Born on New Years Day 1942 in Washington D.C. to a Jewish mother and a Presbyterian minister father and named after Soviet leader Josef Stalin, Berkeley’s Country Joe McDonald went on to star at two of the seminal musical events of the ‘60s—the 1968 Monterey Pop Festival and, a year later, Woodstock.
With their “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” his Country Joe and the Fish band became icons of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Their notorious “Fish Cheer” captured on film at Woodstock (“Gimme an F! Gimme a U! Gimme a C! Gimme a K!”) heralded a new and widely celebrated defiance of convention.
And then it was over, the band dissolving at the peak of their popularity.
The Berkeley-born band has now reunited, minus guitarist Barry “Fish” Melton, as the Country Joe Band. And while they may be a little more sedate and a lot grayer, McDonald and company have kept the puckish spirit that made them band a major force in the countercultural and anti-war scenes of three decades ago.
Berkeley residents will get a chance to see the resurrected Fish perform in Berkeley this Sunday at 8 p.m. in the Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St., in a concert benefit for Options Recovery Services.
“I’m really glad to get this event in Berkeley,” McDonald said. “Options Recovery is a really good 12-step program. They operate out of the Veterans Memorial Building, working with homeless people with drug and alcohol problems—many of them vets, which is a cause dear to my heart.
“[It’s] thanks to a 12-step program [that] I don’t do drugs or alcohol anymore,” he explained, adding with a smile, “although I’ve had my share.” The last entry in the marijuana news section of his web site is dated Nov. 19, 2001.
“I’ve been trying to bring the band back together for a long time, especially since I’d been unsuccessful in getting other musicians to play the psychedelic music of that era,” McDonald said. “I started working on it about six months ago, and it soon became apparent that Barry Melton’s schedule was too full, and since he’s the ‘Fish,’ we’re now the Country Joe Band. We’re sounding very good.”
Lead guitarist Melton now heads the Yolo County Public Defenders Office in Woodland, supervising the 21 lawyers who represent poor and indigent criminal defendants and playing gigs in clubs across Northern California.
The band’s partial reunion was sparked by the announcement that the World Peace Music Awards had decided to honor them as American musicians who lent their musical talent to the movement to end the war in Vietnam.
Other recipients of the “Life of Peace” awards at the June 26 ceremony in Hanoi are other veterans of Berkeley in the ‘60s: Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Harry Belafonte, the folk-singing trio Peter Paul and Mary, and the late Vietnamese composer Trinh Cong Son.
Meanwhile, the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” has renewed meaning in the days of an Iraqi war that is being increasingly compared to Vietnam. “A lot of young people haven’t heard the rag, but a lot have because of the Woodstock film. We’ll be doing some of the psychedelic instrumentals and love songs from our first two albums, a few songs from Woody Guthrie, and a new song, “Cakewalk to Baghdad,” about the Iraq war,” McDonald said, leaning back in his perch on the comfortable couch in his 1915 home on a quiet North Berkeley street.
“We’re thinking about making a CD, but we’re just handling it one day at a time. We’ll just see what happens.”
One hopeful sign for longtime fans is the planned DVD of an upcoming performance in Sebastopol, part of a tour that includes the Berkeley appearance.
“What we hope to do with our tour is provide a little humor and validate our audiences’ goodness,” McDonald said. “We play pretty nice and we try to make fun of the president—a fine old American tradition. We hope to have a few reverent moments.” The he grinned. “And maybe make a few bucks, too.”
Meanwhile McDonald, who lives in a comfortable North Berkeley bungalow with his spouse and two children, said he’s spent much of his time in recent years caring for his children and home while his wife works as a delivery room nurse.
Nursing has become one of McDonald’s special passions, and led to his creation of a web page (www.countryjoe.com/nightingale/fnstore.htm) devoted to Florence Nightingale, who’s heroic effort tending for wounded soldiers during the Crimean War is considered the founding event of modern nursing. McDonald’s efforts on behalf of nursing have garnered considerable praise from the profession.
McDonald grew up in El Monte, Cal., where his parents moved because their Communist Party activities had brought down too much heat. “They became disenchanted with the Communist Party,” he said, “and growing up I knew them as what you’d call left-wing liberals, the kind ‘compassionate conservatives’ loathe.”
He’s been a familiar face around Berkeley since he first arrived here in 1965, as the campus was moving from the era of the Free Speech Movement into that of the Anti-War Movement. He teamed up with Melton not long afterward.
Country Joe and the Fish started out as a duo, and turned into a band after McDonald and Melton signed a recording contract with Vanguard Records.
Gary “Chicken” Hirsh had come to Berkeley from Chicago “where any self-respecting drummer is born,” he said. He’d “been playing with a few other bands when I ran into Barry Melton in the Café Mediterraneum on Telegraph Avenue, having recently been kicked out of the California College of Arts and Crafts for using the word ‘fuck’ on a final. I was critiquing the teacher’s questions.”
It was two weeks before recording was to commence on the first album, and Melton was looking for a drummer. “So I raised my hand and said, ‘I’ll go,’” Hirsch said.
He was joined by bass player Bruce Barthol and David Bennett Cohen on keyboard and guitar. And though McDonald wrote the ban’s trademark “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” before their first album, it didn’t appear until their second.
With their appearance at Woodstock, the band became an international sensation before dissolving at the peak of their popularity. They reunited briefly for two gigs in 1994, one in Berkeley and the other at the Fillmore in San Francisco. Melton bowed out the day before the first performance.
Hirsh eventually moved to Ashland, Ore., where he established himself as a painter while he continued to play his drums. Barthol is well-known to Bay Area residents as a performer and the resident composer and lyricist with the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Cohen now lives in New York, where he continues to perform.
For fans who can’t wait until Sunday evening to catch a reprise of Joe’s signature song, go to www.countryjoe.com and scroll do to “Musical Notes” and click on the song. That leads to a page with the lyric and a place for click for a streaming audio rendition.
Then sit back, relax and enjoy—especially the memorable chorus that begins:
“And it’s one, two, three,
“What are we fighting for?
“Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
“Next stop is Vietnam. . .”
The Country Joe Band benefit for Options Recovery Services takes place this Sunday at 8 p.m. at the Jewish Community Center, 1414 Walnut St. Tickets $20. Call 666-9552 for information and tickets