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Saturday, September 18, 2010


Country Joe and The Fish
The New Age
At the Matrix Club San Francisco 1966

        Country Joe and The Fish, the very early version with John Francis Gunning playing drums, got a job playing the Matrix club in San Francisco. We had just put out our legendary EP with "Bass Strings," "Section 43" and "Love" on it. Paul Armstrong was also in the group playing tambourine and sometimes rhythm guitar. He was working for Goodwill as alternative military service because he was a pacifist. It is his Goodwill truck that we are leaning against in the photo EP cover shot. Paul had caught the clap, gonorrhea, as I remember it and I got mad at him and fired him because he said he could not play the gig because he had the clap.

      We found out that you had to be eighteen years old to play the Matrix because they served booze. The gig was already booked and we did not know what to do. We had recorded our first electric EP at a small studio on the edge of Berkeley named Sierra Sound. It was owned and operated by a guy named Bob DeSousa. I got this great idea to record Barry and Bruce’s parts on tape and play with the tape recorder at the gigs. Now Barry played lead guitar and Bruce played bass. We had the early repertoire of the Electric Music For The Mind And Body LP. They were both still seventeen years old. So according to the law they could not play in a club that served alcohol.

        We worked all day in the little studio. It was a four track studio and the technology was reel to reel tapes. But since we only recorded two things, bass and guitar we had enough tracks. But of course the whole band had to play the tunes and we had to take the bass and guitar direct and listen to everything on the ear phones. This is pretty heady stuff for 1966, understand! So we were tired at the end of the day and a bit stressed. As I remember it this was also the day that I got into the fight with Paul Armstrong about him having the clap and he left and so the sound was a bit different as it did not have the tambourine and whatever parts Paul played extra rhythm guitar on. At the end of the day we were talking about how we still had to load up the stuff, drive over to San Francisco to the Matrix, set up and play and how tired we were. John Francis Gunning the drummer said, "You know I have a tab of acid [LSD], at home why don’t we split that tab? It will not get us too high and give us enough energy to play the gig?" We said, "Sounds like a great idea!"

        So we went over to his house and did that. Then we drove over to the club. Well by that time we were getting pretty damn high from that acid. Much higher that we had thought we would get. Our manager Banana Ed Denson was there waiting for us and when he saw us come in acting all silly and stuff I could tell from his "here comes trouble" look on his face we probably should not have taken the acid. But it was too late to stop.

       We set up and Ed had the tape from the studio on a small reel and he had this little like Magnavox home tape recorder sitting by the stage with a microphone up to it. Barry and Bruce were in the back room and could not come out. We set up the stuff, just drums, keyboard (Farfisa organ) and amps for David and my guitars and got on stage. I looked down at ED and told him to start. So he turned on the tape recorder and we waited. Then this sound came out. It was the lead guitar part and the bass. But we had not counted the songs in nor made a list telling us what songs we were listening to. So we had to try in figure it out. I decided that the first song was "Bass Strings." I told John Francis and David.

       About this time my guitar neck was turning bright green and writhing like a snake. I knew this was an hallucination but it made playing hard. There was this other problem of trying to play at the same time at the tape and figure out where in the song Bruce and Barry were. I remember being too slow and speeding up and catching up with them but then passing them up. I looked back and John Francis and he was starting to sweat. David was hunched over his organ trying to find out where we were with a very serious look on his face. I tried to sing something but nothing made sense.

        I stopped after about five minutes and told Ed to stop and advance to the next song. So he did that. The tape made that funny squeaky sound it makes like mice or something as it sped ahead to the next song. He found it and started it. Well we had no idea at all what the hell song that was. We tried a couple of things but nothing worked. I told him to stop and go to the next one. He did that. Same thing John Francis looked like he came out of a sauna, he was covered with sweat. David was very depressed and I was starting to realize that this would never work.

         Then one of those stupid LSD moments hit me. A moment of profound thought. I stopped everything and announced to the audience, "this proves that man cannot work with machines. If I was you I would ask for my money back." We left the stage. Many people did ask for their money back. The manager was mad as hell. We still had one more day left to play.

         The next day we arranged to have chicken wire wrapped around the stage to keep Bruce and Barry away from the bar area and the audience. This somehow satisfied the police. The chicken wire created a path from the back room to the stage. We played behind that chicken wire that night. A University of California Berkeley sociology professor had sent his entire class to see us that night and write papers about the new hippie band culture thing. After the show he gave us copies of the papers and many of them said, "Country Joe and The Fish enhance their country image by putting chicken wire around the stage."

         When I first moved into the apartment house with Bruce and Barry in Berkeley I was driving around with Barry in my car. He said "pull into Simas Brothers." Simas Brothers was a cheap gas station on the corner of Ashby and Shattuck. It was late at night. He stuck his head out of the window and asked the attendant, "What ya got?" The guy said, "Some weed and bennies." Barry said I’ll take an ounce of weed and a dozen bennies." The guy gave it to him. I got some gas and thought, "Wow, talk about full service!"
Copyright © 2004 by Joe McDonald. May not be reproduced in any form without express permission.

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