Performers With Passion… for Animal Rights
With war, global warming, and disappearing natural resources, you might wonder sometimes if American musicians are too caught up in these issues, or paralyzed by them, to give thought to the social justice other animals need as well. Happily, this is not the case. You probably know about Chrissie Hynde’s protests against fast-food giants and The B-52s (moral) fear of fur. And there are plenty of other top-notch singers and songwriters talking about, and advocating for, the rights of our non-verbal fellow creatures to live a natural, dignified life. Each has a different issue that fires them up, but conceptually they are all on the same page.
Michael Franks is as legendary as cool-jazz singer-songwriters get. From his 1976 Warner Brothers debut, “The Art Of Tea” (which contained hits like “Popsicle Toes” and “Eggplant” ), to later radio staples, “When Sly Calls,” and “Rainy Night In Tokyo,” Franks has been calming the musical souls of sophisticated listeners for over three decades. In his own quiet way, Franks has also been spreading the gospel of justice for animals.
“I think I can trace my animal consciousness-raising to the early 70s,” says Franks, whose speaking voice is as wry, relaxed and rhythmic as the one he uses to sing. “I was teaching at UCLA and met a musician named Maurice Rogers. Maurice was a vegetarian and was very enthusiastic about the lifestyle. He took me to some vegetarian restaurants in L.A. I immediately started feeling healthier, so I was hooked.”
“Like a lot of people,” Franks recalls, “I got into eating ‘veggie’ first. My ethical feelings about the animals themselves took a couple of years to kick in.”
If there’s a particular bit of animal injustice that (as the hipsters say) “harshes the mellow” of Franks, it would be puppy mills.
“The whole idea of puppy mills and backyard breeders is pathetic and infuriating,” Franks says, voice rising. “They need to be shut down.”
“When you think of all the dogs in shelters or who are homeless,” adds Franks, “It makes you feel sick. It’s one of the reasons I adopt my dogs and also belong to Hearts United for Animals.”
Hearts is a no-kill shelter that not only houses its dogs in comfortable surroundings, but does yeoman work, matching up the homeless with humans who want a pet.
“When I think about justice for animals, my first thought is, please spay and neuter your cats and dogs,” Franks insists. “And please adopt a pet instead of dealing with a mill or a breeder.”
Franks, whose next project may be a series of duets of his most famous songs with acolytes like Macy Gray, didn’t say if he had a practice of taking his dog to the studio with him, but it’s not hard to imagine his soothing voice adding years to the life of his adopted Dachshund.
Nellie McKay , whose debut album “Get Away From Me” caused a sensation three years ago, shares with Franks a love of jazz. Yet despite the sweet breathiness of her speaking voice, there’s no mistaking McKay’s passion for justice between the species.
“I think my consciousness about animals and how disrespectfully they can be treated started when I was seven or eight,” says McKay. “I was brought to a lab animal protest and the thing that stayed with me was ‘Cages are bad.’ I can’t see any reason why animals should ever be in them.”
There’s more: “Today, for instance, I’m upset that in New Jersey, a mother bear who came out of the wild was shot, right in front of her cubs. That was horrifying to me. It was probably just cheaper and less time-consuming than tranquilizing and releasing her.”
McKay is particularly concerned -- and somewhat hopeful -- about the connection between what one eats, how it’s produced, and how the plant-based culinary arts might determine the fate of our planet.
“I’m thrilled that more and more people are discussing global warming and how real the danger is,” says McKay. “It’s also cool that hybrid cars are coming more into vogue.” But McKay wishes government would address animal agribusiness. Referring to a United Nations report that emerged in January, McKay asks, “Did you know that a vegan [annually] puts a ton-and-a-half less CO2 into the atmosphere?” Driving a Prius instead of a sedan such as a Toyota Camry saves more than a ton of carbon-dioxide emission a year, while adopting a plant-based diet saves at least 1.5 tons of carbon-dioxide. “ So,” says McKay, “Being a vegan is actually more important for our air than driving a Prius!”
When not out touring or recording the music for Rob Reiner’s new film "Rumor Has It..." (go to www .nelliemckay.com for details), the young singer and songwriter appears at rallies and protests on behalf of animals. New Yorkers are already familiar with McKay’s presence at Friends of Animals’ interventions at the Canadian Embassy, on behalf of the seals off Newfoundland’s coast. The killing of seals has yet to end, yet despite anger over this, McKay says she feels more than a bit of optimism for the future of nonhuman beings in the world.
“The thing that’s great is, animal rights, respect for animals, this has turned into a global movement,” observes McKay, who believes that the way this issue it transcends geography “means there’s hope for us all.”
Richie Havens has been recording since the mid-sixties and was the first artist onstage at Woodstock in 1969. Havens, for whom the sobriquet “legend” was possibly invented, also has the big picture in mind when it comes to our living sanely and humanely with the world’s other conscious beings. Havens’ classic sixties’ values rise in his mellow purr: “A lot of what humans have to learn, still, is empathy. We need to be able to identify with beings on that side of the fence, you know?”
“I had a friend back in the 70s, whom I met when I lived in a houseboat, at the 79 th Street boat basin, who was a diver and expert on the sea and its history,” Havens says. “He used to talk about our invasion of the waters which began in Shakespearean times. He knew it was pretty unnatural to go down in diving equipment and invade this world. Eventually, my friend started tours for kids and took them out and around City Island and Long Island Sound. This way he was able to impart to the kids what was being thrown in our waters and how it was killing undersea life. Education, especially among school kids, is the key. Children really get how bad it is to pollute the waters and harm fish and other aquatic creatures. And when they grow up, if they’ve learned this, they tend to indulge less in destructive behavior.”
Havens on animal testing? “That has absolutely got to stop. I’ve heard there’s an entire city beneath Los Alamos, where animal testing goes on, on an incredibly large scale.” Havens, like McKay, is somewhat optimistic.
“We’re headed toward the end of the book now,” Havens says, softly apocalyptic. “But if we go back and look at everything we’ve learned in the rest of the book, the answers are all there.”
Young people are especially aware, Havens observes. “I know, because a lot of them come to my concerts. I have faith that they can help us live more humanely with everything natural in the world. With animals at the top of that list.”
If great reviews and airplay determined fame, Richard X. Heyman would be a household name. Since his major label debut, “Hey Man!” on Sire records in the early 90s, this one man power-pop band has done everything from playing drums with Brian Wilson to racking up impressive airplay on NPR and FUV with his latest disc, “Actual Sighs.” Heyman, a longtime New Yorker, is also one of the original proponents of the now widely respected trap-neuter-release concept for feral cats.
“For the longest time, I was feeding and building shelters for cats on the Lower East Side,” says Heyman. “Cats would come to get fed, but then more -- and more -- would join them. The way they breed, soon they were increasing exponentially. So, a neighbor gave me her car and I rounded up scores of cats, got them spayed or neutered and the ones I couldn’t keep (Richard, with his music and life partner Nancy, have 19), we released back into the wilds of Manhattan.” But two busy musicians can’t look after all the hungry, sick felines in a region of New York on their own; they implore people everywhere to have their cats spayed or neutered.
Amy Ray , one-half of the legendary folk-rock duo Indigo Girls, has an even more fiery answer. “I live out in the country, not too far from Atlanta, and I see the results of overpopulation. It’s horrifying.” Ray declares: “I swear, if it were up to me, I would end all breeding of dogs and cats in this country.”
Ray thinks disrespect for animals is due to a “disconnect” that starts at the grade school level, where little is said about animal farming. Ray (who also has a solo act, Amy Ray and the Volunteers), together with her musical partner Emily Saliers, have a link to resources on their website, and plans to connect visitors to everything from how to find homes for stray animals, to community-based activist groups, and even how to find out about mobile veterinary units who will come out to the country and spay and neuter cats and dogs.
Ray states, “People don’t realize that we share our space with animals. And the eco-system is very sensitive. Without real thought as to what’s good for animals, the eco-system we share just becomes that much more imperiled. And with that compromised, well, we’re all -- human and animal -- going to be in a lot of trouble. So we better wise up.”