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Counterculture icon moves on.

San Francisco

In the 1960s, during the height of the counterculture, Barry Melton and Joe McDonald founded Country Joe and the Fish, the era's most political band. The Fish mixed humor, radical politics, sharp-witted satire, street theater and a variety of musical influences into a distinct sound, and their song "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" became an anti-Vietnam-war anthem.

"I like to think that our band and other San Francisco musicians were leaders in inculcating a sense of social responsibility in musicians," says Melton.

"Watch MTV, an indicator of youth culture, and you see musicians getting involved and exhibiting a sense of social responsibility. Maybe that tradition is traceable back to the 1960s."

More than twenty-five years later, the former lead guitarist is still an activist in San Francisco. But his life took a radical turn when Country Joe and the Fish broke up in 1970. That same year, Melton passed the college equivalency test required by the State Bar of California and began studying law.

In 1982, twelve years after beginning the pursuit of his dream, Melton passed the California bar exam, becoming one of a handful of self-taught lawyers in the state. Today, Melton has a solo law practice in San Francisco that consists primarily of criminal and juvenile law. His pro-bono work on behalf of the poor earned him the Outstanding Lawyer in Public Service Award in 1985.

Melton has worked hard for reform of the criminal-justice system, which he believes needs a complete overhaul. "We are spending billions and billions of dollars on warehousing people, but the recidivism rate is still sky high," he says. "Incarcerated people should be learning a trade or skill, which can give them a chance to make it in society once they leave prison. We should have an incentive-based system that has parole officers helping former inmates find jobs. It's a hell of a lot cheaper than keeping them in jail."

He believes the juvenile justice system is the most underfunded area of government. "Society should spend whatever it takes at the first manifestation of criminal behavior," he says. "The scary thing is that we are writing off a generation of disenfranchised young people who go to prison and come back unemployable, with a felony record. So they haven't really paid their debt to society. They pay that debt the rest of their lives."

Besides practicing law, Melton does volunteer work with young people, and helped establish a nonprofit recording studio at The Bay Area Opera House, which is used by kids in the Bayview-Hunter's Point community. He also ran a recent campaign for judge, which he says may have cured him of any further political aspirations.

"I'm still paying off my campaign," he says. "When you run for office you spend most of your time on the phone begging for money. And in order to stay in office you have to be a money-generating machine."

Melton still plays music on the weekends with a rock band called The Dinosaurs, but he says he feels little nostalgia for the 1960s.

"I'm doing what's right for me," he says. "I've changed. I hope it's for the better."

(Ron Chepesiuk is a writer in Rock Hill, South Carolina. An interview with Melton appears in his forthcoming book, "Sixties Radicals Then and Now: Candid Conversations with Those Who Moved an Era.")
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Title Annotation:lawyer/activist Barry Melton of 'Country Joe and the Fish'
Author:Chepesiuk, Ron
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Biography
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:554
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