Outlaw Lawman Rocker
Barry “The Fish” Melton keeps the San Francisco sound alive.
Thursday, May 20, 2004
In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as a member of the San Francisco psychedelic rock group Country Joe&the Fish, Barry Melton was aligned with the nascent anti-war movement, the ecology movement and the womens’ rights movement. By 1982, Melton had taken a different approach to ensuring that the government respected personal freedoms, when the guitar player passed the California bar exam.
Melton, who studied law during tours with Country Joe McDonald&band in the late ‘70s, had a fairly simple reason for becoming a lawyer. “I thought I was gonna save all my musician friends from bad record contracts,” he says. “I’m half kidding.”
Now, Melton is serving as the Chief Public Defender for Yolo County. For Melton, his current job duties are simply an extension of what he has always done. “I really enjoy what I’m doing here. I fight the government,” he says. “I have been doing that my whole life.”
Long before his suit-and-tie gig, Barry “The Fish” Melton met Country Joe McDonald at the 1964 Berkeley Folk festival. Almost a year later, the duo recorded a song for a “talking issue” of McDonald’s folk music magazine called Rag Baby.
By 1966, McDonald and Melton were making big waves in the Bay Area music scene with a newly recruited backing band. According to Melton, San Francisco’s psychedelic music scene was relatively small when his group began. “When we first started as an electric band, there wasn’t much competition,” he says.
That all changed in 1967 with the Monterey Pop Festival, an event that catapulted San Francisco bands like Jefferson Airplane, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother & the Holding Company and Country Joe & the Fish into the nation’s consciousness. “It was really the Monterey Pop Festival that put us all on the map,” Melton says.
After Monterey Pop, Country and Melton were invited to perform at another get-together, this time in the rural New York berg known as Woodstock. One of Melton’s most memorable moments in the festival began when his group was set to perform after Joe Cocker. As a heavy rain started to fall, the group realized they should placate the audience. “We started to bang on various things to keep the crowd amused,” Melton says. Eventually, Melton says he started a cheer calling for “no rain” with the festival’s attendees—a cheer recorded for posterity on the Woodstock album and movie. That was followed by the infamous “Fish Cheer” (“Gimme an ‘F!’).
In the ‘70s, Melton says, he spent a lot of time recording in Europe, and in 1982, the guitarist formed a supergroup of ‘60s San Francisco-sound survivors called the Dinosaurs, including former Jerry Garcia Band keyboardist Merl Saunders, and former Quiksilver Messenger Service guitarist John Cipollina.
Even though Melton is a busy man with his day job, he still finds time to perform all over the Bay Area with a band featuring Banana, the former keyboardist/guitarist/vocalist of The Youngbloods, and Peter Albin, an original member of Big Brother & the Holding Company.
Melton says that during the evenings he just enjoys making improvisational rock music with his band. “If people are coming to see political theater, it’s a mistake,” he says.
Barry “The Fish” Melton Plays Sly McFly’s, 700 Cannery Row, Monterey, Saturday at 9PM. 649-8050.