[Editor's note: This is a very long chapter; we recommend printing it. Also, if profanity offends you, please hit the back button and don't read any further. I thought it was a fascinating chronicle of an amazing time.]
Country Joe and the Fish formed in Berkeley in 1965. Eugene “ED” Denson, the group’s first manager, made up the name Country Joe and the Fish. Because Joe was the only member of the band named Joe, everyone started calling him Country Joe. It seemed fitting because, after all, Joe’s parents named him after Stalin, who was known as "Country Joe" during World War II. The "Fish" came from a Chairman Mao quote that Denson found in a book, "The fish who swim in the sea of the people."
The band was started as just Joe and his friend Barry Melton, who played lead guitar. The group was first known as the Instant Action Jug Band, before the name was changed. Throughout the life of the band, many members came and went, but Joe and Barry were constant. Keyboarder David Cohen, Gary ‘Chicken’ Hirsh, the drummer, and Bruce Barthol on bass were all longtime members and contributors to the band. Several other musicians including Dave Getz, Peter Albin, Mark Kapner, Doug Metzner and Greg Dewey played off and on with Joe and Barry as members of The Fish.
As was true for many bands, the late 60's proved to be a golden age for Country Joe and the Fish.
The anti-war movement was really heating up as Country Joe and the Fish played their first gigs around the Bay Area. At first, Joe and Barry created a self-produced EP record called “I--Feel--Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag,” with sidemen Paul Armstrong on bass and John Francis Gunning on drums. “Super Bird” was on the other side.
Joe and Denson published Rag Baby, a little magazine out of Berkeley. On one issue Joe failed to produce enough copy, so he and Denson decided to put out a “talking issue” with his Anti-Vietnam protest tune on it. “We went over to Chris Stachwitz’s house and recorded it. We pressed it on a 33 & 1/3rd record, a new format [for EPs] at the time, and then we sold it at a teach-in against the war in Vietnam at the UC Berkeley Campus," said Joe.
Denson said, “We were “uniting the folk scene” and presenting new songs like “Fire in the City.” Joe and I produced the two EPs. The first was sold in the magazine and the second was issued on its own. By that time the band and the record were more important than the magazine.”
By 1966 Country Joe and the Fish had been signed by Vanguard Records and soon recorded “Electric Music For the Mind and Body,” which was one of the first "psychedelic" records.
Denson said, “At the time the two big Bay Area venues were the Avalon Ballroom, run by Chet Helms, and the Fillmore with Bill Graham. The Avalon was hipper, the Fillmore paid better. Country Joe and the Fish were a bit marginal at both. We didn’t quite have the commercial edge of the Jefferson Airplane, which gave Bill some qualms about hiring us often, and Helms felt that our politics were not hippie enough. Or perhaps it is better to say that having politics wasn’t hippie. I do recall negotiating a record contract in the upstairs lobby of the Avalon while on acid, which seemed pretty hippie to me. The contract fell through, however.”
When the Vanguard LP was finally ready for release, Denson talked them into doing a release party at the Fillmore. The label hired the hall and booked Big Brother and the Holding Company and another band to play. They invited all the industry people, record store buyers and members of the media to come. Then they printed up invitation cards and handed them out in the Haight-Ashbury. Thousands of people showed up-way too many to get into the hall. This event was a very big success and really put the band on the map. Denson said, “This showed that lots of people really wanted to hear the band’s music.”
By 1967 and 1968, Country Joe and the Fish were playing big gigs at Fillmore West in San Francisco and Fillmore East in New York City. Thousands of rock and roll fans stood in long lines to get into the shows. Serious psychedelic fans timed their Saturday night acid trip to peak during the Fish set. In the early days, Country Joe and the Fish headlined over some newcomers and relative unknowns like the new group Led Zeppelin.
Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine
Joe wrote the song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” in the summer of 1965. He was living in a flat with his first wife Kathie. “We had just come up to the Bay Area a few months before from Southern California. One day, a woman named Nina Serrano came to my place and asked me to write music for an anti-Vietnam war play opening at the UC Berkeley and San Francisco State campuses," Joe said. "I started working right away and wrote 'Who am I' in three days."
Who Am I?
"After I finished the last verse to 'Who Am I,' I sat back in my chair relaxing and strummed the first chords of some old Dixieland jazz tunes I played on the trombone when I was in high school," said Joe. "I started writing 1-2-3 what are we fighting for? and so on, and in about 30 minutes, I finished the song-the melody and lyrics just seemed to flow out of me."
The late days of the 60's were the most frantic for the Fish. I went to a 1968 Bill Graham Fillmore concert in San Francisco that headlined Country Joe and the Fish, Steppenwolf and a local band called The Flamin’ Groovies. The hall was packed like sardines and the smells of weed and incense were unmistakable. Giant red and black balloons were flying all over the ballroom. A paisley patterned light show was shimmering on the wall behind the stage-a kind of pulsating purple glow appeared on and off. A topless woman in a long hippie style skirt took up a strategic position right in front of the massive public address system. Someone threw a large bouquet of flowers on to the stage. I was totally stoned from the dope smoke, and the whole scene was freaky-surreal.
Steppenwolf in a wild fury shook the house. John Kay and his group were riding high on their smash hits “Born to be Wild” and “Magic Carpet Ride,” and they kicked ass. Soon it was time for the headliner to appear. Country Joe and the Fish attacked the stage at midnight to a heavy surge of audience energy. Joe grabbed the microphone cord and swung it around like a soul singer. Chicken Hirsh laid down a steady and soul-style drum beat, then Barry Melton stepped forward and belted out in his raspy voice, “we want to dedicate this song to L.B.J.” The band broke out into Super Bird, and the audience went crazy.
The next song Joe dedicated to Mr. James Brown. With “Rock and Soul,” Joe tried to prove that rock music has soul too if you can "dig it."
Rock and Soul Music
The band's frantic energy climaxed as the audience sang along with Joe the lyrics to “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag”. On my way out the door I overheard three very drunk Marines in uniform discussing the show they had just witnessed.
“Shit, man, I thought there was suppose to be a dance here with some girls," said a big-ass shorthaired Marine. In various degrees of shock, they stumbled back onto Fillmore Street looking for action.
The next time I saw Country Joe and the Fish perform was in 1969 on the David Frost TV Show. The band played “Fixin’ to Die” during prime time to a national audience. A week later, Frost got a sack full of letters condemning him for having a “sick, unpatriotic” act on his show. Frost passed the letters to Joe.
December 20, 1969
“Dear Mr. Frost:
It has taken me a week to compose myself after seeing your show with “Country Joe and the Fish”. Did you stop to think that in your home audience there might have been some mothers that lost sons in Viet Nam? “Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.” We here in the West know how bad the S.D.S is. Is someone putting the pressure on you to expose left-wing extremists? You actually smiled and applauded those creatures when they finished. The housewives doing their ironing in the late afternoon like to laugh and see pleasant things. You Mr. Frost are a bitter disappointment.
“December 17, 1969
As a member of the silent majority, I was offended by the David Frost Show. It reached a new low in bad taste. How any network could permit that “kettle of Fish” with their anti-American song and their unsightly garments to go before the American public is incredible. It was the ultimate ugliness to say the least. Mr. Agnew was right about the mass media. The whole show was a Frost.
December 12, 1969
The unbathed folk group who sang about Vietnam this morning should be shipped to any country of their choice. They are cowards of the worst degree. I’m proud to say my son fought and met the commies standing for freedom. He was shot 3 times. CBS should pay the folk singers to leave the country.
December 12, 1969
“Dear Mr. Frost,
After seeing those things “the Fish” I felt like going to the bathroom and throwing up. Your show has hit rock bottom and you have just lost this viewer.
Mr. & Mrs. R.F.B.
December 12, 1969
Shame-the dirty unkempt creeps (the Fish) and their song on Viet Nan were disgraceful. The weak audience applauded. We tuned you out for good. -TRASH -SCUM
A former listener
December 6, 1969
I must protest vehemently your presentation of the obnoxious singing group called “Country Joe and the Fish” singing that repugnant song concerning the war in Viet Nam.
The lyrics appalled me especially the line: “be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box”. In behalf of every mother whose son died in Viet Nam I am asking you in all humanity not to present these dirty unwashed people to us again with all their verbal diarrhea spewing from their filthy minds and mouths. I refuse to patronize any of the sponsors if this situation ever occurs again.
December 5, 1969
Last night, December 4, 1969, the show was excellent except for the last few minutes. Why-oh-why did the beautiful interview with the Robb’s have to be debased by a horse voiced, hairy unwashed creature giving forth with what I assumed was supposed to be a song? I thought it was a most unfortunate finale to one of the otherwise best shows you have ever done. E.L.A Bowie, Maryland
“Dear David Frost,
We both have great respect for your show and watch it daily. We considered it great and high class. However today after Linda Bird and Charles Robb-how dare you give us that bearded slob who looks like a Tate murderer!!!! He sang like an animal in pain!!!! If you omit his kind, be assured your rating will not go down!!
December 10, 1969
December 10, 1969
I am really disgusted with you for permitting that disgraceful song to be sung by those unkempt men or are they really women. I’m only 21 but these men embarrass me with their horrible appearance and shocking lyrics.
Joe always felt that his song was misunderstood. The letter writers and thousands of others didn't realize that the song they hated so badly really attempted to address the horror of war with dark sarcastic humor known by soldiers everywhere as “GI Humor.”
GI humor is a way people have of bitching in a way that will not get them in trouble, and that also keeps them from insanity that can be experienced during war. Today America has a volunteer military, but during the Vietnam War, many people joined because they thought it was the right thing to do. It was patriotic. But, far more people were drafted. A great number of other "troublemakers" were given a choice of going to war or going to jail. It was kind of government blackmail. Many chose to leave the USA and head for places like Canada.
During the war some people were drafted into the Marine Corps, which was one service that seldom drafted (it did during the end of WWII especially after losing so many men at Iwo Jima). Few people realized that the casualty rate for Marines was actually higher in Vietnam than in World War II. As it turned out over 58,000 American GI’s never came back home from a war we ended up pulling out from and losing.
Country Joe and the Fish had been booked to appear on the Ed Sullivan show earlier in the year in 1969, but their appearance was suddenly cancelled even though they were paid in advance. They did appear on Johnny Carson and Joe appeared on Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy After Dark,” a very popular late night TV show.
The Hefner show concluded with Joe singing the lyrics to “Fixin’ to Die” while plastic go-go dancers boogied up a storm. This was another very bizarre display of 60's weirdness as expressed in the media.
1969 was a big year for Country Joe and the Fish. At Woodstock, they were added to the program at the last minute;. it was a toss up between them and Jethro Tull, and the Fish got the nod as Tull wanted to be paid big bucks in front. The Fish do not appear on the official poster.
“We got 2500 bucks, and I flew out a day early 'cause I wanted to watch the show,_ said Joe. “I checked into the Hilton near the site that was packed with show people including Janis Joplin. Janis invited me up to her room. It was like old times, we just talked and had a good time. Then she broke out a needle and started shooting up. I hated that shit so I got really pissed and just left.”
Janis was upset at Joe’s reaction, and tried to talk Joe into staying, but Janis was just too bad off. "I had talked to her girl friend Peggy on the plane out, and I was unhappy to learn that Janis was back on heroin," said Joe. After leaving Janis, Joe went out to get on the chopper to go to the site but it was having engine trouble, so Joe hung in his room alone that night.
The next day, Denson arrived with the band. He said, “When we got to the hotel it was so crowded that we couldn’t get a room until someone left. Arlo Guthrie was in the room we were to get and we had to wait in the hall until he left. The transportation to the site was in collapse. The band and I went by car and it took hours. We had to drive right through the crowd, with people walking along in front of the car. We had to ask people to move out of the way so we could inch forward.”
The first day of the show, Joe did not ride with Denson and the band but hitched a ride with a worker who drove him right up there to the stage area.
"I went up on the stage and saw all those people, and almost freaked," said Joe. "I sat down and watched Richie Havens sing."
After Richie was finished the emcee came over and asked Joe to go out and sing solo. Joe didn’t have a guitar, so the guy got one, and they put a rope around it for a strap and pushed Joe out to the front of the stage.
"I started to sing something and no one was paying any attention, so I walked off the stage and asked if I could do the fuck cheer," said Joe. They said go for it. "No one is paying attention anyway," said Wavy Gravy, so Joe walked back out there and yelled, “Gimme an F."
The entire crowd stopped talking, looked up at Joe and yelled "F." It just accelerated from there. After the “F” Cheer Joe went right into “I-Feel- Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die” Rag. According to Joe, "I didn’t know they were filming me." Joe was the only performer to sing twice-once solo and once with the band. A few months later Joe saw the footage and was "blown away." "When we recorded the “F-Cheer” for Vanguard Records, I decided to put the cheer at the front of the “I-Feel-Like- I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag”. We actually spelled out FISH, but in the summer of ‘69 at the Shaefer Beer Festival in New York City our drummer, 'Chicken' said, “let’s change the fish cheer to the fuck cheer.” Joe said, “So the fuck cheer was born, and the people loved it-so we just kept it in the act. The only problem was, the Shaefer Beer people banned us from future beer fests, and the band was cancelled from a scheduled appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. We figured fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke," said Joe.
I was able to catch up with both Barry Melton and David Cohen who have fond, but often fucked, memories of the Fish days.
Barry said, "I remember our first Country Joe and the Fish tour the best. Joe and me as a duo, touring Northwest colleges. The Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) sponsored the first tour. We had a lot of fun on that tour. As I get older I remember the good times." Joe said, “Barry was18 at the time and I was 23 and Barry could score weed in any town in a matter of minutes.” Joe went on, “Once up in Oregon someplace we took acid and went out into the forest at night. Barry fell over a log and into a creek. We started laughing till we had tears in our eyes, then we started talking to the little forest people who lived under the rocks.”
There were bad times too, like the fight over who owned the name "The Fish." Joe and Barry paid for their naivetÈ with huge chunks of cash to Bruce Barthol, David Cohen and Chicken Hirsh to recapture their rights to use the band name, Country Joe and the Fish. The main problem was that Joe felt that Barthol, Cohen and Hirsh were part of the “original” band, and Barry viewed them, and all the others who played in the group, as sidemen. Barry has kept the name “The Fish” and performs to this day as Barry “The Fish” Melton.
"People think that playing in a band is glamorous," said Cohen. "But, when someone asks me about it, I usually say we were on the plane, then in a car, then in a hotel room, then the car, then the airplane… and on and on. But, it was tremendous fun, and I loved it."
To sum up David's view on the subject, "the music made it all worthwhile," he said.
The Fish formed by accident. “We just sort of were in the same place at the same time,” Barry said. “The first time we played together was at the 1964 Berkeley Folk Festival. We were on the steps of the Student Union, playing with Malvina Reynolds and other musicians who typically gathered on the periphery of folk festivals of the early 60’s." Barry said, “Of the first two songs recorded by Country Joe and the Fish one variation was a duo featuring Joe and me on “Super Bird” and the other featured Joe, me, Cavel Bass, Carl Schrager, and Mike Beardslee on “Fixin-to-Die Rag.” Our first amplified gig featured me on electric and acoustic guitar, Richard Saunders on bass and Joe on acoustic guitar. Richard stopped playing with us around the time we started playing electric music. Before Barthol joined us Paul Armstrong was our main bass player.
The group went on to the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. “In my mind, Woodstock was overcrowded, wet and a complete logistical disaster. The Woodstock movie, in large part, presents a sanitized version of reality," said Barry. In fact, most of the band cites the Monterey Pop Festival as the place to be.
David didn't play at Woodstock, as he left the band just before it. He did play at Monterey Pop a few years before, and he claims it is the best gig that he has ever done.
Barry agrees, "I attended virtually the entire event. Jimi Hendrix and The Who were phenomenal, as were Big Brother and the Holding Company, Canned Heat, The Electric Flag, Otis Redding and Ravi Shankar. The irony is that the Woodstock movie will probably survive the test of time as perhaps the premier social document of the Sixties," he said.
The Monterey Pop movie was shot on a shoestring. But, that Festival contained the hope, promise and idealism of the era. Two years later, by the time of the Woodstock movie, much of what went wrong with the Sixties became obvious.
Both David and Barry wrote for the Fish. Barry wrote, “Sing, Sing, Sing”, “The Love Machine” and “Doctor of Electricity”. David wrote most of “Rock and Soul Music”, “Thursday” and “Eastern Jam”. "Ninety-nine percent of the really good songs were written by Joe," said David.
The end of the sixties marked the end for the most part of Country Joe and the Fish. The breakup came in 1970, about the time the Woodstock movie came out. "With the release of the movie, Joe realized that he could make more money working as a single than to continue working with me," said Barry. "Like all young folksingers of the era, including me, Joe always wanted to be like Pete Seeger-not just another singer in a rock band."
At the time, the Fish was touring extensively with “sidemen” Mark Kapner on Keyboards, Doug Meltzer on bass and Greg Dewey on drums. The band was successful with the “CJ Fish” LP, and the movie staring Don Johnson, “Zachariah," featured Joe and the Fish as a band of outlaws, was released. Even this success wasn't enough. There are massive costs attached to fielding a band, compared to the low overhead of performing solo.
Barry said, “A solo performer can appear for an audience one-fifth the size of a band and make a lot more money. One hotel, one plane ticket, one mouth to feed, little or no equipment to speak of and no necessity for a road crew increases profits tremendously. When Joe went solo, I resented his decision to stop performing with me as Country Joe and the Fish. I was young (23) and in no position to market myself as a solo performer, and I was forced to create another band on a much smaller budget. But over the years, I came to realize Joe’s decision was a sound one, in his best interests."
According to Barry, Joe said, "Sometimes you’ve gotta just go for yourself." David felt that the band broke up partly because they were no longer playing the really beautiful pieces that Joe wrote. "Instead, we played extended jams loosely based on some of the songs, and the music had degenerated to a point that I was no longer enjoying playing it much myself."
David still gigs regularly in New York and with Joe on occasion. In November of 2000 they performed together on the East Coast and in Washington State. Cohen is still close to Bruce Barthol and he talks to ‘Chicken’ Hirsh once in a while.
Barry continues to perform as Barry “The Fish” Melton with musicians like Peter Albin and communicates regularly with “ED” Denson and Bill Belmont who was the road manager during the glory years.
Joe tried to reform the old band several times but it never happened. Barry and David are both skeptical about the band ever reforming. There have been several versions of Country Joe and the Fish that have evolved, even one version without Joe called Country Joe and the Psychedelic Fish that toured very briefly after Joe left in 1970. Barry said, "I liked the last version of Country Joe and the Fish the best, the one with Harold Aceves, Bob Flurie and Bob Hogins.” This last Fish group played at a Family Dog reunion at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley in 1978.
A reunion attempt made in 1994 at the Fillmore in San Francisco ended up in shambles. The gig was highly advertised and was well attended, as many fans of Country Joe and the Fish came out hoping to see a great show. What actually happened was that there was a lot of arguing and some band members refused to play at the last moment Barry played a solo set prior to the Fish taking the stage then walked off and left the building - no one knows exactly why he did that. This disaster of a gig really soured Joe on trying to do another reunion. The Bill Graham Presents people were not pleased the way the reunion turned out…
David Cohen said, "The closest we came to actually reforming was in December of 2000 when Joe, me and ‘Chicken’ were suppose to play together in Seattle. At the last minute ‘Chicken’ just chickened out.” Joe and David went on as a duo and both had fun so much in fact that they continue to appear from time to time as the Dynamic Duo around the country. David gets part of the credit for making Country Joe and the Fish the historic psychedelic band it became-his performance on “Electric Music for the Mind and Body” speaks for itself. His haunting organ and keyboard playing together with Barry’s “raga style” lead guitar really created a most unusual sound.
In June of 2001 Joe, David, Bruce Barthol, and Barry Melton found themselves all together at a three-day nostalgic event in Monterey called “Monterey Pop Revisited.” The History and Arts Commission of Monterey put on the event. The History and Arts people maintained that the Monterey Pop Festival was a historic event that needed to be acknowledged as such. Not only did 50,000 wild hippies flock peacefully to the quiet town of Monterey in 1967 but also, it was a rare and highly eclectic music festival unseen before this time. Putting Ravi Shankar on the same bill with the Mamas and the Papas was just unheard of outside of Bill Graham’s selections for his shows at the Fillmore.
Joe, David and former Butterfield/Bloomfield/Electric Flag keyboardist Mark Naftalin played the opening night party on June 15, 2001 at the Monterey Maritime Museum that featured a photo and art display of highlights from the 1967 Festival. Joe wore a white helmet like he did in 1967 and played some classic FISH tunes like: “Section 43”, “Porpoise Mouth”, “Sweet Martha Lorraine”, “Janis”, “Who am I”, and “Fixin to Die Rag”.
Monterey Pop helped launch the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Otis Redding, Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish. The Monterey Pop movie says it all and it was shown during the weekend. The 75-year-old filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was there to explain how he made the film and why he stressed the incredible performances of Ravi Shankar, Country Joe and the Fish and Janis in the film.
The next night Barry, Bruce and David played together at a Monterey club on Cannery Row called ‘Sly McFly’s’. On Sunday Joe joined Barry and David who played at the Monterey Fairgrounds along with Mark Naftalin. Joining them were Roy Blumenfeld and Andy Kulberg from The Blues Project. The weekend turned out to be a sort of Country Joe and the Fish weekend in Monterey. This was the first time in years that so many original FISH members were together in one place.
Barry set the record straight on the Monterey Pop Revisited weekend. “Nobody asked me about any reunions, and non happened. The guy from the museum asked me to participate, so I booked my own band down there at a club on Cannery Row during the same weekend of the symposium. Bruce sat in with my band at the gig Saturday night for one song, David for two I think. By the time Joe sat in with me for a couple of songs on Sunday, Bruce had already left town and David had to catch a plane and left the bandstand, so there was certainly no reunion that took place.”
Is there a chance for a real Country Joe and the Fish reunion someday? Well it almost happened in Monterey, not so long ago, and of course anything is possible. With many groups from the 60’s reforming and touring in 2001, like Big Brother and the Holding Company, Iron Butterfly, Hot Tuna (Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady), Sons of Champlin, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Steve Miller-to name just a few-some great concerts could be on the horizon. All of these musicians from the old groups that are reforming for that one last tour are all well over 50 and many at or near 60. How long can they keep playing? Who knows? To some seeing the old musicians back on stage would be like seeing baseball stars like Yogi Berra or Willie Mays back in the line up with the Yankees and Giants… It would be great to see them play again but we would be horrified at what the reality would be. Maybe that is why Grace Slick retired. Maybe she could have hung in for a little longer. Carlos Santana is not slowing down with age; he seems to be getting better.
Musicians can play well into their 80’s. In the summer of 2000 I saw Les Paul, who is over 80, performing with his trio at the ‘Iridium’ in New York City. Les could still make “Maria Elena” sound heavenly on his guitar. He did say during the breaks that he had to go downstairs and take a little nap. He would disappear for a while and come back up and continue to play. Look at all the terrific Jazz and Dixieland musicians in New Orleans who are way past retirement age and they can still wail. Picture Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, David Bowie, Paul McCartney, Neil Young, Jorma Kaukonen, and Country Joe at 70 or older. Will they still be making music? My guess is yes and they will all probably make the cover of Modern Maturity.
This is Chapter 6 of the book, Country Joe and Me by Ron Cabral and Country Joe McDonald. Excerpted by permission. For more on this remarkable 220-page book, please visit http://www.1stbooks.com
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