The flaming redhead with the saucy mouth logs more time at San Francisco City Hall than your average citizen. She doesn’t draw a government paycheck. But now and then, she takes the stage in front of the Civic Center Plaza and lets it rip.
You might say it’s her day job.
For 33 years, Bonnie Raitt has pursued a career in political activism as passionately as her longtime gig as a recording artist. Lady Six String has thrown hundreds of fund-raisers for environmental, social justice and peace groups.
Raitt, a fixture in the Bay Area counterculture, has lived on and off in Marin County and the North Coast for the past decade while touring the world, recording and overseeing her business interests in Los Angeles.
The singer carefully safeguards her privacy and security, having lived in various houses in southern Marin and Mendocino County. She is often sighted in Mill Valley dropping by the Sweetwater nightclub and Village Music record shop.
She also volunteers her services for Bread & Roses, a Corte Madera nonprofit that presents free concerts in prisons, hospitals and rehabilitation centers.
When the folk-blues rocker speaks out, she chooses her words with the precision and pedantic air of a precinct captain. Her heated words have lit fires under elected officials, bureaucrats and corporate power brokers.
“It’s an ongoing fight,” said Raitt, a self-styled ambassador for that curious nexus between blues and politics. “Roe vs. Wade is not secure. The environment. . . . For the issues I care about, this is the worst time that’s ever occurred since I’ve been alive. So I wouldn’t say it’s too positive a time.”
Citizen Bonnie has performed for inmates at San Quentin State Prison, fought to save the ancient Headwaters Forest, promoted the use of solar power, sponsored a program to help inner-city kids learn to play guitar, helped persuade major record labels to raise their royalty rates to 10 percent, and awarded grants to America’s aging blues pioneers.
So it was no surprise at the Grammy Awards show last month that Raitt took advantage of her momentary pulpit to sling a sharply honed, politically inspired arrow at CBS’ huge, worldwide television audience.
“Enough about building a mystery; let’s build some peace,” she said, eyeballing the camera in a brief aside. Then she went about her business, awarding the Record of the Year award to Norah Jones.
Raitt has avoided the firestorm of criticism that engulfed other anti-war celebrities who spoke out. Natalie Maines, the lead singer for the Dixie Chicks, has drawn flak for telling a London concert audience last week that she was ashamed that President Bush was from Texas. Maines apologized for her remark, but dozens of country radio stations, as well as Top 40 (KEZR-FM in San Jose) and adult contemporary stations have dropped the Chicks’ new single, “Landslide,” from their play lists. The record has lost some 10,000 spins nationwide in the last few days.
True to form, Raitt joined Hollywood actor Danny Glover, author Alice Walker and folksinger Joan Baez at the front lines of a recent peace march in San Francisco to hold a banner that read, “The World Says No To War On Iraq!”
“I feel that we should not be acting unilaterally, that we need support of the international community,” Raitt said after the war had begun. “To act unilaterally is folly and will only increase the suffering and terrorism in the world.”
The singer has been arrested twice in recent years for anti-logging protests, but she disagrees with anti-war protesters who blocked traffic last week in San Francisco. Raitt said that she supports nonviolent disobedience in certain instances when there is a clear purpose, but not when these tactics are used indiscriminately. She said that tying up traffic probably just infuriated motorists.
Raitt has sold more than 15 million albums and won nine Grammy awards. She has a place in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But she eschews the trappings of a superstar. She doesn’t live in mansions. She refuses to do TV commercials, buys shade-grown coffee to help save rain forests, and at times gives her frequent-flier miles to activists so they can attend meetings.
Raitt’s activism can be traced to her Quaker upbringing and her coming of age in the 1960s. But she has other sides. We’re talking here about a Radcliffe graduate, a shrewd businesswoman, a maverick recording artist with 16 albums under her belt. In short: a salty, middle-aged vamp who swaggers onto the stage with supreme confidence.
Raitt’s latest album, “Silver Lining,” sports a frisky photograph of her on the cover and a rowdy, salacious tune called “Gnawin’ On it.”
A longtime activist
Her longevity as a political activist is indisputable. Other celebrity activists have come and gone, but Raitt has stayed true to her causes. Only a handful can match her track record of sustained involvement.
So what drives this fiery soul to stick her neck out on issues of the day? Why can’t she just march along silently?
“Healthy debate is what America and what democracy is about,” Raitt said in an interview. “All sides need to be represented and the discussion over the dinner table should extend to the classrooms and the workplace and the water cooler. We have lives at stake here and our planet at stake and our civil liberties at stake. And our health care, our future and our economy. Everything is at stake.
“And in order to have democracy, you have to have an informed, participating populace. And for 30 or 40 percent to vote because they are so disenchanted that they can’t make a difference is a travesty and a misuse of why this country was established in the first place. So I’m for anything that increases information, education, debate and participation, so that people control their own future instead of letting other people and corporations decide what their policies are going to be.”
Along the way, Raitt has inspired others to take a stand.
“I tell Bonnie to point me in the right direction: where I should send money and where to volunteer my concerts,” blues singer Maria Muldaur said. “My heart’s in the right direction, but she’s more actively engaged.”
Some pundits insist that celebrities should confine their remarks to nonpolitical matters. Jewish Press editor Jason Maos accused Raitt and others of ignorance and hypocrisy.
“On the one hand, you have the absolute silence of the Hollywood left on all manner of atrocities committed by any brutal despot who considers himself an enemy of America,” Maos said. “On the other hand, you see the Hollywood left’s fierce and aggressive outspokenness whenever the U.S. takes any measure of military action – an outspokenness magnified a hundred-fold when the president taking such action is a Republican.”
The singer with shocking red hair was born in Burbank, the daughter of show business parents. Her father, John Raitt, was a Broadway star. Her mother, Marge Goddard, was a professional pianist. They gave their daughter a Stella guitar at the age of 8.
Her parents had converted to Quakerism during World War II.
“By the time I was 5 or 6, I was learning a lot about the peace movement and about how we treat each other, and trying to see if we can’t get along, alleviate suffering and give something back,” Raitt said. “So that was really a defining thread in my childhood.
“And I went to a Quaker camp that had kids and counselors from all around the world. So the idea of world peace and equality and justice was something that I just fell into as naturally as being able to play the guitar or be musical . . . . I was very moved by the use of music to inspire people.”
The precocious teen lived in Southern California’s Coldwater Canyon and attended University High School in Westwood, where she got involved in the civil rights and peace movement. She moved east in the late 1960s to Cambridge, Mass., to attend Radcliffe College.
She pursued a major in social relations and African studies, and performed in the cafe scene. She left college after three years to pursue her music career as an opening act for blues legends Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.
Word spread quickly about Raitt’s soulful voice and virtuoso guitar playing.
Warner Bros. Records tracked her down and signed her up. Her debut album in 1971, “Bonnie Raitt,” contained a Sippie Wallace blues song, “Women Be Wise” – a wink at sexual politics.
But it was a long, slow climb to the top. With her mix of styles, her music wasn’t easy to pigeonhole. In 1977, she had her first hit single: a gritty rhythm and blues arrangement of Del Shannon’s “Runaway.” In 1989, she recorded her first breakthrough album, “Nick of Time.” Two years later, she rocked the charts again with her single, “Something to Talk About.” Her latest explorations: funk and Zimbabwean rhythms.
Many benefit concerts
From the start, Raitt played music at political rallies. She and a cadre of others, including Jackson Browne, Graham Nash and David Crosby, have done benefit concerts together since the 1970s.
“I can’t separate who I am as an activist or a person from my music,” said Raitt, 53. “I don’t sing overtly pedantic songs. They’re not usually very good.
But occasionally I’ll find a gem and I’ll throw it in my set.”
Most of her songs revolve around interpersonal relationships. At concerts, she has performed Browne’s “Soldier of Plenty,” Buffalo Springfield’s classic “For What It’s Worth” and other protest songs.
“I’m not an out-and-out pacifist. I just don’t believe that war is the answer,” she said. “Honoring life is a very powerful spiritual tenet, I think, whether you’re protecting the environment or refusing to accept a separation between the other side and us. There’s something sacred in each person and each living thing. And it’s important to honor that. Resorting to violence and hate only breeds hate and violence.”
How does she apply her political activism to her own lifestyle?
“I try to be consistent and have integrity in terms of the way I live my life – so that it matches what I talk about,” she said. “As I use products during the day, I try to support companies that have good hiring practices and don’t pollute. You know, try to eat organic food as much as possible, support sustainable economies and the environment as much as I can. I drive a car that gets good mileage. I don’t live extravagantly. I try to ride my bike places . .
“I have made peace and feel comfortable with the lifestyle that I live, and I’m happy to take any extra money I make and put it back into the service of making the planet better.”
Last summer, Raitt unleashed her “Green Highway” tour – a 42-city road show with country star Lyle Lovett. The tour featured lighting provided by a biodiesel generator running on vegetable oil, a sound system powered by a biodiesel Greenpeace truck loaded down with solar panels, and a flotilla of Honda hybrid cars.
In November, she attended the dedication ceremony for solarization of the Moscone Center – the first project financed by a $100 million solar bond approved by San Francisco voters last year. Raitt and Robert Redford had lobbied for passage of the ballot measure.
Helping blues artists
Beyond politics, Raitt has always looked outward. In 1988, she helped found the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, which works to improve royalties, financial conditions and recognition for an older generation of blues artists.
Raitt helped resuscitate the career of blues singer Charles Brown, who was living in hard times in the late 1980s at a residential hotel in Oakland. Brown, who died in 1999, toured with Raitt in 1990 and recorded again.
In 1995, she began the Bonnie Raitt Fender Guitar Project in association with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. The program in 200 clubs nationwide encourages inner city kids to play music at a time when the budget for music instruction in the schools is running dry. She also works with Little Kids Rock, a San Francisco organization that supports free musical education and instruments for Bay Area schoolkids.
“She has such grace when she’s with people,” said Michael Franti of San Francisco’s Spearhead rock band, who traveled with Raitt and other musicians to Cuba in 1999 for the Music Bridges cultural exchange program. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what culture you’re from, she’s able to make everybody feel comfortable around here. I think that’s her greatest tool as a political voice.”
Variety of causes
Raitt’s causes recall the usual suspects: apartheid, war in Central America,
nuclear power and waste, mining, offshore oil drilling, the Arctic wilderness,
cleaning up the bay, abortion rights. She often works with the Guacamole Fund,
a nonprofit that organizes benefits for social causes.
Her staff weeds through dozens of requests for funding each month. “There’s a valuation process that’s pretty stringent that I’ve learned to do since I was in my early 20s,” Raitt said. “It takes a lot of micromanaging and research by my staff to find out who’s viable and actually effective in the community.”
Many of those decisions are driven by Kathy Kane, Raitt’s operations manager at Gold Mountain Entertainment, a firm that looks after Raitt’s music business and nonprofit interests. “We’re joined at the hip,” Raitt said of Kane, a former Greenpeace activist.
“I think she breaks a lot of stereotypes,” Kane said. “She’s quite intellectual, and really on her game. If she doesn’t know something, she asks .
. . . She has a lot of integrity. And the music business can be awfully sleazy.”
Raitt’s actions to save old-growth redwood forests have landed her in jail twice.
In 1996, she joined 1,000 protesters who were arrested for trespassing near the North Coast town of Stafford at the largest anti-logging protest in the nation’s history. She was also arrested in 2001 at a sit-in in front of the Boise-Cascade office products division in a Chicago suburb.
“She’s one of the most committed celebrities that I’ve worked with,” said Randy Hayes, president of the Rainforest Action Network in San Francisco.
Raitt insists that her free speech has never been chilled by record execs or government officials.
“I would never listen to any of those people. They don’t tell me what to record and they don’t tell me what to say. I don’t take direction. I self- manage. I’ve always controlled what I record, when I record and what my albums look like, when I tour, what I play, and who I work with,” she said. “I kind of drew the line in the sand early on when was I was 21 with Warner Bros. Records. I said, ‘If you give me total control, I’ll sign with you.’ And I never expected them to go for it, but they did.”
Does she hold her tongue politically to reach a certain segment of the audience or better serve her commercial success?
“No, because I think my audience has the same feelings as I do,” she said. “If it’s an actual concert, I’m aware that people are there to hear the music and I don’t preach. I may make a pointed comment or two, or let them know that they can stop and see the tables of people passing out literature in the lobby that I’ve asked to be there to garner some more support for their organization, but I don’t preach from the stage.
“In that sense, I’m not holding my tongue, but I know that it’s not appropriate to turn a concert into a political forum. And I think that the audience would eventually resent you and not come to your shows if you turned it into a political platform. You have to respect that not everyone in the audience agrees with you.”
Raitt credits others for showing her the way. “Joan Baez has been a hero of mine since I was a kid. Pete Seeger as well. I love Willie Nelson’s commitment to Farm Aid, and Neil Young for the Bridge School and Farm Aid,” she said. “Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were very significant to me in terms of marrying social activism and their music. To this day, I think Dylan has probably changed the culture quite a bit.”
For those who would prefer that Raitt stick to her music, she has a ready reply: “I’m informed. I’m passionate. I care deeply about making the world better. And I’m a citizen first.”
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