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Time Has Told Me: F.J. McMahon

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Interview with F.J. McMahon.

“I was born like a star
Whose light had gone out long ago
The longer I live
The farther I find I’ve got to go”

—‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’, F.J. McMahon

Words: Mark Carry, Illustration: Craig Carry


Last Autumn, the unique song-writing voice of F.J. McMahon came into my path — unexpectedly and unannounced — thanks to Philadelphia-based harpist Mary Lattimore’s mixtape, entitled Keeper Of Beauty. The lush baritone and warm acoustic guitar of McMahon’s ‘Early Blue’ evokes the sound of age-old traditions — folk and americana — yet steeped in a bold, adventurous spirit that undeniably belongs to the here-and-now. Lattimore’s side-notes describes ‘Early Blue’ as “a winter song to listen to in the car”. The debut album, ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’, originally released on Tiger Eye in 1969 — the only document of this gifted singer songwriter — encompasses songs of such emotional depth and striking immediacy that some four decades later, McMahon’s songbook ceaselessly generates new meaning and endless artistic detail.

The beautifully written album sleevenotes perfectly surmises the music contained on ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’:

“F.J. McMahon is a quiet individual in an exciting way. This is evidenced by his singing style, guitar playing and songwriting. The lyrics to his songs hit you at an abstract angle and the come off with the logic and meaning in today’s restless environment. F.J. McMahon is an artist who has something to say and says it in a simple, earthy style.”

—Tiffany Anders (taken from Tiffany Anders’ essay on the sleeve notes to ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’s 2009 reissue on Rev-Ola Records)

McMahon spent a year in Vietnam as a very young man and it is these harrowing experiences that found its way into the slipstream of ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’s deeply affecting world of song. His experiences in Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines had a profound effect on him and upon his return to the U.S. McMahon actively participated in anti-war movements. In the words of the singer-songwriter: “I went through so many experiences between Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines and not just the usual experiences you think of, but because I was military police I got to see a lot of the stuff that goes on under the rocks and behind the scenes. It was obviously such a waste of people and money and material, but these people were getting wealthy off of it! And so I was depressed, disgusted, I mean it just shattered me.”

McMahon was discharged in 1968, having fallen ill with hepatitis after a year of service. While home, McMahon actively helped his friends get out the draft. A short time later, a collection of songs would be recorded on a budget of about a dollar and 98 cents. The local Tiger Eye productions in California, offered McMahon a small recording budget whereby two takes per song were put to tape. The back-up tracks were recorded first — taking no more than half a day — after which the vocals and lead guitar were recorded in the little Accent Records offices. ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ was effectively captured to tape in about a day and a half.

The spirit of Townes Van Zandt, Fred Neil and Tim Hardin can be felt throughout the nine utterly transcendent songs of ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ (the album’s title was named after the brand of bourbon popular during the period). The pristine guitar parts — rhythm and lead — performed by McMahon serves the resonating pulse to these particular recordings. The singular voice of McMahon possesses vivid shades of pain, torment, restlessness, hope and survival dotted across the sprawling canvas of sound. Joining the songwriter, Jon Uzonyi plays bass and Junior Nickles plays drums. The fresh and contemporary folk sound reminds me of ‘John Wesley Harding’ era Dylan, whose songs hit you deep and hard. A magical spark floats in the air as ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ captivates the heart of the devoted listener.

The album’s title-track — and album closer — is a miracle of song-writing that reveals the brutal honesty and directness of McMahon’s absorbing creations. Throughout ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ some gorgeous electric guitar lead parts are effortlessly blended into the mix. A sense of nostalgia is etched across the song’s narrative: “Now I’m sitting in my one-man room / One day at a time / Think about the times past / And a good ol’ friend of mine” begins the second verse. The song encompasses the hardship, struggle and pain inflicted upon the aftermath of war, and, indeed, internal struggle. The first words sung by McMahon — beneath the exquisite tapestry of drums and interwoven guitar — are words of sheer poetry direct from the depths of an artist’s heart:

“I was born like a star
Whose light had gone out long ago
The longer I live
The farther I find I’ve got to go”

‘Early Blue’ is wrapped in a yearning feel that slowly envelops your very heart and mind. An achingly beautiful lament is created here, and like a rising sun, rays of illuminating light gradually falls through the cracks of despair. The voice sings to you like an old, dependable friend. The lyrics evoke imagery of springtime and someone lost in the surrounding world, particularly on the endearing chorus refrain of “And I run away”. The words are simple, personal, and reflective of a distant past: “Early blue / I see you / Through my window / Becoming lighter / As the sun gets brighter / And the night goes away”. I feel the spirit of ‘Sunflower’ era Beach Boys ascend into atmosphere as an ocean of sadness permeates throughout. The closing verse serves a guiding light to keep on keeping on: “But I know it’ll happen soon / Early blue come to my room next morning / And I’ll try to go to sleep.”

‘Five Year Kansas Blues’ is a folk gem straight from the sacred songbook of Woody Guthrie or Johnny Cash, and would fit perfectly on Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’. In the words of McMahon: “It’s written about a guy who is going to prison for avoiding the draft and the sentence for avoiding the draft is five years, and where you go to prison is Levinworth, Kansas in the federal prison.” The first words resonate powerfully as McMahon asks “How does it feel to feel free?” On the following cut, ‘Enough It Is Done’, a stream of irresistible blues licks penetrate the headspace where the feel and sound reminds me of the immaculate song-craft of Sixto Rodriguez.

‘Black Night Woman’ is a spellbinding love song. A late-night feel hangs in the air as McMahon sings “I remember when she looked at me / She had stars on her eyes”. The peerless musicianship and intricate arrangements of guitars, drums and voice is clear to witness here. Happiness and pain are sunk beneath the riverbed of time, as McMahon sings “I’ll continue beside her soul”. The lyric of “the uneasy feelings that call on me” on ‘The Road Back Home’s opening verse encompasses the dark subject matter of ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ that reflects the songwriter’s mindset during this period of time. I feel the extraordinary body of work, created by F.J. McMahon, is an album to closely guide you along life’s pathway, reflected in song’s chorus, “I need someone to show me the road back home”. In just under thirty minutes, ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ becomes a long-lost, lifelong companion.


Interview with F.J. McMahon.

It’s a real pleasure to talk to you about your utterly captivating and shape-shifting record, ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’, originally released in 1969. It was only last year when I first discovered this lost folk masterpiece and I feel very fortunate to have done so, albeit a few years late. The album was written and recorded quite soon after your time in Vietnam, where you spent a year as part of service in the military police. Can you please take me back to the space and time in which ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ was made? Was it a case that the songs would just flow out from you, as you reflected on life and you’re deeply affecting experiences from being based between Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines? 

FJM: It was the better part of a year before I wrote anything. After seeing the news, the demonstrations, riots and how the country had changed and attending funerals of kids killed in the war it all just kind of boiled over.


It amazes me to learn that ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ was recorded in about a day and a half. Your singular guitar playing and style combined with your poetic lyrics evokes such a vivid canvas of raw emotion. Can you please recount for me those couple of days in which the songs were recorded to tape, F.J.? I love the layering of the guitars on the tracks — the solos, the rhythm guitars — which is effortlessly placed beneath your lush baritone. You are joined by Jon Uzonyi on bass and Junior Nickles on drums. How did you first cross paths with these musicians?

FJM: The first day we (Jon, Junior and I) recorded the rhythm guitar, bass and drums. We did two takes for each song at PD Sound in LA. Second day I recorded the vocals and guitar lead at Accent in Hollywood. Scott Seeley the owner of Accent was working with Jon on his own album and Junior was just hired for the  first day. Scott Seeley played the keyboard on ‘Early Blue’.


In terms of influences, what were the records, while growing up, that triggered your love for music? Were there particular songwriters and bands that served major inspiration for you to lead you on the song-writing path?

FJM: All early 50’s rock and pop. For guitar Duane Eddy, Ventures, all the country pickers and Hoyt Axton when he was a single folk act.


The album’s title-track, ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ is a truly breathtaking closer to this special record. I feel the combination of the deeply honest and reflective lyrics and the sublime instrumentation of guitar creates in turn, the pinnacle of the album. Is it true that “Golden Juice” refers to the brand of bourbon that you drank while overseas? It makes for a wonderful title, either way. Lyrics such as “I was born like a star / Whose light had gone out long ago” and “The longer I live / The farther I find I’ve got to go” creates a profound impact on me upon each revisit. Can you please discuss writing this song, F.J. and indeed if this was the song that provided the pathway to the rest of the album? It really is a full-blown masterpiece.

FJM: Really kind words. The golden juice is I.W. Harper bourbon which is no longer made. I wrote this song second to last as it is the realization that what gives life its meaning is both the good and bad. You can’t appreciate one without the other.


A beautiful yearning feel permeates throughout the gorgeous ballad, ‘Early Blue’. For your songs, are the words written on a page first, and a melody sometime later? I feel the spirit of albums such as Dylan’s ‘John Wesley Harding’ and the songbook of Gene Clark and Townes Van Zandt float seamlessly amidst ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’. I love the flow and aesthetics to ‘Early Blue’ and particularly, the minor key bridge as you sing “And I run away”. 

FJM: As a rule I find some chords and/or riff that I’m comfortable with and then just start humming and singing what ever words find their way out.


Looking back on ‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’, is there a song on the record that you feel most proud of? 

FJM: I have learned to like each one. As far as proud……….‘Five Year Kansas Blues’, a lot of people paid that price for their views.


In the liner notes, you describe how the album’s lack of much-deserved attention and recognition was like “a harpoon to the heart for a long time”. Can you please discuss the reasons why you think this was the case? I can think of several other spellbinding albums from the early 70’s folk era that suffered from a similarly lack of good fortune. Did you tour a lot during this time, F.J.? If so, I can imagine you must have played some special concerts where you felt a close connection to the audience, particularly as your universal themes and painful subject matter resonates so powerfully?

FJM: It’s just hard when you put a lot into something and it just disappears, I would slip one of my tunes in a bar or hotel gig now and again. Sometimes folks would like it, sometimes they just clinked their ice cubes and got drunker.


Forward several decades and ‘Spirit of the Golden Juice’ gets its richly deserved re-release on the Sacred Bones record label, introducing your utterly compelling folk songs to a new generation of music fans. This must have been a special moment for you? Your work of true art receives its long-awaited acclaim and recognition. How do you see the album now, some forty years on, F.J.? For me, as a listener, I can’t believe just how fresh and engaging the songs are. The spark of creativity remains embedded deep within the album’s batch of transcendent songs.

FJM: I am constantly blown away by the how well it has been received in the past few years and very grateful. I suppose the down side is the songs seem relevant because the world is still so screwed up.


You grew up in Santa Barbara, California and I read that you started your musical path playing trumpet in a grammar school. Can you recall the moment that triggered you to pick up a guitar and write your own songs? Also, I imagine you must have written poems quite a bit too? I find the words, alone on a page, is true art in itself when listening to your singing voice. What was it like to grow up along the coast? 

FJM: Growing up in Santa Barbara in the fifties and sixties was about as idyllic as it could get. I always wanted to be a writer but had a terrible time with alliteration. My regular stories turned out short and my short stories turned out to be songs, which I guess turned out ok in the long run. What first clicked with guitar was picking up an Elvis Presley fan mag. I thought: OK, this looks cool, beats the hell out of working at a store. What a road that started.


‘Five Year Kansas Blues’ is a master-class in songwriting. Can you please recount for me writing this song? This song could belong on Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ or any one of Fred Neil or Townes Van Zandt’s albums.  

FJM: Thanks again for the kind words. The Am, C, D progression just lends itself to story background. By this time I had been helping kids avoid the draft for almost a year. Some guys couldn’t get out of it and chose to go to jail. Most people don’t have the guts to make that kind of a decision of belief. I wanted to tell their story.


I would love to know how central music is in your life today, F.J.? I would like to think you still play the guitar and write songs. If so, is there a place I can hear these post-‘Spirit of the Golden Juice’ creations? 

FJM: Not a day goes by when I don’t listen or pick up the guitar and noodle around a bit. There are a couple of people thinking of re-releasing the original album with some added new songs or just putting out a second album. We’ll see what develops. Thank you very much for your interest. It’s well appreciated.


‘Spirit Of The Golden Juice’ is available now, via Cherry Red Records’ Rev-Ola imprint HERE and via Sacred Bones Records’ The Circadian Press imprint HERE.


Written by admin

February 24, 2014 at 11:00 am

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