By Geoff Shelton
Photos by Catalina Kulczar
“Activate your activism to the N-th degree because the times call for it.”
On a brisk October morning at a French café in Brooklyn, with golden sun streaming through a wall of windows, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with charismatic former Second Lady Tipper Gore. The mother of four and grandmother of seven currently resides in Virginia where she focuses on advocacy work and photography. With an energizing spirit and personality as bright as the room, she discussed the way music and politics have gently interwoven throughout her life and why she has hope for the future of America.
If you remember the days when Tipper Gore was at the fore of political life, you may think you know a lot about her. Most know of her first as the wife of former Vice President Al Gore — the man elected President of the United States by popular vote but not by the Electoral College in 2000 — but the two are now separated. Maybe for you, she’s the face of the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The group pushed the record industry to place “Parental Advisory” stickers on certain musical albums in the 1980s. Perhaps you’re aware of her long-time advocacy work for mental health, the homeless, and the LGBTQ+ community. What you may not know is that through it all, she has maintained a passion for the drums and rock music. And she has used that passion to help make the world a better place.
Born Mary Elizabeth Aitcheson, she grew up in Arlington, Virginia, raised primarily by her mother and grandmother who were both influential and supportive of her musical interests. To this day, Gore still remembers the first time she heard the Beatles. “I heard ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.’ I was getting ready to go to school and it came on the radio and I just stopped, like, ‘Oh my God! What is this sound?!’” she recalls. Gore and her friends at an all-girls school were so affected by the Fab Four that they decided to form their own band.
“I was enjoying the guitar. My friends would play the guitar and sing, and I’m not the best singer in the world, I’ll be the first to admit that,” she says. “So then I switched to the drums seriously and my friends would play the guitar and bass. We named our band after my mother’s Buick Wildcat. It was there right on the back of the car, so we called ourselves the Wildcats.” They would cover pop songs around town at an area Spring Festival, schools, and even, for some foreshadowing, at political rallies. “You could just go get the sheet music for the guitar players and I’d get the 45 [record] and just blast it and drum along to it and then we put it all together.”
After graduation, all the members of the Wildcats went to different schools and Gore put down the drumsticks for a while to study psychology at Boston University. “In college, I was just interested in classes and protesting the [Vietnam] War,” Gore shares. “We were very upset about the guys being drafted into a war that we thought was ill-conceived.”
It was during that era in history when popular music mixed with politics and took on an added cultural weight. “The messages in the music were very important. I think they helped unite people like myself, who had that view [about the Vietnam War]. You’d play an album at parties with groups of people and talk about some of the lyrics,” she recalls.
Perhaps that’s why the music her own children listened to became the focus of her activism later in life. When Gore’s youngest daughters were just eight- and six-years-old, she bought them Prince’s Purple Rain. “I thought, rock’n’roll, it’s fine. Then they came to me and said, ‘Mom, listen to this!’” Her daughters played “Darling Nikki” for their mother with lyrics describing Nikki “masturbating to a magazine.” Gore felt it was too mature for them at their young ages, and decided to return the album. “I took it back to the store and said, ‘I didn’t know these lyrics were so explicit.’ And they said, ‘Well you opened this and played it.’ And I said, ‘Well is there any way you could tell me beforehand?’ And they said, ‘No.’ And so that made me angry.”
It was an anger that would culminate into a showdown with the entire recording industry as Gore co-founded the PMRC. They took up the fight started two-years earlier by the National Parent Teacher Association, asking the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to implement a ratings system, similar to what is used for films. It would offer consumers information about the content of the music. “I’m for individuals making up their own minds and parenting their children the way they want to, but we need information. We have information on toys, on clothing, and if you’re going to have really explicit, violent lyrics that bring up images in people’s minds… I just think parents should know,” Gore explains. “I was really concerned about the more violent, misogynistic kinds of imagery that was being marketed at the time.” It was a move that would result in a Senate hearing and The RIAA eventually agreeing to voluntarily place “Parental Advisory: Explicit Content” stickers on albums of their own choosing.
The fallout from the media blitz around this issue resulted in the demonization of Gore from many prominent musicians. The former anti-war protester was now perceived as the face of music censorship. Her name was parodied and attacked (often misogynistically) on albums by Eminem, Ice-T, Ministry, KMFDM, Warrant, and others. “It was tough,” she recalls. “Some people still are like, ‘You’re a censor!’ People don’t even know that [the sticker] is voluntary. We’re not changing anything the artist is creating, simply letting people know in the marketplace that it might be explicit for younger children. So, it’s there for those who want to use it.”
While the media painted her as the enemy of the First Amendment, Gore’s personal friendships with musicians, her re-ignited joy for drumming, and her desire to use it to fundraise for humanitarian causes has been largely ignored.
For starters, Gore became close friends with a very public opponent of the PMRC, Frank Zappa. The prolific, experimental musician, composer, and filmmaker was one of the most prominent artists rallying against Gore’s cause. Zappa testified at the Senate hearing against its recommendations and was Gore’s counterpoint on numerous talk shows and news programs. But Gore explained the little known side of this relationship, “Frank and I would go out for drinks together after our shows where we were on opposite sides. He felt very strongly on one side and I was on the other, but we liked each other as people. We all loved music,” she explains. “Then I met Gail [Frank’s wife] and we became close friends. So close, that during the campaign trail, when I would have to go to Los Angeles, [Gail] would say, ‘Stay with me!’ So I knew her kids, too.” This explains why in 1999, Zappa’s daughter Diva Zappa released a single called “When the Ball Drops” that is the only official recording released featuring Gore playing drums. Her daughter Kristin Gore also adds back-up vocals to the track.
When I asked if she also became friends with John Denver, another opponent of the PMRC, Gore says, “No, I was with more, on the edge type of people.” Like, The Grateful Dead apparently, specifically Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart with whom she’s had a long-time friendship. “We just liked The Grateful Dead and I went to a concert and I got to meet them,” she says. “Maybe they asked to visit us after? So, one day, they came over to my office in the OEOB.” She’s referring to the Old Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., where Tipper served as the Mental Health Policy Advisor to President Bill Clinton. Apparently the word got out. “‘The Grateful Dead are in Tipper’s office! Go Now!’” she recalls. “You couldn’t even move. People were just pouring in. A Secret Service agent, a security guard for the building, somebody across the street, they all came over.”
Mickey Hart and Gore kept in touch and he even gave her a few drum lessons at Number One Observatory Circle, the official Vice President’s house. Tipper had purchased a new kit. “It was a red Pearl set, and it was right in the front foyer. I self-retaught.” So in the late ‘90s, when The Dead (now without Jerry, R.I.P.) played a fundraiser for Al Gore’s presidential campaign in California, Hart asked her if she’d come sit in with them. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah! Why not?!’ So I did. I said, ‘I don’t want to sit at the trap set. I’m in a dress.’ So he got all these congas lined up. So that’s what I did. It was great. I loved it.” She also played all of “Sugar Magnolia” in 2009 with the band at the then Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
Since that time, Gore has used her public persona and love for playing to support numerous other causes. She sat in with Melissa Etheridge for the Equality Rocks benefit concert in 2000. “K.D. Lang introduced me, I was excited about that,” she says. Gore also played with Willie Nelson for Farm Aid that same year and played in support of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz. “It’s really fun when you’re playing with fellow musicians and, you know, you become one. It’s lovely.”
This passion for improving our world has continued to be Gore’s focus as she uses her high profile to help various organizations working to maintain mental health care access, insurance, and treatment. “One of five families will experience a mental health issue, either chronic or acute, in their family life, and we worked hard in the ‘90s to have mental health parity in insurance and I’m very proud of what we were able to do. Then Obama expanded mental health coverage in the Affordable Care Act and now it looks like the current administration wants to undo all of that,” she laments. “And also they’re saying that they’re not going to cover mental health treatment and access to mental health and that’s just unacceptable in my view.” Her current work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness is focused on getting middle and high schoolers education on and access to mental health care through their Ending the Silence program.
Gore sees hope though for the country that once elected her FLOTUS. She thinks women hold the greatest potential for its future — a belief shared by voters in the midterm elections who elected more than 100 females to Congress.
“Young women in particular can — and I hope and pray will — change the course of this country,” Gore shares. “By, first of all, voting, making sure their friends vote — that’s really our first step toward righting this ship. If you don’t vote, you’re abdicating a right that’s been given to all of us through the blood, sweat, and tears of many people that are no longer with us. And we have to honor that. Be in touch with friends and make sure that they are voting. Go up to strangers and say, ‘Are you going to vote?’ If you can give a ride to someone to the polls, do that. It’s that kind of work that we need done right now across this country. Activate your activism to the N-th degree because the times call for it. We are in a dangerous situation if we don’t change.
“Young women do have a network, and I hope they’ll be using it over the rest of their lives. The midterms have happened and we now have some sense of which way we’re headed, but there are Congressional races and Senate races and then there’s 2020… A chance to change who is in the Oval Office, which I think we must do. It’s just imperative that we do.”
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This article can be found in Issue 36 of Tom Tom: Buy it Here.