Gimme an ‘F!’
Half a million people stopped chatting amongst themselves and shouted out an ‘F.’
Joe McDonald had just made a big decision, and the sudden and unanticipated harnessing of 500,000 people’s undivided attention meant it was too late to go back. Standing alone onstage with a borrowed guitar strapped to his back while filling time in an impromptu set, McDonald fed the Woodstock crowd the next three letters (guess what they were?) of the “F cheer” and performed his now-famous “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.”
McDonald’s decision to play the three-minute ditty – which was captured on film and formed something of a centerpiece for the “Woodstock” movie – cemented the public’s perception of McDonald as, in his words, “Country Joe McDonald, the guy who got everybody to yell f--k and sing that song about the war in Vietnam.”
McDonald’s cheer and song incurred the mighty and lasting wrath of the establishment. McDonald and his band, Country Joe and the Fish, were banned from virtually every concert venue in the United States, forcing Country Joe to play overseas until the mid ‘70s. The band had already been paid to stay off the Ed Sullivan Show and barred from the Schaeffer Beer Festival (“I never did like Schaeffer Beer anyway”).
In an era when the Smothers Brothers were considered risqué, many radio disc jockeys – who could never have dreamed the “F-word” would be on an LP – were fired for playing the track.
“It was incomprehensible that it would be on there, much less that 500,000 people would be yelling that word,” recalls McDonald, a Berkeley resident for the past 35 years. “You never heard (that word), you never heard your parents say it, it was never printed in the newspapers, never even hinted at. It was shocking, but also exhilarating. That was the end forever of limits of what kind of language could be used in music. We didn’t open the door, that audience and I battered it down, smashed it to pieces.”
McDonald’s parents my never have used vocabulary at home like he did on stage, but they too incurred the wrath of the establishment. McDonald was born in Washington, D.C., in 1942, but his family soon moved west to avoid the pressures being left-wingers in the nation’s capital during the prelude to McCarthyism. The family settled in El Monte, not far from Los Angeles, but the West Coast was not immune to the nation’s prevailing paranoia.
“My father was investigated for supposed un-American activities in 1954, and he lost his job at the telephone company which he’d had for 19 years,” recalls McDonald. “So we became pretty poor then. We sold our house and went from middle class to working class to almost impoverished.”
McDonald had hoped to attend USC and matriculate to a trombone player’s chair on the L.A. Philharmonic. But as a 17-year-old high school grad he found himself wandering past a Navy recruitment center and, like so many older men looking back at questionable decisions of their youth, sums up his teen-aged thought process as “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”
McDonald served primarily in Japan as an air-traffic controller before deciding to “take his chances and get out” in 1962 via an honorable discharge. He worked, participated in the Civil Rights Movement and attended several schools in the Los Angeles area until 1965, when he made the fateful decision to head north.
“I just really fell in love with Berkeley,” says McDonald. “People in Berkeley were using a lot of the ‘secret language’ we used at home being left-wingers in a right-wing atmosphere. They were talking about integration, segregation and imperialism. This was interesting to me; I’d never grown up around anybody who had the same kind of political beliefs as me. I was very isolated in Southern California.”
The Berkeley atmosphere at the closing stages of the Free Speech Movement and the dawn of hippie-dom was a breath of fresh air for McDonald, who had been stifled by the rigidity of a Southern California upbringing in the ‘50s and a military hitch. He began writing songs and putting out an underground magazine. When he realized that he had “neglected to prepare copy” for the magazine, McDonald and some pals cut a seven-inch record and sold it at Moe’s Books as a “talking magazine.” On that homemade EP was the first version of “Fixin’-To-Die Rag.”
With the nucleus of bandleader McDonald and Barry “The Fish” Melton, Country Joe and The Fish (named after Stalin’s World War II nickname and the Chairman Mao quote “revolutionaries move through the people like fish through the sea”) started playing in local coffeehouses and eventually became one of the Bay Area’s most popular bands.
Up until their 1971 breakup, Country Joe and the Fish played a number of major festivals including Monterey Pop and Woodstock and released seven albums, but “Fixin’ To Die,” a song penned by a 23-year-old McDonald in a half-hour burst of inspiration, remained their anthem. Similarly, McDonald’s performance of the Rag at Woodstock will remain his “defining moment” – but as defining moments go, this one ain’t too shabby.
As blasphemous and unacceptable as the idea was in the ‘60s, the message behind “Fixin’-To-Die” – the assailing not of the individual soldiers in Vietnam but the societal powers-that-be who put them there – is hardly profane today. For McDonald was, is and always will be a veteran’s activist.
“(By the early ’80s) I began to feel comfortable as a person who people thought about at the same time they were thinking of the Vietnam War. I began to think that perhaps this was a positive thing I could use to my advantage,” explains McDonald. “I was a hippie and also a veteran. I was accepted by both the counterculture, the anti-war community and the veteran community.”
Working primarily with the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, McDonald lobbies for vets’ issues, locally helping establish the City of Berkeley’s interactive Vietnam memorial and the plaques and exhibits at the Veterans Memorial Building honoring the city’s 22 sons who fell in Vietnam.
The Vietnam War and its aftermath serve as a constant source of contemplation for McDonald. Recently he was perusing a used bookstore on Solano Ave. when he found a paperback entitled “Grief Denied: A Vietnam Widow’s Story” by Pauline Laurent. Though the book was marked “review copy,” it was unread and relegated to the bargain bin. The experience got Country Joe a-thinkin’.
“I want to use this opportunity to tell people that when you’re barbecuing or shopping for color-coordinated towels at the Macy’s White Sale, that there’s a significant part of the population that’s having bad memories on Memorial Day,” says McDonald. “People should use this opportunity to talk to a war veteran or someone who’s suffered from war. We in the Bay Area tend to give more respect and sympathy to victims of foreign wars than our own wars. But we forget that our communities are filled with victims of war. They’re our neighbors. Our relatives. Our friends.
“All of us who are not widows of war should be thankful that we’re not,” continues Country Joe. “Because it’s just blind luck that makes you one or not one. It’s blind, dumb luck that made me Country Joe the rock singer and not Joe McDonald, the dead Navy veteran with a display case full of my stuff in El Monte, California.”
Visit Country Joe’s incredibly comprehensive home page at www.countryjoe.com