On The Turntable: F.J. McMahon's Spirit Of The Golden Juice August 02 2017
Santa Barbara's F.J. McMahon cut one record, 1969's impossibly rare Spirit Of The Golden Juice, before disappearing into the ether (or, in reality, a career as a computer engineer). A brilliant slice of singer-songwriter folk-rock and one of the most brutally personal and honest treatises on the Vietnam War, Spirit Of The Golden Juice has long been one of the more coveted obscurities of the hippie era. It was originally released on the Accent label, the sort of befuddling enterprise that released 45 after 45 of the most tepid schlock you've ever heard while simultaneously gracing the world with three and four figure garage, psych and soul rarities from legends like The Human Expression, and intriguingly named acts like Soul Injection, Silk Winged Alliance and Peacepipe, as well as this lone(r) singer-songwriter masterstroke. Accent was the kind of label whose bi-polar A&R work could seemingly only be explained by something like the label owner's turned on, tuned in and dropped out offspring being brought into the fold circa 1967; the kind of label with such counter-cultural disconnect that they'd describe the monster garage-psych of The Human Expression on their 45 labels as "vocal with orchestra."
Inspired by McMahon's time in the military, the songs of Spirit Of The Golden Juice are dark and rarely hopeful. These are the reflections of a young man unable to come to terms with what he has seen and a humanity that would allow such things to happen. While the songs are anti-war, they are not cliched or preachy. Instead they are uniquely personal (like "Black Night Woman" about the suicide of a GI's foreign girlfriend or "The Road Back Home" about struggling to find yourself after war). They are the songs of a man who spent the Summer Of Love in Southeast Asia, not San Francisco, a man who hated war not just on principle but because he had lived its atrocities.
Spirit Of The Golden Juice draws comparisons to everyone from Tim Hardin and Fred Neil, to Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. While the Dylan comparison falls flat lyrically and vocally, where it makes perfect sense is in the musicianship; Spirit Of The Golden Juice plays out like a West Coast John Wesley Harding, as it employs a country session drummer whose in-the-pocket drum work is a centerpiece of the record – subdued yet funky, complex but unobtrusive. It's the perfect complement to McMahon's stellar lead guitar work which was inspired by surf wizards like The Ventures and Dick Dale. When transposed to the acoustic guitar as it is here, it delivers a swirling, haunting effect that renders the songs even more powerful. But nothing is as important to the record as that voice and those lyrics. The gripping tenor of McMahon's voice rivals that of Hardin and Neil. Dare I say it, while both of those more famous artists may have had higher highs in their songwriting career, neither of them ever put together an album as consistently honest and striking as Spirit Of The Golden Juice.