Friday, July 10, 2009
Rocking Judges and Lawyers Live the ‘Extremes’
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
(Fourth in an occasional series on lawyers and judges engaged in musical pursuits.)
Rock music has long been an outlet for youthful rebellion. As a style it is volatile, subversive, unpredictable, and inextricable from its companions of sex and drugs.
So how can a member of the legal community, with its hallowed traditions, dark suits, black robes, and myriad rules on procedure and decorum, also play rock?
Defense attorney Mia Yamamoto says that rock is “pure joy, and pure fury,” and is “just as valid as playing Chopin or Mozart, it’s just paying homage to a different tradition.”
Loyola Law School entertainment law and intellectual property professor Jay Dougherty admits he has always been a bit of a rebel, and rock’s rebelliousness is part of the appeal to him.
“It’s kind of a fun feeling to work all day with a suit on…[then] going home, getting out of my suit, putting on a pair of jeans and playing on a 100-watt Marshall amp,” he says. “I like having both extremes.”
Deputy Alternate Public Defender Stan Nirenberg admits it was “tough in the beginning to reconcile being a rocker and a lawyer,” and used to hide the fact he sings and plays rock guitar from his colleagues.
“Lawyers are the suits, I don’t like the suits,” he says with a laugh. “But as I’ve grown older, I’ve realized it doesn’t matter.”
Fellow singer and guitarist Neville Johnson of Johnson and Johnson also kept his music a secret for many years. “I didn’t want people to think I wasn’t serious about practicing law,” he explains.
Over time, both Nirenberg and Johnson say they were able to find a balance between music and law, and that the two were not necessarily incompatible.
Santa Monica attorney Don Randolph explains that rock is “the musical voice of its time, but not the mainstream voice—the underdog voice.”
In many ways, he concedes that the law is a very conservative field, “but it can also be the voice of the underdog,” he explains.
“Criminal defense work, civil litigation, plaintiff personal injury, those are the underdogs,” he says. Incidentally, those are also the areas that Randolph & Associates focus on, and the areas of law that rock musicians seem to be concentrated in as well.
Use a Guitar, Go to Prison
Nearly 30 years ago, Randolph was working as a deputy public defender in the same courthouse as Yamamoto and Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Charles Horan, then a deputy district attorney. Randolph says he recruited Yamamoto and Horan to form a rock band, which was originally called Riff Raff, but later came to be known as Use a Guitar, Go to Prison.
Yamamoto says “back then we used to change names every week, but we used Use a Guitar, Go to Prison during a battle of the bands and it became known, and the name stuck, just like that bad nickname as a kid.”
The band played “every bar, every pub” in Santa Monica for years, Yamamoto says. “In those days we’d play anything,” she recalls. “We did a lot of telethons,” and served as the house band for the Taurus Tavern, which she describes as a “lesbian biker bar.”
Randolph says the band often used to play at Milly O’Malley’s in Santa Monica, but “they couldn’t get our name straight. They just called us ‘The Lawyers.’”
For years, Randolph recalls, “Come 5 every Friday night, everyone from the Santa Monica courthouse would walk across the street and come watch us play.”
Use a Guitar held together for over 25 years before finally breaking up in 2005 over what Yamamoto calls “creative differences,” the plague of all rock bands.
Horan says he has hung up his guitar, but Yamamoto and Randolph have formed their own bands and continue to perform.
Yamamoto says rock helps her “offset the negativity” she encounters as a criminal defense attorney and the emotional toll cases can take on her, because music “can turn anything, any tragedy into something happy.”
For the past 15 years, Johnson has carefully cultivated the persona of his alter ego Trevor McShane, concocting an elaborate and incredulous false biography—including stints as a merchant seaman and a monk in Tibet—which Johnson swears some people actually believe is true.
McShane is Johnson’s ancestral name, but his paternal predecessors changed it to Johnson after they immigrated to the United States from Ireland. Trevor is a name Johnson says he just happened to like. Everything else about McShane is just a product of Johnson’s imagination.
Johnson says Trevor McShane was a necessary straw man for him to establish himself as a musician.
“I wanted people to take the music seriously on its own,” he explains. “When you hear that somebody has another profession they immediately think that it’s a vanity project and they don’t take it as seriously as if someone were doing it as their exclusive first line of activity.”
After having focused on his legal career for the past 30 years, Johnson says his music seems to be generating enough enthusiasm that he is willing to come forth openly about McShane and his musical endeavors.
Also, because his wife—immediate past president of the Los Angeles County Bar Association Barristers Cindy Johnson—has also promised to work as his manager, Johnson says that he thinks he can pursue music more seriously without having it adversely affect his practice.
“I don’t have any outlandish dreams that I’m going to be the next pop star or rock star,” he says. “If I sell some CDs and get some downloads, that’d be fine, and if I get some recognition, I’d like that.”
Johnson plans on releasing three albums at once later this year in hopes that there will be at least one song people will like.
“I figure if we just keep trucking along we will eventually get discovered,” Johnson says.
Dougherty says he uses the name J.D. Deraven for his “private music project.” The J.D. is a double entendre for his initials and for being an attorney, and Deraven was a nickname a former bandmate had given him years ago, but he claims to have no idea why or how the nickname came to be.
For six years after graduating from college, Dougherty was a professional musician in a band called Tricks.
“I used to have the long hair, the shirt unbuttoned to the waist,” he recalls of his younger days. Although his hair is thinning now, he still sports mutton-chop sideburns and keeps the top two buttons of his shirt open.
Tricks signed with a record label, but the deal fell through, and Dougherty says he “shifted into law.” He claims law was “almost a natural retreat,” to learn how to beat the business which “screwed” him.
“I shifted into law as a reaction against the music industry,” Dougherty explains, “but I still couldn’t get music out of my soul.”
Five years ago, when Dougherty was teaching a summer class in Munich, Germany, he met with a client who happened to be a music producer. After the producer learned Dougherty was a musician, he invited Dougherty to come to the studio and play.
Ever since then, Dougherty has been working on recording his original songs each summer. “I’ll have an album done in oh, 10 years or so,” he jokes.
He says his songs are “about stuff that’s meaningful to me as a grown up,” he says. “At my age, I can’t be writing about girls and partying.” One of his songs, “Be My Baby” was inspired by his relationship with his daughter, but “if you listen to it, it sounds like a guy trying to get his girlfriend back,” he explains. “That’s one nice thing about music, is it can have multiple levels of meaning.”
Nirenberg says he has always “had this dual thing going on” between his work and his music. Playing with a band, “it’s like a Zen thing, you lose yourself when you’re part of a group thing, it’s great,” he gushes.
He is the singer and lead guitarist for Random Generation, which bills itself as the official band of Brentwood and performs every October at the Taste of Brentwood festival.
The band’s name reflects the diversity among the members’ ages—which ranges from 20-something to 50-plus—as well as the band’s multi-decade spanning playlist.
A recent playlist for the band included Eric Clapton’s “Layla,” Fergie’s “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Joe Cocker’s “The Letter,” U2’s “Desire,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”
“I like the harder edge stuff,” Nirenberg says “Not as far as Godsmack, but I like Audioslave, Jane’s Addiction, and some current Metallica,” listing some punk and heavy metal bands which rose to prominence in the late 1990s.
“But what it comes down to at the end of the day, I like songs,” Nirenberg says of his musical taste. “If it’s a good song, I like it.”
Nirenberg also declines to classify himself in terms of genre. “I just say I’m a musician,” he says.
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company