By Judith Coburn
“Cleared for the F— cheer!” trumpeted an email the night before Country Joe McDonald was to go to jail. He’d already been convicted of lewd and lascivious behavior for leading a crowd in the fuck cheer in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1965. But now it is 2011 in San Francisco. This time Country Joe had been invited to entertain prisoners at the San Bruno jail by none other than San Francisco Sheriff Mike Hennessey.
But Ron Perez — who, like Country Joe, lives in Berkeley — is a Vietnam veteran and worked for Hennessey for over 30 years, and he wanted to make sure the fuck cheer was kosher. “We are trying to teach these guys some pro-social skills,” Perez explained. But Hennessey ruled: “Free speech!”
Country Joe’s a little tired of the fuck cheer. He’d rather be remembered for his extensive cache of anti-war songs in which he hopes to span the chasm between anti-war civilians and the soldiers who fight in the one war after another American wages. The “I feel like I’m Fixin’ to Die” rag, which made Country Joe and the Fish famous at Woodstock, was only the first.
Few folks know Country Joe is a Navy vet himself, although he didn’t serve in Vietnam. He and Perez go back to the ‘70s when they both were activists in the anti-war veterans’ movement. Perez began working with veterans in the jail back then, and he and other jail workers have finally gotten permission for all the veterans at the jail to live together in a program called COVER. (Community of Veterans Engaged in Restoration). There, vets can grapple with their war trauma in a community that understands and supports them in recovering from the PTSD, alcohol, drugs and violence are so often a legacy of war.
Ron Perez had actually won Country Joe in an auction. Joe had donated a free concert to Swords To Plowshares for their Veterans’ Day banquet. Perez, who is a founder of the veterans’ rights group, put in the highest bid. So Country Joe ended up entertaining the COVER troops in a kind of restorative postwar USO show last Friday.
Dressed for the occasion in a tie-dyed yellow and purple t-shirt, khakis, a denim jacket with a logo of the California Nurses’ Association, and a baseball cap emblazoned “Beacon Sloop Club — Woody Guthrie,” Joe Country piled into Perez’s convertible for the ride from Berkeley to jail.
The San Bruno jail is improbably set down a winding road in rolling hills — hills that artist Richard Kamler once dotted with life-size plywood bison in an art installation called “Oh Give me a Home Where the Buffalo Roam,” another of the Sheriff’s off-beat gifts to his prisoners.
Inside, COVER’s 42 veterans milled around in their orange jail suits (orange down to the socks and shoes), while Country Joe rounded up a chair and unpacked his acoustic guitar.
Flags on the walls with maps of war zones honored Vietnam, Iraq and Afghani veterans. Aida McCray, COVER’s head, explained to me that the program’s “man alive” philosophy was one of “restorative justice” — the idea that the way to stop violence is for these men to learn forgiveness, accountability and a way to give back to those they may have hurt. “It’s not just punishment, but an obligation to make things rights,” she said.
The performance began with each veteran standing and giving his name, rank and unit he served with. Country Joe then said, “I’m not going to talk down to you by thanking you for your service. I used to think I felt closer to veterans than I did my family, but in a miracle of recovery I took off my uniform and became a civilian.” Besides, he pointed out, “we have to live with civilians and they outnumber us.” Many of the vets howled at this.
One of the vets just couldn’t wait and yelled “Give me an F!” so they did the cheer with gusto. Then Country Joe told about how the cheer had originally been “F-I-S-H” until Chicken Hirsh had proposed changing it to fuck and that’s how Country Joe and the Fish had been kicked off the Ed Sullivan show’s schedule.
And he told about how Country Joe and the Fish got into the banana-peels-make-you-high farce, followed by the smoke-a-cigarette-through-a-green-pepper and other stories of bygone days, and even the vets from Afganistan, who hadn’t even been born back then, laughed.
Then Joe sang some haunting songs about war and recovery and told how he was almost 9 years sober, and the jail pod went quiet. The vets learned the chorus of one and sang along: “…feelin’ a little bit better, feelin’ a little bit better, than I was feelin’ yesterday.”
But everyone yelled on the chorus “Go, go Johnny, Johnny Rambo” — and, when Country Joe finally struck up the fixin’-to-die rag, the vets roared.
Everyone seemed to know the words. Even the Sheriff.
Judith Coburn, a longtime Berkeley resident, has written for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, and TomDispatch among others. She now works as a private investigator.