Country Joe and the Fish Make Their First Trip East
Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives. August 10, 1967, Vol. XII, No. 43
When They're Good, They're Out of Sight By Don McNeill
They landed at Stony Brook. It wasn't a large turnout for the first East Coast concert of Country Joe and the Fish. It seemed that half the audience was the Group Image, and they could dance unhindered across the vast courts of the gymnasium of the State University. It was night, and the electric music wafted across the cool dark fields of the campus. Country Joe sounds best in the country, where the air is clear: on a highway near Big Sur with bonfires for light, on the meadows of a mountain in Marin County. The sound depends on precision, and there are fewer flaws in the fields.
They are a Berkeley band, and first came together two years ago around a coffee house called the Jabberwock. Then Joe McDonald and Barry Melton were into jug band music, and the group began to form around them.
"When the Jabberwock needed a jug band," Joe recalls, "we were the jug band. When they needed a songwriter, I was the songwriter. When they needed a comedy act, Barry was the comedy act." They gradually went to work in the San Francisco dance halls, which were then at their peak. Their reputation spread, their sound became tighter, and they began to tour the dance halls of the Coast: Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, Santa Barbara. They played at be-ins and benefits. A year ago their first album came out on Vanguard. Now Country Joe had come to the city, and the Stony Brook concert was a gentle transition.
It there is a theme to their music it is what's inside changing order. They are bards, in a sense, spreading the word about a new era, or proclaiming a comic book obituary to the old. Some is simple fantasy. "I'm stuck on the LA freeway, rainwater in my boots...Up come two cats in a Cadillac and they say won't you hop in, man. I went flying high all the way." Some is topical, and the ugliness of the old order gets the axe. "Come out Lyndon with your hands held high. Drop your guns, baby, and reach for the sky. Got you surrounded, you ain't got a chance. Send you back to Texas, make you work on your ranch." And then, as an afterthought, "make him eat flowers" and "make him drop some acid." The latter afterthought was erased on monaural, but it survived on stereo.
They sing about the I Ching, and they sing about acid, flawless sounds about flawless trips, and they sing an occasional sweet melancholy ballad about the fading past, and they sing apocalyptic visions of the future. The visions unfold like a sunrise, when David Cohen's organ eclipses into silence and reenters as dawn.
At their best, they seem to be toying with pure energy. Then the listener, the communicant, can understand that Country Joe and the Fish play "electric music" as opposed to rock. Country Joe's voice seems to dance on the waves of energy which emanate from the amplifiers. The myriad chords of the guitars suddenly come together and explode again. Their compositions can be mystical. Some could be a score for Blake.
The novice to rock is most often put off by the amplification. At times it is justified. Amplification only for sensation is a ruse. It is no more impressive (and far more oppressive) than any other gimmick. But when the equipment is good and the compositions are sophisticated and the group is together, amplification turns the concert into a total experience. Thus it is with Country Joe and the Fish. They cannot be background music.
Hand in hand with the energy of the music are the lights. The Union Light Company, who first played with Country Joe at the Eagles' Auditorium in Seattle, came to New York with 15 projectors in an old hearse to appear with the group at the Cafe Au Go Go. They developed in isolation in Seattle, but their lights are equal to the best in New York. A wall of light is orchestrated into movements. A huge mandala rolls the length of the wall over a a dozen different shimmering spectacles. Pictures quietly appear -- antique slides of Indian chiefs, a benign Ho Chi Minh -- and then submerge into patterns. Lights are important to Country Joe, although strobes will do in a pinch.
Like the world they sing about, Country Joe and the Fish are still in the process of developing and now have to learn how to deal with success. They are part of that world, a world which demands and imposes a constant self-scrutiny of motives and profits. In the music business, they must meet with another world that they once escape and New York, so the story goes among rock circles on the West Coast, is the epitome of that world. The Fish were tense last week.
They try to remain close to their own world as their own world is close to them. Their album has been a soundtrack for countless trips. In a gag interruption they promote their "alternate sponsor: the manufacturers and distributors of LSD-25." Like most Coast groups, they play free concerts, to remain accessible to their audience as concert prices soar.
Last Saturday, they played to an audience of several thousand fans in Tompkins Square Park. Although they were plagued by bad equipment, as they have been since they arrived, the audience was stoned enough to dig it. Simultaneously, another smoke-in was held. As Joe sang "Hey, partner, won't you pass that reefer round," the lead into "Bass String," a ten-year-old kid passed me a joint. Later, a carton of buttons was hurled into the air (mostly reading "Pray for Sex"). It was a good free day.
If the free concerts are a relief for the group, a sort of vestige of the days when the Avalon and the Fillmore were young and the Trips Festival a fresh memory, the paid appearances can be oppressive. "You're like a minstrel show," Barry Melton explains. "It's like you're in blackface. You're playing to people who came to see you as freaks and they don't really like you."
A respectable compromise is a concert tentatively scheduled for September at the Museum of Modern Art. The environment is intriguing and appropriate. The group is evolving toward more than performing rock. Joe is dreaming about an opera, and their album has already been used as a soundtrack for a film by Jerry Abrams.
But their present plans -- when they return from a three-day gig in Hawaii -- are for a two-month siege in New York, during which they will record their second album. Joe is optimistic.
"When we first got together," he said, "we were all misfits. Now we're emerging as a group.
"We're going to make mistakes. We're a friendly band. We're amusing. But when we're terrible, we're really terrible."
True enough. But when they're good, they're out of sight.
[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]
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