'Chicken' Hirsh: 'A responsible bohemian'
Gary "Chicken" Hirsh's nickname belies his many various and wonderful achievements as a drummer, poet and painter.
Hirsh says he got the moniker by being reticent about jumping off cliffs and other daredevil acts common to young people. Later in life, it has become an endearing name for this popular musician best known as the drummer for Country Joe and the Fish, a popular '60s rock band.
Born in 1940 in Chicago, Hirsh began playing drums at age 14, taking lessons at Frank's Drum Shop, along with such greats as Gene Krupa and Louis Bellson. At 17, he moved to California, playing jazz at the Kerosene Club near the San Jose canneries.
Hirsh enrolled at San Jose State University, studying psychology before his love for painting and fine art led to a transfer to the California College of Arts and Crafts in Oakland. This is where Hirsh refined the "doodling," he calls it, that he still uses today.
"I just wanted to express myself by creating something beautiful," Hirsh says. He studied the stylistic methods of Botticelli, Carrachi, Raphael and Modigliani — techniques that would serve him well in his later paintings.
During his art studies, he kept drumming at a club called The Mask, where he was often paid with cheesecake. He began playing at Bop City, a beat club in San Francisco's North Beach.
"I was a beatnik before I was a hippie," he chuckled. At Club Trois Colors in Berkeley, he drummed with Pharoah Saunders. Shortly after he joined the Lee Michaels band, playing on the famous ferryboat Charles Van Damme moored in Sausalito. The shows included Moby Grape and The Buffalo Springfield, signaling a new era in music, most notably recognized by Bill Graham of the Fillmore Auditorium and The Family Dog at the Avalon Ballroom. It was around this time Hirsch met and recorded with Country Joe and the Fish, making rock 'n' roll history. His drumsticks are in a collection at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
After leaving The Fish in 1969, Hirsh worked for Vanguard Records, then joined theater troupe The Rubber Duck Company, which was a mix of music and mime. The company performed at the Brooklyn Academy in New York. Hirsh also co-wrote the company's music for "Tarot" and "Frankenstein."
Hirsh moved to the Rogue Valley to raise his children in a "civilized environment," he says. He became manager at Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Tudor Guild, studied brass rubbings and eventually bought Ashland Graphics.
Jazz called him back, and he joined a local band Good Bait, with sax player John Dempsey, guitarist Ed Dunsavage, bassist Joe Cohoon and pianist Dave Swann. This opened the doors for gigs with jazz singer Leslie Kendall, Detlef Eismann's The Blue Notes and the Nothing But Jazz Trio, featuring Thor Polson and Clem Novak. These groups can still be heard at the Wild Goose, the Playwright Public House, La Baguette and Bella Fiore Winery, among others.
Yet he's still driven by art, he says. He gets interested in painters, and can't stop until he's figured out their techniques and used them in his own paintings.
"I can't help myself," he says. "Painting, doodling, are right brain. You lose yourself. It's like meditation. My house is covered with art. It's my environment. I've always lived in my own museum."
First a beatnik, then a hippie, Hirsh now describes himself as "a responsible bohemian."
"In a world where painters are competing with digital entertainment, and musicians are competing with smoke, lights and lasers, it's hard to find people who enjoy and support smaller, more personal endeavours," he says.
Books could be written about Gary "Chicken" Hirsh. This column just scratches the surface. In the meantime, let's thank our lucky stars for this treasure in the Rogue Valley.
Tom Stamper is a freelance musician and writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org