Imagine this scenario: Woodstock, 1969. With anti-military sentiments at a high, Country Joe McDonald steps up to the microphone, but instead of launching into his anti-war anthem "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag," he tells the 300,000 members of Woodstock Nation that he's a veteran of military service--and he's proud of it.
"I don't think anyone would have believed it," McDonald said last week. "They would have thought I was making a joke."
When McDonald stands on the Forum stage tonight as a proud Navy veteran, the crowd will know it's no joke. In fact, McDonald and a host of other musicians, actors and athletes will be cheered as they lead an event billed as "the official welcome home celebration for our Vietnam veterans."
"At Woodstock there was such a negative feeling toward the military that I subconsciously blocked it (his service) from my mind," McDonald said from the Berkeley office of his Rag Baby record company. Ironically, he noted, he appeared at Woodstock wearing a military shirt. Though he has no qualms about his veteran status now, he believes the climate has not improved significantly.
"I don't think that being a veteran is acceptable today in any mainstream sense, and I find that a very strange contradiction in the American mind-set," he said. "The fantasy Rambo is in, but the reality of what it means to be soldiering is not in.
"People can correct me if I'm wrong," McDonald continued, "but I thought that military service to your country was an honorable thing to do and recognition of those who served is also an honorable thing."
Tonight's show is the first fund-raising event sponsored by Welcome Home Inc., a nonprofit organization supporting various Vietnam veteran outreach and counseling programs and public consciousness-raising projects, including Gov. George Deukmejian's drive to build a Vietnam memorial in California.
In addition to McDonald, scheduled musical performers include Kris Kristofferson, Brian Wilson, Herbie Hancock and Charlie Daniels. Some of the artists also appeared at Woodstock: Neil Young, Graham Nash, John Sebastian, Richie Havens and Sha Na Na.
"That Woodstock generation takes care of its own," McDonald quipped.
Peter Fonda will serve as emcee, with Whoopi Goldberg and John Voight hosting. According to Welcome Home co-founder Joie Talley, some surprise guests are also expected, since many big-name stars are in town for Tuesday's Grammy Awards.
The climax of the evening will see all the participants singing "Welcome Home," a song McDonald wrote for the occasion. At that point, red, white and blue balloons and confetti will be released "as if it were a ticker-tape parade that the Vietnam veterans never had," Talley said.
"What started for me as an interest transformed into an issue, and the issue transformed into something of an obsession," Talley said, tracing his involvement to the Agent Orange-related death of a close friend several years ago. However, she stressed that the Welcome Home event will not be a look back at tragedy, but rather a positive step forward.
"There are going to be no speakers, no awards, no soap box," she promised. "It's going to be one big celebration. It's strictly a show."
(Tickets--priced at $16.50 and $17.50--are still available through TicketMaster and the Forum box office. Those who wish to make donations or purchase tickets to be used by veterans can call (213) 281-7817 for information.)
Talley and McDonald characterized this as a first step in healing the wound left on the United States by the trauma of Vietnam.
"America needs closure on the Vietnam experience," McDonald said.
As for McDonald's involvement in the issue, Talley said simply, "Joe is definitely Mr. Vietnam"--an assessment with which the singer concurs.
"I have an addiction to Vietnam," McDonald confessed. "I've been doing work with veterans now for 15 years, and I probably know more about Vietnam veterans than any other person in the entertainment industry."
Naturally, this is reflected in McDonald's music. His upcoming album is titled "The Vietnam Experience," and the latest issue of "Tape Talk," Rag Baby's audio cassette "magazine," features music of Vietnam veterans.
McDonald, 44, never served in Vietnam. But having enlisted in the Navy at 17 and been stationed as an air traffic controller at the Atsugi, Japan, air facility until his honorable discharge in 1962, he refers to himself as a "Vietnam era veteran."
It was at Woodstock that McDonald, whose band Country Joe & the Fish had risen to prominence on the San Francisco psychedelic scene, inadvertently became a counter-culture spokesman.
His leading of the "F . . . " cheer and his quintessential anti-war sing-along, "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" were intended merely to fill time left by a tardy performer.
With both numbers preserved on film and record--complete with bouncing ball for the sing-along--they remain among Woodstock's most recognized moments.
"If I had known what the end result of that clip being in the film would have been, I don't know if I would have done it," McDonald said. "I wanted to be known as a sensitive poet, not a leader of obscene cheers and a protest singer."
Nonetheless, since that time McDonald has been something of a man for all causes, performing in the name of various social issues. He once wrote a tongue-in-cheek song titled "Bring Back the '60s, Man," poking fun at his image as a lingering hippie.
McDonald makes it clear, though, that the veterans issue is not just one of a long list of causes for him, and that it is vitally linked to his first cause: peace.
"I've always believed that the veterans are a basic element to the understanding of war," he said, "and the understanding of war is the only path to peace."