ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly
Feb. 17, 2005


Infamous Troubadour: The life, times and future of Darryl Cherney [photo of Cherney playing guitar]

On the cover:
Darryl Cherney and Chernobles perform at Muddy Waters in Arcata.
Photo by Bob Doran



On a cool, crisp Saturday night, Darryl Cherney and the Chernobles take the stage at a coffeehouse in Arcata, preparing to rip into a twangy country tune. Cherney prefaces the song with a pronouncement, "This is a true story. All the songs you'll hear tonight are true stories."

Then while a steel guitar cries behind him, he strums his acoustic guitar, singing, "Now I'm just a hippie environmentalist thumbing through this redneck town. I've got an Earth First! shirt, two layers of dirt, not the kind they wanted hangin' around."

Of course, the song is not about Arcata. "Grant's Pass" is set in a southern Oregon town that Cherney describes in rhyme as "a place where they want to kick my ass." It tells the tale of an Earth First! direct action protest against logging by "Oregon clear-cutters," "furrow-browed head-butters" that he compares with the city's Neanderthal mascot.

It's a funny song, and the audience responds with laughter. A major portion of the crowd appear to be fans, both young and old, many presumably Earth First! associates or at least sympathizers. Some who seem to know the words sing along.

At the end of January, a week before the Arcata gig, Cherney turned 49. He spent just about 20 of those years here in Humboldt County earning a reputation as a media savvy, rabble-rousing, frontline environmental activist, spokesman for the local faction of Earth First!

That was the old Darryl Cherney. Today there's a new one. For one thing he says he is "not involved at all in North Coast Earth First!" at this point. In fact, his role in local eco-politics has taken a turn, and the show in Arcata is part of it. It's not that his strong opinions have shifted; it's just that he feels like it's time for a change.

"I've had two closures in my life recently, in terms of my political work," said Cherney in a conversation before the show. "One of them was in 2002: the victory over the FBI and the Oakland police." Cherney was referring to the jury verdict in a lawsuit that he and Judi Bari's estate filed stemming from the 1990 bombing of Bari's car. The verdict eventually led to a $4 million settlement. (Bari died of breast cancer in 1997.)

Cherney's other closure came, he said, with the establishment of the Headwaters Forest Reserve in 1999. "That was something I worked on from beginning to end," he said. "With that in mind, I asked myself, `Am I going to just sit in trees and challenge timber harvest plans and organize protests for the rest of my life?'

"In the past I did activism and wrote songs about it. Now my songs are going to be my activism. I basically decided I'm going to dedicate the next phase of my life to the arts, to my music."

Not that he plans on making it big in the music industry. His sense of humor is a bit too acerbic for that and his music is not exactly commercial.

"I don't think there's any singer in the world that everyone likes, and I'm not particularly famous," he conceded, adding, "I always say I'm infamous."

[band members sitting at table with chess set]

The Chernobles: L-R, drummer Mike "Tofu" Schwartz, guitarist Steve Hesh, Darryl Cherney, bassist Peter Amazing

Nothing in moderation

Like him or not, there's no denying Cherney inspires strong emotions.

Third generation logger Bill Boak [photo below left] of McKinleyville figures that Cherney "never did this county any good. I don't think he does anybody any good. He sure as hell didn't do the environmental movement any good.

[Bill Boak standing in front of curly redwood boards]"If Darryl Cherney and his like would fade out of the picture it might help. They just deal in propaganda and threats, that crowd he runs with. A lot of this protesting and all of this blab is started by people like Darryl Cherney who are making a living protesting."

Paul Mason got to know Cherney in the mid-'90s while working with the Garberville-based Environmental Protection Information Center (EPIC).

"Darryl is someone who definitely provokes feelings one way or the other," said Mason, now a legislative representative working in Sacramento on forestry issues for the Sierra Club. "Very few people have no opinion about Darryl. He's one of those people who -- you either love him or hate him. And that's because he does not get attention through moderate statements. He tends to say things in black and white terms."

Cherney is not one to deny his confrontational nature. "I may grate on people, but I think people have more respect for people who tell you what they're really thinking, as opposed to someone who tries to please everybody, who doesn't show all their cards."

"The contemplative, modest, well-reasoned comment is not what makes a headline," said Mason. "It's the inflammatory stuff that gets the attention, the clever turn of phrase that's a little over the top that people remember. And that's where Darryl plays the game -- he's good at that."

Where did Cherney learn the PR skills that helped him grab headlines? He started young.


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.

A legend in New York advertising, 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."

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."


[cherney playing and singing]Mover-shaker-Pagan

Cherney would eventually embrace a holistic political ideology, one with spiritual underpinnings, but not based on traditional organized religion.

Describing himself as "Jewish by descent," Cherney said, "I never went to temple; never went to Hebrew school. I was never bar mitzvahed. We celebrated Christmas and we ate pork, never did Hanukkah. The only thing that [my parents] told me was that there is a God, but it wasn't within the practice of any faith."

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."


Heading west

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."

[Earth First! logo]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.

[cherney with pulasky and other workers]"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.

Above left: Cherney leads illegal Earth First! treeplanting crew on Pacific Lumber land near Lawrance Creek in 1988. He was later sued by P.L. for the action.


Redwood Summer

[Cherney playing guitar and singing]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."

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 finally settled last year. (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. In November, the Forests Forever and the timber industry counterinitiative both failed at the polls.

The Headwaters Deal, which preserves about 10,000 acres of woodlands, was clinched in 1999.

Above right: Cherney plays for a Redwood Summer Rally, 1990


[CD cover picturing Judi Bari] Who Bombed Judi Bari? an album of songs and speeches by Bari, was produced by Cherney.


A new activism

Cherney noted that his writing has changed of late. For one thing he says he is expanding his focus "outside the redwood region to world politics." Second, "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.

Besides working on some new songs, he plans on revisiting songs he never finished or recorded. "I need to go over all my old tapes," he said. "I have cassette tapes going back to 1969. Songwriters like myself, we sing ideas into tape recorders, sometimes even complete songs, then sometimes never go back and listen to them. Why? Because I was busy going out and organizing actions or getting arrested."

Cherney's most immediate plan is to finish work on a collection of songs by and about Judi Bari. "I've collected about 36 songs from different writers [for] a two-disc set. By nature some of those songs are also about me, but mostly they're about Judi."

In part he will have the liberty to pursue these new projects because of the cash settlement from the lawsuit. Cherney says his share will be "about a half a mill, after taxes," spread over a few years, "four payments from Oakland and one from the feds [the FBI]."

"I don't have all of it," he noted. "We're getting three more payments from the Oakland police over the next three years. [The money] will give me time to work on my music, focus on my art."

[Cherney inside his home]Having money in the bank is a new thing for Cherney, who has always bristled at the notion that he got involved in activism to live an easy life as a professional protestor.

He still lives what he terms a life of "voluntary simplicity" in a "hippy shack," a one-room geodesic dome he has been renting for $125 a month for the last 15 years. "I cut my own firewood. I'm way off the grid; I have solar panels. I have an outhouse. My shower is outdoors. So whatever people might think, I'm certainly not living the traditional high life." [photo at left]

But now that he has some cash in hand, he says, "I'm looking to buy land. I never thought I'd want to buy land, but then I realized that if you just hold onto your money it loses value like crazy, so you have to choose where you put it."

Even though he's planning on moving into more comfortable digs, and he's not planning on getting himself thrown in jail again, Cherney is still singing 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 treesit. 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."


The infamous Darryl Cherney and the Chernobles perform in Garberville at Cecil's restaurant on Friday, Feb. 25, 7-10 p.m.




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