An apt title for a fourth album, no? As I mentioned, this was one of the first two Country Joe & The Fish records I got (as far as I can remember — it’s already been shown that my memories may be subject to revision).
Originally released in July 1969, shortly before their Woodstock appearance, the only members of the original lineup on this one were Country Joe McDonald and lead guitarist Barry Melton, though drummer Chicken Hirsh had been around for all but the first album. Where the previous year’s “Together” had very few of Joe’s songs, this one Is nearly entirely his work, with Melton contributing two nice tracks. Jefferson Airplane’s Jack Casady filled in on bass on a number of the tracks.
As my introduction to the band, even though neither of these albums were exactly representative, they were also both pretty good, and led me to their first two albums and a long appreciation for their songs and sound. This is one I hadn’t really given much of a serious listen in a while, so I’ll admit I was a little bit jarred listening to the song “Crystal” and realizing that it was a very direct reference, in 1969, to crystal meth:
“Ah, crystal’s got my woman,
Ah, dope is driving her insane, yeah”
I mean, I always knew it was about drugs, obviously, but I’m pretty sure when I heard it I didn’t have a clue what crystal meth was.
The album is much of the same — love songs and protest songs, an old-timey jangle from Joe called “I’ll Survive” and a proto-punk protester from Barry called “Doctor of Electricity:”
Mighty armies of gasoline attendants
Come to wipe my windows clean.
I can hear them laughing,
Their jokes are a riot.
Something is changing
And it’s breaking the machine,
Oh, breaking the machine,
Oh, breaking the machine.
That’s pretty 1969. (I assume you kids who aren’t from Jersey know that there used to be gasoline attendants.)
Writing so much about the records I found in a magical garage sale that summer of ’79 has made me think of how that summer even came about. After all, I wasn’t originally supposed to spend the summer on my own in a sublet apartment on the furthest edge of campus.
It was the summer after my freshman year. Sometime around March I started looking for summer jobs back home in Schenectady. By then I had considerable experience in printing production — I always used to say I could always fall back on pasteup — and as I still had a subscription to the Schenectady Gazette, I was able to find someone looking for production help for the summer.
Now, there were a lot of people floating around the printing production/advertising business back then working out of their homes at a time when almost nobody else was. I put together dozens of publications on my roommate’s big drawing table, or on the floor, or wherever it could get done. So, when I called this so-called advertising agency and the owner was willing to meet me, it wasn’t especially sketchy seeming, by 1979 standards, that he would want to meet up somewhere rather than have me come to wherever he conducted his business, because it was probably his kitchen table. So, we met in a parking lot, an oddly located one, not far from where I had taken my driving test less than two years before, out on the edge of the city.
He was just an average schmoe barely making a living putting out, as I recall, program books of the type that barely exist today. An organization would have a fundraiser, they’d want a program book, and someone would hit up every business in town for an ad in the book, which in itself was a fundraiser. Someone had to “design,” lay out and produce all those ads. He showed me some very poorly done mechanicals along those lines and asked if I could produce flats like that. Being 18 and a bit of a cocky asshole, I’m sure I had to bite back a sarcastic answer, but yes, I could produce those. Lying on my back, in a drunken stupor, if need be. As I proved in later years. So, we agreed, I gave him a date when I would be back in town, he gave me some more contact info, perhaps even an address, and I went back to the Salt City, assured that when I returned home for a glorious summer along the Mohawk with my returning high school friends, I would have some form of gainful employment.
Back at school, I was working for The Daily Orange at the time, Syracuse University’s independent daily student newspaper. I’d spent my first two semesters working on the copy desk, proofreading, pasting up, and writing articles, primarily news. As the next year’s positions were decided in the spring, I took a shot but didn’t get the editorship that I wanted (honestly, now I can’t remember which it was!). Instead I was given what should have been a gift, Special Projects Editor, which carried a burden of once-weekly in-depth features, and occasional big pieces. It was an amazing opportunity for someone who could maintain some discipline without the daily pressure of producing. I was not that someone, and would fail at this miserably. But that failure was still to come. As the spring semester rolled to a close, I found out that there would be a summer edition of the paper — a weekly edition, for 12 weeks, put out by a skeleton crew. From year to year, whether there was funding for it varied, but we found out it would be back for the summer of ’79, reporting on whatever might happen on a sleepy college campus in the summer time. And it came with a solid paycheck of $75/week. That job, I was able to get. So, all of a sudden, I was the news editor of The Summer Orange. (And layout director, and proofreader, and pasteup artist, and deliverer. It was a fantastic experience, one I repeated the next summer.)
Apologies to that random “advertising agency” dude I left high and dry in Schenectady that summer — I can’t remember if I called or wrote (probably the latter – long distance calls weren’t free), but basically my message was I wouldn’t be going home after all. Honestly, I had some severe doubts that I would ever see a dime from that job anyway, so I didn’t feel too awful, but not following up on a commitment, even a sketchy one, was very much against my nature then, so it wasn’t easy. It was, however, quickly forgotten as I had to find a place to live — a sad and sorry week spent in a windowless room in the basement of a frat house quickly gave way to a sunny, airy lovely sublet way out on Broad Street, about as far from campus as student apartments extended then. Nearby there was a park and a corner store that still sold Coke in glass bottles (already a rarity in 1979); it was a long, leafy walk in my summer flip-flops to the DO offices, but I also had my bicycle which I rode all over that summer. Among the things I rode it to: the garage sale that changed my life. Musically speaking, anyway. And, as I’ve said, this Country Joe and the Fish album (along with “Together”) was one of my key finds. I’ve just remembered that that garage sale was also where I got the collection of Rolling Stone articles, a small but thick paperback covering perhaps their first decade, maybe less, which I spent delightful summer evenings reading out on a little second story porch. When it got too dark to read, I’d slip back inside and try to sneak one of my records on my roommate’s stereo, playing it low as low can be, and absorbing every note. My hope for my kids’ college experience was always that they would have a summer as perfect, as meaningful, as life changing as that one.