“Gimme an F, gimme a U, gimme a C …” — you can probably figure out the rest of the cheer that sealed singer/songwriter/guitarist Country Joe McDonald’s place in history — a place that extends far beyond the fitful conflagration of music, politics and naked bodies that marked a gathering on a piece of muddy farmland in the tiny upstate New York town of Woodstock, in the summer of 1969.
Sure, Country Joe & the Fish had previously used the “F” cheer in the same song that incited Woodstock audiences — and a whole generation of young would-be anarchists — to literally and figuratively tell mainstream America to f••k off. The band had recorded the vehemently anti-war “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” on their second LP, Electric Music for the Mind and Body (Vanguard, 1966). On vinyl, though, the cheer they spelled was “F-I-S-H.”
But before Woodstock, and after Electric Music — during 1968’s Shaefer Beer Summer Festival in New York’s Central Park — the band, reportedly at the insistence of drummer “Chicken” Hirsh, spontaneously changed the cheer to that other four-letter word, resulting in a request from the Ed Sullivan Show — on which the band was slated to perform shortly thereafter — that Country Joe & the Fish please not show up. Accompanying the request was payment in full for their non-appearance. The band was similarly never invited back to the Shaefer Beer Summer Festival.
At Woodstock, however, the climate was ripe for insurrection. In the rainy, muddy, crowded mess that the festival became, it was difficult to damn near impossible for musicians to even reach the stage, much less perform at their intended time. In this heedless melee, McDonald wandered toward the stage to check out the end of Richie Havens’ set. When the next band didn’t show and McDonald couldn’t find the rest of the Fish, a guitar was found, a set was organized, and McDonald decided to perform the “Rag” solo. The rest, as they say, is history: An audience of almost a half-million people found themselves shouting along with McDonald. And when the Woodstock movie was released a few years later, crowds in theaters all over the world sang along to the beat of the bouncing ball that highlighted the song’s lyrics — and roared along with the “F••k Cheer.” “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” became one of the most important anthems of the ’60s.
Country Joe McDonald is perhaps better known for his politics than his music, though — appropriate for a man named after Joseph Stalin (who was commonly referred to as “Country Joe” during World War II). “Yes, my leftist parents on January 1, 1942, named me after Stalin,” McDonald says in a cyber-interview.
You read right: a cyber-interview. Let’s stop right here for a minute. If Country Joe McDonald were to incite a crowd into a raucous cheer today, it would probably spell out E-M-A-I-L. McDonald, circa 1998, has become, like millions of other Americans, deeply enmeshed in cyberspace. It was McDonald who chose to do our interview via e-mail. What’s more, McDonald’s Web site is perhaps the most exhaustive (not to mention quirky) one I’ve ever seen. Here are but a few of its more memorable features:
• A large zipper (purportedly Bill Clinton’s), emblazoned with the words “The Zipper War.” Click on it, and you’ll find an image of the U.S. and Iraqi flags blowing in the wind, under which a blown-up image of the famous news footage of Clinton hugging Monica Lewinsky rests above the legend: “Make Love, Not War — Remember?”;
• A copy of McDonald’s FBI file;
• A transcript of McDonald’s testimony from 1968’s infamous Chicago Seven trial;
• A page devoted entirely to McDonald’s extensive research on Florence Nightingale;
• Photos of McDonald’s extensive nurse-doll collection. (He owns about 30, including an entire series of wild-haired troll dolls in starched nurses’ uniforms); and
• Photos of the Woodstock-era McDonald, interspersed with photos of today’s almost frighteningly clean-cut McDonald, posing with his wife, two children and a plethora of bunny rabbits.
It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that McDonald is scheduled to release a CD entitled www.countryjoe.com in 1999. “With the new appreciation of psychedelic music and a new kind of psychedelic scene establishing itself in rock and trip and rave, I thought I’d try some old-school ambient music with updated environments around the music — like the tamagauchis and modems that are part of our soundscape today,” he says of the release, not bothering to translate.
Country Joe and the Fish first came together, as McDonald describes on his Web site, as “part political device, part necessity, and part entertainment.” Living in Berkeley in the early ’60s (where he still lives today), McDonald played in such groups as the Instant Action Jug Band and the Berkeley String Quartet. In the fall of 1965, while editing an anti-war magazine that he founded (called Rag Baby), McDonald got the idea of doing a “talking” issue — a musical issue, even. He pulled together a loose collection of musician friends and recorded the original version of “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” along with his satire of Lyndon Johnson, “Superbird,” and two other songs — released just in time for the Vietnam Day Teach-In, a massive Berkeley anti-war protest.
Suddenly, a band was born.
This band, during its five-year life span, went through numerous personnel changes — its two mainstays being McDonald and guitarist Barry Melton. Their trademark psychedelic sound (imagine an old-time folk or jug band, replete with a washboard player, all tripping heavily on acid) and their famous light shows — in which trippy, swirling, rainbow-colored flashing lights were as much a part of the show as the music — first unleashed at San Francisco ballrooms like the Avalon and the Fillmore, and later astonishing crowds at East Coast haunts like New York’s Cafe Au Go-Go — became a hallmark of the 1960s, popping up everywhere from the Monterey Pop Festival to the Beatles movie, Revolution.
With the Fish, McDonald went on to record five albums before he went solo in 1970. That first solo project was the critically acclaimed Thinking of Woody (Vanguard 1970), a collection of Woody Guthrie tunes. In between early-’70s anti-war demonstrations and agit-prop theater, McDonald toured America and Europe extensively — continuing throughout the decade and into the ’80s. He released numerous solo albums, ranging from musical renditions of the World War I poems of Robert Service to a collection of country-and-western standards. The best-selling Paradise With an Ocean View (Fantasy Records, 1975) and Superstitious Blues (Rykodisc, 1981) — the latter a potent mix of folk and blues that featured two tracks with Jerry Garcia on acoustic guitar — became perhaps his most popular solo releases. McDonald’s latest project, Something Borrowed, Something New is slated for release this month.
But even though most of his work is now permanently pressed into “digital posterity,” McDonald says, “The kind of music I make is not to last. It’s to throw away.”
While music and politics seem indelibly “married” in the public’s perception of McDonald, he says that isn’t necessarily an accurate view. “There are two Country Joes,” he points out, “the political and the psychedelic. … Certainly to this point, … the “Rag” is what I’m most noted for, but there’s also a body of work that includes instrumentals and love songs that I’m also remembered for.”
But politics continues to drive McDonald today, although maybe not quite so intensely. A Vietnam-era Navy veteran, McDonald is still working to keep the mistakes of the war alive in the American consciousness. He’s active in groups like Vietnam Veterans Against the War and Swords to Plowshares, and he’s currently working with the city of San Francisco to permanently memorialize its 162 citizens who died in the war — hopefully in the form of a bronze plaque, to be created by the Berkeley Foundry, which would then grace the outside wall of the city’s Veterans Memorial Building.
“The Vietnam War is our touchstone to the reality of war and the possibility of doing the wrong thing,” he asserts, when asked about its relevance today.
When I asked McDonald if, in general, he still has as much political fire in the belly as ever, McDonald hedged a bit: “My priorities are different now, but still the same. Sometimes the most radical thing can be the quietest thing, like sitting in the wrong bus seat. I would say my fire has been dampened by humility.”
Is his deep interest in Florence Nightingale part of some quiet political scheme? It might sound bizarre at first, but McDonald’s affinity for the person who was probably the first military nurse makes sense when you learn that one of his pet projects is reminding Americans of the sacrifices (often forgotten) of Vietnam-era nurses — ergo his nurse-doll collection (no, it’s not the result of some lurid sexual fetish).
Considering his interest in Zippergate (remember “The Zipper War” on his Web site?), what if, say, a presidential sex scandal had pervaded the political climate of the 1960s, instead of the Vietnam War? Would McDonald’s political stance have been quite so (pardon the expression) passionate?
“Well, I only write [songs] about what I’m interested in, so I probably would have written something about it,” he says, going on to add his typically candid assessment of Clinton’s current dilemma: “I personally find it stupid as hell of Bill to act like that, and feel it doesn’t do the women’s movement any good, except, perhaps, to make women mad — but it hasn’t even done that, for some reason. [Maybe] everybody just … would like to f••k a star.”
(By the way, McDonald says if he were president, his first official act would be “to order the generic male pronouns stricken from all government documents and replaced by nongender specific language in all instances where it was not intended to be gender specific.”)
Despite his heady role in the cultural and political firestorm that was America in the 1960s, McDonald isn’t necessarily nostalgic for those days.