Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Interview: COUNTRY JOE McDONALD



COUNTRY JOE McDONALD: 
 MORE ELECTRIC MUSIC 
FOR THE MIND AND BODY 

 In 1967 COUNTRY JOE & THE FISH were on 
the leading edge of what was termed the ‘Counter Culture’, 
and what the world remembers as the ‘Hippie Summer of Love’. 
But classic psychedelic albums like ‘FEEL LIKE I’M FIXIN 
TO DIE’ and their Woodstock Movie ‘Fish Cheer’ are only 
part of the story. Country Joe McDonald was an activist 
before all that began. And he’s still there, still doing it now… 

“into my life on waves of electrical sound 
and flashing lights she came, 
into my life with the twist of a dial…” 
                                             (‘Janis’) 

I first encounter Country Joe McDonald in flickering calor-gas light, hunched over a fold-down table spidering his running order on a pad in biro. “Entertainment Is My Business”, “Janis”, “Tricky Dicky”, “The Band Played Waltzing Matilda”, and “Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die”. He pauses to slurp Stones Bitter from the plastic tub I’ve plied him with. Then glances down the Caravan that doubles as his Dressing Room for the duration of this ‘Leeds Folk Festival’. Geoff Francis, some-time distributor for Joe’s ‘Rag Baby Records’, sits there describing a National Lampoon satire called ‘Lemmings’, a concept-album about an ecologically-minded quasi-‘Woodstock’ where the audience commit mass suicide to alleviate world over-population. This fictional Festival also features the first and last appearance of Crosby Stills Nash Marx & Engels (wrapped in tinfoil to attract lightning during the rain-chant), and there’s John Denver singing “Eating The Baby Raw”…

“He wasn’t there” corrects Joe precisely. “John Denver, he wasn’t there. You mean John Sebastian?”

Strange to realise, suddenly, that this genial guy sat here in faded blue jeans and T-Shirt, ballpoint and pad in hand, is part of that Woodstock mythology that National Lampoon are sending up. Country Joe and The Fish, remember? ‘Electric Music For The Mind And Body’ (1967, Vanguard), ‘I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die’ (1967, Vanguard) and ‘Together’ (1968, Vanguard)? It seems light-years away that critic Lillian Roxon was writing ‘no riot or rally at Berkeley in its big historic years, ‘66 and ‘67, was complete, or even possible, without The Fish’. But although they’re remembered as the definitive psychedelic band CJ&F were never just that. The so-called ‘Counter-Culture’ was about diversity and change, about being open to influences, and using those influences creatively.

 Joe McDonald was never suckered by the fashion-accessory elements of Hippie kitsch, but instead continued to apply the constant factors of that openness, creativity and intelligence, across the years that followed. In the process he built a stack of solo albums that, although sometimes flawed, have rarely failed to come up with interesting and lyrically challenging music. From ‘War War War’ (a 1971 Vanguard album setting Joe’s songs to Robert W Service’ World War I poems), ‘Paradise With An Ocean View’ (1975, Fantasy), ‘Peace On Earth’ (1984, Rag Baby) and ‘Vietnam Experience’ (1986, Rag Baby) – to now, when he’s become a voice commenting from the sidelines, the constant irritant of conscience.

In a caravan, in Leeds, he resumes sketching out his set, a Dave Van Ronk song, then “Oh Jamaica”, “Here I Go Again” (the hit song he wrote for Twiggy), “Let It Rain”, “Coyote”, “Save The Whale”, and “Get It All Together”, while I edge my ITT cassette recorder forward, and ask:-


ANDREW DARLINGTON: Was it a personal bring-down for you when all that Sixties thing finished? You were tied closely to that ‘Movement’, it seemed to be an unstoppable upward gradient, then all of a sudden the 1970’s arrived and it was Donny Osmond and Glam-Rock.

JOE McDONALD: You shouldn’t... erm, nothing ever stopped. The media stopped covering it. That’s what happened. And it was... well, I’m not really a person that’s in love with having a high profile anyway, y’know? But there was a certain backlash within the industry which was a little disappointing, as regards all Sixties musicians, they weren’t really treated with the respect that they should have had perhaps. But it’s water under the bridge now. The media chooses to focus on certain things at different times, I suppose it has its orders from somewhere, but as far as the ‘Woodstock Nation’ or the ‘Counter Culture’ or whatever you want to call it, it was going on before the Sixties, it went on straight through the Seventies and Eighties, and it’s still going on now.

AD: I get the impression you were involved before the thing happened big in media terms, and after it had died down too. That you’ve continued on pretty much the same lines and largely ignored the hype circus.

JD: Well, yeah. Of course there’s certain things that I couldn’t have been involved in before, but I’ve been involved in progressive issues and music for my whole life. But, for instance, I mean – even ‘Greenpeace’ in the Fifties was into nuclear testing, but not really Saving Whales. They were in the Pacific Islands with boats stopping the testing. They got busted by the French. They go back a long ways. Everything goes back a long ways. Not in the media, but in real life. But a lot of the changes in the Sixties really altered civilisation as we know it, and I still think you can feel it.

AD: You did the ‘Thinking Of Woody Guthrie’ (1969, Vanguard) tribute album, and on your later ‘Animal Tracks’ (1983) you did Woody Guthrie’s “Let’s Go Riding”. And to an extent you seem to operate in a kind of Guthrie role. As a ‘Social Commentator’.


JM: Except that I’m not.... except that I don’t take my orders from the Left Wing. That was Woody Guthrie’s mistake. He was a great songwriter, a great writer and a great artist, but – it’s not until recently that things like his ‘Seeds of Man’ book have been allowed to even come out. His material was controlled mostly by political Left Wingers, and so that’s the kind of material that you heard and that got published. And I tend to make everybody nervous for the most part. Left Wing included. I’ve been ‘Eighty-Sixed’, as we say, from most Left Wing organisations for years and years. ‘Cos I grew up into that.

AD: Don’t you think it helps to work within some kind of ideological framework?

JM: No. I think it’s dangerous. Nobody knows what’s going on, and anybody who thinks they know what’s going on long enough to establish an organisation based on that idea is a little bit crazy if you ask me. No-one knows what’s going on. No-one’s ever known what’s going on yet. But someday everybody will know what’s going on. But it won’t be us, it’ll be generations from now. It’s very hard to figure out the galaxy and everything... (Joe gives a low laugh, waves dismissively with a plastic spoon he’s in the process of devouring a tray of vegetable goo with)

AD: So what ideas are you true to? Your own personal interpretations and definitions?

JM: Well, as an artist, yeah. I deal with my own personal interpretations. But I try to change all the time, that’s something important. Just to know people who are changing all the time, and just trying to figure out the right answers, y’know? It gets easier as you go along, and you have some hints y’know. Like, dying isn’t so great. And being alive is generally pleasant.

AD: Do you still enjoy performing?

JM: Oh yeah. I love performing. Specially under certain conditions. This kind of thing, like a Festival, I really love, it’s gonna be a lot of fun. I do half acoustic and half electric. I mean, I’ve been doing this solo thing for a long time, and it’s getting kinda boring to me. And the entertainment business is death when you start being bored with your own act. It doesn’t take an audience long to figure that out. So I like doing electric things with a band, and a few solo things too, I do a few Benefits at home solo.

AD: In parallel with your solo career you’ve always maintained a working relationship with other ex-members of the Fish. There was a ‘Country Joe & The Fish’ re-union tour around…

JM: ...1979. The anniversary of Woodstock. But that wasn’t the full line-up. That wasn’t Bruce (Barthol) and Chicken (Hirsch) and Dave (Cohen), it was other people (including bassist Pete Albin formerly of Big Brother & The Holding Company and guitarist Bob Flurie).

AD: Then there were announcements of a re-union to coincide with your 1984 ‘Peace On Earth’ album and tour (while Joe also issued ex-Fish Barry Melton’s LP ‘Level With Me’ (1981) on his Rag Baby Records label). Will there be other Fish-related projects?

JM: It’s not a matter of... it’s a matter of the right time, y’know. And Barry, yes. He’s an attorney now. I know he’s busy in his Lawyers business. He passed the Bar, and he never went to school for it. He did it all by correspondence course. It took him ten years. But he’s a Solicitor. So there you are. It just goes to show you what perseverance can do!


AD: You also had a ‘straight’ job at one time, ‘Red Star Music’, a store selling instruments.

JM: You’re remarkably well-informed. That didn’t last long. ‘Red Star’ yeah, but it didn’t... that was what I would call a fiasco. While Barry’s sitting for the Bar has turned out to be a big success.

AD: Is there a clear difference between work you do on stage and in the studio? For some bands it’s a completely different discipline.

JM: Well. I try to do as much on the stage as I do in the studio. But then, truth of the matter is that it is two different experiences. When you’re listening to music at home, particularly on the headphones, it takes on the quality of a modern motion picture in that you’re sucked into the Movie. You’re completely sucked into the thing you’re listening to when you’ve got your headphones on. Or you’re in the Disco and it’s up really loud, and your eyes are not really working. Your imagination and your ears and your brain are working, but when you’re in a concert your eyes are working much more than your ears. And that’s why most live records sound pretty terrible.

AD: Do you have strong opinions on the current sampling and sequencer Dance music that dominates the radio, Clubs and charts?

JM: Syntho-Rock? Techno-Rock? I really love it. Computers and synthesisers are the future music of the planet, that’s for sure. But you can’t change into the future without understanding the past. That’s stupidity. Like I said, I’ve just finished over ten years of playing, searching around traditional roots, because in the Sixties I didn’t have much chance to do that. But in the Fifties that’s what I was doing. And I have a tape music magazine where we feature some, like, roots of modern music and things like that. And so I’ve been doing, like, acoustic Folk, American traditional music, things most people don’t even know anything about anymore. But in spite of our attachment to traditional music – or traditional anything, the past is wrong and the future is correct. As a general rule. If you want to be a competent musician nowadays you have to know where it came from. Even internationally it’s a very difficult business. And you have to know all the modern stuff too, and project your own image onto that.


AD: When we spoke earlier you mentioned that on your first Country Joe & The Fish album (‘Electric Music For The Mind And Body’) you used ‘a little influence of John Cage, and David Tudor concepts’. They are still respected names.

JM: Are they? At the time that was very radical, very radical stuff, but now... it’s not. Well, that’s the roots of modern synthesiser music, I suppose. At the time everybody thought they were just crackpots. But now – compared to some modern avant garde music, it’s pretty conservative stuff. I’m not a big fan. I’m essentially a Pop musician and my roots are in traditional music. Traditional classical music, and traditional Folk music. I’m really not... but, I do have some things in the can which are not music at all! So I guess I’m lying about that (laughter). There are some tracks on my recent albums which are really... I don’t know. I think I’d have difficulty arguing that they are music at all actually, in the traditional sense.

AD: On your ‘Child’s Play’ album (1983, Rag Baby) you use what you call ‘Environments’. A technique of placing each song in some kind of context by the use of stereo sound effects. Background restaurant noises on the track “Not In A Chinese Restaurant” for example. The motives sound not dissimilar to those of people like Brian Eno who create ‘ambient music’ albums. Music intended for different settings, like his ‘Music For Airports’

JM: I’m more inclined to do music in airports!

AD: ...music for the car?

JM: No. rather music in the car. Music you can play while you’re in the car – so it would be a case of music IN the car, FOR the car! Music IN the airport, FOR the airport. I mean, ‘cos when you have your Walkman – or whatever you call those tape recorders – WalkPERSONS, you can really put yourself just about anywhere, can’t you? But one thing you’re gonna be sure of in my music is that I’m not gonna put you in the studio anymore. And I can’t really guarantee what’s going to happen in that studio while we’re cutting tracks. That’s a little element of surprise. It’s sorta like not knowing if they’re going to drop the bomb or not.

AD: Your de-gendering the ‘Walkperson portable’ reminds me of your mixed-gender anti-sexist All-Star Band. That band and album (the 1973 ‘Paris Sessions’) with its Feminist bias seemed like a very brave project. Do you think those ideas still stand up?


JM: Well, that album certainly stands up, yes. It’s kinda the roots of Feminism in a way, you know – from a male point of view. It was the only thing of its kind around at that particular time. It was very radical. That band had three women musicians in it. I have a million stories from that band. It was only together a year-and-a-half but the things that happened to that band were like the ‘Adventures Of The Furry Freak Brothers’ or something. Really. I mean, people just could not understand that there was a woman playing the piano and a woman playing the drums and a woman playing saxophone. They didn’t understand that. The promoters didn’t understand that, the Press didn’t understand that, the audience didn’t understand that. They saw and heard something else. It was like ‘Alice In Wonderland’, or Science Fiction schizophrenia or something. I had to throw one Reporter out of the Dressing Room because he kept demanding to know who the girl backing singers were. He’d seen the whole show! So I introduced everybody in the band to him and I told him we didn’t have any background singers. Then he wrote all the names down and then he wanted to know the background singers names! And that routine went on somewhat like ‘Monty Python’ for about thirty minutes. He began frothing and I had to have him removed from the room, and as he left he was screaming “you must be crazy, I just wanna know the names of the BACKING SINGERS...!!!!”

AD: Like the only musical role he could envisage for women was as backing singers? Or groupies perhaps, but not as musicians?

JM: We were playing in the mid-West in some rather large Mafia-like Club in a town, y’know, and I came back with Anna Rizzo who was playing drums at the time, and Tucki Bailey who was playing sax. We walked into the club and went up to the Bouncer, and the guy at the... it was a little ticket-booth sort of thing. Well, it wasn’t a booth, it was just a podium sort of thing. And I said ‘I’m Country Joe, where’s the Dressing Room?’ And he said ‘just go straight through there, turn left, but the Chicks have to have passes’. And I said ‘no problem, it’s the drummer and the sax player. Let’s go’. We started to walk in and he just went ‘WHUUUMP!!!’, dropped his hand right down and said ‘I’m sorry, but you know, the Chicks have to have passes’. I said ‘this is the BAND, and we’re going to the Dressing Room if you don’t mind’. And he said ‘YOU can go, it’s OK, I’m telling you, your Dressing Room is down the hall to the left. But the CHICKS have to have passes’. So Tucki and Anna are starting to crack up now, they’re really laughing like crazy now. But I’m starting to get a little bit ticked off. So I said to this guy ‘I don’t know what your problem is, if you’re retarded or something, but THIS is the saxophone player, THIS is the drummer. I’M Country Joe. THIS IS THE BAND. And WE’RE GOING TO THE DRESSING ROOM!’ He was a very large person too. And he said ‘I’m really sorry man, I don’t want any hassles or anything, but the Chicks are GONNA HAVE TO HAVE PASSES!’ And I said ‘WHERE’S THE FUCKING MANAGER?’, y’know. And this guy standing beside there flashed this Police Badge in front of my face and said ‘don’t use that language in front of those women’. He was a plain-clothes Cop who had been standing there next to this guy all the time! And when he did that Tucki and Anna were just sort of rolling on the floor in laughter. And then they were laughing at the situation so hard they were just cracking up, and the Cop didn’t know what to do. He started blushing because he thought he’d saved the day. Then Tucki and Anna started saying ‘you ought to hear what he makes us listen to during the show!’ Anyway, finally the owner of the Club came and he said to the guy ‘let ‘em in’. And then we went in. But that was a common occurrence with that band. I’m telling you, it’s a case of, sometimes you’re doing something which is like, advanced, and it’s incomprehensible. It does not compute. I think that a lot of Animal Liberation is like that at the moment. It’s one of those things, it does not compute. And at that particular time, which was 1971, Feminism didn’t compute.

AD: I wonder if Kim Deal had those problems when she was with the Pixies? Or Gillian out on New Order? Or the Spice Girls! It’s a lot healthier now where musicians are accepted on their merits rather than their race ore gender.

JM: Female bands! Female stars! They’re all over the place! I mean, it’s really hard for a man in this business nowadays. Really. When you think about it, how many famous women singers and women musicians there are, Bonnie Raitt, the Hearts, in New Wave, Sheryl Crow, there’s more and more...! (the interview breaks down in waves of laughter).

It’s usual for journalists to edit interviews, rearranging, selecting, and in some cases rewriting conversations. It’s impossible to fully convey Joe’s humour, or the circuitous process of his arguments without presenting them intact, without alteration. Hence I’ve kept omissions to a minimum, and not corrected the usual false starts and repetitions that inevitably crop up in conversation. Joe McDonald is an intelligent and very likeable performer with a unique way of fusing humour and perception, the most valuable aspects of the past with the most urgent concerns of today. Hopefully this comes across best when he’s allowed to speak for himself.

“be the first one on your block 
to have your boy come home in a box…” 
       (‘FEEL LIKE I’M FIXIN TO DIE’)


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