July 19, 2010

Monday Music

Pretty regularly in this space I’ll detail some arcane group with which I've had some personal experience. This episode will detail a 60’s protest band that was a little better known... but still one with which I've  had some personal experience.

In the mid-60's, two rather nondescript California musicians from Berkley formed a new band. Joe McDonald and Barry Melton were early protesters of the war in Vietnam, often playing at on-campus protest events and area rallies. Over those early years they played under various names, not taking their now-famous name until 1966. 

In that year "Country" Joe and Barry "the Fish" started appearing under the name, Country Joe and the Fish.

The origins of that name are shrouded in revolutionary history. In the 40’s Joseph Stalin was popularly known as “Country Joe.” McDonald took the name as a symbol of his opposition to the war. Melton was late in taking his moniker, taken from writings attributed to Chinese revolutionary Mao Tse-tung, who once described the true revolutionary as moving “amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.”

McDonald and Melton were the core of the band known popularly simply as Country Joe. They brought in support musicians as needed, including such notables as drummer Gary "Chicken" Hirsh, keyboardist David Cohen and bassist Bruce Barthol. It was this combination that toured with the band for three years from 1967 – 1969, performing regularly on both Fillmore stages and at the Avalon; never headlining but instead fronting for superstar bands like the Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin.

When they played on stage at the Monterrey Pop Festival, they launched into chartdom.

By the time the band appeared at Woodstock in 1969, drummer Greg “Duke" Dewey, keyboardist Mark Kapner and bassist Doug Metzler had taken the places of the earlier regulars. One of the better remembered McDonald anthems is affectionately known as, the FUCK cheer. It made a national stage at Woodstock where McDonald used it to introduce his seminal 60’s Vietnam protest song, I Feel Like I'm Going to Die. The song was already popular, and thousands sang along with him.

As it did for so many of the 60’s artists, Woodstock launched Country Joe and the Fish into the realm of superstardom, but unfortunately it also began their rapid demise. 

McDonald and Melton split soon after Woodstock, with Melton joining former Quicksliver Messenger Service frontman John Cipollina, starting to the ill-fated band, the Dinosaurs

Life went on... so did Melton who eventually entered law school and became a public defender in California. He still plays and jams with well-known musicians.

McDonald also went back to California and toured for many years with a variety of lesser-known but never famous bands. In 2004 he reformed the old band with all of the original members, including Barthol, Cohen and Hirsh; but not Melton. They performed a brief 10-stop tour, including a performance at the Woodstock Reunion. In this clip, McDonald is playing, of all things, a trombone.

Feel Like remains Joe’s most recognizable tune, but McDonald wrote hundreds of songs and recorded an astonishing 33 albums over a 40-year career. The peaceful peacenik turned 68 on New Year’s day, and he continues to perform regularly.

Joe McDonald’s website is located HERE.