You’d think he’d be good at the drums.
But there was rocker Tommy Lee, struggling to keep up with 22-year-old University of Nebraska marching band veteran Ben Coleman. No, Lee hasn’t left the stage to go back to school — but he’s turned the Nebraska campus on its head by filming an upcoming reality show here.
The six-episode, half-hour show, set to air on NBC next year, will focus on the former Motley Crue drummer’s experiences while trying out for the band, taking classes on plant identification and chemistry, hanging out in his off-campus apartment — and, no doubt, partying.
(MSNBC is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC.)
“Everyone wants to party with him,” said 21-year-old student Burt Kilgore, who’s part of Lee’s horticulture class. So far Lee has turned down invitations to hit the downtown bars, Kilgore said.
Showing the much-tattooed, nose-pierced, high school dropout tearing it up with college students isn’t the goal of the show, said executive producer Eddie October.
“That’s Tommy’s former or original rock star life,” October said. “The concept of the show is very much that Tommy is a fish out of water and Tommy is making the effort to fit into this collegiate experience.”
Keeping Lee in lineLee will have to watch himself while on campus. He agreed to abide by the student code of conduct, which bans such things as smoking in campus buildings, intentionally disrupting the peace and uninvited sexually explicit behavior. And campus Chancellor Harvey Perlman says before NBC got the green light, he was assured the show would be about the redemptive nature of higher education — not the seamy side.
But Perlman knows there are risks when a personality like Lee is involved. After compiling a standard sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll resume, he became infamous after a honeymoon sex tape surfaced in 1998 of him with then-wife Pamela Anderson. Lee also served four months behind bars after pleading no contest to kicking Anderson while she held their son.
“They offered us Tommy Lee, they didn’t offer us Snow White,” Perlman said.
The criticism began the minute news of the show broke two weeks ago.
“For years we have been trying to send the message that we are increasing our standards, that we are a research university that is to be taken seriously. This is not consistent with that message,” said economics professor Ann Mari May. “I don’t think we want the face of the university through its public relations to be that of Tommy Lee.”
The anger stems not from anything the 42-year-old drummer behind hard rock hits such as “Smokin’ in the Boys Room” and “Dr. Feelgood” has done since he got here. It’s his past that’s haunting him.
Life in ‘Tommyland’In his new book released Tuesday, “Tommyland,” Lee describes his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle: “We drank oceans of liquor, snorted and shot mountains of drugs, crashed cars, watched people die, and watched one another fight, make up, break up, reunite, and break up again.”
Local domestic violence and family groups have gone on record with concerns about Lee’s show coming to the campus, and the university’s Women’s Caucus urged members to sign a petition decrying the program.
“They’re aligning themselves with a person who has a history of abuse,” said Bob Moyer, director of the Family Violence Council. “Will the show give messages that speak to the wrongness of his past behaviors or will it give messages that minimize it or wipe it off the radar screen?”
Perlman acknowledged that Lee had a checkered past, but said some were taking the filming of the show too seriously. Lee is not enrolled at the school and he will not receive actual credit for any classes.
“I think you can be a serious institution and do serious work without taking yourself too seriously,” Perlman said.
But judging by accounts of students who have interacted with Lee, HE is taking it seriously.
Lee was up for marching band practice for a full week, from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., braving chilly temperatures that one day had him wearing black gloves and a white knit hat emblazoned with the red Nebraska “N”.
“When he showed up I didn’t know what to think,” said Coleman, the drummer who took Lee under his wing.
“He really had the greatest attitude about work, trying to make it happen,” Coleman said. “He’s actually got really good time and a really good feel for what’s going on.”
Lee was allowed to march with the band during halftime of the Nebraska-Baylor football game last Saturday before 77,881 football fans. Lee performed admirably, drawing applause each time he was shown on the big screen bedecked in the school’s band uniform.
Lee isn’t granting interviews while on campus, although during a recent break from shooting — after taking a plant identification quiz — he described the experience so far as “killer.”
Horticulture professor Richard Sutton gave his famous “student” high marks.
“He’s participating and doing a lot of studying outside of class,” Sutton said. “He’s jumped in with both feet.”