Country Joe & The Fish

Available now from Main Street Rag

“County Joe & The Fish Play The Avalon the Evening U.S. and South Vietnamese Troops Invade the DMA (San Francisco, May 19, 1967)  [recording to posted soon]

“When Napa and San Francisco Were Far Apart (Summer, 1967),” Museum of Americana, Vol. 19 [bonus poem not included in Ticket Stubs]

For a while copies of the second Country Joe & The Fish album, I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag, featured not only the title song, Country Joe’s antiwar satire inviting parents to send their sons off to Vietnam (and “Be the first on your block to have your son sent home in a box”), but a sticker on the shrink wrapped  cover declaring:

Contains Giant
FULL-COLOR
FISH GAME
Complete with Instructions

The game, designed by the group’s drummer, Gary “Chicken” Hirsh, is a sort of Summer of Love Candy Land or Chutes & Ladders, except that moving around the board as one of the bandmembers offers squares with such instructions as “Score 1 Joint” and “Play the Fillmore.”  And as befits the era and its ethos, players are invited to “make up your own rules, you’ll probably have to” and told “The game is never over, end it when you want to.”  Take a hit, roll the dice, enjoy the wit.  (My thanks to John Prewitt for posting his photos of The Fish Game.)

There is, though, one psychedelic non sequitor (and that, in itself, is probably a non sequitor): Landing on one square does actually end the game:

NAPA
You Lose the Game
Start Over

*

Today, Napa, California is upscale wineries, fancy restaurants, golf resorts.  Tres chic.  Tres pricey.  Very hip.  In 1967 Napa was the working class town you drove through and tried not to notice as you cruised on up the valley to St. Helena, where some wineries were already catering to the nascent tourist trade.  And June 15, 1967 was the date Country Joe & The Fish played the Napa County Fairground (my memory is that we were in the 4-H Building).  This excerpt from Irwin Silber’s Sing Out! interview (V18, Ns 1& 2, June/July 1968) with Country Joe and Barry Melton is, so far as I know, the only comment on this evening:

Irwin Silber:  My feeling is that for a lot of the people in the audience, it’s more like a secret life or a fantasy life.

Barry Melton:  Yeah.  We’re a bravery trip for them.  Every once in a while, we’ll play in a very, very straight place.  We went to a place called Napa, where two of the band got beat up.  They’re going to get the lousy, long-haired hippies.  So the three hippies in town showed up.  Because we sort of give them courage.  You know, we stand out there and we jump up and down—really exposed and open about the whole thing—and they have to sneak around corners in the towns where they live.  So we sort of give them courage.  Like Pete Seeger, right?

I guess.  I don’t remember if there were any “long-haired hippies” in the crowd that night.  Across the hills in Santa Rosa there would have been.  But in Napa?  Not sure.  I was there in my jeans and gray & white striped railroad work shirt, my hair not yet long enough in the back to be a political statement or declaration of lifestyle as I counted down the days before I would fly east to start college in some place called Eye-thack-uh, New York.  Lots of crew cuts, though.  And some really fine DAs, and girls with bee hives.  Expecting what?  Maybe a local cover band’s renditions of Paul Revere & The Raiders.  Maybe, some garage band “Louie Louie” as prelude to the evening’s real event after the show.  Was I the only one there who’d come to hear “Sweet Martha Lorraine” and “Section 43”?  Probably not, but mighta been.  And the beat down in the bathroom out in the lobby at intermission?  I do remember thinking, this isn’t Berkeley, what’d you expect!  So, Napa, You Lose.

*

In accounts of what the media dubbed The Summer of Love there’s a tendency to treat everything related to it as simultaneous—as if everywhere was immediately, fully, and only a kind of pulsing multidimensional now like the undulating colored blobs of a psychedelic light show at the Fillmore as the Grateful Dead meandered into an extended jam for dancing teens and the adult children who in turn undulated the hazy smoke of incense and hand rolled joints.  But constructing this now (either in memory or as journalist might have then or might now) often involves airbrushing out things that don’t quite fit or might complicate our image of the now, or even contradict it.

But 1965 was different than 1966 was different than 1967, and Berkeley and Oakland were very different places in those years.  And both differed from San Francisco, even though the Bay Bridge seemingly linked them together.  And where I grew up, a mere 55 and 75 miles away in the little towns of Sebastopol and Calistoga?  That might as well have been Kansas in newsreal Black &White.  And the place we called The City might as well have been some technicolor Oz, as we dutifully sat through Algebra trying not to think about the draft and Vietnam and trying to believe we believed in that vision of suburban utopia that hadn’t quite materialized for our parents.

Science has taught us the importance of recognizing microclimates.  There are, as well, microcultures and microhistories.  If The City was “Ticket to Ride” becoming “Magic Carpet Ride,” Calistoga and Napa were still Dinah Shore singing “See the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet” on TV or maybe Bobby Fuller on the car radio (AM only) singing “I fought the law and the law won,” a rebellious protest against Fifties conformity that was an improbable hit in the mid-1960s made even more ironic by Bobby’s death July 1966 “under mysterious circumstances” (though most of us didn’t know about this at the time).

Still, if Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper had starred in a movie of Fuller’s story featuring a hot Corvette (a drag racing epic?) with “I Fought the Law” as its iconic song instead of Easy Rider” featuring motorcycles and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild,” would we have lived this era differently? remember it differently? have constructed it as a different all-encompassing paradigmatic image?  Unrepentant penance or open road transcendence?  In real life, one story led to an actual death in a parking lot, a beaten body posed behind the car wheel as if a suicide.  In cinematic life, the other story, too, imagines death.  But within the world of the film, the actual death, which is actually an imagined death, offers us the freed spirit perpetually two-wheeling off into the beyond of some transcendent sunset.  In the recollection of cultural life, the technicolor “heavy metal thunder” of the one plays on the main screen of the cineplex.  The Black & White silence of the other, that corvette in the early dawn of the otherwise empty parking lot?  It might occasionally flicker on the screen at some hip, curated local film series, provoking a bit of discussion, then shelved again in that library of the forgotten.

*

I wasn’t there in that bathroom off the lobby as Country Joe, Barry, David, Bruce, and Chicken waited their turn to pee, long-haired, in full psychedelic costume among the locals in their T-shirts and jeans as if they were Johnny’s buddies in The Wild One or maybe extras from Rebel without a Cause.  But, sure, they got beat up.  With my hair barely long in back, I’d probably have gotten beat up, too.  But I was still local enough to know that.  And Napa and Calistoga were, then, very far away from Berkeley and San Francisco.  Summer of Love?  Or the summer of sex, a draft notice, that brief interlude of Basic Training, and Good Morning, Vietnam.

So why was Country Joe & The Fish, even more than the Jefferson Airplane or Grateful Dead or Quicksilver (all bands I’d drive down to The City to hear), the band closest to my being that summer?  I don’t think it was a “bravery” thing.  And it wasn’t a drug thing.  It was, I think, the way they blended a kind of exotic lyricism (modes and harmonies that were a sonic world that wasn’t Dinah Shore driving the U.S.A. in her Chevrolet) with politics that said No to the war and what seemed empty suburban materialism (and for small town kids that, too, was a fantasy image, one we were supposed to see as aspirational).  Playing Electric Music for the Mind & Body was a way to drift, for a moment, into a space beyond or prior to the draft and war and, as well, call out L.B.J. and send him “back to Texas, make him work on his ranch” (as if that fantasy, in reality, would make an actual difference).  So not quite a “bravery thing.”  More a sonic world and array of lyrics in which we were allowed to experience our dismay, our anxiety, and for a moment set them, as if, aside in the psychedelic meandering and the satire.

Recommended Listening:

  • The EPs that Country Joe McDonald and Barry Melton recorded with the evolving personnel of Country Joe and the Fish have been gathered as Collector’s Items: The First Three EPsUsed copies of the LP and CD versions of this can still be found.
  • Electric Music for the Mind and Body, the group’s first LP on Vanguard (released January 1967) and I-Feel-Like-Fixin’-To-Die, the group’s second (released May 1967) feature the band’s most strongest material.  The third album, Together, has its moments.
  • Two days after Country Joe & The Fish played the Napa County Fairgrounds, the played The Monterey Pops Festival.  This clip of “Sweet Martha Lorraine” includes video.  This clip of the Monterey Pops set, audio only, includes “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” “Please Don’t Drop That H Bomb On Me,” and “Section 43.”  (If “Sweet Martha Lorraine” offers a psychedelic lyric and “Section 43” a psychedelic sound, this Monterey Pops performance of “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die,” especially the opening, underscores the group’s roots in political street theater.)
  • Country Joe McDonald’s settings of nine poems from Robert Service’s Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, released in 1971 on Vanguard as War War War was little noted at the time and too little remembered now.  McDonald demonstrates that Service was a deeper poet than the popularity of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” would suggest, and he transforms these poems of World War I and the horrors of trench warfare into powerful demonstrations of the cost of war to those who fight them.

A Note on Radio:

“Fun, Fun, Fun” by The Beach Boys, “Pipeline” by the surf group The Chantays, and “Gloria” by Van Morrison’s group Them were the sorts of songs one would have heard on AM radio.  Inexplicably, “Sweet Martha Lorraine” was also played on AM radio on Bay Area stations in the spring of 1967.  The oft celebrated impact of free form or underground FM radio playing “underground” music was still months away and initially had only modest influence on teens and young adults because few of us had radios that would play FM stations (or could afford them).

Ticket Stubs & Liner Notes is available from Main Street Rag Publishing

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