Naked Sunfish Interview:
Country Joe McDonald
by Rick Brown
note: Anyone who is familiar with the music of the late 1960’s
and 70’s knows how influential the San Francisco scene was.
One iconic musician was front man Joe McDonald of Country Joe
and the Fish. Many of Country Joe’s songs remain woven into
the fabric of the history of that era. And his performance at
1969’s Woodstock Festival was a sobering, yet celebratory
sing along of 400,000 that speaks volumes to what 1969 was really
like. At once both frolicking and dark in it’s scope, the
“I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” reminded
Woodstock’s revelers that most of them had a draft card
in their pocket. Thanks to the people at Shadowbox (Who Joe appears
with March 28th) I was able to interview Joe via the Internet.
Naked Sunfish - Where are you from?
Joe McDonald - I WAS BORN IN WASHINGTON D.C. BUT MOVED WITH MY
PARENTS TO SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA WHEN I WAS 3 YEARS OLD. I GREW
UP IN EL MONTE IN LOS ANGELES COUNTY AND MOVED TO THE SAN FRANCISCO
AREA IN 1965.
- When did you begin playing music?
- I STARTED PLAYING THE TROMBONE IN THE SCHOOL ORCHESTRA WHEN
I WAS 10 YEARS OLD.
- Who influenced you early on? Who did you listen to?
- I LISTENED TO RHYTHM AND BLUES AND COUNTRY WESTERN AND JAZZ
FROM MY TEENAGE YEARS ON.
- When did you first pick up the guitar? What kind(s) do you play?
C.J.M. - WHEN I WAS 15 YEARS OLD IT WAS MY FATHER’S AND
HE COULD NOT PLAY IT. IT WAS AN EPIPHONE F HOLE.
- When did you begin writing your own songs?
- WHEN I WAS 15 I STARTED MY FIRST ROCK BAND AND WROTE A FEW SONGS
IN THE STYLE OF THE 50'S.
- I really like a tune called "Who Am I?" from your
"Fixin' To Die" album. It spoke to me as a 16 year old
kid. Can you elaborate a little about why you wrote it?
C.J.M. - THE SONG “WHO AM I” WAS WRITTEN FOR A PLAY
AND SUNG BY THREE SOLDIERS BEFORE A BATTLE ABOUT HOW THEY FELT.
- Can you tell us about your first bands? Did you become "Country
Joe" when the Fish formed?
C.J.M. – WELL, MY FIRST ROCK BAND WAS WHEN I WAS IN HIGH
SCHOOL. WE WERE CALLED THE NOMADS WITH DRUMS, SAX, GUITAR, AND
VOCAL. IN 1965 A GROUP OF US MADE AN EP 7 INCH AND INVENTED THE
NAME COUNTRY JOE AND THE FISH FOR THAT RECORD. THE GROUP THEN
WAS AN ACCOUSTIC SKIFFLE BAND AND WE CONTINUED TO USE THE NAME
WHEN WE WENT ELECTRIC. THEN PEOPLE BEGAN TO CALL ME COUNTRY JOE.
- What was San Francisco like in the mid 60's, early on in so
called the psychedelic era?
- THAT IS A QUESTION I CANNOT REALLY ANSWER. I LIVED IN BERKELEY.
MOSTLY IT WAS SMALL.
- When did the "Fish" cheer become the "Fuck"
cheer? Is it true that Ed Sullivan cut you from his show after
hearing about it?
– IT WAS IN 1967 AT THE SHAEFER BEER FESTIVAL. IN THE SUMMER
WE CHANGED THE “FISH CHEER” TO THE “FUCK CHEER”.
WE HAD BEEN PAID TO BE ON THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW LATER ON IN THE
YEAR. A REPRESENTATIVE CAME TO THE SHOW AND HEARD IT. WE WERE
TOLD WE COULD KEEP THE MONEY BUT NOT BE ON THE SHOW.
- The Fish did a few movies, including Firesign
Theater's "Zachariah". Cleveland locals The
James Gang also were in that flick, and I have a copy on DVD.
Growing up outside Cleveland I saw The James Gang dozens of times.
Yet the Fish actually acted in the movie. Did you enjoy the experience?
What other films were you involved in?
- THAT EXPERIENCE WAS FUN. I RODE HORSES WHEN I WAS YOUNG IN SOUTHERN
CALIFORNIA, BUT THE REST OF THE BAND HAD NOT. SO WE RENTED HORSES
IN L.A. FOR THE DAY AND RODE AROUND TO PRACTICE. THE FILMING FOR
“ZACHARIAH” WAS DONE IN MEXICALI, MEXICO. IT WAS QUITE
AN INTERESTING EXPERIENCE BEING ACTORS IN A MOVIE.
ALSO APPEARED IN ROGER CORMAN'S LAST MOVIE “GASSSSSSSS”.
WE SANG A FEW SONGS AND I HAD SPEAKING LINES. WE WERE ALSO IN
“AMERICAN GRAFFITI TWO”.
I, BY MYSELF, WAS IN A MOVIE CALLED “QUE HACER” ABOUT
THE CHILIAN ELECTION OF ALLENDE AND WROTE A LOT SONGS FOR IT.
I ALSO WROTE A LOT OF SONGS FOR THE DANISH MOVIE “QUIET
DAYS IN CLICHY.”
- You played at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. But since you
are performing after Shadowbox's "Back to the Garden"...a
musical about Woodstock...I'll ask about that. What are your reflections
of the 1969 Woodstock Festival? Do the Shadowbox people present
a realistic representation of the experience?
- I THOUGHT THAT SHADOWBOX’S PLAY WAS A GOOD REPRESENTATION
OF THE EXPERIENCE. MY REFLECTIONS ARE MANY AND ARE ON
MY HOME PAGE.
You will do a short “mini-concert” following the March
28th performance of “Back
to the Garden”. Will you playing with the Shadowbox
musicians? They are a very, very talented group, as you know.
- I WILL PLAY WITH THE HOUSE BAND.
- What projects have you been involved in recently? Do you still
- I STILL TOUR ABOUT 40 GIGS A YEAR. I AM WORKING ON A MUSICAL
ABOUT FLORENCE NIGHTINGALE AND ALSO DO A TRIBUTE TO WOODY GUTHRIE
THAT IS BOTH SPOKEN WORD AND SONG.
- What do you think of the music scene today?
- I THINK IT IS CHANGING IN MANY WAYS BUT STILL VERY EXCITING.
THE LIVE MUSIC SCENE IS ALIVE AND WELL AND ALWAYS WILL BE. I JUST
GOT BACK FROM THE SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST MUSIC CONVENTION IN AUSTIN,
TEXAS WHERE OVER 2,000 BANDS PLAYED.
- Are you still passionate about politics?
- MY PERSONAL POLITICS ARE STILL THE SAME BUT I HAVE NEVER BEEN
INTERESTED IN POLITICIANS OR POLITICKING.
- Again Joe...thanks so much for this interview. It's funny...I
started with the trombone at age 10 myself. And I actually played
"Who Am I?" in church once...I played it a lot...but
once in church.
– WELL, THAT SORT OF MAKES SENSE BECAUSE IN CHURCH WE SEEK
TO FIND OURSELVES...OR SO ONE WOULD ASSUME.
– Country Joe McDonald performed with the musicians of Shadowbox
in a mini-concert after “Back to the Garden” on March
28th. Mr. McDonald most certainly still has his rock and roll
chops as well as roots in folk music. He sang Woody Guthrie’s
“This Land Is Your Land” as well as Fish favorites
“Bass Strings”, “Death Sounds”, and “Flying
High”. Of course he also sang “I Feel Like I’m
Fixin’ To Die Rag” as well as Rock and Soul Music”.
Joe’s set was a very…very groovy end to a wonderful
For more information
about Country Joe McDonald please go to:
“Back to the Garden” runs though at least May 23rd.
For more information please go to:http://www.woodstockmusical.com
in the Snow
First I want
to comment on Club Diversity. I like the place. The atmosphere
is friendly and yes, diversity abounds in the bar area downstairs.
Housed in an old, seemingly Victorian structure, the place has
been transformed from a family home into a warm, open club with
a performance space upstairs. And the performance area has been
painted and tweaked since I was last there.
Problematic is the fact that the party atmosphere rises up and
gives the upstairs a sort of underlying soundtrack. At first I
found this annoying. But soon the steadiness of the sound seem
to fade and became less intrusive than say the occasional furnace/air
conditioning noise, or the shouting from a back alley.
What always impresses me about Raconteur is that this troupe is
not only willing to take risks, but unabashedly embraces risk
taking. Small in number, their members’ enthusiasm is obvious
from their immediate welcoming hospitality. I mean…hey…these
people can’t be making much, if any money with these intimate
shows. But their dedication and love for theater cannot be understated.
Neil McGowen’s “Tracks in the Snow” is a play
about a secluded farm family who has a surprise guest during a
particularly nasty blizzard. Under the concise yet subtly casual
direction of Ken Worrall, characterizations emerge slowly but
steadily, which fits a storyline set in a snowstorm well. Warmth
takes time when it’s cold. Andrew Goodwin plays Chase, an
emotionally scarred veteran of a war he’s not sure about.
After crashing his car into the Gould family’s fence stranding
him, he becomes their reluctant guest. Mr. Goodwin’s Chase
was both unassuming and lost…in search of something…a
believable ex-soldier coming home yet possessing the wisdom that
he can never go home.
Family life for the Goulds is typically loving and stressful and
not without resentment. The tension of America’s cultural
shift from family farm to industrialization…or Family versus
individuality…was drawn out by Mr. Worrall’s direction,
metaphorically enough, that it was effective without being preachy.
Family patriarch Lance (the farmer father) was played with aplomb
by Tom Shafer. His “close to the vest” approach of
revealing what at first appears a simple, hard working man later
strongly showing a man of complexity and wisdom really brought
the production together at play’s end. Aiding in his emergence
was Leslie Robinson who played Lance’s supportive wife,
Elvira. Ms. Robinson’s “behind the scenes” mother/spouse
was a perfect representation of the seemingly submissive yet self-assured
mothers I grew up around in the 1950’s.
Sisters Sandra (Lorelei Moore) and Leauna (Katie Powell) of course
were as different as night and day. Ms. Moore’s portrayal
of older, married sister Sandra was as well complex. This actress
was as adept at playing subtly salacious towards their marine
visitor, as she was resentful toward her father and sister, while
being downright contemptible with her husband Bobby. Ironically
Ms. Moore’s comment at play’s end that love is not
always a good reason to do anything almost overshadows the climax.
Sean Reid played Bobby, a husband whose wife married more to please
her father than for love. He is stuck in a relentlessly manual
labor-farming job, portraying this would be no simple task. Mr.
Reid played the character with a delicate grace that made him
worthy of empathy, not pity. His Bobby came across as a worthy
son-in-law respected by the farmer patriarch. Bobby…despite
his wife Sandra’s distance…obviously, and genuinely,
Farm hand and would be son (all farmers want sons not daughters
right?) Jeremy was played by Jonathan Carter. Being a high school
senior gave Mr. Carter the youthful exuberance needed for the
range of fluctuating emotions Jeremy felt, being a “chosen
son” yet not a son at all. And Carter did a fine job portraying
teenage jealousy as Leauna turned her attention to Chase the war
Despite these strong performances, it was Katie Powell’s
Leauna that was the thread woven into the play’s fabric.
She at once brought the performance together, commanding the audience’s
attention. At times Ms. Powell seemed to be overplaying a 15-year-old
girl. Then I remembered all those 15 year olds I knew as a camp
counselor…all of my friend’s teenage kids…my
own behavior at that age. Ms. Powell was brilliant. Her scenes
alone with Andrew Goodwin as Lance were riveting, romantic and
real. Her presence onstage made interaction between family members
vividly authentic. Leauna’s dreams, conflicts and dreams
became our own.
My only confusion about Raconteur’s Tracks in the Snow
was that the father figure was projected by the other characters
as mean and aloof. He worked all the time. But that’s what
farmers do. They work all the time…because the
have too. And he was wiser than he was mean. But perhaps that
was just one of the epiphanies of Tracks in the Snow:
the metaphor of things not being what they appear to be. That
love might not be what it appears to be. And that hard work, dedication,
and commitment might be more important than love. Or maybe it’s
the same thing.
So as this delightful performance by Raconteur came to a close,
the party music wafted up from the club below. And perhaps that
contradiction of seriousness…love lost…innocence lost…with
the steadily underfoot, vibrating soundtrack of eat, drink and
be merry…made perfect sense.
For more information about Raconteur Theater go to: