June 24, 2004
by BOB DORAN
WHEN I CAUGHT UP WITH BARRY "THE FISH" MELTON [photo above, second from right, and his band], former lead guitarist for the notorious '60s band, Country Joe and the Fish, he was on a break from his "day job" as head public defender for Yolo County.
He recalled a short time in the mid-'60s when he lived in the same house in Oakland as my ex-brother-in-law, Scott. (They went to Grant High School together in Van Nuys.) Melton's room was a closet under the stairs with "just enough room for a mattress and my Navy duffle bag -- and a guitar."
He had come to the Bay Area to attend San Francisco State, but only lasted for 10 weeks, at which point he says he became "an off-campus agitator."
In part because their most famous song was the anti-war anthem, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," the Fish earned a reputation as one of the psychedelic era's most political bands. But Melton contends that the rep was not exactly accurate.
"We made some political statements, but it was only about a tenth of our repertoire. That distinguished us from the vast majority of [bands] who were not including politics at all, and it gave us a uniqueness and an identity. On the balance, we had way more songs about sex than anything else, and we had more songs about drugs than about politics, but who's counting, right?"
And, he points out, even bands like the Grateful Dead, who mostly eschewed political messages, were making statements one way or another. "The Dead played outside of San Quentin protesting executions and stuff. It's just some people figured it might affect their ability to disseminate their music if they incorporated overtly political lyrics. And who's to know -- maybe they were right. Our career sort of tanked after the '60s were over, and they went on to make the big bucks."
Did the fact that they took a stand make a difference? Did the Fish help end the Vietnam War? "What, in my delusions of grandeur or in actuality? To the extent that I was one of millions of young people in the United States who were against that war, I suppose you could include me. We raised money for anti-war causes and gave some focal point to the movement when we played our gigs, so I suppose we were among the many agents of change at that time. But I don't want to overstate the case. We were a band that had a couple of anti-war songs."
At this point, he says he is mostly a "weekend rocker" (although his band is about to head to England for a series of summer gigs). His main business is "crime and punishment stuff," since he passed the state bar exam in 1982.
With a laugh, he describes his current band as "old guys, guys my age," some of them old, old friends. The all-star combo includes Peter Albin, bass player from Big Brother and the Holding Company, Lowell "Banana" Levinger from the Youngbloods on keys, and Roy Blumenfeld from Blues Project on drums.
Melton admits that his vocals "are not going to challenge Aretha Franklin. But that doesn't mean I can't carry a tune. When you hit my age [he just turned 57], most of your illusions about yourself dissolve. I think I'm a good guitar player in a certain genre, and that genre happens to be vaguely associated with a time period, but that doesn't mean the songs have to be from then. So what we do is, we play together. And all of the guys in this band are players, they're musicians, and everybody has been playing for 40 years or more. So we just get up there and play."
What do they play? "Some old stuff, some new stuff, some folk stuff, some Fish stuff, some other stuff. We write songs, but none of us is a `singer-songwriter.' The essence of what we do is play our instruments.
"As we get older our music becomes more and more like jazz in that the song is not as important as what we do with it. Our era was an era that encouraged improvisational forms, in the rock context, and I think we're better at that than we used to be."
He also sees a certain freedom that comes with maturity and with the fact that music is a side job. "I don't need it to make a living, nor did I need it to make a living when I was 17 or 18, because I didn't need anything [back then] other than a place to sleep. So I could be a pure artist when I was young because I didn't care whether I made any money or not. Interestingly enough, I'm back to that same place and in a way, it's even purer.
The Barry Melton Band performs Friday, June 25, at the Riverwood Inn in Phillipsville. Overnight accommodations are available; call 943-1733. Admission is $10. For more on Barry Melton, see counterculture.net/thefish.
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