Enthusiasm for soil sciences now drives former music man

By JOHN SCHMITZ

For the Capital Press

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- When James Cassidy helped Information Society win a platinum record in 1988, it might have been the high water mark of his life.

Actually, the bass guitarist on the million-selling album says he gets a bigger lift out of teaching soil science at Oregon State University.

Cassidy, a Minnesota native whose father was a pioneer top fuel dragster, was himself driven to music instead of racing, long before he began to wonder about the wonders hidden beneath his feet.

"I was very disconnected from agriculture then," he says.

After becoming fluent on the banjo as a teenager, he was attracted to several different music genres: rock, pop, new wave and eventually hip-hop.

"At one time I played in four different bands at one talent show," he says.

But the type of hip-hop that made Cassidy and the Information Society famous was not something you'd expect to hear from an all-Anglo group. Instead, the band, which formed right after high school graduation, chose to specialize mostly in Latino hip-hop dance music.

After playing small, local gigs for several years, the group began touring regionally, seven men in one VW camper. On some occasions, they spent their nights in the nearest hayfield.

"We didn't expect much," he says.

After disbanding and then reforming several times, the group, now typecast as a Latino hip-hop, freestyle band, began playing larger venues on the East Coast in the mid-1980s.

Cassidy was not prepared for what happened at the band's first gig in New York. "The first show we played was in a literally underground nightclub called the Devil's Nest, or El Nido Diablo. It was an all-Latin audience in the south Bronx."

What surprised the band were the hundreds of teens waiting to get into the club, and the near-pandemonium that broke out when they jostled to get good seats for the show.

Little did the band know that one of the songs they had cut earlier, a dance number called "Running," had become a huge hit with Latinos. "They were floored when they saw us -- white kids from Minneapolis."

It was the breakout hit on their Warner Bros.-released "Tommy Boy album" -- "What's On Your Mind? (Pure Energy)" -- that drove the album to coveted gold status -- 500,000 albums. A short time later, sales reached 1 million copies, and platinum was awarded.

"That song was huge," Cassidy said. "Everything just worked. It was on MTV, the No. 2 record on pop charts, the No. 1 dance record for weeks."

All this while the band scored another achievement, one not often found in the pop music world: Except for a little pot here and there, it remained drug-free and virtually alcohol-free, Cassidy said. Another bit of trivia Information Society can lay claim to is that its third and last Warner Bros. album was historical in that it was the last vinyl album released by that label.

After touring the U.S. four times and playing once to 135,000 people in Rio de Janeiro ("For us that was a giant, crazy thing," Cassidy said), the band broke up again in the early 1990s.

Changing passions

It was about this time, when music was going through one of its many metamorphoses, that Cassidy was called from the world of pop music to the earth.

At first he wanted to be a fish farmer, but he chucked that after moving from New York to Oregon and getting a degree in fisheries science from OSU in 1997.

It was his interest in water quality and how it is affected by soils that led him to an OSU master's degree in soil sciences.

Today, Cassidy, president of the Oregon Society of Soil Scientists, has an genuine reverence and enthusiasm for soil, and it shows in the way he teaches.

"Good teaching is a performance," he said. "I'll get pretty intense and march around the room, shocking (students) with truths."

Cassidy said part of his job as a teacher is to break through the "media-trance" that many students are in today, a spell brought on by the avalanche of data streaming through the Information Age.

"I've participated in it in a very high level and know exactly (what is happening)."

Cassidy said he believes all human beings are living in a fantasyland, really "missing the boat" in how the world really works.

To him, the environment, and everything that it touches, is heavily influenced by the soil. "It's all dependent on basic resources, and soil is probably the most fundamental."

Cassidy and the original Information Society band still get together now and then for revival concerts.

Freelance writer John Schmitz is based in Salem. E-mail: johns6869@msn.com.

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