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DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll

DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll
© Aaron Schwartz

When Guns N’ Roses visited Washington in 2016, a friend of lawyer Elliot Berke, who has ties to the entertainment world, asked him if he could give the band’s bassist, Duff McKagan, a tour of the city.

That visit took Berke to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and helped him land one of the most interesting side gigs in the nation’s capital. The museum was developing a rock ‘n’ roll exhibition, and thanks to his connections, Berke was asked to serve as an adviser to the music division.

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“They have a lot of jazz and blues in their collection, but not as much rock ‘n’ roll,” said Berke, whose primary employment is as a managing partner of Berke Farah LLP.

As a liaison for the museum, Berke is called on to show the music world’s legends around D.C. when they are in town and introduce them to the Smithsonian’s work.

“A lot of artists I think are more interested in seeing stuff than they used to be,” he told The Hill in a recent interview. “They realize they tour the world but sometimes they don’t actually get out much, and they want to do that more.”

If you spot a music star at the Capitol, the Smithsonian or other D.C. landmarks, it’s usually Berke showing them around. He’s brought to the Smithsonian artists including Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top; Rick and Daxx Nielsen of Cheap Trick; Loren Gold, keyboardist for The Who; and Billy Idol, as well as helping the museum expand its rock ‘n’ roll collection.

Those visits have been eye-opening for both Berke and the musicians he hosts, said Berke, who added that artists are often genuinely interested in the history on display and sometimes surprise the curators with their own knowledge.

Idol was able to identify each of the items from an Abraham Lincoln exhibit on his own, including the pocket watch Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated and the cup from which Lincoln took his last sip before leaving for Ford’s Theatre, Berke recalled.

The Smithsonian encourages Berke to reach out to artists and spread the word about his work and the opportunities for artists visiting the District. He said artists who enjoy their visit often put him in touch with their friends. After Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, who grew up in the D.C. area, came back to town, he told Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal to get in touch with Berke.

At Berke Farah, “our practice is primarily political law,” Berke said. But he has branched out into other areas, including entertainment law, which helped him build relationships with the music world.

Ahead of the 2012 Republican National Convention, event producers asked Berke for legal help on complying with congressional and executive branch gift rules. That work led to a friendship with Jack Blades of the band Night Ranger.

“Jack is a Republican, and he was very interested in helping out,” Berke said.

“And by the time I got home that night, Jack had already texted me and said, ‘I’m all in, I want to help out Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyClub for Growth extends advertising against House Dems over impeachment Pennsylvania's other election-night story This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE.’ So, he ultimately performed at the official proceeding before [then-vice presidential nominee] Paul RyanPaul Davis Ryan Retirees should say 'no thanks' to Romney's Social Security plan California Governor Newsom and family dress as 2020 Democrats for Halloween DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll MORE’s speech.”

As a lawyer, Berke works as outside counsel for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyCongress hunts for path out of spending stalemate This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Nunes pressed on Fox News about comparing impeachment inquiry to a 'coup' MORE (R-Calif.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz CheneyElizabeth (Liz) Lynn CheneyOvernight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Cheney calls for Turkish leader's bodyguards to be banned from re-entering US Overnight Energy: Senate eyes nixing 'forever chemicals' fix from defense bill | Former Obama EPA chief named CEO of green group | Senate reviews Interior, FERC nominees criticized on ethics MORE (Wyo.), among other members.

Berke often reaches out to McCarthy’s office to set up Capitol tours, but his work takes him across party lines. Berke said he has enjoyed a good relationship with both the Trump and Obama White Houses when arranging tours.

“The longer I’ve been doing this, the less partisan my life really is. You have friends all over the place and you represent people through different administrations. It doesn’t really matter,” he said.

Berke said his GOP background has never posed a challenge when hosting musicians and he’s had “really good conversations” with artists about topics from intellectual property protection to gun violence.

He has even put artists in touch with lawmakers who, he thinks, could benefit from their views. That’s led to friendships that may not have otherwise existed.

Other artists who have taken tours with Berke include Roger Daltrey of The Who and actor George Lazenby — the second cinematic James Bond — among many others.

One of the most memorable people he has met through his work, he said, was Gibbons, lead singer of ZZ Top.

“Billy’s one of the most interesting people. I think anybody who’s ever met him would say the same thing, that he’s just an absolute fascinating guy,” he said.

His connections also allow him to help artists with their charitable work.

“Duff is an absolute patriot, what he does for veterans. Just a very thoughtful person,” said Berke, of the Guns N’ Roses bassist.

Berke serves on the board of the Love Hope Strength Foundation, which was started by Mike Peters, lead singer of The Alarm. Peters is a three-time cancer survivor and with Berke set up the Capitol’s first bone-marrow donor registration drive in 2016.

“We got McCarthy signed up to be a bone marrow donor, [Rep.] Cathy McMorris RodgersCathy McMorris RodgersShimkus announces he will stick with plan to retire after reconsidering Bipartisan group reveals agricultural worker immigration bill DC's liaison to rock 'n' roll MORE,” said Berke. And it was a bipartisan affair with then-House Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerCongress hunts for path out of spending stalemate The Hill's 12:30 Report: Washington braces for public impeachment hearings This week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry MORE (D-Md.) co-sponsoring the event.

He also helped Billy Morrison, who is a guitarist in Idol’s band, and guitarist Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction set up an event called Above Ground, a fundraiser for mental health awareness and suicide prevention, in 2018 and 2019.

Asked which artist he would like to invite to D.C. for a tour of the city, Berke, a lifelong rock ‘n’ roll fan, said it would be Bob Dylan, whom he’s seen in concert more than 25 times.

“Some of the music you grow up with sticks with you probably for a bit longer,” he said.

Berke says he “almost always” gets invited to a show after taking an artist on a tour of Washington, but two of his biggest highlights were right in the Capitol. He helped organize dedication ceremonies for busts in the Capitol, one for Winston Churchill, where Daltrey performed, and one for the Czech Republic’s first president, Vaclav Havel, where Gibbons played.

“The legacy that those have ... I mean they’re permanent parts of the Capitol,” he said proudly.