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Sunday, September 19, 2010

Live performances

Country Joe's Place


I have started to work on an autobiography and will occasionally post some installments.
       Live performance is always a challenge and you never know what will happen. The audience often does much more than just applaud or boo.

      Of course me and the Country Joe and The Fish band were famous for both the Fish Cheer and the Fuck Cheer. I sometimes worried what would happen when I yelled "Gimme an F!" and the audience did nothing ... but that has not happened yet. But what did happen in New York City one night was worse. Barry Melton had written a song called New York City Goodbye which was a very definite put down of the city and he decided to put the song in our set at the Fillmore East which was the place to play rock and roll in New York City. The response was cool to say the least. At the end of our set it came time to sing "I Feel Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag" and we opened with the fuck cheer. We yelled out the letters and the audience responded but when it came time for the "What’s that spell?" part a guy in the front row yelled out after "What’s that spell" "FUCK YOU!"

     Yikes! That was a shock and a bummer and, well, a show-stopper, but we could not stop, so we did it again, "What’s that spell?" and he answered again with "Fuck you!". Boy that was not good. We did it again, "What’s that spell?" and he answered very loud "Fuck you!" I looked at Barry Melton and he looked at me and then he looked down at the guy and said, "Fuck you". We played the song and left the stage and did not get an encore.

        Jane Fonda’s anti-Vietnam War show called FTA Show or Free The Army or as the GI’s used to say, Fuck The Army, with Donald Sutherland, Ben Vereen and others involved my wife Robin Menken as a writer. Jane requested that I get involved in their plan to bring entertainment to military personnel by performing in GI coffee houses near military bases. The GI coffee houses were set up by various antiwar groups so that military personnel could come and hang out and find out different points of view on the war from those that they heard on the base and from the government. The show was a variety show with comedy and dramatic skits and satire about the government and the war.

      I don’t think Jane had any live performance experience before the FTA Shows. I am pretty sure all her performance experience was in front of a TV camera. After a few shows Jane asked me "How do you do it, Joe?" She was asking how one gets a good response from the audience under the conditions we were working in. The conditions were less than first class but pretty regular for a traveling musician, coffee houses mostly. She had only done movie work up to that point and found it confusing.
I tried to explain to her that we could not do any retakes and just had to go with it how ever it turned out. This demanded a lot of flexibility as the audience had a tendency to get involved in the act.

      You just never knew how this would manifest itself, sometimes good sometimes bad. For instance when I was performing solo at the Fillmore East once. I had done most of my set without any unusual things happening . I had just released an album of Woody Guthrie songs so I sang his song about the Columbia River, "Roll On Columbia." The song is in waltz time, one of my favorite time signatures. But this time the audience began to clap along. This had only happened on other time to me and that was in Vienna Austria, the waltz capitol of the world, and there they clapped in 3/4 time to every song, even if it was not in waltz time, which most of my songs were not.

       But at the Fillmore that night they began a 1, 2, 3, clap with nothing on the 1, and then a clap on the 3 and 4. This sounded like, silence, clap, clap, silence, clap, clap, you get the idea. Very unusual but it worked fine and was good clean fun. But towards the end of the song one of my guitar strings broke. I decided to stop and change the string but told the audience that they could continue clapping, so they did. I went off stage, got a new string, came back and while sitting on my stool and listening to them clap I changed the string. I tuned up my guitar and went right back into the song, sang a few verses and choruses to their clapping and ended it.

       The audience gave me a round of applause followed by silence and I contemplated what do do next. Then of a sudden I heard a single person start the clapping thing again and soon the entire audience was clapping the waltz time thing again and looking at me with smiles on their faces! It was obvious that they were not about to stop so I did the whole song again much to their delight and my surprise. The ending was followed by huge applause and another silence. This silence was a bit tense as we stared at each other in the silence and wondered what would happen. And then one by one they started the clapping again! I played "Roll On Columbia" three times that night.

       Woodstock was not the only huge festival to happen in the late 60s and early 70s. I had the honor to also play solo at both the Bickershaw Festival and the Bath Festival in England. Both festivals lasted several days, had lots of head line acts, hundreds of thousands of people and also rain and mud. I started to think brought the rain with me.
At Bickershaw there was a steady drizzle during my set. At the end I closed with the "Fish Cheer" and "Fixing To Die Rag" just like at Woodstock and was called back for an encore. Being at a loss as to what to do asked the audience what they wanted to hear and they yelled back almost in unison "Do it again," so I did. I left the stage and to my surprise was called back for a second encore. I really did not know how to follow two "Fixing To Die Rags" and shared my thoughts with the audience, but no problem they yelled back "Do it again!", so I did! It was great fun. Almost everyone who speaks English loves to yell fuck in a large group and people of a certain age love to sing that song, perhaps "Fixing To Die Rag" is one of the only fun things about the Vietnam War.

      Speaking of the Vietnam War, about 1990 I performed for the group Veterans For Peace, at their convention, in a hotel in San Francisco. A man named Phil Butler came up to me and asked if we could talk. I said sure. He told me he had spent about seven years as a prisoner of war in the famous secret Communist prison camp called Hanoi Hilton, during the Vietnam War. He had been a fighter pilot and was shot down, as most of the prisoners there were. He told me that the only entertainment the prisoners had was the Communist propaganda radio show with the DJ Hanoi Hanna. Hanoi Hanna played American pop and rock music and gave commentaries designed to depress the Americans and get the prisoners to confess to "war crimes" and turn against the American war effort and government.

      Every now and then Hanoi Hanna would play "I Feel Like I’m FIxing To Die Rag." He told me that it was always a morale booster for the prisoners in the compound and that some even hummed and sang along. The prison camp officials could never understand why this song with it’s refrain "Whoopee we’re all gonna die" could be a morale booster. They were of course Vietnamese and many had been educated in Paris and learned English and about American democracy there. But American humor is not French humor -- it is something special the world over and a one of our great strengths. I have heard so many stories about this song from American soldiers who fought in Vietnam that always astound me but this story was the farthest out. Then Phil Butler, knowing that I was going to sing the song that day at the convention said to me, "I am just glad that I lived to hear you sing it in person." Upon which we both began crying and hugged each other.

       Back to the Bickershaw Festival in the rain. I was amazed that I managed to hold that huge audiences attention when I sang a Robert W. Service poem I put to music, from the album War War War, titled "Jean Desprez." The ballad is almost ten minutes long. The English of course have strong feelings about the World Wars and that song is about World War I. There are still parts of England to this day that remain destroyed by WW II bombs. They love Robert W. Service’s story of the French resistance fighter; the Prussian Captain and the French peasant boy, with its dramatic surprise ending. I can still bring a picture to my mind of those audience members huddled under their tarps, tents and umbrellas listening intently to every word of that song and cheering at the end. A short time later I sang the song to another rain drenched English audience at the Bath Festival* under those same conditions and got the same reaction.

     Thinking of the Bath Festival brings several memories to my mind. First I remember traveling to the Festival in a limousine with my road manager, Bill Belmont and my wife Robin Menken and our young daughter Seven Anne. I know this sound fabulous to all people who have dreamed of riding in a limousine. The trip out was fine but on the way back the limo broke down on the motor way and we sat at the side of the road for three hours in the cold weather waiting for the people to come and repair it.

      When the Woodstock Music Festival movie showed for the first time in New York City the Country Joe and The Fish band were playing a concert a few hours away. The showing of the movie was early enough that we could just see it and then drive to the show. Someone provided a limousine for us to ride to the gig in. We were staying in New York City so it was no big deal to go to the opening and then drive to the gig. Of course we were excited about this. We saw the movie and then exited the theater to our limo. We had all come to see the movie, band members and road crew. There was three roadies and five band members and our manager ED Denson. We were many more people that could comfortably get into that car. I remember a horrible three hour drive that had people even sitting on the floor and we finally got to the gig in a terrible mood but happy to get out of that limo for sure and hesitant to take another offer of a free limo ride.

      I did not have such a great success with the Jean Desprez song years later singing at an industrial college outside of London. The stage was just a riser about six inches off the ground and the audience of students sat on the floor in front of me. There were about 300 people there. Behind the audience there was a door leading from the hall to a corridor and another open door leading into a bar. I performed for about 45 minutes and everything was going fine. I decided to sing the long Jean Desprez ballad and started. About two or three minutes into the song I saw a young man leave the bar and start walking into the hall where the audience was and I was singing. He was looking right in my direction and I don’t know why but I thought to myself, "Here comes trouble"!

        With the careful wobbly steps of a drunk person he made his was through the crowd, careful not to step on his fellow students. With a steady determined pace and his eye on me he made his way towards the stage. The song ran through its many dramatic verses building to the grand finale as he grew closer and closer to the stage and me. There was nothing I could do to stop him or the song. It has about fifteen verses and at the twelfth verse he reached the stage and at the thirteenth verse he stood my my side and bent over and asked very nicely:

"Excuse me but who are you?!"

      My brain was blown. I knew he would not go away nor would he stop asking me this question. I stopped playing and just looked at him in disbelief. We stared at each other. He asked me again "Who are you?" The local promoter was standing off to the side of the stage and now noticed what was happening and came over and led the young man away, hopefully explaining to him who I was. The audience stared at me trying to figure out what had happened. I returned to task at hand and not wanting to start the song over again decided to just sing the last verse, and that is what I did. Of course in the elapsed time most of the audience had forgotten what the song was about and the dramatic effect of course was severely lessened. But the show must go on!

      Yes, God bless the audience, you just never know what they are going to do, but without them you are out of a job.

       In the mid 1970s riding on the popularity of my Fantasy Records album Paradise with an Ocean View I got a job opening some shows with the original Santana band. This was great as I always thought they were one of the finest bands to come out of the 60s. We were playing Denver, Colorado venue called Mammoth Gardens. During the first part of my set a huge crowd outside that was refused admittance due to the place being full already pushed open the doors and crowded their way in. This created a joyous mood in the already happy audience.

       I decided to sing the Jean Desprez song, a bad choice. About half way through the song noticed that the people pressed up against the front of the stage were smoking huge marijuana cigarettes and blowing the smoke up towards me. The top of the stage was about the height of their heads.

         Once again, as I watched the cloud of smoke rise I thought, "Here comes trouble." Working my way through the verses of the song to its dramatic ending I watched the cloud of pot smoke rise from my feet, to my knees, to my waist, then to my chest and at last to my face. I then became totally disoriented as I tried to sing and as I sang inhaled pot smoke. I no longer had any idea where I was in the song or even what the song was. I stopped singing, looked down and the people blowing smoke at me and the audience cheered their victory. Once again they had worked their way into the act.

       It was during that show that I got perhaps the best career advice I have ever received. I came off stage and Carlos Santana was standing in the hall outside the dressing rooms. The Santana Band was going on after me. the crowd was cheering and I was sweating and starting to come down from the excitement and tension of doing my set. We said hello and then I said to Carlos, "It is so weird doing this solo act!"
Then he said, "It is a blessing Joe. There are not many people who can do it and you are one of them." Thank you, Carlos, that advice has helped me many times over the years.

       Touring the country of West Germany in the 1970s I always had lots of American military personnel in the audience. They were of course lonesome for home and excited to see American rock and roll bands. Once I was playing a night club with my All Star Band about 1972. The place was packed so full that no one could really move, including us. We were stuck up on stage when the sound system broke down and we had nowhere to go. The dressing room was not accessible and we just had to wait up there for them to fix it. It was really hot and noisy in the place. I kept hearing a guy yelling, "I love you Country Joe! California! Woodstock!" over and over. It was really getting on my nerves.

       I looked around and could see they guy, this young soldier right there in front of me in the crowd. Now I had been in the military myself and knew what it was like to be along way from home and drunk in a night club but it was hot and I was mad about the PA not working and not being able to play and trapped on stage and this guy yelling, "I love you Country Joe! California! Woodstock!" over and over was starting to drive me crazy. Of a sudden I yelled at him, "Shut the fuck up man or I will throw my guitar at you".

       He smiled and looked at me and yelled, "I love you Country Joe! California! Woodstock!" and I realized that if I did he would save my guitar pieces and tell everyone back at the base later tonight how Country Joe yelled at him and threw his guitar at him and how much he loved me.

      Fans, God love 'em! Without 'em I would be out of a job.

       Sometimes the audience can turn against you. Barry Melton spent some early years growing up in New York City and I guess he did not like the town because he wrote a song called "New York City Goodbye" all about how terrible New York City was. Now New York City is probably the most important city in America and especially for show business. Country Joe and The Fish had played several times in New York City. First at the Whiskey Au Go Go when we brought the first light show to NY then at the Anderson Theater. I will never forget that opening, they pulled us out from behind the curtain on a rolling stage singing "Fixing To Die Rag" to a cheering audience. Very dramatic! And many times in Central Park for free and at Bill Graham’s Fillmore East.

       At the release of Country Joe and The Fish’s third Vanguard album we were playing the world famous Fillmore East. Barry decided to sing his "New York City Goodbye" about how terrible New York City was. I did not think much about it at the time. Although I had had my own introduction to New York when we first came there. David Cohen and Barry had both grown up in New York but I grew up in California and knew nothing about New York, especially about cab drivers.

       We all got into a cab one day and got to our destination and I handed the driver two dollars. The fare was one dollar and ninety cents. I told him to "keep the change," and got out of the cab. He threw the dime and me and yelled over and over "keep the change!" and a lot of other stuff. He went on for a good ten minutes like that. They guys just laughed and me and in the end told me never to tip a cab driver in New York less than twenty five cents. But novices beware, this was in the 1960s when a quarter was something, today I am sure the driver would throw it back at you.

        Anyway at the Fillmore East we did Barry’s song and the vibe got very unfriendly. We finished our set with the "Fish Cheer" and "Fixing To Die Rag." After spelling out the letters Barry yelled out, "What’s that spell" and after the crowd yelled back "FUCK" a guy right in the front row said very loudly, "YOU!". Well Barry was stunned. He paused and then went on again and yelled, "What’s that spell?" to which the crowd yelled "FUCK" and the guy said again, "YOU!". Barry looked at me and I just shook my head not knowing what to do. So he yelled again "What’s that spell?" and the guy answered "YOU!" a third time. Barry looked at him and said "Fuck you too!" and we left the stage. This was the beginning of the end for Country Joe and The Fish in New York City.

        At the Woodstock Festival as almost everybody knows the audience was huge, some say 500,000, and the promoters had not planned for such a big audience. On the day the Country Joe and The Fish played Barry and I were back stage, it was a hot, muggy New York day and I noticed several cases of sodas and beer back stage for the performers. I thought it would be a good idea to pass some out to the audience. I brought them up on stage and started passing them over the barrier separating the stage from the audience. The audience got excited about this and so did Barry. In his excitement he decided to throw cans of beer to the people who were far away from us, meaning well I am sure, but I watched with horror as people with outstretched hands got hit on the head. In a matter of a minutes they began throwing them back at us. We beat a quick, hasty retreat back stage.

       At the Albert Hall in London Barry invited the people up in the "Gods," the very very high cheap seats, down to the ground floor, the very best expensive seats. They came pouring down. The place had been decorated for us flower power hippies with tons of flowers in the isles and on stage. The audience danced in the isles and climbed up on stage and threw flowers every where. We were banned from the Albert Hall forever. There was a young man in the Gods named Nick Saloman who had come that night with his girlfriend to see us. He came down and had a great time dancing around. He lost his girlfriend that night but became a big fan. Almost 30 years later I was to play the Queen Elizabeth Hall with him and his band Bevis Frond, playing a set of great old Country Joe and The Fish standards. At that concert I of course did the Fuck Cheer getting banned from the Queen Elizabeth Hall forever.

Speaking of getting banned forever: Country Joe and The Fish were the only band paid to stay off of the old Ed Sullivan Show. This is how it happened.

       We were paid in advance to be on the show. Then we were hired by the Shaffer Beer Company to perform in their New York City summer series the Shaffer Beer Festival held in Waltham Rink Arena in Central Park. On that day Chicken Hirsh said he figured out that fuck was a four letter word beginning with F just like Fish so why not change the Fish cheer to the fuck cheer. It was 1968 and the mood in the country and in the band was getting very grumpy wumpy what with the war and everything going on and on, so we thought it was a great idea Well the audience really loved it! But after the show the Shaffer Beer representative stuck his head in the dressing room and said "You will never be on the Shaffer Beer Festival again".

       Then a few moments later the Ed Sullivan Show representative who had been there to  check out the act they had bought (the Ed Sullivan Show was filmed out of New York City), said "You can keep the money but you will never be on the Ed Sullivan Show." That is how we became the only band paid to stay off their show.

* BATH FESTIVAL: The Bath Festival Of Blues And Progressive Music took place at Shepton Mallet on June 26-27 1970. First day was Formerly Fat Harry, Keef Hartley, Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band, Fairport Convention, Colosseum, It’s A Beautiful Day , Steppenwolf, Johnny Winter and Pink Floyd. On the Sunday, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers did the early-morning shift, followed by Canned Heat, Joe Jammer (who fitted in everywhere when bands failed to show on time), Donovan, Frank Zappa And The Mothers Of Invention, Santana, Flock, Led Zeppelin, Hot Tuna, Country Joe McDonald (solo), Jefferson Airplane, whose act was curtailed by rain, The Byrds, who played an acoustic set in order not to chance electrocution, and Dr John.The Moody Blues should have played but were prevented from doing so by the downpour. According to reliable reports, the event was documented on 35mm film, though no one has ever seen the results apart from a Fairport snippet which seemingly formed part of an educational program in the early 70s.There were 200,000 people. The promoter was Fred Bannister.
Copyright © 2004 by Joe McDonald. May not be reproduced in any form without express permission.
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  1. Great stuff, Joe. Your band and so many great bands from the East Bay...my stomping grounds. More, please!

  2. I saw you there at Bickershaw on a drizzly Sunday in 1972. You were excellent. The ballad of Jean Desprez stayed with me and I bought the album and played it for my Dad a retired army career soldier who had been in D'Day and throughout WW2. He was enthralled, never a 'lifer' despite his long career.

  3. thanks for sharing these stories Joe, better to hear them first hand than second hand you know ;-)