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Still Rockin'
'60s Country Joe guitarist has a new gig: He's Yolo's public defender


June 8, 2001
Section: MAIN NEWS
Page: A1


By    M.S. Enkoji

Bee Staff Writer

--In a darkened club, vibrant with rock rhythms, he leans closer to the vintage rock poster from the 1960s, slipping on bifocals to pen an autograph.

He grins widely, a graying teddy bear, not the least bit wistful, not a tad bittersweet for those days of rock 'n' roll fury that served him well. His focus is now this day.

As Barry "The Fish" Melton has done so many times in the last 35 years, he was getting ready to go onstage in a Folsom nightclub. To him, it's just a performance, not unlike one so many years ago in an upstate New York pasture.

"I don't have time to be overly nostalgic. For me, it's like looking through old photo albums," says Melton, Yolo County public defender by day. "You can't put yourself in a museum."

Three decades ago, he was guitarist for Country Joe and the Fish, the Berkeley-based group known for its musical opposition to the Vietnam War and a memorable appearance at Woodstock in 1969, largely based on one song. "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" defined a generation's defiance against all things government-sanctioned.

The unforgettable cheerleader banter, beginning with "Give me an F," leads into a satirical ditty about the Vietnam War: "Be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box."

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland ranks it among the top 500 songs that shaped the genre.

"Hard lessons were learned," Melton says of the decade that propelled Country Joe from Berkeley coffee shops to the Monterey Pop Festival alongside Jimi Hendrix, the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead.

A couple of years after Woodstock, the band broke up and Melton pursued a solo career, reuniting occasionally.

While he went on to other things, he never really left the stage. Not after he married, not when his sons were born, and not when he became a lawyer in 1982.

For fun, for charity, for very little money, he plays Northern California with local musicians or a few '60s icons, including Peter Albin, guitarist with Big Brother & the Holding Company, Janis Joplin's band.

As the head of an office that includes 21 attorneys, Melton carries with him an unflagging, generous commitment to the disadvantaged, say longtime associates.

He serves on professional boards. He has lent his car to an ex-felon. He got direct telephone lines installed between his office and the county jail for inmates. He spent weekends helping one of his law clerks - a retired Air Force man - study for the bar, then called him on a Sunday to congratulate him when he passed.

He is so caught up in donating time, his wife says she never expects him for dinner.

"With him, that's the one thing you can count on," says Barbara Langer, his wife and a psychotherapist. "It's good we got a microwave." The pair met through mutual friends - the Grateful Dead.

Born in New York, Melton began playing guitar at 5. His mother hoped he would be a socially relevant folk singer like Brooklyn neighbor Woody Guthrie.

By 10, he pined to become a lawyer after reading books about Clarence Darrow.

He later attended San Francisco State University briefly before joining Country Joe in 1965.

While touring, Melton would spend offstage hours holed up with law books. He never went to law school. Instead, he befriended the owner of the bookstore serving Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, who showed him what books to buy.

When he passed the bar, his career started out 90 percent music and 10 percent law. One of his first cases was defending a San Francisco health food store against the city, which opposed its unisex bathroom. He won and got paid in groceries.

"I'm impressed with the way he became an attorney," said Yolo County Supervisor Mike McGowan, a criminal defense lawyer who has also joined Melton onstage.

Melton, 53, joined the Yolo County Public Defender's Office as an assistant in 1999 and took over the top spot last year. His Woodland office blends two careers in a happy chaos with music posters, compact discs and tapes in little heaps next to piles of case files.

Melton leads by example here, says Jessie Morris, assistant chief public defender who took a pay cut from the state Public Defender's Office to join Melton in Yolo County.

"No one's grumbling that they have to work on weekends and evenings because he's here," says Morris, who worked with Melton at the state office.

Hard work doesn't mean drudgery in Melton's domain.

He hauls in bagels for the staff. He sings birthday songs over the office loudspeaker for employees. He blares oddball music for co-workers, like a bizarre rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," by the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin of Watergate fame.

And he works. On a spring morning, Melton grabs some files and heads the few steps to the courthouse to talk individually with four people charged with welfare fraud.

He is deliberate but patient in hushed tones when he explains the options to each one: Avoid jail by making payments and doing community work.

"Will you give it a shot?" he pleads with one woman who balks at community service.

It is just one of the 10,000 cases a year the office defends. And Melton often personally handles the toughest ones, said one of his assistants.

"He'll take the worst of the worst," said John Sage, who recently passed the bar with Melton's help.

Not all of his cases are successes. Melton recently defended a sex offender who was facing 100-plus years in prison. No one could get the man to cooperate to reduce his sentence.

Melton and his family, including two sons, are happy with their Davis home of about three years, but San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan would like to lure him back to the Bay Area.

Hallinan recruited Country Joe and the Fish for events when he was organizing anti-Vietnam protests during his school days at UC Berkeley.

"He's the kind of person interested in causes," he said of Melton. "He's definitely my kind of guy. He's a sweetheart of a guy. As a DA, I say that."

* * *

The Bee's M.S. Enkoji can be reached at (916) 321-1106 or menkoji@sacbee.com.

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