Berkeley event relives magical vibe of Woodstock
By Lou Fancher
Nearly 50 years after over 400,000 people congregated at a music festival held at a dairy farm in New York State’s Catskill Mountains, Woodstock retains its electrifying, groovy power.
A screening of Michael Wadleigh’s Academy Award-winning 1970 documentary, “Woodstock,” presented Jan. 27 by Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, attracted a sold-out audience.
Bay Area luminaries in the 232-seat Barbro Osher Theater included presenters Country Joe McDonald and Robert N. Zagone, who mingled with audience members like Wavy Gravy and lesser-known but no less hip people young and old. Celebrating the iconic film, psychedelic rock n’ roll and the era’s socio-political protest and civil rights history dissolved generational divides and reaffirmed music as a unifying force.
Rising above esoteric arguments about music genre — rock over rap, Mozart more than Minimalism — the overriding mood was enthusiastic, especially during a screening of Zagone’s 31-minute film, “A Day in the Life of Country Joe and the Fish.”
The short video, which Zagone said was originally made when he was a young producer for KQED, hadn’t been screened in 50 years. It was filmed with Kodak reversal film.
“It’s a terrible, magnetic-stripe, bland film (material),” he said. A hand-held camera and 26-frame audio lag created bumpy visuals and seams Zagone called “lumpy.” Nevertheless, watching McDonald and fellow band members hurl themselves from slumber to a 1960s vehicle crossing the Golden Gate Bridge to a rehearsal studio in Marin was a compelling tribute to the era.
“Chaos was the actual director of the film,” Zagone said. Most entertaining were the mumbled or possibly substance-influenced comments made by band members during interviews. McDonald, after the video screened, said, “It’s so embarrassing when musicians are asked to explain themselves. It hasn’t changed in all these years. Singing is still easier for me.”
For people who were at the concert in 1969, Country Joe and Woodstock represented much more than a film, according to one audience member. “I was called Bebop then, because I was a hang-out, party person,” said Oakland resident Robert Peck, in an interview.
“One night I wandered away from the stage and my feet got really hot. They were on fire. Everyone was laughing at me. Turns out, there was electrical trickle coming down from the sound towers into the mud. I was getting a mild electrical shock. I’ll never forget Woodstock.”
While introducing the night’s feature film, McDonald said the producers at the time had no idea they were making a radical statement. “It was a music film,” he said. “For our generation, the music was an escape from the Vietnam War.”
The film’s split-screen and other cinematic features were novelties, as was McDonald’s last-minute performance on the first Friday of Woodstock.
With traffic woes and other disorganization disrupting the scheduled band, McDonald was just hanging out, prepared to play on a later day. Someone asked him to fill in, found him a guitar and “literally shoved me out on stage.”
Famously — and “infamously” he told the audience in Berkeley — he issued his signature, “Gimme an F” call. “People from Manhattan knew the ‘F Cheer’ and the ‘Fixin’ To Die Rag’ song,” recalled McDonald. (The original cheer called for “F-I-S-H,” until drummer Chicken Hirsh at a 1968 concert in New York’s Central Park suggested substituting “U” for the “i.”) McDonald said he hollered “u” into the mic and soon after had the 400,000-plus audience standing and singing along.
More than that moment, the release of the film during which the lyrics of McDonald’s song are displayed and tracked by a bouncing ball, marked a milestone in his career.
Although not elevated to the name-recognition of performers featured in the film like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez and others, McDonald continued to be an anthem bearer of the era and has sustained a 50-year career as a professional musician.
A Country Joe & The Fish box set releasing Feb. 2018 from Craft Recordings includes four LPs, replica games, books, calendar and a DVD of “How We Stopped the War,” a 30-minute documentary of the band on its way to an anti-Vietnam War rally that is directed by David Peoples (screenwriter of “Blade Runner,” “Twelve Monkeys,” and “Unforgiven”).
McDonald urged people to remember Vietnam veterans as they watched the films.