Sometimes surprises come out of the most unexpected places. Originally released in 1969, F.J. McMahon’s spellbinding album Spirit of the Golden Juice is a dewy, polaroid snapshot of anti-war sentiment intertwined with tales of heartbreak and resilience. Having been contacted by the label Mexican Summer (Allah-Las, Quilt), F.J. McMahon was asked if they could release it, launching the album out of obscurity, which has resulted in it receiving the press and appreciation it truly deserves.
Hailing from the sun-kissed town of Santa Barbara, California, F.J. McMahon spent his childhood there before enlisting in the Vietnam war. As the psychedelic revolution was gaining momentum with its progressive ideals that were in response to the oppressive paradigms of the 1950’s, bands like Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead were facilitating social change through reverb embossed melodies encouraging revolution and resistance to the man.
Hedonistic pleasures were being soaked up by the technicolor generation, with the flower power, stoned populous riding a new wave of freedom that was unlike anytime before. While this movement could strongly be felt in places like San Francisco and Los Angeles, a different world was unfolding across the world as the Vietnam War ravaged on. Spirit of The Golden Juice explores the perils of war and the heavy emotional tax that comes with it. It serves as a kind of audio history that is narrated through folksy, Americana style sounds bringing to mind Bob Dylan like sensibilities with its exceptional songwriting qualities and tender guitar riffs in songs like “Sister Brother” and “Black Night Woman” that melt like a California sunset into purple-tinged mountains.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like?
I grew up in Santa Barbara all my life until I was eighteen and then graduated high school and then left. I came back after that for a little bit.
When I was over in Southeast Asia our favorite thing was I.W. Harper Bourbon and we’d call it the “golden juice.” When you’d hold the glass up to the light it would look golden. So when I was writing, I was trying all these different ideas and I was just trying to get the spirit of everything that I had seen and experienced in the last four years. Pretty much from the time I graduated high school to the time I got back to Santa Barbara from Vietnam. I thought spirit of the golden juice was an all-encompassing title that captured what I had seen and been through but also had some mystery to it. When I was doing the whole album I was thinking of all kinds of different word combinations and titles for the album and trying different things. The fortunate thing was, I had no idea what I was doing so it was total and complete freedom to do what I wanted. I didn’t have a clue on how to write songs; I had played them for years but hadn’t written them before. So I just went ahead and did it.
This album feels like a collection of stories- many of the songs sound reflective of your various emotional states during the war. Can you describe the story behind your track Sister Brother?
Sister Brother is my reaction to 1968. I was coming back from across the ocean and everything was so different. The country was tearing itself apart- really split down the middle. The left progressive was really left and the people on the right were really right. Nobody was being American. It was tough to watch and see.
You read and hear so much about that time period- particularly things like the summer of love and this booming period of psychedelic music, art, and culture. What are your feelings about that time?
It is a difficult feeling to describe. You really felt like things were going to change for the better. You could see it in the younger people; thirty-five and under give or take. You could see a whole change. It wasn’t just going to be robots on an assembly line that were popping out a couple kids, and that was it. I mean they really wanted to make a positive change and make things better. It was pretty wonderful for a while. There was nothing that had happened like it before. It was great. And then everything just kind of crumbled. Mostly because of Vietnam and hard drugs came into the picture. That really hurt more than anyone was ready for. When hard drugs come into the picture then organized crime comes in, and then you’re screwed.
What did you do when you got back from the war?
When I got back, I primarily was just hanging out and getting used to what was going on. But then after that, I traveled around and just played anywhere I could. It was back in the days when you could walk into a place and just ask the bartenders if you could set up and pass the hat. This was before pay to play and all the other stuff they have now that changed the music scene so much. I went everywhere from San Diego to San Francisco and everywhere in between. It was literally hitting the road and going, not knowing where you would end up. It was complete freedom. I was fortunate to be able to feed myself- the music industry is a whole different world now. People don’t really pay for live music as much as they used to.
You became a career engineer- can you talk about that a little bit?
I had a career in computer engineering and did that for almost thirty years. I wasn’t playing music much then. There was a couple times during my forties when I played in this psychedelic rockabilly band. That was great fun.
What got you into playing music? What sparked your interest?
I played trumpet for a couple years and realized it’s really hard to sing when you’re accompanying yourself on trumpet so I started learning how to play guitar. All through junior high school and then high school I was in one of Santa Barbara’s first real rock bands. We played Earl Warren every weekend, parties at graduation, and just everywhere. That was my job in high school. My job was a gigging musician. I started out in The Cordells, then The Golden Guitars, and The Checkmates. There was a band called Ernie & The Emperors that was coming up right after us and they were a real popular band. A couple of the guys went and played with them after we graduated and left. We went down to LA to record a couple times. We were going to audition for a spot on one of the TV shows down there but it ended up falling through.
Spirit of The Golden Juice was released in 1969 and when I was up in San Francisco, I got to experience different kinds of music types; it was a different scene going on up there. So I had this synthesis of all these different scenes. San Francisco is a different world now, but things move on and technology moves on. Now you can just record an entire album in your bedroom on a laptop and people do. It is way different. Sometimes I will go on YouTube and will find some stuff that is really great. There is still a bunch of corporate-generated stuff that is out there just to make money though.
What are you listening to these days that has caught your attention?
I am getting into South American nylon string jazz. It’s kind of samba like with complicated jazz rhythms in it. You can be on the beach or headed to the jungle and have all these visions in your head. That’s really fun for me right now.
So Anthology which belongs to Mexican Summer re-issued the album. How did that come about?
Well, this kind of thing has been happening for a while. This one guy put out a vinyl bootleg around 2002 and that’s when I found out there was some interest in it at all. In 2009, Rev-Ola records in London reissued it on CD and that went great. These things just pop out of nowhere and Mexican Summer sent me an email and asked if it would be okay for them to release the album to which I said certainly. It was great because we did a concert- Quilt played as my backup band in LA and it was fun. It’s just been really good.