Caught by the River

An interview with F.J. McMahon

Ian Preece | 16th September 2017

By Ian Preece

The premise of last year’s Numero Uno compilation Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music was to gather together lost and small private-press gems of country rock from the sixties and seventies and shine a light on them for a new generation. With its striking neon buckarooing cowboy cover, housed in an old-style laminated tip-on jacket, and with plentiful sleevenotes, it’s by and large a terrific LP. Buried right at the end – track 18 of 19 – a languorous guitar and sullen drum break usher in the cut of the record: F.J. McMahon’s ‘Spirit of the Golden Juice’, written about a liquor that went out of business and a country that waged war abroad. This summer I’ve been lucky enough to drive down Highway 1 through the Redwood forests of California, the sea spray and Pacific fog, picking our way through the landslides and closed-off sections of Big Sur, living out of suitcases and diners, the Cosmic American Music CD filling the car with tales of misty-eyed departing lovers, whiskey in the gutter, phones that don’t ring, jobs and lives to return to, and lonely entertainers who ‘know a lot of famous people but don’t remember their names’. One of the other CDs in the car is a promo of the Anthology Recordings edition of F.J. McMahon’s fine Spirit of the Golden Juice album, reissued this August on vinyl for only the second time since its initial release in 1969. From Portland, down through Gold Coast, Mendocino and on to San Francisco then Santa Barbara and LA, I drive my family mad, repeatedly playing McMahon’s slightly folky, not quite bluesy, fractionally Fred Neil-esque 29-minute lament to a country that went to war, the lives wrecked by that and the whiskey consumed to ease the pain, namely IW Harper Bourbon.

By the end of the trip I’m sitting in Du-Par’s Restaurant and Bakery in Studio City, LA, opposite F.J., whose club sandwich is going cold as I press him about Vietnam and he enthuses about the Cosmic American Music LP that prompted the current reissue of Golden Juice. ‘The Numero people called me up and said could they put a song on there. They’re kind of like crate diggers who do the digging for you and find all this neat stuff. The first song on that record, I must have played it thirty times in a row [‘Travelin’’ by the Dallas County Green, with Jimmy Carter]. Oh, the energy – just great.’ F.J. bats away my suggestion his track is the pick of the bunch but lights up when I mention another track, Jeff Cowell’s ‘Not Down this Low’: ‘Isn’t that the absolute best opening pickup line you heard in your life? It’s got a nice musical flow, and your brain’s listening to it, and it’s like “Down in the gutter . . .’ – oh, OK, he’s rubbed out – “ . . .where I found my true love” – OK, that guy’s got the best line ever written to open a song.’ Kenny Knight (of the recently reissued Crossroads on Paradise of Bachelors) is on there too: ‘Oh yeah, he’s got a really neat sound. I love that sound – almost like a fifties rocker . . . great record, man.’

Jeff Cowell, it turns out, was a Vietnam vet too. A kind of bittersweet sadness always pervades the sleevenotes of such archival reissue projects – well, the country rock ones at least. That first high of the debut LP turns out to be the only high, to be followed by a sense of failure, a return to anonymity and the burying of broken dreams, sometimes with the help of the whiskey bottle – and now it’s the autumn of people’s lives. F.J.’s story is not immune from some of this. Back in San Francisco, Steve, the Superior Viaduct label head and co-owner of the Stranded record stores, had told me the 2012 vinyl edition of Spirit of the Golden Juice disappeared within days. ‘Yeah, it did exactly that,’ rues F.J. ‘They came out with 500. Gone. I still have to try and understand that. It’s still hard for me to do – because I can still remember when I couldn’t get arrested. But, in fairness, if you stop and look at it, my record came out in 1969. Well, 1969 – Led Zeppelin’s first record came out; the first Crosby Stills and Nash record came out; Creedence Clearwater was having a number one hit every other weekend . . . there was such great, top-line music . . the Jeff Beck group, I think that started in 1969, or right around then . . . and here is my little record – no, not really,’ he laughs.

But in truth, at the time, he was devastated by the album’s failure to register. There’s a poignant sense in the Cosmic American Music sleevenotes that F.J. thought this was the beginning, that he’d made a record, it would sell, he’d make another one – no need to get a job back in the air force. That it didn’t turn out like that he has described as being like a ‘harpoon to the heart’: ‘It came out on this little label, Accent. It didn’t have much of a production and all that, no publicity – it got sent out to top 40 stations and they’d say, “Ah, there’s nothing on here for us.” And it started to disappear, and the Tigereye [production company] guys said, “Ah, it’s not going to happen” and they wandered off – god knows what ever happened to them. And that was it; it was done,’ he says, his voice rising a notch. ‘But I still wanted to play music, so I was hooking up with bar bands, or doing singles. And sometimes I’d go to a bowling alley, and I’d say, “Can I set up in the corner?” And the guy’d say, “Yeah, sure, go ahead. Pass the hat.”’

I ask if he played songs from The Spirit of Golden Juice.

‘Almost never.’

F.J. had plenty of form in cover bands. In 1961 in junior high school he’d formed the first surf band in Santa Barbara, a seaside town where an occasional saxophone quartet would roll by. From 9th through to 12th grade he was a paid musician, playing both bass and guitar – they played so many gigs the musicians’ union got in touch. But as school days drew to a close, the clouds began to amass. At 18 F.J. enlisted in the air force ‘because in high school I was a rock ’n’ roller and a surfer and not a very good student (except for English and reading and history – I loved those). So I knew I wasn’t going to go to college. I knew the army was going to draft me the minute I got out of high school, so I enlisted in the air force.’ It’s a time captured perfectly on the second track on side two of Golden Juice: ‘Well, it’s like the song “Five Year Kansas Blues”: you’re 18 years old, you’re leaving high school, you have a choice: you can go to Vietnam, or you can go to prison for five years. Man, that’s a tough decision at 18.’ I remark how inconceivable and chilling that sounds: my two kids are 18 at the moment, and they’re still kids. ‘Exactly. They drafted ’em, they trained ’em up and sent ’em overseas for six or eight months – if they made it they made it; if they didn’t they didn’t.’

On the way down the coast we’d driven for stretches inland, at one point past Camp Roberts near Paso Robles on the road to San Luis Obispo, a vast, seemingly deserted military camp on one side of Highway 101; a single rail track with a freight train, its cars stacked high with military hardware, tanks and armoured vehicles moving slowly in the late-afternoon sun on the other. There wasn’t a human being in sight, just empty military buses on the highway. ‘During Vietnam there was like 60-to-80,000 guys stationed up there,’ says F.J. ‘[Nowadays] it’s a kind of combination of storage area and training camp for reservists, running around the hills, doing their thing . . . your taxes at work!’

By 1966–67 F.J. found himself in the military police living ‘very much a schizophrenic existence’ up in Mill Valley, north of San Francisco. ‘Depending which shift I was working I would be guarding nuclear weapons by day or night, and then when I wasn’t, I’d go change into civilian clothes and go jump on a bus into the city. I’d go to the Avalon or the Fillmore, and I’d see all these bands before they were famous – Big Brother and the Holding Company, Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service – all of them. They’d only been around a couple of years, they hadn’t made it yet, so you could walk up to ’em: “Hey, how are ya?” It was great, and they were looser – so the music was kind of more fun. [Later] they’d get handlers – tell ’em what to do, what to say, what not to say. But at the time it was nothing to walk into the Avalon, an old World War II ballroom, also somebody’s living room, and walk up to Janis Joplin and say, “Hi, how are you?” and talk about whatever.’ F.J. also hung around Sausalito, where a lot of the bands lived on houseboats just the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, to escape the city. ‘You’d walk along and you’d hear Grace Slick singing over here, and you’d walk a little further and you’d hear some other band, have something to eat, go to a little bar somewhere. My god it was like the whole world crammed into one little place; it was great – I loved that place.’ Quicksilver Messenger Service were a particular favourite: ‘Absolutely, hands down, because they were most innovative and creative jam band. They would do a song and it would go into another song and you wouldn’t even realise it. They had John Cipollina, who was one of the most fantastic guitarists of the era, and history kind of overlooked him in a way.’ I ask what happened to him. ‘He got emphysema and died.’

It must have been pretty weird, seeing the likes of Love and Janis Joplin, but knowing the call was coming: ‘Yeah, the usual rule of thumb is you enlist for four years, you’d spend two or three in the States doing what I was doing, then the last year they’d ship you over to south-east Asia and then, depending on where you were stationed, you could easily party yourself to death, or you could be killed by the people who wanted to kill us. I didn’t know what to believe – you’d hear all these stories. And then [in America] it got to the point where almost every neighbourhood knew someone who was wounded or killed. I’d go on leave in Santa Barbara, this picturesque little seaside town. [As you drive through] you pass the main graveyard in the centre of town, there’s a bird refuge by the beach, and then right up the hill: that’s the main graveyard, and you’d see military funerals there every single weekend. Every. Single. Weekend. Unreal.’

I say I understand if he doesn’t want to talk about the war, but he shrugs it off: ‘Nah, that’s fine. I got really lucky – super-lucky.’ Being in the Military Police meant primarily guarding stores and equipment, being in ‘the air force’s infantry’ rather than the front line. ‘My main station was Don Mueang, Thailand, which was the military part of the main airport at Bangkok. And then what would happen is they’d form teams, and if they thought military reinforcement was needed at Cam Rahn Bay or Da Nang or whatever, they’d get a team of twenty or fifty guys and they’d fly ’em there for a few days to beef up their security forces. So I got to go all over Vietman, and most of the time it was OK.’ There’s a slight doubt in his voice. ‘But then sometimes at night time people would be shooting at you, trying to kill you, and you didn’t even know. The first time that happened, I’m sitting in a vehicle, guarding the runway [in Cam Rahn Bay, Vietnam], and then I started seeing little flashes about halfway down the runway – started hearing pop, pop, pop: “Oh shit, it’s really war!”’, he laughs. ‘But the majority of the time you’re too hot, too cold, too bored, and every once in a while somebody would shoot a mortar shell at you or something.’

I wonder when the anti-war sentiment that infuses Spirit of the Golden Juice began to ferment. While he was over there?

‘No, not yet, because in 1967 I’m 21 years old, I’ve been raised on all these World War II films that they always showed on TV, the John Wayne films, all that stuff, and the American flag-waving . . . America’s always right, blah, blah, blah. There was this thing in the paper where people from Berkeley were doing this [anti-war protest], and I was like, ‘Why? What’s that all about?’ But then [over time] there were a whole bunch of things/aspects of it: the whole war thing – totally wasteful, stupid, meaningless . . . and then you saw how other people lived. I’m from Santa Barbara, a surfer, rock ’n’ roller, right? And some people were born in the street, live in the street, have children in the street, and die in the street. That’s a whole life, and their whole shelter is a bus stop at the kerb. And I had all this stuff doing a number in my head, because I had no clue. This was still Disneyland [for me], still Mickey Mouse Club days . . . So that kind of thing didn’t develop until after six or seven months – then [in Bangkok] I started seeing the graft and corruption that was involved; seeing the higher-ups, officers, senior NCOs who would intentionally indicate to you that really you needed to look another way sometimes if you saw something because it was not a good idea to go telling. Stuff would come in on huge cargo planes. No matter what it was – toilet paper, flashlights, swim suits, record players, tape players, whatever – they’d unload it and they’d put in a warehouse, and I’d look at it, then I’d come back on duty the next morning and half of it was gone. And people were just totally unconcerned about it, couldn’t care less. That was a regular thing. Bangkok was a big R&R place – rest and recuperation for the soldiers out in the field. And they’d come in on leave, or a few days’ pass, or something, and from the second the planes landed and they got off of the plane there’d be taxi cabs waiting, and these cabs were operated by certain people who operated the hotels, who operated the brothels, who operated the bars. Before a GI’s foot hit the ground his money was already spent and divided up between the powers that be. Ordinary soldiers coming in off the field after three or four months, their pockets would be bulging with money, and then a week or so later they’d be broke, they’d be hungover, god knows whatever else they got.’

So it was a long year?

‘A long year.’

I ask what he thought about representations of the war in film and literature, things like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter; Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke and Larry Brown’s Dirty Work.

‘I went for a long time where it was just blank. I didn’t feel anything. Then around 1990 or so it really bothered me to watch Vietnam movies and stuff. And then about ten years ago it just all caught up with me, and I finally went to the VA and saw the therapist and counsellor – a really great lady. That’s all she does: help and listen to guys like me. She was wonderful, but it really caught up with me.’

So you generally avoid books and films about Vietnam?

‘Not now. There are a few films that are really worthwhile that really convey what it was like there – and those I find reassuring because it is history marked down, and people need to remember what it was like.’

Which films?

‘Obviously Platoon, Oliver Stone, is very good. There’s one called The Siege of Firebase Gloria – and that is so like right on; it had awards an’ all – very, very good.’

Any books?

‘Yeah, well, actually, I haven’t thought about that in years. There is a book called The LBJ Brigade by William Wilson – a devastating book. Just so true, honest, right on. It’s fiction, but it might as well not be. So good – ah, I forgot about that.’

I mention I’m reading Larry Brown’s Dirty Work, from 1987 – a pretty devastating account of two Vietnam vets who end up in a VA hospital twenty years after the war has ended.

‘I can empathise with that. Tell you what’s really weird now. I go to the VA hospital a lot for medication, advice and whatnot, and I go there, and you see a World War II vet every once in a while, a tonne of Vietnam vets, and then you see all these guys from 2003 on up. All these young guys, just totally screwed over, and you see it in their face . . . “What was I there for? What did I accomplish?” And it’s still going on,’ says F.J., with equal parts incredulity and anger.

I mention that, having been on the road for nearly three weeks, I haven’t seen a newspaper. He laughs: ‘Ah, you’re lucky, consider it a psychological vacation.’

I did witness a furious row on bus in San Francisco though, between a rabid guy in a baseball cap who claimed his son was on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea and an old lady with a walking frame who was more than capable of holding her own, and more concerned with developments in North Korea and any likely impact on the West Coast than the lunatic in front of her who, at one point, in terms far more unpleasant than I’m going to use here, accused her of being a Hilary Clinton supporter, then screamed right in her face, ‘Have you ever seen anyone killed, lady?!’ I was worrying about intervening when he got off at 16th and Mission, one of the many spots in San Francisco where the crack addicts and homeless hang out. ‘[Things are] very similar; in some ways worse,’ says F.J., ‘because, like you notice, nowadays manners, good taste, and that type of thing have almost all but disappeared. I think we’ve got a problem, and we’ve had a problem for a while, because our political system is really screwed up. In choosing people to run the government, it’s gotten to the point where you really don’t have that much of a choice. What we lack is anyone who can mend the nation and bring people together. When Obama was elected everyone hoped he was going to be the dude, and he turned out to be just a front, just a do-nothing. What we need is a healer, and so far, we haven’t gotten one.’

Nothing changes. Kuwait, Iraq, Syria, North Korea. It’s like the French family in Apocalypse Now, barricaded into their own encampment up river like it’s 1868 not 1968, who say ‘You crazy Americans, haven’t you learnt from us?’

‘Yeah, it’s the same exact thing,’ agrees F.J. ‘We went into Afghanistan. The Russians had been there for ten years – got their butt kicked. It’s always ongoing.’

F.J. served 4 years and 19 days before being discharged because his time was up and he was really ill with hepatitis: ‘South-east Asia was really dirty. A C-141 Starlifter was at the airport and they drove me out there and put me on it – a C-141 Starlifter is a huge aircraft; it’s gigantic, can carry a hundred people, whatever. I get on this thing and I’m the only one on it – but it’s full of empty stretchers. So they put me on there, tied me down, and then we went to Da Nang and Cam Rahn Bay. I forget the order, but the first one, the back of the plane, the big doors opened up [and in no time] all the stretchers were filled up with kids who had been wounded in the field, tubes and bottles and god knows what; so we seal it up and then we go to the other place – and then the other half of the plane is filled up; the entire plane is stacked, six-people high, on stretchers, full of people all busted up. They offloaded us in the Philippines – man, that was just awful, that was nasty. I’m looking at all these people; here I am, just 22 years old, the old man. I’m looking at all these kids. Wow, what did they do this for? Nobody’s got any answers. That was brutal.

‘But, yeah, I went to an air force hospital, stayed there a couple of months, got well. They cut me loose then I went back to Santa Barbara. The first thing they tell you when they process your paperwork: “Take off your uniforms, either pack ’em away or throw ’em away; do not wear ’em in town. Do not wear ’em on the buses; do not wear ’em on planes. Wear civilian clothes; go to base exchange and get some Levi’s or something.”

Back in early 1967 F.J. may have been looking after nuclear weapons, but he was also hanging out in ‘this free hippy artist community where, you know, everything was cool. I left at the end of the summer of love and at that time, I thought, “Well, human beings are moving on and reaching another level of human consciousness, and they are going to be a good group of people who do positive things.”’ A year later, after Walter Cronkite’s reporting of the Tet Offensive, he returned to a country where soldiers would be ‘walking down the street in their uniform and people were throwing stuff at them, calling them “baby killers”. This 20-year-old kid who came back from hell, he’s going, “What?” You know, “What about John Wayne and all that stuff?” It was almost like a science fiction movie – it was so scary it was unbelievable. I come back, and the country is just tearing itself apart; it’s practically civil war. And I’m just going: “What the hell happened to the place I grew up in?” It took a long time to get a handle on it.’

For almost a year he just sat around: ‘Didn’t do much of anything, played guitar, just kind of watched TV and then right around the beginning of 1969 these two guys who were trying to get a production company together [Tigereye] approached me when I was playing a coffee house, and they said, “Yeah, we’re trying to get some artists together, a stable. Would you be interested in recording?” And I said, “Sure.”’

So F.J. retreated to his grandmother’s house in Santa Barbara and spent three or four months writing the album, processing it all: the hostility at home, the futility of war, the loss of life, families ripped apart. ‘Black Night Woman’ is about a GI bride who kills herself when she realises her man isn’t bringing her back for a new life in America; ‘The Road Back Home’ wonders how anyone can feel proud of what America has become; ‘Five Year Kansas Blues’ just about hits the nail on the head: ‘I don’t see no reason for killing some family man/I never knew what they meant by duty/I don’t understand.’ In ‘Sister, Brother’ there’s a longing for peace, happier times and the freedom to be what you want to be – weighed up against a despondency at what the future could look from like from here: ‘Just one time I’d like to see everyone smile/I guess it won’t happen, not for a while’.

But the album is certainly no earnest polemic. There’s wistfulness and longing, a sense of times changing, the old movie theatres, ice-cream parlours and roller rinks closing down. And there’s a lightness of touch in keeping with the grandmasters of the era, who presided over troubled times but condensed it all into breathtakingly beautiful, simple records: Arthur Lee, early Tim Buckley and Lee Hazelwood, but especially Gene Clark and Fred Neil. F.J. McMahon has a composure and a vocal delivery with occasional shades of all these, but he’s very much his own man. And ‘Early Blue’ is just gorgeous – a hymn to the struggle of facing the world every morning, but doing it anyway, the track even features a beautiful organ solo by Accent label owner Scott Seeley. The bass and drums (for the whole album) had been put down in under three hours one morning – the ‘two and a half riffs’ F.J. knew bent and stretched into eight songs (‘fortunately they came out sounding different’). But Scott Seeley pointed out it was still too short: ‘“Write another song!” So I said, “Uh oh,” and sat down, and about 10 or 15 minutes later I had “Sister, Brother”’. The next afternoon F.J. put on some lead guitar and vocals on a four-track recorder at Seeley’s place but had ‘gotten to the point where I couldn’t do any more – I couldn’t stretch the little that I knew to do anything else, so I turned to Scott and said, “I’m done. I can’t do anything else. Could you play? Put some kind of keyboard thing in ‘Early Blue’?” Terrified him. He was a classically trained pianist – and music to him, you sit down with Bach or Beethoven and you know them by rote. The thought of just sitting by a keyboard and making something up . . . but, to his credit, he did it. That little solo! And it’s so funny because listening to that solo, the very last part goes da-dah, da-dah . . . he didn’t know where to go or what to do, but those four notes fit mathematically, and he was so happy with that when it was done he’d got this huge smile on his face, and I think that was one of the happiest musical moments of his life. And every time I hear that now, I just think of Scott smiling. It was so cool.’

I ask if Scott is still around, playing the organ. ‘Oh, he passed away a few years ago – he lived until 99. He did good, real good.’

The four of them never played live. ‘Jon Uzonyi, the bass player, had his own band Peacepipe, and he went on to do whatever he went on to do,’ recalls F.J. ‘Jimmy Nichols, the drummer, he was like a CBS employee drummer – just comes in for the session, does his thing, and he’s gone.’ F.J. never saw him again, and the last he heard of Uzonyi he ‘moved back to Arizona and became a plumber’.

F.J. himself had an existential crisis wearing white vinyl boots and an aloha shirt in a bar band in Hawaii sometime in the mid-seventies, decided to put music on the back burner, got married, had kids, then spent the rest of his working life in computers after an apprenticeship of four years learning the ropes as an ‘electronics guy’ in the navy. The record did get its live debut, in June this year in San Francisco, with the East Coast band Quilt providing backing: ‘I remember gigging: always the same,’ says F.J. ‘You get butterflies before you go on. Halfway through the first chorus it’s fine – gone. Totally gone, because the way you play music is you play what you practise, you play what you rehearse – as long as you rehearse properly, you’re good to go. And that’s exactly what happened at the concert – it was great. Quilt was superb – they were the best bunch of people. It was really interesting because one of ’em didn’t show up – the bass player. So we had a drummer, two guitarists and me with a guitar. A drummer and three guitars, and it ended up sounding great! As a matter of fact, something happened to “Black Night Woman” – they came up with some sounds, whatever, but when we played “Black Night Woman” it just sent chills up your spine. Normally it’s this light melancholy love song, and when we did it live it came out as this powerhouse rolling thing. Just great!’

If you need a record that’s slightly weary and lovelorn; melancholic but with an unmistakable sixties vocal and comfortable groove all of its own, Spirit of the Golden Juice is just right for these late hazy summer days and uncertain times.

F.J. remains eternally grateful to Tiffany Anders, a music selector for TV and radio (and daughter of Alison Anders, Gas Food Lodging) who alerted Joe Foster at Rev-ola to the album back in 2009. The resulting British CD was the first legitimate reissue of Golden Juice since 1969, and F.J. is similarly touched by the response to the 2017 edition: ‘It’s fascinating – I read a couple of reviews, and it still just blows me away that people still listen to it so closely and like it. This is like some holiday movie or something that’s happening to me – it normally just does not happen . . . it’s great, I’m going with it.’ His laugh rumbles across the table.

We finish up by talking about George Orwell. I rate his prescience: the only thing he got wrong was that the screens are in people’s hands rather than on the wall. ‘George Orwell, he was right – but he didn’t realise we’d be doing it to ourselves,’ agrees F.J. ‘He called it, he flat-nailed it, absolutely everything. Yeah, everyone’s got their own little monitor. Did you see that Snowden film?’ I hadn’t. ‘You need to see it. It’s fascinating, it’ll scare you to death.’ Even more so than 1984 F.J. rates Animal Farm: ‘The way he laid out how personalities worked, how power-trips worked. The very last phrase of the book, where the pigs – who were the smartest – finally wound up with the humans, drinking and smoking cigars together . . . the last sentence is: you couldn’t tell the humans from the pigs.’

Gent that he is, he refuses to let me settle up for breakfast: ‘Nah, take it easy.’


F.J. McMahon’s Spirit of the Golden Juice is out now on Anthology Recordings. Ian Preece’s book on independent record labels in America and Europe will be published by Omnibus in early 2019. Thanks to Will Lawrence and Niki Milano.

Ian Preece on Caught by the River