The collector market is predicated on simple supply and demand; the fewer the copies of a given album, the greater the desire to acquire. Yet, somehow this model has also been warped to include a murky quality metric that manages to throw all other conventional logic out the window. Generally, if something has been forgotten or lapsed into obscurity, there is a very good reason. Given the overwhelming vitality of the collector and reissue market, these previously-forgotten relics have suddenly managed to achieve a level of value and significance grossly disproportionate to the quality contained therein. Being a holy grail does not a good record necessarily make.
Of course, as with everything, there are exceptions to this basic idea, as there are already myriad individualized arguments for or against the validity of a given album or artist currently occupying a vaunted place within the collector market. Leaving that aside for a moment, the consensus amongst not only collectors but also those who go in for such things is that F.J. McMahon’s Spirit of the Golden Juice is rightfully revered as a lost classic. Originally issued in a microscopic run that was then gradually dispersed up and down the western half of the United States by McMahon as he moved from town to town playing his songs, it, like so many before, has gained a sort of mythical status.
There’s something special about the dusty charm of McMahon’s collection of sparse folk songs. Playing like a long, protracted sigh, Spirit of the Golden Juice is the comedown from the psychedelic ’60s, bearing the heavy burden of Vietnam and personal isolation, plus the toll both free love and ubiquitous drugs that managed to take on a generation. It’s the sobering day after, full of thoughtful reflection and a deeper level of self-analysis following several years of Bacchanalian frivolity. You can hear the exhaustion in McMahon’s voice, himself a disillusioned Vietnam vet who, less than a decade prior, was just another California kid playing carefree surf rock.
The speed at which the cultural landscape shifted and broke apart in the span of a decade is just breathtaking. Those caught in the middle of it all were merely attempting to hold on with all they had — hence the rise of the introspective singer-songwriter as the decadent ‘60s staggered into the self-centered ‘70s. Rooted in the social and political struggles of the day, Spirit of the Golden Juice consists of a mere nine tracks that serve as a veritable time capsule for the muddled thoughts and emotions of an unceasingly confusing time. It’s this latter element that makes the album so vital in 2017, as the world once again stares down an unsettlingly uncertain future.
“Early in the morning, standing by my window / Watching the rain become silhouette pictures as you go / The gray mist burned off by the dawn / Now to think of what’s become of our time alone together”, he sings on “One Alone Together”. Here, McMahon could just as easily be talking about the stark reality of the state of things following the hazy final years of the ‘60s as he could the disillusionment of a relationship. Structurally, the song is little more than the opening morning scene and the subsequent rebirth through isolation and self-reflection. But beneath that, there’s an overwhelming emotional undercurrent conveyed in McMahon’s exhausted delivery. This is the voice of a young man made old beyond his years, having experienced things no rational person should ever have to.
“Five Year Kansas Blues” addresses the flip side of foregoing a potentially one-way ticket to Vietnam. Told from the perspective of a young man who opted for Leavenworth over Vietnam, it shows the other end of disillusion. “How does it feel to feel free?” he asks before tersely responding, “Don’t ask me, my friend / I just been to the Oakland center where they tried to do me in / I took a bite from the apple and saw through the sky / I don’t care what they do to me, I just have to know why”. Rather than empty platitudes or pat sloganeering, McMahon’s words carry a heaviness based in the frustrating reality of having to choose between a literal rock and a hard place.
Along with the very idea of the fallout from ‘60s frivolity, political and social unrest, and the necessary healing required to move on and make a fresh start is all incorporated in the lyrics of the title track, here presented in full:
I was born like a star whose light had gone out long ago / the longer I live, the farther I find I’ve gotta go / Through the cheatin’ girls and trippin’ thrills / I know I’ve lost a good part of my life / But I’ll do it again, as will most men, I’ll keep on ‘til I die / Now I’m sittin’ in my one-man room, one day at a time / Thinkin’ ‘bout the time that’s passed and a good ol’ friend of mine / We ran ‘em hard at every bar on the line / And now it’s all done, but we put some memories in our mind / And it was worth everything we went through / There ain’t hardly been a time / When life’s been too good to lose / But I surely know that I’m always free to choose / Then the times when I’m up / And the one when I’m down / Keep changing every day / But never go, they’re always around / And it was worth everything we went through.
Rarely is McMahon’s acoustic guitar and voice accompanied by anything more than gently reassuring drums and bass, making for an intimate, deeply personal listening experience in which the words themselves play a starring role. Both lyrically abstract and firmly rooted in reality, McMahon’s approach, much like Bob Dylan before him, bridges the gap between ‘60s idealism and ‘70s introspection. “We all wish for peace and happy times”, he sings on the opening of “Sister, Brother”, a sort of mission statement outlining what’s to come.
Spirit of the Golden Juice is that rarest of rarities: one worthy of its status as a true lost classic. That it is now available once more — the second time in less than five years, in fact — is a testament to not only its enduring legacy but also its vital link to and relevance within these unsettlingly times. The players have changed, but the existential fears and concerns remain mostly the same. Same shit, different decade.