Every day toward the end of April 1975, the daily front-page story on the plight of Saigon would mention that a few troops might be sent in until the situation stabilized. I was a junior in high school, 16 months away from being old enough for the draft. I was scared shitless. On May Day of that year, Bob Butwell, a brilliant man of letters and a hopeless drunk (which is to say, a not abnormal ex-SDS public-school sociology teacher), stood before our class with that morning's Kansas City Times in his hands. The front page had that infamous embassy-roof photo and a large headline that read "SAIGON FALLS."
Everyone in the class had grown up with the body count on the six o'clock news, but nothing had prepared us for our teacher's anguished scream of "This is 56,000 dead Americans. This is peace with honor!"
And then he shredded the newspaper and pounded the fragments on his desk as if they were the war itself. That afternoon, us guys went over to Mike's house -- both of his parents worked second shift -- and we got real, real stoned and mostly just grinned at each other. We weren't like the older brothers of some of the guys in the room. We didn't have to go. One of the albums we listened to that day was the Country Joe and the Fish anthology, the double LP that starts out with the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" and ends with "Janis."
Almost two decades later, the singer who most firmly linked "psychedelic" with "protest" was back in my consciousness again, this time as a television pitchman for soda pop. There was Country Joe McDonald, standing on the stage at Woodstock and promoting that well-known counterculture product, Pepsi Cola, by (in a rare moment of drug humor in the zero-tolerance era) claiming to have no memory of the event that gave a name to the '60s generation.
Did that quick embrace of corporate America symbolize the end of the ideals of the summer of love and the days of rage? McDonald thinks it was just another way, more lucrative than most, of keeping those ideals and the flexibility of the era alive. "Over the years I refused to do commercials in general, but Pepsi came along and I began to realize that I was being too politically correct," he says. "It was a lot of money and we drink soda in the house and I thought 'This is an opportunity to show the world I'm not a purist.' I don't know if you can say you're proud of a commercial but I'm certainly not embarrassed by it, and as far a being politically correct, I've certainly done my time."
Beneath his post-Woodstock roles as father, husband and Pepsi pitchman, the protest purist is still close to McDonald's surface. The San Francisco Bay area was a comfortable refuge during what he refers to as "the 12 years of Reagan-Bush's little Woodstock," with plenty of opportunities to play and record without long absences from his family. There are 31 McDonald CDs currently available, including new releases like the folk-acoustic "Carry On" featuring Jerry Garcia and archival tapes coming out of the cans they've been in since the Nixon administration -- like Vanguard's recent issue of a 1969 Country Joe and the Fish performance at the Fillmore.
McDonald feels that there is as much need as ever for music with a message. "Protest music makes you nervous. It's supposed to disturb you," he says. "There's a mood in the country of seething anger in some sectors, and that's going to make for some nasty protest music. People have a lot to be angry about: the American dream disappearing, leaders who don't know anything because they have no idea what it's like to be a working person."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Despite the revisionist glorification of what some sardonic veterans' T-shirts refer to as the "Southeast Asian war games," McDonald has no regrets about the role he and his anthemic "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" played in bringing that conflict to an end.
"The war was bad and protesting the war was good," he says. "It was a tragic, terrible mistake." From protesting the war, McDonald -- an honorably discharged Navy veteran who cites that experience as all the credentials needed to criticize the military -- has gone to playing benefits for such groups as the Disabled Vietnam Veterans and performing at the Vietnam Memorial in Washington.
Current events, like the war I grew up watching on television, become history and new crises replace them. But as long as there's room on a stage somewhere for someone foolhardy enough to think a song can end a war, there's always hope that someday a generation will come along that won't screw up a slightly used planet.
Country Joe McDonald plays two shows at 8 and 11 p.m. Friday, February 3 at Dan Electro's Guitar Bar. Tickets cost $12 in advance, $15 day of show. Call 864-4323 for info.