*3.29-BASS STRINGS (Country Joe & the Fish)

Country Joe & the Fish



Hey partner,
Won't you pass that reefer round?
My world is spinnin´, yeah,
Just got to slow it down.
Oh, yes you know I've sure got to slow it down.
Get so high this time
That you know I'll never come down,
Oh, never come down.

I believe I'll go out to the seashore,
Let the waves wash my mind.
Open up my head now
Just to see what I can find.
Oh, yes you know I'm gonna see what I can find.
Just one more trip now,
You know I'll stay high all the time,
All the time.

Yes, I'll go out to the desert
Just to try & find my past.
Truth lives all around me,
But it's just beyond my grasp.
Oh, yes you know it's just beyond my grasp.
I'll let the sand & the stars & the wind
Carry me back,
Oh carry me back.

[ Coda: L.S.D. (3x)]

Electric Music for the Mind and BodyElectric Music for the Mind and Body was the second psychedelic album from the San Francisco to reach the general public. Though less successful than its predecessor, the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, Electric Music was a much more deeply committed (and less commercial) recording of the psychedelic aesthetic. Richie Unterberger & Bruce Eder of allmusic wrote that "in contrast to the Jefferson Airplane, who were at their best working within conventional song structures...Country Joe & the Fish delivered a fully formed, uncompromising...body of psychedelic music the first time out." Both groups drew on folk music for their music structure, but the Jefferson Airplane tunes in Surrealistic Pillow were often as pretty and pop as the Mamas & Papas, whereas almost all cuts of Electric Music are immediately recognizable (even at this late date) as psychedelic.

Unlike most psychedelic acts up to this time, Country Joe and the Fish incorporated a blues structure into some of their songs. True, the blues had been tried before in psychedelic history: Bob Dylan, the Yardbirds, and Cream had all by this time used blues form for psychedelic purposes with limited success. (As had garage bands, with crude and aggressive gestures toward psychedelic weirdness that were more allied with hard rock: I'm thinking of the Seeds, some of Love's work, the Electric Prunes and the 13th Floor Elevators.) But I submit that Country Joe's Bass Strings introduces the blues as a viable form for a completely psychedelic atmosphere. There's nothing hard rock or garage band about Bass Strings: the acidic organ and guitar work snatch it out of that world into a new atmosphere that is uniquely identified with the San Francisco sound, and blatantly "stoned". Hell, "LSD" is whispered three times at the end of the song to make sure the point is made! Country Joe had no intention of having this song played on Top 40 radio. Instead, the music from Electric Music famously became a staple for the new development of FM radio (which at that time had no commercials), through which DJs in California began playing what we now call "deep cuts" on the airwaves. On the strength of what was known as "underground radio" Electric Music made it to #39 on Billboard in September 1967. (For some reason, it seems that the Velvet Underground, who also could have taken advantage of FM radio in NYC, didn't make as big of an impression nationwide...perhaps because the Velvet Underground didn't sound--at the time--cool or current; they seemed to the casual listener to be the antithesis of the psychedelic aesthetic.) In 1967, Country Joe and the Fish were not widely known. It was only through the recording of their Woodstock performance of I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag in 1969, a sardonic song in protest of the Vietnam War, that the Fish received nationwide recognition.

In reference to I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag, which was first released in November 1967 on another Country Joe and the Fish album, I feel I need to say something about Country Joe MacDonald and his relation to protest music. I do not consider I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die-Rag to be of the psychedelic genre, even though it was released during the period under consideration. The song is derived from folk rock music, but unlike protest songs of the early 1960s that protested nuclear war in general, Country Joe and the Fish were the first group I know of that protested the Vietnam War in particular. Electric Music also contains a folk-based protest song, which is titled Superbird. The song calls out Lyndon Baines Johnson by name and aims to “send you back to Texas make you work on your ranch”. The song closes with comic threats—“gonna make him eat flowers / make him drop some acid.” The ironic prodding toward political revolution would have been more in keeping with the post-psychedelic mood of 1968.

By the Summer of 1967, Peter, Paul, and Mary were mocking psychedelic music for its if you know what I mean innuendos: But if I really say it / The radio won't play it. And probably the proliferation of slang references and indirection, as well as the usefulness of surrealistic poetry in order to suggest a scramble of sensations, was part of the cool in psychedelic records. (I had to rearrange their faces / And give them all another name, as Bob Dylan put it in Desolation Row.) Many psychedelic records seemed to be written in code that only the initiated could understand. They begged to be interpreted. Bass Strings doesn't hide its meaning; this is the first of all the psychedelic records here to proclaim openly that its subject is the use of hallucinogens. (Though Donovan mentioned drugs or wrote about LSD induced experiences in songs like The Trip, he didn't write openly within those experiences about taking drugs.) Whereas usually metaphors served to obscure by indirection drug references in psychedelic music, Country Joe's metaphors served in Bass Strings to amplify or illustrate the obvious meaning.

Through the obviousness of the lyric, Bass Strings offers us an objective picture of the LSD experience in general (not as a matter of personal meditation). The experience here is not one of an alternate spiritual reality or exalted enlightenment. The most striking lines in the song, Truth lives all around me / But it's just beyond my grasp, expose a certain ambivalent frustration and acceptance in the truth-seeker. The singer turns to the natural world, the sea, the desert, in their vastness, in order to clean out his mind, to find his past. He can feel the reality of "living" nature, but can't seem to be certain of his own existence. Most importantly, the singer feels disembodied, and experiences another ambivalence, not sure if he wants to return to his limited physicality or not.

Bass Strings is a mournful tune, "deep" and dirge-like, within the proximity of death, and yet, it's not really a negative lyric. There's no reference to They're Coming To Take Me Away Ha Ha! , no fear of madness. The LSD world of Bass Strings is ambivalent in its vastness, but there is no moral judgment in it, no justification. Its enlightenment, if it is that, is in its simple lack of ego and acceptance of everything.