Looking at old photographs of hippies from the Golden Age of the Counterculture 1965-'75 is a Rohrshach test. The layers of long hair, lysergically pinned pupils, and unshod feet cause many Americans to react in horror, vote Republican, and load the metaphorical shotgun in preparation for the return of the Manson family. Others gaze wistfully at the joyful expressions, the implied soundtrack of the Beatles and Hendrix, and the time when it felt as if world peace and economic justice were just around the corner. The latter group's wistful smile may be because it's them in the photographs.
By conventional standards, Danny Goldberg is a successful and wealthy entrepreneur, married to entertainment attorney Rosemary Carroll and the father of two children. The 53-year old New Yorker was a rock critic who—through old-fashioned industriousness—worked his way up the corporate ladder as public relations flack, personal manager of musical acts from Bonnie Raitt and the Beastie Boys to Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, and record company executive (including Warner Bros., Mercury, Atlantic, Modern, Swan Song and currently Artemis Records).
But the capitalist in him shares his body with a relentless do-goodnik that manifests as a form of Jewish hippie noblesse oblige. Countermanding the late Jerry Rubin's yippie-turned-yuppie stereotype, Goldberg never stopped being a hippie. It's not just his long hair, beard stubble, vegetarianism, meditation practice and affinity with rockers and rappers that makes him firmly counter-cultural but his dogged activism on several fronts, most notably free speech. He's on a slew of committees, including the New York Civil Liberties Union and is President of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. From 1997 through early 2001, he and his father Victor were the publishers of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun. Last year, Danny, Victor and film director Robert Greenwald edited an anthology of post-9/11 essays on uncivil liberties called It's A Free Country, self-published for their company RDV Books whose next tome is Art Attack, a collection by guerrilla poster artist Robbie Conal.
He's just written his first book, Dispatches From The Culture Wars: How The Left Lost Teen Spirit (Miramax Books) and it's an edgy, brash insider's look at the intersection of politics and culture. If it were music, one would say "it rocks". The title is an appropriation of a song by the late Cobain; Goldberg uses "teen spirit" to mean vigor and enthusiasm. While it's definitive reading for anyone who wonders how our country veered so far right that it sometimes feels as though the North lost the Civil War, the book is geared to the aging vets of Woodstock Nation. The title of the final chapter is "To My Fellow Former Hippies". We spoke recently while he was in Los Angeles for an ACLU event.
"Not that everything associated with being a hippie was great. There was drug abuse. There were shallow aspects of it that had to do with fashion and slang. But at the core of it, the way I use it has to do with the idealism of coming out of the civil rights movement into the anti-war movement. The explosion of rock music as a real art form at a higher level than it had previously been in terms of the lyrical tradition that Bob Dylan helped usher in. And the notion of community coming from a generation that I really felt part of and that I still carry around inside me. That's where my politics and professional life come from; feeling identification with that loosely affiliated group of people that -- broadly speaking -- are called hippies."
But Goldberg's got a beef with many of his brother and sister baby boomers. "I felt that they're a group of people who collectively I'm a bit disappointed in, in the way they've dealt with the younger generation. In terms of the political sphere, a lot of people who were hippies or identified with that are not particularly open-minded about understanding that we're not the teenagers anymore and we need to acknowledge and respect people who are younger if we want to have meaningful politics."
The most public battle between Goldberg and aging boomers occurred in 1985 when Tipper Gore, in tandem with the wives of other Senators, co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center. The PMRC advocated a lyrics rating system. Although they insisted the ratings would be voluntary, they were treading a fine line between advice and censorship. Theoretically movie ratings are also voluntary, but many newspapers and stores (including the Blockbuster chain) will not have any association with a film labeled NC-17, thereby making the system a form of social control. Tipper was a self-proclaimed fan of '60s rock, notably the Grateful Dead, whose aesthetic had evolved from psychedelic drugs. The hypocrisy was transparent. She became symbolic of a generation who'd chanted "Gimme an F!" at Woodstock but who were now worried that the very same words and concepts would corrupt their own offspring.
Goldberg had already established his activist credentials by co-producing and co-directing the documentary No Nukes in 1980 in alliance with Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), co-producing MTV's first voter registration commercials in '84 and working on other progressive causes. In response to the PMRC, Goldberg was named chairman of the Musical Majority, formed by the ACLU to oppose the non-issue of rock lyrics. Despite the PMRC's claim that they had no interest in legislation, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee held a hearing on rock lyrics. Al Gore's membership on that committee was clearly no coincidence. While the Reagan Administration was shredding the New Deal, Democrats like Gore found the time to denounce Madonna. Goldberg gained national attention by eloquently defending the First Amendment. In a draw, the ratings system idea died and voluntary 'parental advisory' warnings were stickered on albums.
While many boomers are content to listen to "Stairway To Heaven" over and over, Goldberg's eclectic and evolving musical taste has not only worked for him as a record exec, it's allowed him to hear music through the ears of a much younger audience. Artemis Records, which he co-founded, has on its roster–among others -- rapper Kurupt, heavy metal rockers Kittie and country maverick Steve Earle, whose controversial album Jerusalem was written and recorded at Goldberg's urging. In toto, these artists cover virtually every age demographic and this ability to keep open-minded informs his politics. "It doesn't make any difference if a 40 or 50-year old listens to rap or not, but it would be a cultural and moral error to condescend or demonize rap. Similarly, if you don't reach out to younger people politically, you can scarcely be surprised if they don't participate politically. If they're not voting, maybe it's our fault for not motivating them. We need to provide a politics that speaks to them. Historically, all progressive political change has included young people."
Though critical of specific tactical errors, Goldberg points to the Yippies–radical hippies of the '60s including Paul Krassner, Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin–as making the urgent point that "culture was an important vehicle to convey political ideas. They didn't only communicate through linear policy statements like earnest but humorless leftists, but by finding the imprecise language of culture they could affect many, many more people. They left incredible clues about how to reach a bigger audience, a younger audience, how to have a populist progressive politics that has mostly been lost. The one person today on the big stage who has that kind of insight is Michael Moore. If people in political life want to be successful, they need to develop the intuitive side of their political brains and not only the literal sides. The Right has been much more attentive to cultural tools in terms of conveying political ideas than the Left has the last 20 years."
Goldberg points to the late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill as an example of a liberal politician who figured out how to combat the charismatic movie star Ronald Reagan. Though frumpy and white-haired, O'Neill "did his cultural homework. He was very effective in stopping social security cuts and the war in Nicaragua because he spoke unambiguous English. He'd say 'he's got ice water in his veins', 'he only talks to rich people', he went on Cheers. Speaking common American is a learnable skill. The Republican advantage is 'cause so many of their candidates come out of the business world and big business -- for all of its flaws –is much more sophisticated in dealing with the public because of advertising and PR agencies."
Like many of Goldberg's insights, they come from a man who–as Joni Mitchell sang -- has looked at life from both side now. "The hippie inside me has oftentimes been unhappy with the businessman inside me -- the concern with money, credit, the competitiveness with other people. Those aspects of myself that created my success in business certainly clash with some of the notions of who I was going to be as a teenager -- who was just a fan of music. There are contradictions and trade-offs. I ultimately made the choice not to live in a commune and grow organic vegetables but to be a record executive and to make as much money as I could doing so.
"But in the context of what I do, I've tried to honor the things that inspired me to get into the business such as making records with Allen Ginsberg or the political activity that I've done. I was not a pure extension of hippie consciousness but I was deeply influenced by the hippie period and the influences never left me."
© 2003 - Michael Simmons