LE POISSON: Barry Melton and his band played in Paris earlier this year. Not bad for a bunch of old hippies. -->
Line on the Fish
Psychedelic relic Barry Melton's dual life
By Bruce Robinson
Lawyer by day, rock and roller by night. No, it's not the premise for another lame high-concept television series, it's the real-life duality for Barry Melton.
Melton, the long-time musical partner of Country Joe McDonald, is still "the Fish" when performing, wearing the nickname proudly as an artifact of the '60s. It first surfaced when the duo cut a record for a Berkeley antiwar teach-in they held in 1965. "It was a joke," Melton recalls. "We were looking for a silly name that fit the occasion."
But the Fish stuck and, at times, expanded. "Being both singular and plural, whatever band we had at the time would be known as the Fish," he explains. "But we had a dozen different bands over the years, and I'm the only consistent element of those. I suppose that Joe and I as 'Country Joe and the Fish' are sort of like Fleetwood Mac being Mick Fleetwood and John McVie and whoever they happen to be playing with."
These days, when Melton performs, he is usually flanked by a cadre of other alumni from the Summer of Love's musical scene, including Peter Albin (Big Brother and the Holding Company) on bass, Banana (Youngbloods) on keyboards and Roy Blumenfield (Blues Project) on drums. They'll hold forth together at the Los Robles Lodge in Santa Rosa on Friday, Oct. 1.
As for the music they share, "It's fairly straight-ahead rock and roll, but we leave a lot of room to improvise," Melton says. And he sees that structured spontaneity as the psychedelic era's most enduring musical contribution. "I think that we took rock and roll, which was pretty rigidly ordered back then, and we stretched it out a little, kind of like a rubber band, in the sense that we made lots of room for improvisation." The old band's famous "Fish Cheer" ("Gimme an f, gimme a u . . .") was immortalized when Country Joe and the Fish performed at Woodstock, and 35 years after the fact, Melton admits to retaining "a hodgepodge of vague recollections" about the event. "I do remember flying over to the concert itself on the day of the concert with Joe Cocker in a helicopter, looking out over the treetops and seeing people dotted throughout the woods for miles before we got to the festival site itself," he says. "And I remember looking out at the size of the crowd and thinking how enormous it was and what a big deal it was.
"But of course," he adds with a chuckle, "the thing that made it a big deal is that it got filmed."
But Melton does not see Woodstock as the celluloid peak for Country Joe and the Fish, assigning that honor to the less widely seen Monterey Pop, shot two years earlier. "I think of Monterey Pop as being the more historic of those movies, because Monterrey Pop was at a more idealistic time, at the beginning of the counterculture '60s musical movement, instead of the end, which Woodstock was."
About a decade after Woodstock, Melton started to tire of the rock and roll lifestyle, and began taking law school correspondence courses as a path to a more stable life with his wife and kids. "What musicians do on the road is watch TV or read books anyway," he shrugs, "so this was just reading books that were more boring." After five years, he got his degree, passed the bar and went to work.
"I've been doing criminal defense work for the 22 years that I've been a lawyer," he says, numbering five of those as the pubic defender for Mendocino County. These days he holds that office in Yolo County, northwest of Sacramento. "My office handles 10,000 cases a year, so in some way I'm involved in the entire gamut of antisocial behavior from driving without a license to first-degree murder," he observes. And he still gets to deal with some of it firsthand. "During the budget season I have a lot of administrative work to do and when that's done I get to be a lawyer again for six or eight months of the year."
Is it hard to reconcile his legal duties with being an old hippie playing rock and roll? Melton says no.
"I think they balance each other really well," he says. "It's like the right and left sides of my brain. I get to deal with my linear side and my nonlinear side. It's actually kind of cool."
The public defender for Yolo County and his band play on Friday, Oct. 1, at the Los Robles Lodge as part of their 'Roots' series. 1985 Cleveland Lane, Santa Rosa. 8:30pm. $10-$13. 707.588.0707.
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From the September 29-October 5, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.