Country Joe & the Fish are a tangled chronology for me. I know pretty much exactly when I first started buying their records, but I don’t quite know why. I know roughly when I saw them perform at a legendary club in Albany but, again, not quite sure why. Had I already heard their music on record when I made the trek to see them? Or did I just happen to be in town when a friend asked me to go to the show, and then later followed up with some used record finds? It’s just not clear.
I’m pretty sure Country Joe and the Fish was the first show I ever saw at J.B. Scott’s, the somewhat short-lived but hugely influential Albany club located in an old S&H Green Stamps redemption store. It opened in early 1979, during my freshman year at Syracuse, and very quickly became one of the hottest spots for music imaginable — anybody happening in rock in the ’80s played there early on, but there was also blues, big band, country and more — but as it was an unhelpful 140 miles away from the Salt City, I didn’t get to make it a regular haunt. While someone has put together a fairly complete list of concerts there, the Country Joe show isn’t on the list, so I’m not sure just when it happened. It seems like it had to have been late spring or early summer of 1979, on a visit home. I know I went with my best friend, Dr. Hill (not a doctor), always somehow light years ahead of me on musical knowledge, and the conversation would have gone something like this:
Dr. Hill: “I’m going to see Woodstock legends Country Joe and the Fish at J.B. Scott’s. Would you like to come?”
That would have been the extent of the discussion.
I’m pretty clear that both those things — the concert and the records — came 10 years after Woodstock, in the summer of ’79. That was for me a summer of discovery, of expanding my horizons. Among many other things, I was steeping myself in a paperback edition of Rolling Stone stories from the magazine’s early years, absorbing all things hippie and counterculture. (I also read “Helter Skelter,” the account of the Manson family murders, that summer. That’s something I never needed to read again.) I was swimming in ’60s that summer. So it’s entirely possible that in reading essays of music long ago, I had picked up on the name “Country Joe and the Fish,” and when I tripped upon two of their records at a garage sale somewhere in the Nottingham Road area of Syracuse, I decided that for a quarter or so I probably couldn’t go wrong.
As an aside — no garage sale has had a bigger impact on my life. I can’t remember exactly where it was, other than somewhere within short biking distance of my magical first-summer-of-total-freedom apartment on Broad Street in Syracuse, but that was the garage sale where I got an incredibly clean copy of “The Worst of Jefferson Airplane,” which completely blew my mind and made me an Airplane fan for life. It’s where I got “The Best of Eric Burdon and the Animals, Vol. II.” Also mind-blowing and life changing. It’s where I got “Woodstock Vol. 2.” (Considerably less so.) And it’s where I picked up two fairly battered records by Country Joe and the Fish, “Together” and “Here We Are Again.” And I was instantly hooked.
Wife points out that I have been trying to replicate that garage sale experience ever since. She is not wrong.
Their first album, 1967’s “Electric Music for the Mind and Body,” I found just a little later. Perhaps it was even still that summer, perhaps it was in the early fall of ’79. It quickly became my favorite, starting out with the rocking “Flying High” and the tantalizing “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine.” It’s trippy (“Death Sound Blues” and “Porpoise Mouth”), psychedelic (“Grace”) and ’60s level blunt political (“Superbird”) — very much of its time, and yet still quite enjoyable. There’s mention of a fez — it’s hard to go wrong.
But still . . . of their time. I never got any of this on CD (not that the original albums were available in the early days, though some reissues did come out in the mid-2000s), and they weren’t one of the groups I prioritized for digitizing by myself. So, they languished in my attention for a long time, a pleasant memory. For the most part, their songs didn’t fit into any of the mixed tapes I had made, and if they were represented in my listening at all, it was by a Christmas novelty song, “The Dirty Claus Rag,” from their reunion album. Some of the records were even (I am SO ashamed to say) stored in the garage for a while. I didn’t think I would ever get back into them, and certainly not in vinyl. I was quite wrong. I often am.
My copy of “Electric Music” is in glorious mono. Thank goodness. Somewhere along the way I picked up a digital copy of the stereo version. I don’t know if it’s the version that was released in 1967 as stereo (because for some reason they were still releasing both versions back then), or if it’s a version that was used for a CD release, but the stereo is: awful. And it’s endlessly worse listening with headphones, as I did this week for the first time. All the guitar and vocals are in one ear, everything else is in the other. It’s jarring, not trippy, man.
My kid, inexplicably a millennial who loves Country Joe and the Fish (we’ll get to that), just rushed in to ask if I was going to point out that at the very end of “Superbird,” a musical assault against Lyndon B. Johnson, in tones that can really only be heard well through headphones, they intone:
Yeah, gonna make him eat flowers
Yeah, make him drop some acid…
But what kind of parent would encourage taking joy in that kind of subversive thought? So, no, I won’t be mentioning that.