Country Joe McDonald
Was the change from folk to rocker, hot group to solo artist, and back again one of choice or of necessity?
“It was an artistic necessity. Yes. Every time.”
Country Joe McDonald has just completed his 17th album, capping a professional decade of radical cheek no other rock personality has successfully survived. And if the touring, writing, recording, and performing an enormous body of work in many relevant musical guises hasn’t tarnished his enthusiasm or grouchiness, it’s probably because this working-class hero (as he likes to think of himself these days) was never so predictable in the first place. The only thing certain about the stand Joe will take is that he will always take one. He’s not only taken a swipe at every president in the last ten years but also at Jane Fonda, hippie pretensions, and even himself, and for better or for worse he shows no sign of shutting up in 1975.
Born 33 years ago in California, named after Joseph Stalin by his leftist parents, Jewish from his mother’s side (which is what counts), honorably discharged from the Navy, a loyal and longtime resident of Berkeley, the man is full of perplexing contradictions. Short-haired and clean-shaven, sitting in a restaurant looking like a punk who, with only a slight stretch of the imagination, could be respectable (but don’t count on it), he talks quietly and definitely. In one short conversation he gripes about the cities, admires a child most tenderly, begins a rap on popular music, and then throws up his hands, declaring “I just don’t know, really, I just keep on doing it.” Quickly distracted, he chortles. “Berkeley is a zoo. There’s a bald black cop with a gold earring coming to pick up some Chinese takeout.” The contradictions delight him. His mirth is slightly bitter, always. There is a difference, he volunteers, between Country Joe and Joe McDonald. Between the person and the personality is a precarious balance of ideals, and the resulting conflicts provide some insight into the man and his music. A song on the new album, “Lonely on the Road,” is an autobiographical confession of a rock star caught exhausted between his identities and his ambition.
The first time I [Ellen Sander] met Country Joe was in New York City in 1967. Joe and the Fish had come there to promote their phenomenal first album, Electric Music for Mind and Body. It was an important album, even more so in retrospect, capturing the first flush of the mid-Sixties’ love-hippie--flower-politico-druggie outpouring that was to change pop music and its audience in a profound way. Several months earlier the group had played at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival and Joe, the flower fuhrer, just shined with his painted face, war whoop, and LSD commercial. Because somebody was too stoned to see to it, nobody in the band ever signed a movie release, and when it became apparent that the film was going to make an enormous amount of non-profit, the Fish demanded and received several thousand dollars which they immediately gave to feed the starving in Biafra.
There was Joe storming into the office of Vanguard Records, a stolid old building which seemed to teeter on the edge of Greenwich Village and almost turned inside out with a rocketing psychedelic San Francisco group on its hands. Joe was grumbling about a fight he’d had with a taxi driver and literally pushed his way through the doors to the astonishment of a secretary as he tromped into the office of his producer, Sam Charters. “New York is a horrible place,” he growled. “Whaddaya all do here, get stoned and groove on the garbage?” I was there to do the first record company bio for Country Joe and the Fish and it occurred to me, just back from the Bay Area and the Festival myself, that the Summer of Love was turning fast into Fall.
Country Joe and the Fish made many albums and tours of America, Europe, and North Africa, and after breaking up and reforming many times, like most good things (especially in pop music) came to an end. Joe toured extensively as a solo several times, had a go-round with longtime partner Barry Melton as a duo. He worked for a time with the All-Star Band, one of his fondest memories. “I was the first one to do it,” he recollects with a great sense of pride and not a trace of patronization. “I had a band with more women than men. In many ways it was the nicest band I’ve ever had. Any group situation should be sexually mixed. You need a balance of male and female to make it right and it felt completely comfortable to me. We all really got along.”
It’s not just lip-service feminism Joe spouts. His daughter is now seven years old and Joe, now separated from his wife (who produced one of his albums), has done fully one half of the childrearing.
Joe wrote his first song in high school. It was a campaign song for a friend of his who was running for class president, performed by Joe’s first band, the Nomads. After high school he enlisted in the Navy, and after a four-year stint he tried Los Angeles City College for a year and began to write protest songs. At Joe’s insistence his family relocated in Berkeley and he began performing at various folk clubs. He put out a magazine in record form, Rag Baby, and one of the most interesting pieces of rock memorabilia is the issue which contained the first recording of “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” preceded by the “Fish Cheer” (“Gimme an F, Gimme a U,” et al.). Both pieces became quite a focus in his career. In 1969 the whole band was busted in Worcester, Massachusetts, for the lewd behavior of the audience which they had allegedly caused; later the “Fish Cheer” was one of the most noted features of Woodstock: The Movie.
He has worked extensively in films, scoring and performing the soundtracks and appearing as an actor. His credits include Quiet Days in Clichy, Zachariah, Gas-s-s-s, and Que Hacer, a political film made in Chile.
Joe is a worker, a laborer, a craftsman. He continued, year after year, to come out with statements, songs, and action. He has been in and out of scrapes with both the movement and the establishment throughout his career. His outspokenness has made him a devil’s advocate, a disturbing reflection of the chaos which knows no political inclination, and a real pain in the ass to his friends. When the Fish agreed to play at the Yippie demonstration at the Chicago Democratic Convention of 1968, the movement was over-right-on-joyed. But sizing up the situation in the tense moments before the Fish hit the fan, Joe, in the simple interest of safety, pulled out. He was called upon to testify at the conspiracy trial of the Chicago Seven and did so, but was forcibly restrained from singing “Fixin’ to Die” in the courtroom.…
In 1971 Joe became associated with a touring company, FTA, a Jane Fonda project (the initials sometimes stood for Free the Army, sometimes Fuck the Army—something like that). It was a collective of performers, including Donald Sutherland and Ben Vereen, touring Army bases to present a program of radical entertainment and rhetoric intended to let many agonized servicemen know that they were not alone. But Joe, in the simple interests of respect, pulled out of that one too, causing much consternation among activists and feminists. Once again, he didn’t mince words. In a plush press conference in New York, Joe criticized Fonda’s ideas about showmanship, her embarrassing patronization of the soldier’s lot and the soldiers themselves. He claimed that she hung up on two telephone conversations during which Joe objected to the attitude of the entourage toward the G.I.s and called her, among other things, a “Janey-come-lately” to the movement and a “novice feminist.”
“I’m not a dogmatic person,” he had told a columnist earlier that year. “A dialectic doesn’t interest me at all. I make music and I’m a humanist. Brecht was not political; he was a writer who chose to use his talents in a political way. Sometimes I use my talents in a political way, sometimes not. Freedom is an act of discretion and I make choices...sometimes based on concepts of art, sometimes on money, sometimes on morals. I just keep changing my mind as I get disillusioned.”
This is 1975, a time of ambivalence and struggle. Everyone, it seems, is working just to get along, to the point where all of reality seems a grind. Joe, though he admits that he is in a softer spot than most, identifies with that dailiness, that pressure, that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of progress most humans call life. “I’m a member of the working class,” he insists. “I just go from job to job. The pay is sometimes better, sometimes worse. When I got back from Europe this last time there were all kinds of people screaming at me for money. So I did the most comfortable thing. I played around with some friends of mine, this band called the Energy Crisis. The deal with Fantasy Records came together and we went in and recorded the twenty or so tunes in our repertoire. Then we cut one live to see if that would work. Then Bill Belmont [Joe’s longtime friend and business associate] and Jim Stern [producer and Fantasy’s Chief Engineer] and I listened to everything and became hysterical. We just didn’t know what to do. So the next day I came to the studio thinking I would do some overdubs and these guys had a band assembled and ready to go to work. We did some takes and it was just the right idea.”
After the basic tracks for the album were laid down in Berkeley, they were taken to L.A. by Jim and Bill for strings and voices. “I wanted all that stuff that Ray Charles has on his funk,” said Joe. “A little class can’t hurt.
“A rock star of my caliber,” says Joe with neither conceit nor sarcasm, “usually gets about $50 thousand to make an album. I’ve always thought it shouldn’t take so much. If the material is good that’s the most important thing, and I knew the material was good. I write several songs a month and at the end of a year, out of all that there’s enough outstanding material to record an album. If in the meantime someone orders ten songs, I can sit down and write ten songs for a score or something like that. There’s all the old Fish material everybody always requests and that’s fine, to a point. But, for instance, I won’t do ‘Superbird’ anymore [a blistering attack on Lyndon Johnson] because I don’t support romanticism for the past.”
A wry smile flickered on his face for an instant. He might have been thinking over any of over a hundred songs he’s written. Tender lush love songs to Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and other women, songs of hitchhikers, avenging feminists, drugs, presidents, sexual activity, political martyrs, visions of Everyman, of the road, and the royalty, the nightmares and daydreams with which he has graced and grossed the music scene. His albums sell and his performances draw consistently, and occasionally, spectacularly. The important thing to him, as he looks at his life, is working.
Paradise with an Ocean View is the name of the new album, his first for Fantasy Records. It’s a line from one of the songs on the album (“Oh, Jamaica”). On the surface it’s a fun-loving reggae hit-type tune but lurking in the lyric is that tinge of glib suspicion and mockery, perhaps at the hip glamorization of a music and thus a culture which is in reality full of racial hostility, poverty, exploitation, and violence. The aspect of duality which is always an arresting twist in Joe’s songs also comes through in “Save the Whales!,” a no-holds-barred journalistic run-down of the cruelty of space-age whaling, parenthesized by a refrain of an old-sea chanty full of legend and lore. Some of the material is buffoon blues, some tinged with jazz; there are idiocies and profundities juxtaposed within structures of simplicity and taste. There is a hilarious rocker (“Holy Roller”) about a reformed druggie/alkie who saw the light of God.
Like most of his albums, it is a portrait of Country Joe. There is no characterizing his approach and no mistaking it either. His style, his pose, his alter ego Joe McDonald, consistently project this deadpan sureness, whether funny or nasty—a view of life that is always changing in a struggle to perceive the realities of the times, that may not be changing after all.
He has just bought a piece of property on an island off Northern Washington and plans to live there and manage a small record store in a nearby town. That is how this self-styled anti-rock star plans to spend his spare time and money—working. It’s beautiful up there, he says. Probably paradise with an ocean view.