Darryl Cherney is not someone I hear from often. When he sent me a note the other day asking how he can get some ink in the Journal, I had to tell him I haven’t written for them for years. But I’m not out of the game entirely. What was he up to? Well, for one thing, he has a show coming up Sunday at the Arcata Playhouse.
“I’ll be playing solo and free-wheeling it,” he told me. “I’ve got new material including my new KMUD favorite: “In the Shelter of the Cove,” (which has the usual humor and sarcasm). I’ve been talking more, storytelling and slowing and speeding my songs up, getting my soul into it.”
He sent me a press release today, we’ll start with that…
“On the 20th anniversary of the controversial agreement that established the Headwaters Preserve in southern Humboldt County, legendary songwriter, singer, and activist Darryl Cherney will raise awareness and memories with an event Sunday, March 10, an evening at the Arcata Playhouse to benefit the new David Nathan “Gypsy” Chain Memorial Scholarship fund.
Earlier this week at HSU’s Social Justice Summit, Cherney screened the feature movie “Who Bombed Judi Bari?”, a 2012 documentary produced by Darryl about the 1990 car bombing in Oakland on organizer Bari and himself.
Bari was critically injured in the attack. After the bombing, the FBI arrested Bari and Cherney on suspicion of transporting illegal explosives, but they were never charged due to lack of evidence. Bari and Cherney sued the FBI for violation of their civil rights and won in a landmark case in 2002.”
Next we’ll revisit an old piece I wrote about Mr. Cherney back when I did write for the NCJ: a flash back to Darryl’s West Side Story…
A self-described “dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker,” Cherney was born and raised on the west side of Manhattan. His father was an English teacher; his mother, an office manager. But another strong influence in his youth was Tony Schwartz, one of his neighbors on West 57th Street.
Schwartz was a master of electronic media who created more than 20,000 radio and television spots for products, political candidates and non-profit public interest groups. Featured on programs by Bill Moyers, Phil Donahue and Sixty Minutes, among others, Schwartz has been described as a “media guru,” a “media genius” and a “media muscleman.”
Darryl recalled, “I did over 30 radio, voice over and TV commercials and two radio interviews with Tony by the time my career ended at age 13 (puberty).
“Tony wasn’t interested in actors. He pretty much only used real people in his commercials, giving him both a unique sound and a special place in history. He produced the first anti-cigarette smoking ads, anti-pollution ads, ads for five presidential candidates and countless politicians — about 23,000 in all. He authored two books: The Responsive Chord and Media: The Second God.”
A legend in the New York advertising world, Schwartz is perhaps best known for creating what is known as “the daisy ad,” a television spot for Lyndon Johnson’s campaign against Barry Goldwater that juxtaposed a little girl picking a daisy with an atomic bomb explosion.
Schwartz was also known as a pioneer in using real children in his radio and television commercials. One of the children Schwartz used was young Darryl.
“When I was 5 years old, riding my tricycle in the neighborhood, Tony spotted me and approached my mother, asking if he could do some sound takes,” Cherney recalled. “I did ads for Quaker Oats, for Ivory Snow and Equitable Life Insurance, for high grade bologna. (The vegans will kill me for that one, but I didn’t know.) I made $35,000 by the time I was 11.”
He also recorded a story with young Darryl telling the story of a funeral for his pet turtle Tony Turtle in 1964.
It was in Schwartz’s home studio that Cherney got his initial political education. “I would go over to Tony’s house and be surrounded by politics. It was on the walls, on the bookshelves, in the record library. He had autographed pictures of John Kennedy on the wall — he did four presidential campaigns.”
Cherney said he started getting involved in political campaigns when he was just 9, and music was also part of his life from an early age. He studied classical piano from the age of 7 and got himself a guitar at 10. “I picked up the guitar, and as soon as I had learned three chords, I started writing songs: political songs, or even environmental songs.”
It began with “The Long Island Expressway in Rush Hour,” a song about congested traffic set to the tune of “Snoopy and the Red Baron,” and other parodies.
As he grew older he continued songwriting, but was dissatisfied with it. “I knew that there was something I didn’t know, something missing in my consciousness. And it was reflected in my songs; they were not sophisticated enough, not analytical. They didn’t embrace a holistic politicism. Maybe I hadn’t formed an ideology yet.”
By 1982, Cherney had graduated from Fordham University in New York City with a BA in English and a master’s degree in education. Besides teaching at a local business school, he dabbled in marketing on the side.
He also got involved in the New York City Folk Musicians Cooperative, an organization run by the folksinger Jack Hardy.
At the time Cherney was earning a living as a “man with a van,” through a business he called Prime Mover. “I would use other folk musicians for my crew,” he recalled.
The co-op was where Cherney met Judy Zweiman, “my first Judy, I call her. She was playing bass with a group, Josh Joffen and Late for Dinner. We dated pretty steady for a couple of years, from ’84 to ’85.”
Zweiman introduced Cherney to the spiritual practice of paganism, not long before he left New York for California. “She told me I was a pagan and I didn’t know it. Eventually I knew it. I’ve been a practicing pagan since 1984. I’m a lifetime member of the Church of All Worlds.”
What does it mean to be a pagan? “It means I honor the Goddess as well as honoring God. It means that I see the divine in all things, whether it be the wind, the sun or a blade of grass. I see different elements of the sacred. It means that I participate in rituals: We greet the four seasons with ceremonies.”
In 1985, Cherney the moving man decided to pack his 1976 Dodge and move himself, leaving New York. “I had pre-rented a place in San Francisco. I did not have any job in mind, but I knew you could always make money moving furniture.”
He also knew he “wanted to do something political, to work for social change.” In an oft-told tale, he recounted how he was diverted on his way to San Francisco after picking up Kingfisher, a traveling Cheyenne “road man” somewhere in Oregon.
“Kingfisher asked me, `What do you want out of life?’ I said, `I want to learn how to live off the land and save the world.’ He said he knew where I needed to go: Garberville. When we drove into town he took me straight to the EPIC office.”
The nonprofit advocacy organization EPIC formed in 1977 around a successful campaign opposing the timber industry practice of aerial herbicide spraying. By 1985 the group was working on a variety of other timber-related issues.
“I immediately started learning about the redwoods falling,” said Cherney. “I arrived in November of ’85, right after [Charles] Hurwitz made his bid to take over Pacific Lumber. That’s what was in the headlines at the moment. Here I was a New Yorker, a provincial Manhattanite, so I was like, `What? You can cut down the redwoods?’ When I found out they were clear-cutting them, I couldn’t conceive of it; I didn’t believe it could be legal.”
While he was working with EPIC, another group caught his eye: the more radical environmentalists known as Earth First! Cherney had never heard of them before he saw a sticker on the door of the EPIC office showing the Earth First! clenched fist logo.
“What differentiates Earth First! from other environmental advocacy [groups] is the fact that direct action strategies are employed,” explained Karen Pickett, an Earth Firster since 1983 who works with the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters.
Asking around, Cherney found that there were no Earth Firsters active on the North Coast in the mid-1980s. “Bill Devall at Humboldt State had had an Earth First! group in Arcata that took on the G-O Road [plans for a road from Gasquet to Orleans through land considered sacred by local tribes]. In Mendocino they had formed around the Sinkyone [wilderness issue]. They had come and gone. So I was not the first Earth Firster [in this area]; I just rejuvenated it, along with Greg King and eventually Judi Bari, of course. We brought it to a new level.”
While EPIC was fighting battles on several fronts, before long Cherney and the journalist King, who met in 1986, pulled together a cadre of Earth Firsters and mounted a campaign to save a grove of redwoods on Pacific Lumber property near Fortuna known as Headwaters Forest.
In doing so “he brought into focus a totally unknown world view for most of the resource-oriented community around here,” said 2nd District Supervisor Roger Rodoni.
“He did not become everybody’s friend. He was the guy, if you [were talking] about a timber protest, Redwood Summer, Earth First! all of that side of the equation, Darryl Cherney’s name was going to be in the forefront. He was the pioneer. Sure, there’s a lot of people who are going to say that’s not good. Me, I’m not so quick to say that’s not good. If it took Darryl Cherney to create that awareness, that’s a positive thing.”
According to Pickett, “Darryl played a major role in the forest campaign in Northern California and in the Earth First! movement in general. He’s been a very visible and vocal character in the landscape. He’s a skilled organizer, and one of the things he brought to the forest campaign and to the larger movement was his musical ability.”
Utilizing his background in PR, Cherney bombarded local and national media with press releases about various demonstrations, many orchestrated with theatrical pizzazz, and punctuated by his topical songs.
He became a master at the provocative sound bite, the face of radical environmentalism on the North Coast. In the eyes of those he opposed, a target for anger at the environmental movement in general.
“In some ways he was someone to vilify,” said Mason. “But if it wasn’t him, it would be someone else, someone like me.”
In 1988 Cherney ran for Congress in the Democratic primary, calling himself “the singing candidate.” While he lost the race to incumbent Doug Bosco, he gained a new collaborator along the way, a politically aware graphic artist and organizer who volunteered her services: Judi Bari. As an added bonus, she played fiddle. They became partners and lovers.A
In 1990 while Californians were preparing to vote on the future of timber harvesting, choosing between the Forests Forever initiative crafted by environmentalists and a rival initiative put forward by the timber industry, Bari and Cherney declared “Redwood Summer.” It was a series of protests emulating the Mississippi Freedom Summer, 1964, when voter registration workers descended on America’s South as part of the fight for civil rights.
“Earth First! raised the profile of what was happening,” Mason recalled. “Clearly the world came to see that (lumber companies) were still clear-cutting ancient redwoods.”R
Judi Bari and her fiddle
What happened next sent shock waves through the movement. While Bari and Cherney were driving through Oakland on their way to play a concert in Santa Cruz, a homemade bomb exploded in Bari’s car. The police and FBI accused the activists of carrying the bomb themselves. The lawsuit filed by Bari and Cherney alleging violation of their civil rights was settled in their favor. (The identity of the bomber has never been established.)
At least 3,000 protesters came from across the United States to participate in Redwood Summer protests in Humboldt County and elsewhere in the state. While Bari spent most of the summer in the hospital and rehab, she emerged for an August rally in San Francisco in her honor. The Headwaters Deal, which preserves about 10,000 acres of woodlands, was clinched in 1999.
A different activism
Darryl sang through it all, noting that his writing changed. For one thing he says he expanded his focus “outside the redwood region to world politics. I’m speaking more in what I’d call the authentic first person. When I’m singing `You Can’t Clear-cut Your Way to Heaven’ or `Where You Gonna Work When the Trees Are Gone?’ I’m pretending to be someone else. But now, I’m writing in the first person and actually singing about me.”
Of course he still gets political…
And he still sings for his old comrades. “My favorite audience is still around the campfire, without any amplification. For me, that’s the ideal stage, singing for people who may be going out to get arrested the next day doing a forest action or a tree-sit. The effect that the music has on them may be even more powerful than if I were on the radio broadcasting to thousands. You just don’t get as famous.”
On Sunday, March 10 Cherney takes the stage at the Arcata Playhouse to entertain and educate with his political songs and stories from his years as an organizer with Earth First!
Naomi Steinberg, one of the event organizers, comments, “Darryl is just the right person to lead us in a reflection on the Headwaters deal concluded 20 years ago. His songs are as powerful, passionate and funny as ever… We can enjoy a reunion of old activists and hopefully inspire some young ones.”
The event Sunday is a benefit for the David Nathan Gypsy Chain Memorial Scholarship Fund. Admission is $20 and up (additional donations appreciated), but FREE to students. Doors open at 7 p.m. the program begins at 7:30.
The David Nathan Gypsy Chain Memorial Scholarship was established to remember a young activist killed in 1998 while protesting illegal logging in the Grizzly Creek watershed. Make a tax-deductible donation online or by mail through the Humboldt Area Foundation, which administers the scholarship fund. For information, see http://www.davidgypsychain.org or http://www.hafoundation.org/GypsyChain .
Student applications are now open for the $1000 scholarship, until March 15, through the Humboldt Area Foundation’s scholarship website at http://www.hafoundation.org/GypsyChain or https://www.hafoundation.org/Grants-Scholarships/Scholarships-Apply-Now . Students can also learn more about the scholarship and how to apply for it at https://hafscholar.fluidreview.com/p/a/19205 .
The scholarship will be given to a student graduating from a Humboldt high school and planning to attend HSU or CR, or to a continuing first year HSU or CR student, who demonstrates commitment to environmental protection through study and activism.