Country Joe MacDonald Tires of the Revolution, Which Bums Out Richard Goldstein
C.J. Fish on Saturday
by Richard Goldstein
It was Saturday afternoon and the Algonquin Hotel smelled of old marble and mahagony. In his suite, Country Joe MacDonald sat on a sofa and watched cartoons on color tv. They were strange, frenzied fantasies filled with ultraviolet dragons and heroic white whales. Aggression was the dominant theme and the plots amounted to a series of battles, with flashes of color the only sign of impact. Joe watched for 20 minutes, holding a wind-up policeman doll in his hand. You turn the key and the head bobs and the club moves up and down.
I had come to rap about the revolution. Since the Fish have come to represent the quintessence of commitment in a rock group. I was searching for a few predictions, a reminiscence of life at the barricades, and perhaps a scenario or two. But Country Joe snickered. "There isn't going to be any revolution. Let's be realistic," he said, and went off to brush his teeth.
Barry Melton, who plays guitar and has hair like a liberated sheep, took up the tv watch. I asked him about Chicago, and what it meant to him, anticipating a quotable barrage of dialectic.
"Well, we were walking into this hotel, and these guys with armbands on came by. They followed us into the lobby and attacked us." End of manifesto.
Country Joe returned wearing a brocade vest and a straw hat. He picked up the toy cop again, while Barry called room service for breakfast. "We've got a photo session this afternoon -- 3.30, I think."
"Why isn't there going to be a revolution?"
"Because you have to control things, and most of the people I know aren't ready for that. They want a leaderless society."
"What about the guerrillas?" I offered.
"I don't know any. I know a lot of people wearing Che Guevara teeshirts...what a bunch of tripped-out freaks. Three years ago, we were hobos singing our hearts out about the virtues of the open road. Last year, we were Indians. Now, we're revolutionaries. Man, if the revolution ever comes for real, they'll probably use Andy Warhol munitions. You throw it up and this big sign comes on -- Pow!"
He sank back into the sofa. His wife and their new baby were back in California, and they left him with the puffy look of someone rendered incomplete. But his apathy was more than the product of separation. What you call "the vibes" when you want to give a hip name to the transference of energy -- the vibes are gone. You don't notice it on their new album right away, but live, that sharp certainty has given way to something almost laconic. The Fish still push the same old stuff, but the deal is different now. Melodies are shattered, lyrics barely coherent. Oh, the language is stronger (the old Fish cheer now reads, "Gimme an F...U...etc.", and "that bastard, LBJ" has become "that muthufucker") but the sound is disjointed, dazed. Only the symptoms of energy remain. Joe stands limply through most of the set, the swing gone from his body, the muscle in his head rarely flexed.
I asked Joe why his music had changed. He straightened up slowly and took off his hat. "See, we're not what we thought we were."
"Well, two years ago, we believed in music like a God. If you're gonna get into a heavy acid trip, you're gonna get religious. If you stop taking acid, you stop being religious."
"Our audience knew we got stoned and they knew they got stoned and it all worked in a big circle," Barry added.
"Yeah, but music's nothing to believe in. I mean...it's just sound."
"Do you feel like quitting now?"
"No. I still dig playing. If it got really bad, I couldn't even get up on stage. But today, the only emotion I associate with music is pleasure. There used to be all kinds of...well...connotations."
In the distance, we heard a shout that sounded like "Dump the Hump," so we ran to the window and raised the blinds. It was a small march to Times Square, complete with Vietcong flags and a police escort. From the hotel, we could see only a sliver of it. Joe smiled, drew the blinds, and turned the volume of the tv up.
"This is C.J. Fish," Barry was grumbling into the phone. "We didn't get any coffee with that food."
"It's hard to sing for real anymore," Joe said, sinking back onto the couch. "Our music is all noise...protest noise."
The bell rang and an old acquaintance offered greetings and news from the barricades. Heavy guerrilla scenes in the East Village; Columbia was perking and almost ready to pour. By the way, could the group make a benefit?
Joe said no, they'd be back in California with their families, and the kid wondered why the Fish weren't doing so many street gigs anymore. Barry explained that the music doesn't work in a charged street situation, because the equipment is expensive and immobile. If the cops come, you can't split with an amp on your back.
The talk returned to politics. "The revolution is just another word for working within the community," the friend incanted.
"Yeah, but I'm not into that anymore," Joe said.
"What are you into?"
"Robin and the kid...and me."
"But Joe, other kids are in the streets, and they're gonna be laying down a whole new thing."
"I don't believe in the revolution."
"Hell, you are the revolution. So how can you not believe in it?"
"Because there is no revolution. I'm just living out my life style. That's what you should be doing."
"Obviously, we're using the word differently."
"Look, you want to be a revolutionary? You know what that means? It means time -- 10, 15 years...go back to school. Become a revolutionary in school."
"Why don't you go back to school?"
"Because I've got a career, as a poet, an entertainer, and a musician."
"Yeah, well maybe my career is listening to you. And maybe I have to fight to do that."
"Bullshit. You're no revolutionary. You're just a young American citizen in the 20th century."
"No I'm not."
"Aha -- took away your identity."
The hostility is getting a bit thick, so Barry suggests they split for the photographer's studio. Everyone stands and Joe shoves the hat down over his eyes. "I've been a poet, a guru, a politico," he says. "I'll be anything you want. Tell me what you want me to be."
Nobody answers. "Well, I'm in the entertainment business right now. It just so happens that the people I entertain are freaky."
In the lobby there are no groupies or agents, and just a couple of honeymooners at the registration desk. Barry grabs a cab and jumps in. "Whyanchacutyerhair?" the driver snarls, and I shake hands with Joe, and walk away. At home, I open my notebook to search for a closing line. I find it tucked under a hammer and sickle doodle.
Country Joe MacDonald is half Jewish.
[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.]