’60s celebration of astrology and sun. Then on an all-night show at WYBC, at a variety of clubs along the coast in Cosey Beach and Madison and up in Waterbury. And as we played songs by the Dead, the Airplane, Tim Buckley, and even Elton John, we began to write our own music. They were songs that acknowledged that we had brought something from our individual pasts to the party, melodies that drew from the Iran of John’s father, the Midwest of Pat’s childhood, and the classical music that I had just left behind after a gap year at conservatory in London.

Our four years playing together at Yale as East River (named after New Haven’s, not New York’s) were expansive. One of our older classmates, Rod Alberts ’75, produced our first album at a studio he owned in Kansas City. We made the trip out and back our sophomore year in the middle of a February blizzard, returning to New Haven in a broken-down International Travelall—a jeep-like car you don’t often see now—with strep throats and high fevers. The next day, my brand-new girlfriend, Galen Brandt ’75, who led the Slavic Chorus as a student, accompanied me as nursemaid to our first gig on the island of Nantucket at a whaling bar called the Brotherhood of Thieves. Within twenty-four hours, she had become our lead singer.

Galen’s soprano corralled our wilder instrumental experiments. (Music professor and composer Maury Yeston ’67PhD once commented that he understood the self-abusive title of a tune we had composed—for strings and gamelan-inspired copper pipes—called “How Monks Go Blind.”) She brought a sound that was recognizable to fans of Pentangle and Fairport Convention and made us think we might actually have a future. During our breaks from college, the Brotherhood and the Nantucket of the 1970s gave us the opportunity (playing four hours a night, six nights a week), the energy (clam chowder and French 75s: gin, lemon juice, syrup, and champagne), the wild inspiration of open marshland, endless surf, and a community of dreamers, all drawing us to write and to coalesce into a real band.

At the height of our ambition, in the summer after our junior year, we were offered a record contract by a West Coast producer. The only catch was that he wanted us now. We’d have to go to L.A. without passing Go—without finishing our senior year at Yale. Galen (who had already graduated) was all for it. John and Pat were ready. I had other plans. The son of a professor of philosophy, I had no option but to stay in school, get my BA, and follow a graduate fellowship to study at the University of Cambridge. I invited the three of them to my house on Elm Street next door to Rudy’s Bar. Over an inedible dinner of overcooked spaghetti with garlic powder and butter, I quit the band. It was September 1976. The ’60s were over.

And that, like many collegiate experiments, might just have been that. Galen went to New York, Pat to Boston, John to Nantucket, and I to England with my fellowship and pretensions. Eventually John began crafting furniture out of fallen trees in the Catskills. Pat got a PhD from a school in Boston and a professorship at Emory University in Atlanta. I started writing novels and operas and eventually followed bread and circuses to Rome. No longer a single unit, we became different people, our futures radiating in directions dictated by character and chance and forces we could never have imagined in 1973.

But something in our music kept us in touch as friends, and something in our friendship drew us and our instruments together whenever geography permitted. John and Pat and I returned to the Brotherhood on Nantucket for several more summer gigs, joined by the virtuosic sax and flute player Paul Lieberman ’78, who steered us away from our new-agey ways and into the world of jazz. We recorded a few more albums. We played music at John’s first wedding on a farm in the Catskills, and more recently, on a Nantucket beach, at a makeshift memorial for Pat’s first wife. Every five years, we found our way back to New Haven to perform at our reunions—with Paul and another classmate, vocalist Laura Teller ’77, and, most harmonically for me, at our fortieth reunion with my daughter Rebecca, back at Yale for her own tenth reunion and singing a few of our songs that she had heard all her life.

Over the years we performed with other brothers and sisters—Pat with the virtuoso banjo player Béla Fleck, John with the genius jazz cats Scott Lee and Jamey Haddad. I formed a fusion quartet in England with another Yalie—Jamie Snead ’76, a pianist—and the Colombian bassist Chucho Merchán, who went on to play with The Eurythmics and Pink Floyd. Paul lost himself in Brazil for a few years and returned with a wife and a grounding in Latin American music that served him well as he gigged with drummer Jaimoe and The Allman Brothers.

But there was an understanding between John, Pat, Paul, and me that we had never quite found when we were playing with others. Musical improvisation requires technique, of course, as well as cold, hard hours in the woodshed. But the greats—and I’m writing this in the wake of the death of the saxophonist Wayne Shorter—pull their improvisations out of books they’ve read in the middle of the night, streets they’ve walked in foreign cities, dreams they’ve parked away in secret portfolios, and the unseen antennae tuned to the frequencies of their fellow travelers on the bandstand.

We weren’t in that company. But atheist that I am, I remember an argument with a West Coast rabbi. He claimed there was no transcendence without a belief in God. I told him the story of a winter’s night in the Brotherhood of Thieves. Nantucket Sound had frozen over. There were only a couple of dozen people in the bar, mostly fishermen staring into the misty vodka and cranberry of their Cape Codders. In our icy corner, the four of us were playing the Rodgers and Hammerstein standard “My Favorite Things.” We swung through the head, trying to think more of John Coltrane than Julie Andrews. I took a solo on violin, Paul followed on soprano sax. And then we began to improvise. Afterwards, over French 75s at a back table while the waitresses counted their tips, none of us could point to what ignited the music.

But about a minute into the improvisation—John on bass, Pat on guitar, Paul, and me—we began to feel a mutual musical levitation, the new phrases inventing themselves, guided by a common gyroscope. And then liftoff. Thirty miles out at sea. Transcendence.

You can’t riff the same way twice, as Miles and Heraclitus said. Fifty years on, part of us still wants to get ourselves back to the garden, despite all the knowledge we picked up at college and beyond that makes the journey impossible. But once you’re hooked, even fifty years after that warm September—or was it August?—you’re still listening, playing, looking for that high.  


  • Muhit Rahman
    Muhit Rahman, 4:55pm August 31 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I am astounded, dumbfounded, exhilarated.

  • Trevor Vietor
    Trevor Vietor , 6:49pm August 31 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I wish i hadn't been a world away in Bingham!

  • Tina Greene
    Tina Greene, 7:46pm August 31 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    What a wonderful piece of writing and remembering. Thank you Jonathan for taking us right back to that night.

    It was September, our first night (I know because I didn't go to Orientation). It was 95 degrees and 95% humidity- or that's how it felt. I'd never experienced humidity until that first day. I met my oldest Yale friend, Curt Sanburn, that night when he brought me a flute so I could join in the musical jam under the trees. I'd never done that before and no doubt lacked the experience and confidence I was sure the guys all had. It was magical; the perfect beginning for a California girl who had led song circles and guitar masses at a girls' school for 4 years, but never imagined she could improvise - on flute no less -with other people.

    I wish I could join you in NYC. Will be there in spirit!!

  • Patrick S. Noonan
    Patrick S. Noonan, 12:44pm September 01 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I'm grateful for my band-mate Jonathan for taking the time to reflect on five decades of friendship and music-making, and for capturing so much of the feel of that time in our lives, and in that era. (I hope others will take the opportunity to look for our music, old and new. All the usual places - you know what to do!)
    Also grateful to still be here, 50 years on, to do the reflecting. It's a bitter and poignant irony that we have just lost a classmate who was there with us in that first circle. We've lost too many too soon, and the years ahead will be marked with many good-byes. I take this as a reminder to mark every day as a gift, to find some moments to let it linger in our thoughts, to continue to find ways to make them count not just for ourselves but also for others.
    Rock on, Jon! Rock on, John!

    JOHN IORIO, 5:34pm September 07 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Heady stuff, Jon......funny, i was a freshman in 1979, playing guitar near bingham. Your story could have been about me, only 6 years forward.....I recall alot of the things you mention especially the Airplane, who influenced my politics at Yale.....probably caught you fellas in madison or nantucket at a club.......thanks for a great post, it really took me back to a splendid time......I still live at Yale, really love these stories. The old campus is a world apart....

  • Carol Bundy
    Carol Bundy, 6:24am September 09 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Jonathan, thank you for this wonderful writing.. you really capture that brief last gasp of the 60s... And bring back precious memories for me -- during the winter of 1978 when the singing of the East River Consort and the gift of your kindnesses meant so much to me....

  • Helen (Huifang) Li
    Helen (Huifang) Li, 7:38pm September 09 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Wow! This article attracted me from the beginning and all the way to the end (I clicked the link in Yale Today, I do not read every link). My daughter just started her freshman in Yale. She plays trumpet and was auditioned into YSO. She is also working with other students to form a quintet. I am very delighted to imagine my daughter develop similar musicianship and friendship in Old Campus.

    Even more, it's with such a great surprise and immense joy to see Paul Lieberman' name! He has just directed my daughter for four years in Noble and Greenough high school,in Wind Ensemble and Jazz Band! It feels surreal to be connected.

    Wishing all of you the best!

  • Debb Christopoulos
    Debb Christopoulos, 8:48am September 12 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Thanks for the capture of 60s goodbye and 70s magic; who ever since was surrounded by such talent, all at once, as this: Stevie Wonder, the Beatles, Marvin Gaye, the Stones, Jefferson Airplane, James Taylor, and Joni’s !! I had a Chicago Symphony 1st piano teacher and a Juilliard piano professor and turned up a Music Director for 2 US Naval Chapels and a music educator. WHAT a wonderful career path, following my father, a jazz musician. Thank you for sharing in such a well written way; it was a great way to start my day. Some things last forever.

  • George R Gagliardi
    George R Gagliardi, 2:16am September 19 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I was in awe of their music as a freshman in 1975. Fifty years later, I was thrilled to be at their 50th reunion concert in NYC and finally get a chance to talk to these former upperclassmen whom I once listened to while sitting in the back of Berkeley Dining Hall, mesmerized by the fusion of their playing and singing. Fifty years on, I still felt that awe last week in NYC. Play on, guys and ladies. You are living proof that once you’ve learned how to make music, you never want to give it up.

  • Kim Oler
    Kim Oler, 10:10pm September 26 2023 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    What a joy and a privilege it was to perform with John, Jon, Pat and my Helium Brothers. East River Consort is a wonder!
    I'm already looking forward to a time when the Helium Brothers and ERC might rise together again ... in consort!
    Sending heartfelt thanks to all who helped bring us so harmoniously together.
    Warmest best,

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