Asked to nominate his favourite Bob Dylan song, Frank Black discussed how the drum fills in ‘Stuck Inside Of Mobile With The Memphis Blues Again’ could move him to tears. F.J. McMahon’s Spirit Of The Golden Juice has the same effect on me, for what I suspect are very different reasons. Kenny Buttrey’s work on Blonde On Blonde is clipped, fluid, flawless. On Spirit Of The Golden Juice, Junior Nickles is rigid, lumbering, workmanlike, unchanging. Ninety seconds into opener ‘Sister Brother’ is a fill so rickety the song almost grinds to a halt. I smile every time I hear it. It’s part of what makes this extraordinary album so very human.
Fred McMahon was a Santa Barbara surf guitarist who joined the US Air Force in 1965, and two years later received orders for a tour of duty as a military police officer in Vietnam. “It was obviously such a total and complete waste of people and money and material, but there were people getting wealthy off of it! And I was so depressed, disgusted. I mean, it just shattered me”. Relief came in the form of I.W. Harper bourbon, the titular golden juice.
A year after returning, he began to write the songs that would form his only album, which was recorded at a local studio in a day and a half, with two takes per song. A couple of years of low-key bar shows followed, before he turned his back on music: following time as a security officer and Navy avionics technician, he has spent the past 25 years as a computer repair and operations specialist. He assumed his album had been forgotten until hearing a decade ago that original copies were trading hands for $1500, and that bootleg copies had been pressed to satisfy demand.
Mojo magazine noted how Spirit Of The Golden Juice “neither pounces nor creeps but is just there, like you’ve walked in on the middle of it and it’s always been playing.” The production is desperately sparse: that relentless lurching beat, warm flurries of guitar, and a voice: weary, lonely, tense. Delivered in a rich baritone, like a downtrodden Fred Neil or a slightly less doleful Val Stöecklein, McMahon’s words are poetic, contemplative, affecting. Sometimes it seems the pressures of post-war life are almost too much for him: “I wanna close my eyes and pretend it’s night and quiet, so peaceful / But the rising sun starts the day to run wherever it may go” (‘Early Blue’).
But this is not hopeless stuff: there’s warmth here, and plenty of it. Our narrator is a civilised man trying to make sense of a brutal reality. In ‘Five Year Kansas Blues’, he considers the implications of avoiding the draft: five years in Leavenworth Prison, Kansas. “I don’t see no reason for killing some family man / I never knew what they meant by duty / I don’t understand / Guess I’ll go to Kansas and stay for a while / I don’t know about my wife and kids / I’ll be working on a hard rock pile, criminal style”. It’s difficult to think of a stronger or more authentic anti-war statement in any of the protest folk that emerged from 60s America.
Though the shadow of Vietnam hangs over the album, this isn’t purely a protest album – personal issues are brutally documented too. ‘One Alone Together’ deals with McMahon’s struggles in the dating scene on his return, while ‘Black Night Woman’ tells of a associate’s girlfriend who killed herself after finding out her suitor was already married, an event which McMahon says affected him as badly as his buddy.
The album ambles by in less than half an hour, and while some might bemoan the lack of variety, McMahon’s unremitting search for peace is charming, compelling, utterly absorbing. And let’s not forget the tunes: the brittle backing never overshadows the graceful melodies within. The title track ends the album on a mixed note: McMahon judges that “There ain’t hardly been a time when life’s been too good to lose”, but concludes that “It was worth everything we went through”. Creating these songs was clearly a brave step for McMahon, and richly rewarding for the rest of us.
The album was re-released in a lovely package by Rev-Ola a couple of years ago with excellent sleevenotes, but the original back cover tell you all you need to know:
“F.J. McMahon is a quiet individual in an exciting way.”