Bonnie Raitt: The Rolling Stone Interview

After losing her label and beating the bottle, the singer-guitarist returns to record 'Nick of Time' and win four Grammys

Bonnie Raitt performs at Farm Aid in the Hoosier Dome, Indianapolis, Indiana, April 7th, 1990. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

"It's the Grammy lady! It's the Grammy lady!"

Bonnie Raitt hadn't even made it out of the parking lot and into the terminal at the San Francisco International Airport when one of her nightmares suddenly became real. Like most performers, Raitt suffers from a couple of recurring anxiety dreams. In one, she's being pushed onto a stage with her father, actor and singer John Raitt, and she doesn't know the words to any of the songs she's supposed to perform. In another, she finds herself in the middle of a crowd of people who recognize her and won't leave her alone, and there's no one around to help her: no road manager, no security people. And that's exactly what happened on a recent night when Raitt went to the airport to pick up her new paramour, Michael O'Keefe.

"People were running up to me and yelling," Raitt says the next day. "Even little kids." She's curled up on a couch in the living room of a small, Hobbit-like house, filled with candles, crystals and carved trolls, that she's renting in the Northern California redwoods. "I panicked," she continues, "because Michael's plane was late, and I didn't have any place to go and I didn't have anybody with me. I really got scared."

Raitt finally ducked into one of the gift shops, bought a huge hat to conceal her familiar mane of red hair and managed to survive intact until actor O'Keefe (The Great Santini, Caddyshack) arrived. "I didn't realize I was going to have to start wearing disguises," Raitt says with a sigh.

The need for disguises is about the only negative side effect of the sudden fame that has befallen Raitt after 20 years in the music business. To the surprise — and delight — of music fans everywhere, Raitt dominated this year's Grammy Awards, winning in four categories: Album of the Year; Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female; Best Rock Vocal Performance, Female; and Best Traditional Blues Recording (with John Lee Hooker). Three of the awards honored Nick of Time, Raitt's latest album, which is made up of her usual mix of blues, R&B and pop ballads. The LP makes no ostensible concessions to current popular tastes, and it addresses such grown-up concerns as having children and coming to terms with old age. Nonetheless, the album, produced by Don Was, managed to sell a million copies by the time the Grammy ceremonies were held in Los Angeles on February 21st. Since then, more than 700,000 additional copies have been sold, and at press time the album had skyrocketed to Number Three on the Billboard chart. (The fourth Grammy was for "I'm in the Mood," a duet on Hooker's new album, The Healer.)

Born 40 years ago in Burbank, California, Bonnie Lynn Raitt is the antithesis of the overnight sensation. Her father became a major Broadway star in the Forties and Fifties as a result of his roles in such musicals as Oklahoma!Carousel, The Pajama GameAnnie Get Your Gun and Kiss Me Kate. Her family (including her mother, Marjorie Haydock, and two brothers) spent most of Bonnie's early years shuttling between the two coasts until 1957, when they settled in Los Angeles after her father landed a role in the film version of The Pajama Game. Despite his popularity, the Raitts, who were practicing Quakers, kept a fairly low profile on the Hollywood scene (one of their only celebrity friends was Hugh Beaumont, who played the father on Leave It to Beaver).

When she was eight, Bonnie got her first guitar, a $25 Stella, as a Christmas present. At the time, her instrument of choice was piano, but within a few years she changed her mind. Her maternal grandfather, a Methodist missionary who also played Hawaiian lap steel guitar, taught her a few chords on the guitar, and her counselors at a Quaker summer camp in the Adirondacks turned her on to the emerging folk and protest music. In addition, Raitt was exposed to the blues via an album recorded at the 1963 Newport festival and a batch of Ray Charles recordings a family friend had given her.

After her family moved back East when she was 15, Raitt attended a Quaker high school in Poughkeepsie, New York, then enrolled in Radcliffe, where she intended to major in African studies, an outgrowth of her childhood fascination with Tanzania. That plan got derailed, though, when she met Dick Waterman, a former photojournalist who had helped such bluesmen as Mississippi Fred McDowell and Skip James resuscitate their careers in the wake of the Sixties blues resurgence. What started as a weekend attraction to the blues turned more serious after Waterman, whom Raitt was soon dating, began adding her to some of his artists' shows. "I never expected to have a career in music," she says. "But I thought, 'Geez, if I want to take a semester off from college and support myself by making $50 here and there, well …' It was hilarious to me that it went over."

By all accounts, however, Raitt quickly became a serious student of the blues, picking up tips about various tunings and techniques from the masters she was coming into contact with. Eventually, after one of her shows at the Gaslite Club, in New York, was favorably reviewed, she was offered a recording contract with Warner Bros. Records. The albums she recorded over the next 15 years were consistently appealing, and at least a couple of them — 1972's Give It Up and 1975's Home Plate — were downright terrific, earning Raitt a reputation as a sizzling slide-guitar player and a superb singer with excellent interpretive skills.

During that time, Raitt, drawing on her Quaker upbringing, also established herself as one of rock's most outspoken political activists. She was one of the founders of Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), rock's antinuke organization, and she has regularly set aside several weeks a year to play benefits for such favorite leftist causes as the Christic Institute and the Sanctuary movement, as well as for battered-women centers, Indians'-rights groups and a host of others. She is also active in CoMadres, an organization made up of the mothers and wives of men who have disappeared or been killed in El Salvador, and she's one of the board members of the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, a nonprofit group intended to provide financial support and other assistance to some of rock's forefathers.

Raitt's one previous brush with across-the-board success came in 1977, when her version of the old Del Shannon song "Runaway" garnered some radio play and nearly made the Top 40. But she was unable to capitalize on that success, and in 1983, Warner Bros. dropped her from the label. That experience, coupled with the breakup of a four-year-old romance, sent Raitt into a downward spiral that was aggravated by her growing dependency on alcohol.

By early 1987, Raitt had stopped drinking, joined a program for recovering alcoholics and begun putting her life back together. But even though she's now sober, she's hardly boring. Over the course of the two days in which this interview was conducted, the conversation was regularly punctuated by flirtatious sexual patter. At one point, as O'Keefe was about to return from a brisk afternoon walk in the surrounding hills, she impishly suggested that we play a practical joke by jumping into bed with the tape recorder between us. A little later, she chuckled at the sexual high-jinks that would be possible if Ben-Wa balls could be remote controlled. And over lunch in a neighborhood restaurant, she threw her head under the table and threatened to perform sexual acts on O'Keefe in full public view.

It's all part of Raitt's I'm-just-one-of-the-boys persona, which she started cultivating when she was a young girl and desperately wanted to hang out with her brothers and their friends. By the early Seventies — having been immersed in a world of hard-drinking bluesmen and rowdy rock & rollers — she had perfected the image of the hard-drinking, randy-mouthed blues mama. Nowadays, she's softened, but she's still eager to please: She constantly worries whether everything is all right and asks if there's anything she can do to make her guest feel more at home.

As for her own life, Raitt professes to be happier than ever. "I really feel like some angels have been carrying me around," she says. "I just have more focus and more discipline, and consequently more self-respect. And that really feels great. I'm not worried about anything anymore. I don't sweat the small stuff."

Let's start with the Grammys. What was that like?
I was as out of my body as I've ever been. I honestly could not tell whether I was dreaming. Everything moved in slow motion, and the sound of it — your ears get kind of numb, like there's a crowd roaring or something. I remember saying to myself that "if this isn't a dream, you'd better do something, because you're on TV and you're wasting all these people's time." 

It continues to be the most amazing thing in terms of shock value that I've ever gone through. And it's such an incredible validation for the kind of music that my generation, my little subculture, loves. I mean, K.D. Lang, Lyle Lovett, Aaron Neville and myself — who would have thought five years ago that we'd be walking away with Grammys!

How did your parents react? 
Oh, man. My dad was also overwhelmed. When I came down after I made my thank-you speech for the rock-female one, he gave me a hug, and I saw him start to go. You know, here is this big, stoical leading man, and the whole building saw him lose it. And I started crying, and we held each other for a good minute and a half until they told us to sit down. To have that kind of response in public — there was just no way of avoiding it. And for that alone, it was worth the evening. He's already put together a scrapbook.

It must give you a certain amount of satisfaction after what you've been through in the past several years. 
Oh, man, it's the greatest. I mean, everybody was always saying, "Gee, I really love your record. Too bad radio won't play it." And that's been my story all along. So I feel really satisfied that I'll never have to say I'm unappreciated again. I feel like I got a commission. I feel much more serious about what I'm going to be doing in the future. I feel like I have a responsibility to continue to write songs. I feel like someone handed me the rest of my life. 

And, like I said at the Grammys, I'm glad God brought me to this now, meaning that I got pulled out of the fire. Some people don't get out. They die. You know, the Richard Manuels, the Paul Butterfields. There's a whole bunch of musicians who had their drug and alcohol problems encouraged by the lack of validation for their music.

How bad of a drinking problem did you have?
I wasn't rolling around vomiting. I just partied too much, and I put on a lot of weight. There are people I know who party too much and don't get fat and don't stop, because they are still rich. But I was going to run out of money.

Were you also doing drugs, mixing coke and booze? 
You know, late at night, one made the other one more ... you were really able to drink if you did blow, but not all the time. And it's hard on the throat. But I think alcohol was the one of choice. I was never a pothead or into psychedelics. I was around these old blues guys, and they were alcoholics. And I prided myself on not liking acid rock and all that I wanted to be the female version of Muddy Waters or Fred McDowell. There was a romance about drinking and doing blues.

It seems your battle with alcohol goes way back. The last time you were on the cover of Rolling Stone, in 1975, the story talked about your trying to end your relationship with Jim Beam. 
These blues guys had been professional drinkers for years, and I wanted to prove that I could hold my liquor with them. I bought into that whole lifestyle. I thought Keith Richards was cool, that he was really dangerous. 

Back when I was, like, 19 and hanging out with Dick Waterman, I carried the booze bottles for all those guys. Like I knew that Fred McDowell could have two of these gins before he went on, and an hour before the show, Son House could have his bottle of vodka. And if he had any more, he would forget the words. And if he had any less, he would forget the words. So I was like the nurse. And some of them could handle it better than others. But if you just gave somebody a bottle in the dressing room, they'd be passing it around, and everybody would be completely 'faced by the time they were supposed to go on. 

But by the mid-Seventies, I started running and stopped drinking bourbon. I was drinking wine and beer. And then eventually I drank tequila — I was part of the Seventies tequila circuit in L.A. We were proud to drink tequila and stay up all night. That was a lifestyle we all espoused and loved. Nobody that was around the Eagles, Little Feat or me or Jackson Browne's band is going to say we got a lot of sleep when we were in our twenties. But it wasn't until about 1983 when I really messed up.

Did anyone ever pull you aside and say that you needed help, that things were getting out of hand? 
I only got loaded after the gigs with a close circle of friends. I didn't want to get loaded in public. I cared about my career. I have too much pride to let people see me like that in public. But I did look bad. I had put on about 40 pounds. And it actually got to the point that someone once asked me when the baby was due. And another time, a guy in Louisiana passed a really sweet little note up to the stage, saying, "What happened? You got fat. Maybe you should work out or something."

Did you ever worry that maybe you were heading down the same road as Lowell George or Richard Manuel, that you might be killing yourself? 
I didn't care. I didn't care because I must have felt I deserved how unhappy I was. The thing about the addictive personality is that you have some kind of weird combination of cockiness and insecurity. In my case, I'm singing as well as these other people who are on the radio; you know, I would listen to me sing these beautiful Eric Kaz songs and go, "God, that's as moving as Emmylou's record." And the other side of it was that "maybe they all know something that I don't know, that I'm not very talented or I'm superficial or shallow." But I was just in too much pain or too angry to care whether I was going to die. I think that being addicted makes you not care.

What interests me is that I think most people either get busted, have a drunk accident, run out of money and lose everything or make fools of themselves. I didn't do any of that. I just got fat.

And the story goes that you thought you might be making a video with Prince and suddenly realized you had to do something about your weight.
What happened was, he had seen my show at the Beverly Theater, in L.A., in December of '86, and he called me up and said he was interested in working with me. He was renting a place in L.A., and he sent his private limo over to pick me up. I don't ride around in limos much, and this car had all kinds of neat stuff — all kinds of purple stuff and neat lighting and little porcelain masks. I didn't realize I'd be whisked away in a fairy tale! 

We got to know each other a little bit, and he told me he was starting a new record label and was interested in having me on it. I told him I was interested if it was a true collaboration and not just me singing his music — if we could meet somewhere in the middle.

But then in January I had a skiing accident, and I was sidelined for two months. I look back on it now, and I realize that it was really me asking to have an excuse to get off the road. I knew that I was not feeling great and not looking great. Everybody's got their own thing that pushes them over the edge, and in my case I had this incentive, which was, if I was going to record with Prince, we'd probably have to make a video, and I looked bad, so I wanted to be proud of myself. 

A couple of friends who were really close to me told me about a meeting, and they took me with them. And then I got a bicycle and went on a diet. And I've been sober ever since. 

Now I feel like I'm a walking poster girl for sobriety. Over the last couple of years, people go, "God, you look great, and you sound like you really know what you're doing, and you don't look like you're ready to jump off a cliff anymore." I don't want to say I've mellowed out, but I'm certainly a lot happier.

And what happened with your collaboration with Prince? 
I went to Minneapolis for two days in April of '87. The basic tracks were all done when I got there, and one day we worked together on a song. The next day, I pretty much sang and played on my own with his engineer. He wrote some songs that were in the vein of what I would do, although not knowing what key I sing in, some of them were kind of low. It was really a preliminary collaboration, and he said, "Let's get together in July when I get back from Europe." But I was touring then, and his tour went on longer than he expected, and we ended up not doing any more work together. And in the meantime, I realized that I didn't want to be working with the Warner Bros. promotion staff, which was handling his label.

You trace a lot of your troubles back to 1983, when Warner Bros. cleaned house and dropped you, along with Van Morrison, Arlo Guthrie and several other artists. 
All the big sellers. There was a corporate sweep, coming from upstairs, and they needed to trim the fat. I had just completed an album called Tongue in Groove, which was produced by Rob Fraboni, who had also done Green Light. And I don't think they maliciously said, "Let's let her finish her album and get the tour all lined up and print the covers and hire the people to do the video and then drop her." You know, ha, ha, ha. But that's what they did. It was literally the day after I had finished mastering it. 

I had already finished the album once, and they said they thought one of the Jerry Williams tunes would be more commercial if it didn't have quite as reggae a beat. Or something like that. So I went in and redid it. I thought if I cooperated a little more, maybe they'd promote the album more. But instead they dropped me and pulled the rug out from under my tour. I thought the way they did it was real crummy.

How did they do it? 
They sent a letter. 

I think I suffered from not having a relationship with the A&R department there, because I had an independent production deal. And I was also being penalized because after "Runaway," it looked like I was going to have a hit record if I worked with Peter Asher. This was in, like, 1978, and Columbia Records was trying to sign me. There was this big Columbia-Warner war going on at the time. James Taylor had just left Warner Bros. and made a big album for Columbia. And then Warners signed Paul Simon away from Columbia. And they didn't want me to have a hit record for Columbia no matter what. So I renegotiated my contract, and they basically matched Columbia's offer. Frankly the deal was a really big deal. But then The Glow, which Peter Asher produced, didn't do as well as they thought, and they barely promoted Green Light. I thought they should have been more supportive if I re-signed with them. But who knows? I guess if they don't like where you are going, they have the right to terminate you.

So why didn't you just re-sign with another record company? 
They told me I could take the tapes and shop them around. But they wanted about $500,000 for them, and nobody wanted to pay that much. So after about two years, Warners said they were going to put the record out. I said it wasn't really fair. I think at this point they felt kind of bad. I mean, I was out there touring on my savings to keep my name up, and my ability to draw was less and less. So they agreed to let me go in and recut half of it, and that when it came out as Nine Lives

It's so nice to be able to talk about this stuff without it hurting anymore. I mean, they are all like relationships where you trust people and you are betrayed. And even if it's your fault, or if it's no fault of yours, you still feel hurt. It's brutal.

You had also been in a relationship with Rob Fraboni that fell apart around the same time all this was taking place. 
Well, when Green Light wasn't promoted, it was kind of heartbreaking for me and Rob and the band, who had worked so hard on it. And then to make the next record and then be dropped. … We had spent a lot of time on that record, and then we had no album. I just went out on the road anyway and went through my savings because I felt responsible to my career and to them. But it can really eat into a relationship when you are involved with someone you work with and the world is not reinforcing your work together. 

So by '85, he was working on a film and got an offer to work for [Island Records founder] Chris Blackwell, and he wanted to move to New York. And that was not something that I saw in my life. And to put it mildly, there were a couple of painful aspects of the split-up that coupled with the fact that I was not in the best state emotionally and physically, and it just broke me down. I mean, I stayed on the road, playing acoustic shows, but I was broken emotionally and physically, spiritually and financially.

You've had a series of long-term relationships with men, but in the interviews you did after Nick of Time was released, it sounded like you weren't ready for another one soon. How did you and Michael get together? 
I was single for three years. That doesn't mean I wasn't dating people. I was enjoying dating them. I just meant that I was enjoying not belonging to someone. And I still am enjoying it. But this relationship kind of snuck up on me. I was in Los Angeles for a while in the fall, and I made a video about the homeless called "Wake Up America." It didn't get on MTV, because it was only me and Bonnie Bramlett and Rita Coolidge and a few other celebrities, none of whom was famous enough for MTV. But it was a kind of "We Are the World" thing, filmed in MacArthur Park, and Michael sang on the record and was directing us. And I gave somebody my number to give to him, and I went back out on the road. He called, and when I got back, we went out and have been hanging out ever since. But it's not like we're joined at the hip. He lives in New York, and I live here, so we see each other occasionally.

But now I have some time off, and he just finished three movies and doesn't have to be anywhere right now, so there's time to nurture the relationship. And he's sober and so am I, so it's the first time on a long-term basis that I can check this process out. But right now I can't say where it's going.

What about kids? Do you see yourself having them? 
In the middle of the Eighties, when I was in my thirties, it was out of the question, because I was so unhealthy and so miserable, and I knew I'd have to clean up before I had kids. And now that I cleaned up, I feel like I'm my own kid. 

I do know that if I wait too long, I may not be able to have children. But as Michael says, we'll drive off that bridge when we come to it.

Since we're talking about families, I wanted to ask you about your mother. You rarely seem to mention her. 
I always mention her in interviews, but the writers very rarely put her in, which is a source of great consternation. I have a really good relationship with my mom now. I had a rough time with her when I was a teenager. She wasn't that happy, and I wasn't that happy. She was a very talented pianist and, in fact, was my dad's accompanist and supported him when he was taking singing lessons. Then she stopped her career to work as a receptionist so he could continue to study singing. And then she had us kids, and there was always this feeling that maybe she could have been a star if she hadn't — I mean, this is me projecting all this stuff. And I competed with her for my dad's attention, and my dad and her weren't getting along all the time.

Was all this aggravated by the fact that he was out on the road a lot? 
Yeah. And so she had to be both mother and dad and be the disciplinarian. And it's a love-hate thing, where you want to emulate your mom, and on the other hand, you see her getting the short end of the stick, as it were, in the marriage and as a parent. And it was a confusing time to raise kids in Southern California, where there are so many other kids who are overly spoiled and whose parents would just leave for Vegas and give them a bunch of money and let them run riot. My parents had old-time values and wouldn't let us run around. And we were pretty mad at them for not letting us be like other kids.

Are your parents still together? 
No, they divorced when I was 19. My mom lives in Stamford, Connecticut, and is remarried to a doctor who's retired but who gives expert testimony in trials. And my dad's remarried to a woman who was his high-school sweetheart. He hadn't seen her in 40 years. He lives in the Pacific Palisades, and I see him more because I live out here.

How about your brothers? What are they doing now? 
David, who is two years younger than me, lives way up in Northern California. He's also a musician, and he's had a band together since he was 19. He also builds these buildings called yurts. They're sort of countercultural; you can find them in the Whole Earth Catalog. They're based on a Mongolian structure, and they're for people who are looking for alternative ways of building houses that are more cost-efficient. He was truly one of the first back-to-the-country people. He's got a lot of hippies with beards working for him, and his son is named — I shouldn't say this — Bayleaf. 

My other brother, Steve, who is two years older than me, lives in Minnesota. He moved there when I did my first album. And he's mixed sound and produced records for Willie and the Bees and the Lamont Cranston Band. But then blues went out of favor and Minneapolis turned to the Prince kind of stuff, so now he has an audio-equipment company called Pro Line, which installs state-of-the-art sound systems in people's homes.

Did you hang out with them when you were kids? 
I wish they would have hung out with me, but they didn't!

You were still pretty much a tomboy, weren't you? 
From the time I was seven or eight, I was a tomboy with a vengeance. When you are the one girl in a family of boys, and your dad relates to the boys well — well, I just couldn't stand the way girls got the second best of everything. They couldn't throw as far. They weren't paid as much. To me, it was the same as black people getting treated as second-class citizens. So I always stayed out and played longer and hit the ball farther and had tough hands and all that.

Obviously that attitude is something that's carried over to your career. I think a lot of women really relate to you and your music, especially the new album. 
Yeah, I know a lot of guys who got into my music because their girlfriends like it. And there are a lot of husbands who are sick of me this year because their wives play my songs all the time! 

I think women like me because they don't have to be jealous. I'm one of them, you know. I'm not ridiculously beautiful, and I'm not wealthy, and I'm not intimidatingly talented. I'm probably as close to a normal person as you'll find in the music business. 

But I do think with all this attention now, it'll be interesting for 20-year-old women to be able to see me as a possible role model instead of only Madonna.

What do you think of Madonna? 
Well, it's not necessarily my kind of music; I can't really say I've heard her albums. But I admire how she's put herself across in terms of understanding how to promote herself. It's not what I'd choose to do. Bette Midler also has an understanding of how to promote herself. On the other hand, I'm really frustrated at Joni Mitchell's lack of being able to be commercially acceptable. And Phoebe Snow and a bunch of other people. Still, I'm amazed and happy about Anita Baker and Neneh Cherry. Just when you are going to get pissed off about the state of music, something great happens.

Were there any women you looked up to when you were younger? 
I loved Joan Baez. I still do. She was a Quaker, like I was, and she was a political activist and a folk singer. And I thought she was so beautiful, and she was part Scottish, and I'm Scottish. She was my hero. And Tina Turner, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves … Aretha Franklin was my absolute favorite. And Sippie Wallace knocked me out. And I love Katharine Hepburn. She has the same birthday I do — November 8th. So do Rickie Lee Jones and Bonnie Bramlett.

I think one thing that made Nick of Time stand out is that it's really an adult album. 
It definitely is. Every song on there is about somebody who had to have lived this long. "I Ain't Gonna Let You Break My Heart Again" — I had that song for 11 years, and until this album I couldn't really mean it. But there are some great records being made by people in my generation — Don Henley, Tom Petty.

The title song really had a big effect on people. It's one of the few songs you've written. Why don't you write more? 
It's a combination of lack of confidence, lack of trying and having really high standards. If I write a song and it doesn't sound as good as Randy Newman, I just put it away. I mean, who wants to put a mediocre song on a record just because you wrote it? My late-night habits didn't help, either, and I was so busy. I made a record a year for six or seven years. And I can't write on the road. But when I got sober, I had more time. I wasn't spending all my time getting messed up and recovering. And I had a desire to come up with something. I didn't want to sing the same old stuff over and over. 

Right before the Grammys, I went to Mendocino, which is where I wrote "Nick of Time," and I closed myself off and didn't go into town for five days, and I wrote four songs. I did it on purpose to see if I could come up with anything.

What are the new songs like? 
There's one that Michael and I wrote that's about one part being my lover and one part go away. He gave me some words, and I put some music to it. And I've got a couple I'm working on that are similar to "Nick of Time" in the sense that they are about women at my age. I'm looking at people like John Prine and K.T. Oslin for inspiration. It's like a whole new world has opened up. I think of myself as a songwriter now. Then I've got a reggae song that's pretty sexual. And there's a political one called "Hell to Pay" that's like something Henley or Randy Newman might write. You've really got to be careful with message songs because if they are too earnest they look really schmaltzy.

You're one of the most politically active musicians around. What do you think of the political mood of the country these days? 
I always thought we were in the majority. I thought it was us against them, and it turns out "us" is the people who voted for Reagan. I mean, I never thought the Democrats would lose. I just didn't. And it's horrible to me to think that Jackson Browne isn't Number One. It's really a shock. But obviously CHR radio isn't going to play "Lives in the Balance" or "For America." And I think that if they had come out the same time as Running on Empty, they would have played it.

Do you think things are changing? 
I think the environmental issue is going to be the one that unifies the two generations. You know, the homeless and the crack problem and the defense budget and all that stuff is pretty hard to figure in terms of Democrat-Republican. And whether or not people are going to believe the Bush administration had any knowledge of drug smuggling in exchange for arms, I don't know. But I think the environment is the one thing that can cross generational and party lines.

Do you think people are willing to make the sacrifices needed to really clean up the environment? 
I think if we scare them enough. And I'm all for using popular culture to educate people. I think the secret is going to be a great soundtrack mixed with a great movie that includes such fine writing and heartfelt involvement in the story that it can reach kids.

How much of your own activism is a result of your Quaker upbringing? 
I was going to save the world from the time I was 11. That was the way I was raised. My parents were pacifists during the Second World War, and Walt Raitt, my dad's brother, was the peace secretary of the American Friends Service Committee, which is the social-activist arm of the Religious Society of Friends — the Quakers. My father also did a really great antiwar movie called Which Way the Wind, around 1963. 

So it was just understood that you were to be of service to other people, and that people who just worked for their own aggrandizement were shallow. So from the time I was a kid, I wanted to do something for the good of other people. I mean, injustice really pisses me off. War and injustice are the things that caused me the most anger and crying in my life. And so I have to feel like I'm making a difference. I mean, music's great, but what's important is doing something meaningful with your life.