This interview originally ran in the March 2001 issue of HIGH TIMES.
by Donna M. Condida
One of the San Francisco psychedelic-music pioneers, “Country Joe” McDonald led the Fish before there was Phish. McDonald sang the marijuana chant at Woodstock and taught everyone how to spell F-U-C-K. He continues to release albums—his name has graced 32 of them over the years—and tour. We caught up with him at the 2nd Annual Biker Music Rally at Big Boulder/Jack Frost Ski Resort in Blakeslee, PA.
Let’s start with Woodstock. How did it come about for Country Joe & the Fish to play at Woodstock in 1969?
We were added at the very last minute. It was a choice between Jethro Tull and us. And we were picked. We’re not on the poster.
You performed solo right after Richie Havens on the first day. Was that the plan?
We were scheduled to play on Sunday. There was no plan for me to perform solo. That was just something I did, for free. I was just on stage to watch the show on Friday. Richie Havens finished playing and they had nobody to play, and they just forced me to play. They got me a guitar and pushed me out there. I didn’t have a guitar. I didn’t have a guitar strap. They tied a rope onto the guitar for a guitar strap. I didn’t have a pick. They gave me a matchbook cover. Nobody paid any attention until I did “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.” Then everybody started yelling and clapping. The “F-U-C-K” cheer and “Fixin’ to Die Rag” actually wound up being the highlight of the film.
For those who don’t know, explain the F-U-C-K cheer.
To say the word fuck back then could be compared to what it’s like for people in countries like Iran when someone says or does something they’re not supposed to and they’re imprisoned for it. To say it back then was like that, it was unbelievable that people would yell fuck. Now fuck is a very versatile word, it has many meanings. But we were just saying the word fuck. There really wasn’t a connection between the original “F-I-S-H” cheer and “Fixin’ to Die Rag.” But there sure was a connection between “F-U-C-K” and the “Fixin’ to Die Rag,” because we all felt like yelling “fuck” out of anger.
You were also on stage when it began to rain.
Yeah, Barry Melton and I did the “No Rain, No Rain, No Rain” chant. We were actually on stage three times. It took about three hours to finish our band set-up because the rain kept interrupting it. I was never acknowledged as being important in any way to the festival. I have never heard a “thank you” from [festival organizer] Michael Lang. I’ve never heard a single thing from anyone.
You played at the 30th anniversary in Bethel, the same year as Woodstock ’99 farther upstate in Rome. Why did you prefer to play Bethel instead of Rome?
They didn’t ask me to do Rome. I would have taken the money if they would have hired me. But I read about it and it sounded horrible.
What do you think were the strengths and weaknesses of the Woodstock in ’69?
I don’t know of any weaknesses. It was a huge success. I see only positives in the original festival. It was a show of strength for the counterculture. It was also one of the main reasons the entertainment industry recognized that counterculture music is commercial and has the potential of selling and making money.
Looking back at the ’60s, what do you think about the ideas and dreams that the hippies had, and do you still have them?
I don’t regret anything. It all happened by magic. We couldn’t stand it the way it was before. When I was growing up, T-shirts didn’t have anything on them, females all wore dresses, skirts and high heels, and sex was something you didn’t even say. Fuck was a word that you wouldn’t even see in the newspaper as “f---.” We changed everything not only in this country, but also in the entire world, and there are still people that hate us for it. I still think a world of peace and love is viable and the only solution that we have. And I think that we’re still up against the establishment as much as we were before.
All the issues and everything are still relevant and will be all the way through the 21st century. It may take us a long time to get representatives who have inhaled and are sympathetic to issues. It’s not really counterculture anymore though — it’s mainstream culture. Leaders are really out of touch now. I’ve even changed over the years. I’ve adopted a lot of gender issues, female-related issues and parental issues. But I do believe that the only future we have is collective and communal. Without that we’re dead, globally dead. We have global problems that are threatening us all.
Do you think that the ’60s were a needed path to political commitment and personal growth?
The counterculture — the people who are reading this article—never had any friends who were in politics. I don’t really approach what happened in the ’60s as a political phenomenon. A lot of the politicians of the ’60s didn’t inhale and didn’t get it either. The divide between the cultural youth generation, which is all grown up now, and the political side is also very huge. None of the political parties are addressing the issues that we consider very important. Gender issues, homosexuality, medicinal marijuana — the list is very long.
One part about the counterculture and the hippies were that they dropped out of the system, thinking they could exist outside of the system, but the system will search you out and find you. Look at the Rainbow Gathering—they find them, kick them off public property, harass them and stuff like that.
Is it true you were banned from appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show — that you were scheduled to perform and then asked not to?
Yeah, but we didn’t care. We got to keep the money. We never took The Ed Sullivan Show seriously anyway. I think it’s ironic that on the retrospective Ed Sullivan shows on TV, they say we performed there. We’re listed as having performed, but there is no footage of us performing.
Have there been other events where you were “asked” not to perform due to your opinions and beliefs?
Steve Miller won’t work with me. Steve Stills won’t work with me. The list of people is really, really long. Mickey Hart is afraid of me because I talk about vets and the Vietnam War all the time. I’ve become larger than life and there’s really nothing I can do about it. For example, when I played this year at the 30th anniversary of the Kent State killings, the administration was worried about two people on the program: Country Joe and Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Tell me about your marijuana advocacy back in the ’60s and ’70s and compare it to your involvement in marijuana issues now.
I wasn’t really an advocate back then, I just wrote songs about what was happening in my life. I remember in ’66 playing a really tiny gig in Berkeley, CA and singing “Bass Strings,” about smoking marijuana, and being afraid that we would be arrested for just singing a song about marijuana. Because that’s how really, really paranoid and uptight the environment was at that time. But I didn’t write those songs — even “The Acid Commercial” — as an advocate. I just wrote songs for the counterculture and what the counterculture was interested in. I wrote a lot of marijuana songs back then. I’m not really involved in marijuana issues now. It’s so mainstream that I think it’s inevitable that we’re going to have medical marijuana.
Did you expect marijuana to be legal by now?
Well, in California, we voted it legal (Prop. 215), but the federal government under Bill Clinton won’t recognize that. People should be able to smoke marijuana. Tobacco and alcohol are two enormous health problems. I used to smoke tobacco. I warn my kids about tobacco and alcohol. People should be able to smoke pot and grow pot. It’s nothing, it’s very benign. I don’t know how many people are in jail now because of recreational drugs, which is terrible.
What do you think of American farmers not being allowed to grow industrial hemp?
That’s ridiculous. It’s terrible. But it shows how little an influence we, as a generation, have had on electing officials and changing establishment. Until that happens, things won’t change very much.
Did you ever think you would be such an icon to the counterculture?
Well, yes and no. I wanted to have a career in music, but I never expected it to be where I would become a living legend and so controversial. I don’t really have a good idea of what people think about me. I don’t know what they expect from Country Joe. I do talk about many issues that some people won’t talk about, but not everybody agrees with me. I am a very responsible person, I always have been. I’m not a fuck-head or a fuck-up. I’m a pothead. I do smoke pot. Pot is good for me, for my PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which relates to symptoms with my problem with sleeping. And yes, I am political and I like singing political songs. I practice and I work hard at it. In some ways I’m more responsible than my fans would like me to be.
In 1967, you did a series of gigs on the East Coast, introducing New York City (at Café Au Go Go) to the psychedelic experience of music with cool visuals projected on a screen. What was the audience’s reaction to this?
We brought a light show and put it in the Au Go Go and they were stunned. It was liquid projections, plus some slides. There were a lot of VIPs in that audience, and they were speechless. Not just about the visual stuff, but about the subject matter. There’s a certain bit of jadedness that New York City has that we didn’t have at all. We were in your face—psychedelic peace and love. We blew a lot of minds that night.
How would you describe your performances back then?
Actually, we weren’t that good. We played out of tune and we jammed a lot. We would get the old singalong thing together. But we got tired and worn out on the road.
Your songs “Janis” and “Grace” were about the divas of the psychedelic scene.
I wrote “Grace” when I saw her [Grace Slick] sing with The Great Society. I was so shy and even till this day, I never mentioned to her that I wrote that song for her to sing. Now Janis [Joplin] asked me to write a song for her to sing when we broke up. So I wrote it, but then I later realized that it wasn’t really Big Brotherly. Janis said that they rehearsed it a few times, but they never performed it, so then I ended up singing it.
How long did your relationship with Janis last?
Janis and I were in a relationship for about three months. I lived with her in her apartment. I didn’t have my own at the time.
What was the difference between Country Joe & the Fish and Country Joe & the Psychedelic Fish?
After I left the band , Barry and the guys performed for a few months as Country Joe & the Psychedelic Fish. So the difference is that I wasn’t in that band. That was the band without me. It was two different entities.
Do you feel that the name “Country Joe” suits you well, as it was derived from Joseph Stalin, whose nickname was Country Joe during World War II?
The name Country Joe & the Fish was invented by Ed Densen, who later became our manager. I was the only person named Joe, so people kept calling me “Country Joe.” I resisted it for a long time and then they started insisting on it in contracts and stuff. I just couldn’t escape it, so I became Country Joe. The coincidence is that my parents did name me after Joseph Stalin, whose nickname was Country Joe. But that’s just a strange coincidence.
Where is Country Joe headed in the new millennium?
My wife is an RN and we have five kids; three of them are grown, a twelve-year old and a nine-year old. When I’m at home, I practice a little every day, but the rest of the time I’m shopping, washing clothes and getting the kids off to school when school starts. I’ve got about 32 CDs out now. I’m trying to experiment with Internet sales and see what people want. I don’t tour that much anymore. I’m trying to make the Website a viable thing in my life. I have a new CD that I recorded myself at home, titled www.CountryJoe.com. I only have 300—they’re numbered. I have another new CD, titled I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Sing, which was recorded live at Oakland Community College in Michigan in 1999. Both are on my label, Rag Baby. I also did an album of Country Joe material with the Bevis Frond, titled Eat Flowers & Kiss Babies on Woronzow Records. We played together at Terrastock 4 in Seattle in November. It’s the first time I’ve had fun in 25 years.