The Rock Activist : Danny Goldberg Is on a Roll, Coalition-Building for a Dazzling Array of Causes

Times Staff Writer

It was a typical morning for Danny Goldberg, rock entrepreneur and political activist extraordinaire.

In a Universal City office that looked as if a mild earthquake had just rolled through it--the gold albums and celebrity-inscribed photos of Don Johnson, Sheena Easton and other clients all slightly askew, and wads of paper and loose cassettes scattered on the floor--Goldberg was glued to the phone.

One minute he was talking to an agent in Denmark about whether Johnson, the "Miami Vice" star who recently launched a singing career, should do a concert tour in Europe; the next minute he was calling Joan Baez about an upcoming awards dinner.

Then he switched gears and moved to politics, agreeing to set up a meeting for San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos with two local Democratic bigwigs: "Irving" (as in Irving Azoff, the MCA Entertainment head and Democratic contributor) and "Stanley" (as in Stanley Sheinbaum, the influential economist, publisher and lion of the political left).

An Intense Investigator

An hour later, Goldberg was trooping up and down the antiseptic corridors of MacLaren Hall, Los Angeles County's emergency shelter for abused children in El Monte, with a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union and a five-member welcoming committee of top administrators. He was intent on getting a handle on the kinds of children who wind up there--and whether MacLaren needs any prodding to serve them better. A few months earlier, he had toured the jails with the same intensity.

"I don't golf, I don't ski, I don't play tennis," Goldberg, a tall man with a slight paunch and longish, tousled hair, said recently. "The time other people put into what they would call their hobby, I put into this stuff"--by which he meant an array of social and political issues that concern him, from stopping U.S. aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and fighting censorship of rock lyricists to stumping for the ACLU.

Goldberg is president of Gold Spaceship Management, which manages stellar rock and pop names such as Belinda Carlisle, Bonnie Raitt and Johnson. He also is president of two record companies: Gold Castle, aimed at the "Big Chill" generation reared on Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Peter, Paul and Mary; and Gold Mountain, which features newer artists such as ex-Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones.

But, as his recent morning schedule indicates, Goldberg is not just a successful rock 'n' roll entrepreneur. At 38, he is fast becoming the Norman Lear of the baby-boom generation, an outspoken activist who is marshaling the resurgent activism of Hollywood's brightest young stars behind progressive causes.

Recently, Goldberg was reelected to a second term as chairman of the Southern California American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the youngest person ever to hold the position with the ACLU's legal and educational arm.

Some who have witnessed Goldberg's rapid ascent in local and national political circles say he has carved out a niche for himself as someone who not only can put money and celebrities together for a candidate or cause but who has some fresh ideas about communicating the progressive point of view to the public.

Lear--the television producer who founded People for the American Way, the liberal lobbying group formed nine years ago to counter the influence of the Fundamentalist Right--calls Goldberg one of Hollywood's new leaders who is encouraging social and political involvement by young entertainers, including the "Brat Pack" crowd.

"He is a terrific role model for that generation of young performers . . . the Meg Ryans, Rob Lowes and Ally Sheedys," Lear said.

Goldberg--with film producer Patricia Duff-Medavoy, deputy chief city attorney John Emerson and Betsy Kenny, vice president for public affairs at Act III Communications, Lear's TV production company--is a founder of the SHOW Coalition, an entertainment industry network for the baby-boom-and-younger generations. The coalition sponsors educational forums on political issues.

Recruiting New Blood

He has already begun to reinvigorate the ACLU foundation board, recruiting, among others, actor Richard Dreyfuss and "Family Ties" television producer Gary David Goldberg (no relation).

The rock manager's under-40 status was a major reason, members say, why the board of the ACLU foundation picked him two years ago as its chairman.

Said Sheinbaum, an ACLU stalwart who nominated Goldberg for the chair Sheinbaum held for almost a decade in the 1970s: "The ACLU membership and leadership had gotten to be as old as I am, which is 68. It was time to reinvigorate the organization with younger people, who were showing signs of (shedding) the apathy of the '70s and the yuppiedom of the '80s. Danny, with his wide range of contacts and the stature he has with younger people inside and outside of entertainment was a natural choice" to lead the group into the next decade.

Sheinbaum added, "He's one of the smartest people I have ever known."

Goldberg has been "tagged as a guy who can put celebrities and money together," said Rick Allen, who was former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart's California primary campaign manager. But it is mainly Goldberg's chairmanship of the ACLU, Allen said, that puts him on "every (liberal politician's) short list" of influential Hollywood leaders to call when in town.

"I hear from damn near all the guys who are thinking about running for President," said Allen, an executive in a Beverly Hills development company, "and there isn't a single one who doesn't have Danny Goldberg in his top 10."

By his own reckoning, Goldberg was not always a go-getter.

In high school, "I was pretty unmotivated," keenly interested in politics, less than absorbed by studying, he said during an interview in a noisy bistro downstairs from his office.

A New York native, Goldberg attended Fieldston, a liberal prep school where "you didn't have to wear a tie." In the seventh grade, he took part in his first political act: With his friend, Joel Goodman, he boycotted the air raid drills ordered by the school's officials. Soon after, Goldberg recalled, the school dropped the drills.

After graduating from high school in 1967, he enrolled at UC Berkeley. But he dropped out after a week and "got caught up in the whole hippie life style" in Berkeley and later back in New York, immersed in the culture of "Vietnam, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, long hair, psychedelics, civil rights."

Music Brought It All Together

Rock 'n' roll was the cord that tied it all together for him.

"My fantasy of what rock 'n' roll was," he said, "was that it was part of the same cultural change as Martin Luther King, Lenny Bruce and the Village Voice. It was this tapestry of new consciousness," and he flowed right along with it.

He worked at odd jobs, hanging chandeliers in a store and delivering messages on a bicycle for a courier service. He got a job at Billboard, the music industry magazine, as a clerk in the charts department and later as a reviewer. But he was fired, he said, because he was always coming in late.

When he was 22, he started to get serious about work "because I just got nervous about not making money," Goldberg said. So he free-lanced for the Village Voice and Rolling Stone for a few years. Then, putting his journalism contacts to use, he went into public relations--first at the New York firm of Solters & Roskin, where his main client was the British band Led Zeppelin, and later at his own company, Danny Goldberg Inc.

His political consciousness lay dormant for most of the '70s, he said, while he concentrated on "inventing myself as a professional."

The turning point, he said, came in 1980, when he was asked to produce the "No Nukes" concerts (and later the documentary by the same name), a series of benefits in New York, Washington and Los Angeles by anti-nuclear performers, including Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. That then-Gov. Jerry Brown came to a screening of the movie made a lasting impression on Goldberg.

"I was so excited that the governor of California was coming to this little movie," he said. "He . . . gave us the feeling that there was room for us in the political arena. No one had reached out to my generation that way."

Interest Was Rekindled

Producing the "No Nukes" concerts and film "reactivated a part of me that cared about political issues. At the same time, it gave me a glimpse of the fact that people from the entertainment business could have some impact on what went on. It was the first time it occurred to me that . . . by dint of what I did for a living, I could have an influence on what was going on politically."

In 1984, Goldberg produced voter registration spots that ran on MTV--little mini-music videos featuring rock luminaries as diverse as Twisted Sister, Jimi Hendrix and Cyndi Lauper exhorting fans to "feel the power" by registering to vote.

In 1985, he joined forces with the national ACLU to form the Musical Majority, a coalition of rock artists and industry figures opposed to attempts by a group of prominent Washington wives to impose a rating system on rock lyrics. Led by Tipper Gore, wife of Tennessee Sen. Al Gore Jr., the Parents Music Resource Center pushed for an industry-wide agreement to place warning labels on albums with sexually explicit language. Goldberg said such a system smacked of censorship and enlisted the ACLU's help.

"There was no one else to call," he said. "My friends in politics were not that interested in this, and the record company people were sympathetic but (their hands were tied) because they were all publicly owned corporations that were part of bigger corporations."

Frank Zappa was the only prominent music industry figure who was trying to answer the attacks, but Goldberg felt "someone more mainstream" was needed to focus the debate.

The Musical Majority mobilized a diverse group of managers and artists, such as Don Henley and John Cougar Mellenkamp, to oppose what they perceived as an attempt to muzzle rockers' creative freedom. Ira Glasser, executive director of the national ACLU, said the group became "a very popular means of organizing on behalf of First Amendment rights, which are often not popular."

(Jennifer Norwood, the Parents Music Resource Center executive director, said that since 1986, 35 albums--less than half the number targeted by the group--have been released with the warning labels.)

By 1986--further building on what sympathetic observers were starting to call a unique talent--Goldberg teamed with such improbable allies as Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp and heavy-metal rocker Ronnie Dio to produce two dozen 30-second anti-drug spots called "Rock Against Drugs." Broadcast statewide, the spots featured rock stars speaking out against drug abuse in a way teen-agers could understand.

A Snarling Party Boy

Motley Crue's Vince Neil, for example, posed on a motorcycle, snarled that he doesn't take drugs but still can "party with the best of them." Van de Kamp's office provided $50,000 to help cover production costs, but the performers donated their services and MTV gave $3 million in air time.

A Van de Kamp aide said the spots produced voluminous mail from teen-agers who liked the message.

"It was an unusual tack to take," Van de Kamp said, "but in my view, it was the way to go. You don't use Nancy Reagan or a coat-and-tied attorney general" to get teen-agers to listen.

The spots also raised Goldberg's profile in the political community. Allen, the former Hart campaign aide, said the anti-drug campaign was a "remarkable indication" of Goldberg's ability to explain an issue in a way that could be easily understood by all kinds of people.

'Jumped at It'

Goldberg, who moved to Los Angeles from New York about five years ago, said it took little persuading to get him to accept the ACLU foundation chair the first time he was nominated, in 1987.

"I frankly jumped at it," he said. "I was overwhelmed by the vision of how (the ACLU used) the court process as a tool of political activism. And, for me personally, it was a great step because it wasn't just rock and roll. Everything I had done before then was in the context of 'Could I put together a concert to raise money for a particular issue?' . . . This gave me a chance to get involved with a wider range of issues."

In a business driven by the bottom line, Bonnie Raitt said, Goldberg is unique: "He cares about making the world a better place and not just about making money. . . . He's not slick, ruthless or shallow (and) he has a refreshing lack of interest in the latest trends. His political sensibility," she said, "is the real reason why I'm with him (as a client) now."

He is a voracious reader of nonfiction--he rushed to buy Taylor Branch's history of the civil rights movement and Neil Sheehan's chronicle of the Vietnam War--and his language is an odd combination of '60s lingo and old-fashioned sayings like "God bless you."

"He is very funny and voluble and his ideas sort of splatter out at a high rate," said the national ACLU's Glasser, who met Goldberg about four years ago. "He's not a wallflower."

Not Immediately Likable

In fact, people "don't always like Danny on the first meeting," said Colleen O'Connor, ACLU national director of public education, remembering her first encounter with Goldberg before he became the Southern California chairman.

It was at a meeting with ACLU officials to discuss ways to counter the campaign against suggestive rock lyrics. O'Connor said Goldberg arrived late, having just gotten off a Los Angeles-to-New York red-eye flight. He was dressed in tattered jeans and appeared on the verge of falling asleep. Then he proceeded to dominate the discussion.

"Danny has a way of invading a room and taking it over," O'Connor observed. "He was a bit obstreperous, far too willing to tell everyone his opinions in lieu of listening to theirs. . . . He's like fine wine--he's better the older he gets."

She sees him now as a perceptive and articulate ambassador for the organization.

Getting the Message Out

Sheinbaum says what he likes most about Goldberg is that he has "a clearly worked out set of values . . . that are obviously similar to my own or I wouldn't be impressed by them."

Goldberg says a long-term goal is to play a major role in communicating "the progressive message" to the public, especially through the vehicle of political campaigns.

Allen said Goldberg began to demonstrate a knack for that as a key member of a media advisory group for the short-lived Hart campaign. It was Goldberg who proposed a format for television ads in which Hart would talk directly into the camera--a technique known as "breaking through the fourth wall"--and say something to acknowledge that an amount of staging was occurring. He hoped that approach would help create an intimacy that the aloof Hart had difficulty establishing.

Although the candidacy foundered and Goldberg's ideas were never put to the test, Allen said Hart and the campaign staff were impressed by Goldberg's attempts to find a way to "package" a candidate who resisted being packaged.

Goldberg has been thinking a lot lately about how to effectively communicate a political message.

"My whole goal is to turn Reagan-esque communication on its head and try to use the flag and Thomas Jefferson and Elvis Presley and the Beatles and all these symbols for our point of view," he said recently, perched on the edge of a white sofa in his fairly Spartan office. "I hope they (Democrats) are waking up. There are a lot of things Democrats have to think about and one of them is being committed to communication."

His most immediate challenge is to reshape the ACLU's image, which, many agree, President Bush effectively painted in his campaign last year as a left-wing group more concerned about criminals than victims.

In a TV counteroffensive launched last fall, conceived jointly by Goldberg and Southern California ACLU executive director Ramona Ripston, actors Burt Lancaster and "L.A. Law's" Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker explained why they are "proud to be card-carrying members" of the ACLU.

All-American Images

A third spot, set to Barbra Streisand's rendition of "America the Beautiful," was a montage of Americana--a grandfatherly, looking man showing a young boy how to fish, a mother hugging her serviceman-son, the Statue of Liberty.

Goldberg also pushed the local ACLU affiliate last year to hire a public relations expert to educate the public about the group's work, such as its advocacy on behalf of AIDS patients, the disabled, rape victims and minority students.

He believes Bush's bashing, though painful at the time, has created a "once-in-a-lifetime" opportunity for the ACLU to redefine itself. He is excited to be in a position to help chart the new course.

"It would be so easy," he said, to float from "one cocktail party to the next, giving your money but not feeling at the end of the year you've really done much . . . other than assuage your guilt. I'm glad I found kind of a niche. I like having a base of priorities. It's a real exciting time to be involved in political activity. I'm very stimulated to be a part of it."

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