F. J. McMahon – Spirit of the Golden Juice (1969)

“Early in the morning / standing by my window / watching the rain become / silhouette pictures as you go”

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I’ve had my eye on the Wayfaring Strangers: Cosmic American Music compilation for awhile, and finally pulled the trigger, but the only thing familiar to me was the title track taken from this F.J. McMahon album. When it comes to private press country and folk, I’m happy to let the tastemakers at Numero curate such a collection, and in most cases I can believe the one song selected to represent the artist is plenty (and there are definitely some that I am not interested in hearing any more from) but in F.J.’s case, his lone album is solid. Apparently, the “golden juice” of the title is his favored bourbon, but I can’t remember if that turns out to be a kindly spirit for this Vietnam vet or not. I won’t be enjoying any myself along with this listen, but perhaps some of its secrets will be revealed anyway.

While all the Cosmic sessions were necessarily tight budget affairs, McMahon’s is the most decidedly lo-fi. The template is set on “Sister, Brother” with a barebones backing track (cardboard snare with barely detectable bass) a rhythm guitar in the right channel and McMahon overdubbing some bluesy soloing in the left. His war experiences are the little bit that’s known of his biography, and “Early Blue” reveals a shattered man coming out the other side and just keeping it together: “In the morning’s light I try to hide from people / but it’s never right / I see my friends at night and it works out fine.” And other than his voice, the loneliest sound is the unexpected sparse organ solo—the only thing like it on the whole record. Even a wicked-sounding “Black Night Woman” brings little more than run-of-the-mill heartbreak, and the bittersweet acknowledgment “You gave a lot to me.” If there’s a lesson to these songs it’s that we’ve no choice but to carry on and hopefully arrive a better place: “I’m with her now, it doesn’t matter how.”

While most of the songs seem to chronicle the hard times of a vet, “Five Year Kansas Blues” considers doing hard time over enlistment:

I feed my wife and my children too / they wear good clothes and got education dues
I don’t see no reason / for killing some family man
I never knew what they meant by duty / I don’t understand

Song after song thoughtfully unpack the burdens of a then-still-young life. According to the Cosmic notes, McMahon’s biggest disappointment may have been a recording career that was stalled with this one album. The man in “Spirit of the Golden Juice” lived a life of quiet desperation in a “one-man room” with “a good ol’ friend of mine” and despite the song’s fatalistic opening—“I was born like star whose light had gone out long ago”—he’s a survivor. When I began this post I didn’t even know another reissue of the record was imminent and that he’ll be playing the whole thing in my town in a couple weeks (I promptly nabbed a ticket). I hope he can live with the album’s final sentiment and still believe “It was worth everything we went through.”

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