Country Joe & The Fish :: Section 43 (Live at Monterey Pop Festival)
It’s something about that shriek—the way it piercingly cuts through the otherwise bird-chirping and cawing dewy morning tranquility of what’s on screen. What is on screen is D.A. Pennebaker’s footage of Country Joe & the Fish performing “Section 43” at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in California. Although it’s one scene in the larger sequence of a concert film that features monumentally historic performances of Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas & the Papas, Janis Joplin and so many more—a document that seems to wholly embody the ’60s counter-culture—these five-and-a-half-minutes feel like something, just, a little different. There’s a disturbing energy in the air, the abrasive shriek taking the camera from the gentle rising of festivalgoers rising to an almost Lynchian cut of a woman running from the side and slightly behind. She seems to be running somewhat slowly, strangely, like moving in quicksand, away from something not fully comprehended.
“Section 43,” an instrumental side break on Country Joe & the Fish’s debut album, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, has been suggested as one of the “finest psychedelic instrumentals ever,” by music historian Richie Unterberger, who, in his book Eight miles high: folk-rock’s flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock, praises the song’s “asiatic guitar, tribal maracas, devious organ, floating harmonica, and ethereal mid-sections of delicate koto-like guitar picking.” The album was released the same year as the festival, but his description seems to be specifically describing this particular live performance, something which feels in and of itself adrift. And while the tune, the album, the band as a whole, really, feel like a direct conduit to that Haight-Ashbury scene, it also carries all of that which, in retrospect, feels like heavy baggage from that time. You can hear it in the shriek.
It’s at complete odds with the otherwise easy natured environment of hippies, the rising steam of coffee and tea, babies and dogs, idyllic moments kaleidoscopic kites being twirled, and home-crafted jewels admired by a beautiful gathering of youth, one seemingly without a care in the world. It must have been a cold June morning—everyone’s layered up, wearing flannel and scarves, huddled close to one another and cozy. Some stand around a bonfire bumming smokes and passing joints. Running in stark contrast to them is that woman—the one who presumably screamed, or was that part of Country Joe’s set? Or a post-production embellishment?—she’s wearing a coat that doesn’t look warm enough, she’s alone and looks like she’s probably cold. She seems wrongly exposed, clutching a large purse, and running in the opposite direction. The band seems to be playing directly to whatever her situation is—to the offbeat discord that thinly veils a time capsule of a dream proved fraudulent.
And so likewise, this particular performance of “Section 43” feels headed in the opposite direction. Like a cobra summoning the concertgoers awake, it arrives with an unsettled air. A bluesy vamp that was already off the rails before it ever began, the organ crashing madly around Country Joe McDonald, himself discordantly clad in a military jacket, flower-painted cheeks, and what seems like a plastic and probably ineffective white hardhat placed firmly on his head. Alternately smiling, laughing, or appearing deeply indifferent or off somewhere else, he and the band take the haunted jam into an ambient lull, before briefly teasing a skiffle beat, a little country twang nodding to Joe’s bluegrass roots, and then surrender it into psychedelic oblivion, the organ melting into a dire Victorian swirl. Joe slows it down one final time—gently blowing into his harmonica as the guitars are also slowed and softened. It’s a stark sequence of highs and lows, even more so than on record, and, when taken in full with the imagined horror of its beginnings, begins to feel like something of a warning sign. The crowd coasts along in a blissful state; one woman lying in the grass, her eyes closed; another, a little bit younger, a girl, really, expresses her entranced awe in a glazed over, fanciful fit of toe tapping that could be entirely unrelated to the performance at hand. Not present, is the running woman. The shriek, however, well that seems to follow the camera wherever it may go. Even as it no longer echoes, it seems difficult to square with the crowd’s applause, an applause that the young girl seems unable to bring herself to—her hands clasped, rather. Whether at peace or seeking sanctuary seems difficult to discern. | c depasquale