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by RIP RENSE

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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 autopsy.
        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.
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This remarkable comeback has gotten zero coverage in the hamhanded mainstream press, probably because it doesn't concern the Bay City Rollers or Menudo.
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        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 there.
        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 patter.
        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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