Country Joe McDonald is cold.
Forty years after the Summer of Love launched him toward legendary status as the political conscience of the Woodstock Nation, he shivers a bit beneath the thin ceiling of fog that hangs over his North Berkeley neighborhood. “I hate this,” he says, pulling up the collar of his jeans jacket and stamping his feet lightly on the sidewalk.
The occasional spell of chilly weather is one of the few things he has found to dislike about the Bay Area since he showed up in 1965. Too late to be a beatnik, he became a hippie instead, forming Country Joe and the Fish and immortalizing himself as the angry cheerleader who wrote and performed the protest song that got half a million American kids to scream the F-word in unison out of exasperation over the Vietnam War.
He was everywhere in 1967, singing at the “Human Be-In” that ushered in the so-called Summer of Love; leading thousands of marchers to a giant war protest; playing the historic Monterey Pop Festival; strolling the Haight with girlfriend Janis Joplin; appearing dozens of times at Bill Graham’s Fillmore Auditorium and the Avalon Ballroom.
The decades passed and Joe stayed, raising five kids and supporting a variety of political causes. But music was always No. 1, first folk, then psychedelic rock, and now back to folk with a Woody Guthrie tribute show and his own new anti-war song. How fitting that this hippie son of communist sympathizers — he was named for Josef Stalin — has become rock ’n’ roll’s ultimate working man, a headliner who never made bank but always did what he saw as the right thing.
‘Are you sure it was here?’
On this mid-May morning, he has agreed to lead a tour of ground-zero locations from the year that proved such a pivotal point in American history and culture, a time that filled the air with anti-war slogans and police sirens as much as it did with good vibrations and pot smoke.
First stop: the vast Polo Fields in the middle of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, site of the Human Be-In held Jan. 14, 1967. The free “gathering of the tribes” drew tens of thousands of flower children and focused national media attention on the hippie phenomenon, with its evolving lifestyle of rock music, marijuana, LSD, shaggy hair, casual sex, communal living and Eastern philosophy.
Revisiting the venue for the first time in 40 years, Country Joe is stunned at its size. The sun has burned the morning fog away, but the air is still brisk as he surveys the giant oval crater, guarded by towering eucalyptus trees and cawing crows: “This is huge. This doesn’t jibe with my memory at all. Are you sure it was here?”
Indeed it was, he realizes, getting his bearings. Here was where they parked the flatbed truck that served as the stage for poets Alan Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder and Lenore Kandel, as well as political activist Jerry Rubin. Over there was where LSD manufacturer Owsley Stanley parachuted into the event while the drug’s most famous promoter, Timothy Leary, advised attendees to “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Joe recalls the innocent, almost giddy anticipation he and his band mates felt over the event. “We got up early, and I remember painting my face, painting a design on my face, because that's something I did at that particular time, to be a psychedelic hippie. … We ingested the right chemicals so we'd be in the right frame of mind for the event, which was kind of a common thing, you know, to do at the time.”
The Be-In to end all
To Joe, it was simply a big party. “I don't think that people who participate in those watershed events that become historical touchstones and landmarks, I don't think people think to themselves at all … ‘Wow, the world is never going to forget this, I'm right here at this historical event,’” he said. “… I was lucky, you know, lucky to be there, I guess. It was a historical moment, and it was great, it was fun.”
The Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead played at the Be-In, but contrary to some published accounts, Joe insists, the Fish did not. Instead, he says, he sang the chorus of one song with an acoustic trio called New Age.
Inaccurate news coverage of some parts of the ’60s and the romanticizing of other parts are common, Joe has found over the years. “The truth isn’t always entertaining and the media is in the entertainment business,” he says. “History has kind of smooshed it all into one TV show.”
The memories of the participants aren’t exactly flawless either, he notes. He recalls a recent reunion tour with the Fish in which band members agreed they had not played on the “free stage” at the Monterey Pop Festival only to be asked a short time later by a fan to autograph a photograph of them rocking that very venue. And shown a list of his Fish and solo gigs from 1967, he is again shocked. Where he expected to see 30 or 40 dates, he sees more than 120. “Jesus Christ! We worked our ass off!”
Joe gained much of his work ethic and insights about performing from Janis Joplin, one of his best friends and his lover during much of the Summer of Love. It’s Joplin, felled in 1970 by booze and dope, whom he misses most from those years, he says, standing outside an apartment they shared on Lyon Street in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district.
‘We were incompatible as lovers’
“We were incompatible as lovers, really,” he says. “There wasn't a lot of sizzle going on, but we were good friends. We were both Capricorns, and had that leadership, take-charge thing going for us, and we got along really well. I do miss her; she's probably the one person from that time, in ’67, that I really wish was around today so I could compare notes with her.
“She was very professional,” Joe says. “She liked to rehearse a lot, liked the structure of it and to plan the shows. She's the person that taught me that nine songs were a set. And generally that's the rule.”
They did not make music together or with musicians outside their own bands. “Janis and I had the same feeling about jamming; I'm not really a person that jams with people. She wasn't either.”
They did do a lot of walking together, Joe recalls, leading the way to the epicenter of the Haight at its intersection with Ashbury. Joplin had a little dog named George “and we would walk with George up to the Haight, and then we would walk down the Haight, and we'd see Freewheelin' Frank (a well-known figure in the Hell’s Angels), or Myra, Janis' old girlfriend, who had a new young girlfriend at the time, I can't remember her name, and we would talk, and Janis would get maybe a beer or something, and we'd walk up to Golden Gate Park to Hippie Hill, and it was very casual and a lot of fun. It was a community feeling, and very relaxed.”
Today, the area has long since gentrified into a neighborhood where prices for the ornately painted Victorians, once rented by the room for $25 a month to the flower children, reach well above $1 million. The commercial strip on Haight is one big tourist attraction where you can buy everything from hookahs to headbands. Hippie chic is a profitable industry, for some.
Fame, but little coin
Musing over lunch at the Magnolia Pub at Haight and Masonic (the Drugstore Café, Magnolia Thunderpussy’s and The Psalms in previous incarnations), Joe reflects a bit wistfully on the fact that he never cashed in on the order of many of his contemporaries.
After Woodstock and the F-cheer, Joe and the band were canceled from a previously scheduled TV appearance by Ed Sullivan, the pop-music kingmaker of his day. Meanwhile, Joe’s contemporaries like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Steve Miller were building huge fan bases and enormous bank accounts, their hits played on both the AM and FM airwaves and even selected as background music by the Post Office and mainstream politicians.
“The path that I took has made me a living legend but not wealthy,” Joe says. “It’ll never happen for me. I can’t imagine a politician ever using my music as their theme song. That’s the good news and the bad news.”
But political organizers in 1967 certainly wanted to use The Fish and other groups, he says. Revisiting the Panhandle section of Golden Gate Park, below the Haight, he finds the stretch of grass where Country Joe and the Fish and The Fugs played on the eve of the April 15, 1967, march against the Vietnam War, at that time probably the largest mass protest the West Coast had ever seen.
“The antiwar movement wanted to take advantage of the huge audience that seemed to be there for rock ’n’ roll, for psychedelic rock ’n’ roll, and wanted to see if there were people in that audience who wanted to protest the war also,” he recalls. So organizers of the march signed his band and others up to play at the main protest the next day in nearby Kezar Stadium, then the home of the 49ers.
‘They pulled the plug on us’
Instead, they used Joe and the band as electrified pied-pipers, playing from the back of a truck to draw the marchers down Market Street, through the city’s financial district and then to the stadium. Once the crowd of 75,000 was inside, the truck pulled outside, band still aboard, so speechifying by the likes of Julian Bond, Robert Scheer and Eldridge Cleaver could begin.
“We carried our equipment back in and demanded the right to play. We were told we could play two songs but they pulled the plug on us after one and then we went home,” Joe recalls. “… I don’t think it was ever their idea to have us play at the main part of that event.”
Joe was especially perturbed because his band was alone in those days in using music to send political messages. Their just-released album contained the caustic slam at LBJ titled “Superbird” and the “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” written in 1965, was hugely popular on the anti-war circuit. He remains fiercely proud of the tune – with its sarcastic refrain of “One, two three, what are we fightin’ for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn! Next stop is Vietnam!” – and whatever effect it had on mobilizing sentiment against the war.
A 25-year-old Navy veteran in 1967, Joe saw Vietnam as a war chiefly to protect U.S. economic interests. He sees the Iraq War in the same light. Also, “It's very similar in that you have young people who are fighting a war that was supposed to be over pretty quick, and it's dragging on,” he says.
In “Support the Troops,” a new song protesting the Iraq War, Joe turns from sarcasm to anger, personally attacking the president who ordered U.S. troops there with lines like: “You chicken-hawk, draft-dodging son of a Bush.”
A thread in the Berkeley tapestry
The angry political rhetoric is a perfect coda for the drive back across the Bay Bridge to Berkeley, the veritable cradle of U.S. civil disobedience in modern times and especially vibrant in 1967, when Jerry Rubin and his followers were marching and stopping troop trains.
The center of the action then was Sproul Plaza on the UC-Berkeley campus. This is where Mario Savio delivered his fiery speeches in the Free Speech Movement in ’64. It was the flashpoint for the People’s Park riots of ’69. And to this day, it is the spot where generations of students and activists have set up their card tables to promote such causes as civil rights, ending apartheid and saving the whales.
The northern terminus of Berkeley’s storied Telegraph Avenue is a very special place to Joe, where he played some of his first public gigs as a fledgling folksinger, where he met Barry Melton, who became the lead guitarist for the Fish, and where Joe sometimes gave impromptu free concerts in the late ’70s. In 1967, the band played often at local venues like the Jabberwock coffeehouse, the Pauley Ballroom and the Finnish Brotherhood Hall.
“I've always found that I'm a part of this city, not like a star of the city, but a part of it, just another citizen,” Joe says. “There's quite a few unique citizens who've lived here a long, long time and I'm fortunate to be here and be one of them.”
Time has been good to Joe as well. The late afternoon sun has finally warmed the day, streaming over the Golden Gate to light the East Bay hills like a Thomas McGlynn painting as he takes in his hometown. At 65, his hair is graying and thinner and a few tiny ruptured vessels etch the surface of his face, but the eyes still have the same piercing gaze they had when he penned lyrics that implored generals and politicians to think about what the hell they were doing.
“My goal will never be achieved in my lifetime, of peace and love on the Planet Earth,” he says, “but I'll do my bit to further it as long as I can and when I'm gone, someone else will pick it up and that's the way it will go.
“It will be known that I contributed my part, as to the music and the culture of my generation, not just politically, although I added a political, social, moral element when there wasn't one.”