Country Joe & the Fish — I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die

My kid can tell this story better than I can, but my short version of it is: they were taking AP US History. In the course of covering the Vietnam War, their teacher played them protest music, specifically the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” Kid came home and tried to describe this experience, having a taste for the satirical and countercultural, and ol’ Dad walked over to the record collection, gave this album a tug, and said, “You mean this?” That of course confirmed the kid’s concern that they were being raised by hippies, but also introduced them to the music of Country Joe and the Fish, which is one of the staples of their listening to this day. So who says you don’t learn anything in school?

Fixin to Die front cover
If you want to make your band look like 1967, study this cover and study it well.

This is the only Country Joe and the Fish record that I bought new in the wrapper. My version is a mid-’70s reissue with a great Vanguard promo sleeve full of music that I did not appreciate in my teens — now I wish I had gone out and bought nearly everything on this sleeve. Here again is where memory fails, and it’s a rather critical failure. I have some thought that I bought this at Drome Sound in Niskayuna — which I am certain I visited only once (I can remember the other life-changing record I bought there). They were primarily an instrument store that also had a sizable record selection, not a completely uncommon thing in those days. But if that were true, it would mean I had this record before I even went to college, completely upending the already confused timeline of when I learned about Country Joe and the Fish. Was I ready for this in 1978, or was it more of a 1979 thang? I guess we’ll never know.

Originally released in 1967, the same year as their debut, this opens with the legendary Fish Cheer and rolls into a studio version of the I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-To-Die Rag, a prime example of the weird ’60s fixation on what they thought were “old-timey” sounds. It’s odd how many psychedelic groups in the ‘60s tried to pump out music that sounded like it was from the ’20s or ’30s. It’s also odd how recognizable that was — if a group today wanted to sound like the music of 30 years ago, what distinctive tones or phrasing would they be able to use to convey that immediately, without copying a particular artist’s sound?

But from there it turns into sweet ’60s psychedelia. This album features the wonderful “Who Am I,” “Rock Coast Blues” and a number other lovely tracks. It may be the only album to feature kazoo, calliope and harpsichord on the same record (not to mention barking and a wine bottle).

Aforementioned kid wants me to further mention that, to their delight, while most of the background chatter in “Fixin-to-Die” is nonsense, at one point it turns into a repeated chant of “psychedelic psychedelic psychedelic.” Kid has a taste for the subversive. Don’t know where they get that. (More accurately, don’t know where I get that.)

Fixin to Die back cover
Fixin to Die back cover in stylish ’60s black and white.

Looking at this cover again, I realize that it may have contributed to a fixation I had with a certain typeface that eventually I used as the flag for my college paper. As soon as I could get rid of a horrible flag set in Souvenir (Souve-fucking-nir!!), I designed a new flag in Trooper Roman, which is pretty darned close to what Country Joe and the Fish used for their band name on this album cover. There were a lot of other contemporary uses of Trooper Roman at the time, but this can’t have hurt.

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