More Than a Feeling...

Tom Scholz Speaks With The Sierra Club

Tom Scholz
Tom Scholz
A native of Toledo, Ohio, Tom Scholz is best known as Boston's leader and founder. He studied classical piano as a child, and later taught himself to play guitar, bass and drums. In 1965, he won a full scholarship to M.I.T. and, after graduating with bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering, he went to work for Polaroid as a product engineer. He is named as inventor on 34 U.S. patents.

At Polaroid, Scholz acquired the technical know-how to build his own multi-track tape machine, and he built a small studio in his basement. He spent nights recording demos of his songs, which eventually landed him a recording deal with CBS/Epic. From this contract came the first Boston album, recorded almost entirely in Scholz's basement studio. Released in 1976, it sold more than 16 million copies, making it the biggest-selling debut album of all time, and led to a Grammy nomination. The first five Boston albums have all been certified platinum (one million units sold).

During and following a 1987 tour for the third Boston album (Third Stage), Scholz became seriously involved in charity work, setting up a foundation to support causes such as animal rights, food banks, homeless shelters and children. Through the foundation, he has donated more than $3 million to those causes. He received the Mahatma Gandhi Award in 1987, and was named "Man of the Year" by the National Hospice Association in 1988.
Over the years Scholz has become increasingly concerned with the environment, lending support -- financial and otherwise -- to organizations such as the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and Earth Island Institute. He recently announced that on Boston's upcoming summer concert tour, $1 for every ticket sold will be donated directly to the Sierra Club. Sierra Club editor Tom Valtin spoke with Scholz recently about his views and his interest in the environment.

TV: What led to your involvement in charity work and the environment?

Scholz: In the '80s I became aware that there were organizations doing things that I cared about. Because of Boston's success, I had all this money, but I wasn't all that savvy with it yet, and I let people walk away with it. But gradually I wised up. I started looking into anti-violence and environmental issues, and programs that dealt with children and domestic violence. I was also interested in doing something to combat violence against animals. That can be a thankless job. But we have such a close connection with animals. I feel a responsibility to help protect creatures that suffer at human hands.

TV: What made you decide to pick the Sierra Club in particular as one of the beneficiaries of your upcoming tour?

Scholz: I think the Sierra Club is the environmental group that has the best chance of really accomplishing things. It's well known, and it actually gets down to doing the dirty work of protecting the environment. I donated a lot of money to the Club back in the '70s. I'd allowed a big chunk of money to be invested in places that were, shall we say, not reflective of my own principles. When I discovered this, I was kind of shocked; I'd really had no idea where some of that money was going. But once I wised up, I wanted to put that money to better use. So I looked around and asked myself, "Who's trying to be a watchdog for the earth?" And the Sierra Club got the bulk of my donation.

TV: Are you comfortable saying what kind of a sum you're talking about?

Scholz: Let's just say it was a six-figure amount. But I'd been a neighborhood donor for years. I'd always write a fairly sizable check when the kids came to the door. Even after Boston hit, they had no idea who I was, which was great. I was just this guy down the street.

TV: When did you first become aware of the Sierra Club's work?

Scholz: The Club had been mentioned to me at M.I.T., which was really the beginning of my growing up. As I said, I did a lot of research in the late '70s to find out where I could put some of my Boston money where it would really do some good. And after looking around a bit, it seemed to me that the Sierra Club was the principal watchdog group working to counteract polluters, clearcutters, etc. The Club seemed to me the most dedicated to the nuts and bolts work of trying to counteract these environmental hazards.

I started to see how things like factory farming and deforestation were closely related with the process of globalization. The public has been sold a bill of goods about the free market being a panacea for mankind. Turning corporations loose and letting the profit motive run amok is not a prescription for a more livable world. Starting with the Reagan administration, constraints that had kept these things in check were loosened, and the world was sold on the concept of an unrestricted free market. But the wealth that's been generated isn't shared. It goes into a few pockets, and the gap between the haves and the have-nots is growing by leaps and bounds.


TV: What is your sense about the direction our society is taking?

Scholz: In my opinion, there's been a deterioration of values in American society -- the profit motive is replacing ethical values, and the way things are structured, people aren't really given a choice. The thing that made me decide to break with previous albums and include an overtly political song, was when I discovered that for the first time in American history big business owns the news media. Virtually every magazine, newspaper, TV station and cable channel is owned by a big corporation, and they've squashed stories that they don't want the public to know about. The media aren't playing the role of watchdog anymore, and that's something that hasn't happened in 300 years in this country. To me, it's a sign the U.S. is in trouble. We need a free media, not just freedom of speech. If people are lazy and they concentrate only on what they want to the exclusion of what's going on around them, we're in trouble. And as I see it, the Sierra Club is one of the very few organizations that can mobilize people and reverse public indifference.

TV: In the title track to your new CD, you reference several issues the Sierra Club is working on. Mind if I ask you to comment on a few of them?

Scholz: Not at all.

TV: OK. Let's start with SUVs.

Scholz: SUVs are one of my pet peeves. At some point, if something is a public hazard, it needs to be addressed -- and this isn't even to mention the resources they use. As a trained mechanical engineer, I'm appalled at the way Detroit has been able to sell these to the American public. They're an abysmally poor means of getting from one ebony porn place to another. People should be made aware that SUVs are more likely than standard automobiles to roll over, crash and kill them. And they're incredibly dangerous to drivers of other vehicles in a crash. I believe in my heart that most people actually want to do the right thing so far as the environment is concerned, but I don't think most people realize how wasteful and dangerous these machines are.

TV: Urban sprawl.

Scholz: Go for a walk or a drive and you'll see how insane it's gotten. Everybody's seen a stream or a wood they knew replaced by a strip mall. People have been convinced that growth for growth's sake is a good thing. I'm a pilot and, on the whole, pilots are a conservative bunch of people. I read flying magazines, and I've come across a lot of letters arguing that we need more and bigger runways. But lately one pilot wrote in to a flight magazine that even doubling the number of runways wouldn't solve the problem. I completely agree with him. I don't believe the best solution is always to build, build, build.

TV: Which leads into the next thing I was going to mention -- what you refer to as the "dizzy pace" of progress.

Scholz: The pace of growth and the pace of travel have been growing by leaps and bounds. Maybe we should think about slowing down a little. Back in the '50s, it was gospel that industrial growth was vital and all progress was good. But so much of what passes for progress these days is destructive of things and wasteful of environmental resources. It seems we churn out more and more "stuff" all the time, and to me, more "stuff" does not constitute progress.

TV: Factory farming.

Scholz: I don't think most people are aware of the realities of factory farming. The majority of people, for instance, don't know what a veal crate is. (I mention veal crates in the song "Corporate America.") That's because corporate America doesn't want people to know how veal calves are treated. Factory meat raising is horrifying. And sometimes I actually start to think human life is just as cheap to corporate America as animal life, so long as there are big profits to be made.

TV: Toxic pollution.

Scholz: There's such a broad spectrum of things you can point to that are all around us. You walk by a schoolyard and there are flags warning of poisonous substances. Rates of cancer are higher than they've ever been. PCBs and toxics are in the air and water all over the place and people aren't even aware. There's a wide range of toxic pollutants that people are dumping in their own living spaces. Down the road all living things will suffer.

The Bush administration doesn't seem to think toxic pollution is a problem. Instead of doing something to improve the situation, they're taking us backward. They don't seem to believe that things like asthma are a problem, even when there are places where asthma is occurring at many times the national average. What do they think, that asthmatics just move to those areas?

TV: I think maybe I've grilled you enough.

Scholz: Oh, no problem. I don't often get the chance to rant like this.

TV: Actually, it's a pleasure to hear your ranting. Or at least, it's a pleasure to hear that you're so obviously knowledgeable about these issues. In any case, I know I speak for all of us at the Sierra Club in saying that we're truly appreciative of your decision to partner with us and donate a portion of the proceeds from your upcoming tour.

Scholz: It's a great honor to me that the Club was willing to put their name out there alongside Boston. So I'm appreciative of that opportunity.
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