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Fixin' to Be Reborn

Photo by S. Maruta

NPR commentator Ruben Navarette recently decried ongoing “boomer obsession” with Vietnam, citing the debate over Bush’s time (or lack of it) in the Air National Guard vs. Kerry’s service in Vietnam. “Americans have fallen into a political time warp,” the Gen-X-and-proud Navarette railed. “We’ve been transported back to the late 1960s and early 1970s.” And: “I’m sick of hearing about Vietnam.”

He is about to get sicker. The band most identified with the Vietnam era has regrouped — most of it, anyway. Yes, Ruben: They’re from the ’60s, and they’re in their 60s — Country Joe McDonald and three out of four members of the classic Country Joe and the Fish lineup from 1966–68 will perform as the Country Joe Band (CJB). Bassist Bruce Barthol, drummer Gary “Chicken” Hirsh and keyboardist/guitarist David Bennett Cohen have hooked up with McDonald for the first time since two gigs in 1994 and, prior to that, the band’s 1977 Reunion album. Only guitarist Barry “The Fish” Melton is a holdout, reportedly too busy with his longtime duties as a public defender in Yolo County to joint — er, join.

If there is a time warp, it’s hardly limited to the presidential race. The U.S. is mired in a fractious military action in a distant country, with soldiers coming home in body bags every week, and innocent civilians blown up almost daily. Massive anti-war protests have become relatively commonplace again. What better background music than “And it’s one-two-three, what’re we fightin’ for?” from Country Joe’s “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag”?

“It’s feeling more like 1968 every day, so I wasn’t totally surprised to get a call from Joe,” writes Barthol, resident composer/lyricist and musician for the Tony Award–winning San Francisco Mime Troupe, on www.country joe.com. “I had a lot of fun playing with those guys, and I’m looking forward to doing it again.”

The reunion is not spurred only by politics — the original Country Joe and the Fish was arguably the most musically and lyrically inventive of all the San Francisco “psychedelic” bands of the ’60s. The jarring Electric Music for the Mind and Body (1967) and the warmly poetic I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die are high-water marks of the genre. The band was a circus of personalities: Cohen’s gentle, ornate guitar lines and Technicolor organ comps (“Sweet Martha Lorraine,” “Pat’s Song”), Barthol’s propulsive bass, Hirsh’s elegant and clever drumming, Melton’s screaming leads (vocal and guitar), and the plaintive singing and songwriting of the still-underrated McDonald. (His great Vietnam song is really “Who Am I,” which tells the story of the war from several perspectives.)

Born in Berkeley in 1965 as an agitprop ensemble centered on McDonald and Melton, CJ&F evolved in 1966 into its “classic” roster, which broke up after three albums, with two less-colorful lineups stretching over two more albums and the Woodstock appearance. McDonald, who’s tried to regroup the classic quintet many times through the years, is delighted with the CJB.

“I imagine that it will be great,” he says, reached at home in Berkeley. “I am always writing new songs. I have some instrumentals for prayer and meditation, and a nice song about sailors dying in a nuclear submarine. I have lots of material that is apropos [for today’s issues], but it will not be just political music. We will start to work on some new material — slowly. I hope the group will be together for many years.”

A Navy veteran who has played myriad benefit concerts for veterans, McDonald does not regret having been pigeonholed by Vietnam — being ever known as the guy who wrote the anthem for the ’60s anti-war movement.

“It is always wonderful to sing it, knowing that members of the audience experienced the song in the Vietnam War,” he says. “A fellow once told me that his friend died in his arms in Vietnam, and his last words were, ‘Whoopee, we’re all going to die’ [from the song]. Another soldier told me that during his seven years in a Vietnamese POW camp, they were allowed to listen to Hanoi Hanna playing music to depress them, but when ‘Fixin’-To-Die’ was played, it made them happy and hopeful.”

The Country Joe Band performs April 9 and 10 at Theater On High Street in Moorpark; (805) 497-8606.