by RIP RENSE
1-2-3, What am I writin' for?
(Aug. 17, 2004)
When I was about fourteen, the sky ripped open
and God's pajamas fell out. That's what I wrote in my novel-in-the-works (line up now!),
"The Oaks." Seemed like an okay way to describe things.
I lived in green and blue. It
was my black and white. "Nothin' to do" days under a titanic sky and fields of
quiet, tranquil weeds. Poppies and lupines come summertime.
And that's when the sky opened up---
summertime. Stiflingly still suffocatingly hot stupefyingly same stupidly spent. Day after
day. What did I know? Life: take one sky, days, fields, add cutoffs and T-shirt,
occasional watermelon, and bicycle.
Nobody was home that summer,
in the house on the hill where I lived, in a town of about 20,000. Stepmother had moved
away temporarily. . .bliss was not marital. PaPA was hanging out in L.A. a good
deal after work, doing what, I'm not sure, but I hope to hell he was enjoying it. Then Bro
Kirk came home from Isla Vista, CA., where that bank would eventually burn, but which was
then still a minor utopia. Flowers in hair, ocean sunsets as movies, cheap and convivial
pot, UCSB students wandering off into John Donne, Milton, Mahler, Janis Joplin. . .seeing
the history of ancient Egypt in a pine-panelled wall, brought to you by a couple of drops
of funny liquid.
Kirk was an emissary from The Place Where
Things Happened. He put the nothin'-to-do days in a frame and hung them on my wall. I've
never gotten over the view.
Of course, it's largely the music I'm talking
about. The silence of mid-afternoon 90-degree meadows was broken by a guitars and
drums and strange poetry. My brother had this tape, see, a big reel-to-reel clunker made
by a bunch of proto-hippie pals of his, with cascading hair and full-tilt joie d' vivre,
and the tape consisted of all the latest good stuff: Jimi Hendrix, Cream,
Joplin, The Chambers Brothers, Donovan, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane, Stone Poneys,
Vanilla Fudge, and. . .Country Joe and the Fish.
Now, some kids took drum lessons (my requests
were denied), some kids went to Europe, some played baseball. By that time, I had listened
to "Sgt. Pepper" alone at home at least once a day for a year. (This continued
for two more, as a matter of fact.) The thunderous colors of that album became so deeply
encoded into synapse and nerve and heart that I think they'd probably show up in an
I don't know how to put it, exactly, but
Country Joe and the Fish completed the rearrangement of synaptic furniture. Where The
Beatles were polished and poetic, Country Joe and the Fish were rough around the edges and
funny. If The Beatles used careful brush strokes, CJ&F occasionally just threw a
bucket of paint at the canvas, and stuck a flower in it, to see how it looked. And I'd put
Country Joe McDonald's "Who Am I" lyrics up against "A Day in the
Life". . .any day.
What a name! This was my apocalpytic
Stravinksy ballet in 1915, the chartreuse Van Gogh face poking into a Currier and Ives
world---or something like that. Country Joe and the Fish? Superheroes from the
anti-dimension. Nutso name, made "Beatles" quaint. And the album covers? Aliens!
Wizards, trolls, sullen revolutionary soldiers. . .What might it all mean?
I didn't know, couldn't know, had no way of
knowing. My brain was still fourteen, after all, a machine of intuition, not analysis; of
impression, not processing.
This remarkable comeback has gotten zero coverage in the hamhanded
mainstream press, probably because it doesn't concern the Bay City Rollers or Menudo.
The sky ripped open and God's
pajamas fell on my head, and they were Country Joe
and the Fish. I've never heard more wacky, obtrusive, splendid sounds. "Pat's
Song" from the second album is as lyrical and inventive a thing as ever to enter
these ears. "Bring flowers and bring them 'round her grass hair. . .bring leaves
from the mountains, and boxes of air. . ." Glorious. Organ solo was unabashedly
declarative, followed by a Barry Melton guitar solo that had arc, design, art. . .soaring,
dipping, inspired from-the-spinal column sonic poetry. This was not a song, it was a suite,
and far more creative than the young people making it probably understood.
The first two Country Joe and the Fish albums,
and moments on the next three, when the band was splintering, are among the most
subersively, unselfconciously novel music of the mythologized sixties. These are works of
color, wit, and wonderment by a band of players who had as much personality as guests at the Mad Hatter's.
Chicken Hirsh's drumming---the drummer was named
Chicken!--- was elegant, illustrative, interactive; it was Chicago jazz played
through a San Francisco psychedelic prism. Melton's guitar strings were a direct extension
of his nerves. Bruce Barthol's bass was introspective, playful, dancing. David Cohen
understood that melody was the foundation of improvisation, whether in sculpted organ
passage or delicate guitar accompaniment, a fact that is largely forgotten in today's
empty melismatic pyrotechnics. And Country Joe?
Well, he's written some of the cleverest, most poignant, earnest, and just plain good
tunes of the late 20th century.
What a record is "Electric
Music for the Mind and Body!" Jangly, startling, shocking, off-kilter, goofball, as
sincere as a good eulogy, as unapologetically raw as oysters on the half-shell. Listen to
the epiphanic "Thought Dream" from the gentler, eloquent second album and
imagine it transcribed for soprano and piano. It's no stretch. Blues, rock, stoned
psychedelia, wacky instrumentals, meditative stuff that critics would probably call
"ur-New Age" or something silly like that, and incendiary humor---it's all
I mean, to hear records that hilariously,
courageously threatened to send LBJ "back to Texas, make you work on your ranch"
and intoned "1-2-3, what are we fightin' for/ don't ask me I don't give a damn/
next stop is Vietnam," as the jauntily bitter "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to
Die" did---hey, this just wasn't done! There was no precedent for an electric rock
group knocking a president. The audacity of these insolent long-haired punks.
The latter song, which was on the lips of many
a grim soldier in Vietnam, earned Country Joe and the Fish the title, "The Band That
Stopped the War."
So it is with pleasure that I report
that this strange joining of musical circulatory systems is reborn after thirty-five
years (not counting a brief studio reunion in 1977.) Public Defender Melton is busy nobly
defending the indigent in Yolo County, CA., but the rest of Country Joe and the Fish are
touring as the Country Joe Band. They are playing Woodstock--- yes, Woodstock---this week
(Aug. 20-22), where they will perform a new song: the wry, biting knee-slapper CD single
in the "Fixin-to-Die" tradition: "Cakewalk to Baghdad."
This remarkable comeback has gotten zero
coverage in the hamhanded mainstream press, probably because it doesn't concern the Bay
City Rollers or Menudo or the Jackson Five. And even if some reporter notices, it's
probably best to not pay much attention. Stories will likely be couched in phrases like
"sixties nostalgia" and "old hippies" and other trivializing formulaic
No matter. "The Band That
Stopped the Vietnam War" with "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" is back,
maybe helping to stop another one. These guys believed enough in one another and their
music to put it back together after all these years, even though they are in their '60s,
even though hardly anyone understands or really cares about such things any more, even
though so many hearts are crusted over with commercial and materialistic product, even
though this might as well be another planet altogether, compared to that summer of 1968
when they---and I---were young.
But so what, eh? As C.J. sings in
the end of "Thought Dream:"
"I feel the cold of eve slowly waning.
As sunburst rays of warmth overtake me.
And the twisted seeds of doubt
Which spread my sins about
Lie parched and withered.
And the present not the past
Claims me at the last
For it's not over."
Gimme an F.
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