Nostalgia About the Jefferson Airplane

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I don’t know how many people remember the Jefferson Airplane anymore, but I happened to play a couple of albums of theirs in the car last week because I didn’t want to listen to the broadcast of a minor league baseball team.

The first one I listened to was Surrealistic Pillow, which brought them national attention with two hits: Somebody to Love and White Rabbit. It was a nice album, but my favorite of theirs is the one I listened to next, After Bathing at Baxter’s. I think I read in recent years one of them saying that that one was particularly influenced by LSD, and in my opinion it’s a leap beyond Surrealistic Pillow, as good as that album was.

There was, in the years shortly following these two albums, a book of interviews with each member of the band, and one of the things that emerged was that they were working extremely hard at the time of the recording, playing concerts, going back to record, then playing more concerts. Not a very relaxed way to work, and one of the noticeable things about the album was that there were very few slow songs. Most were pretty up-tempo and pretty intense. Not the way they or most people would prefer to work, but it came out very well, to my ears. Not everyone agrees, of course.

The album came out almost 50 years ago, which makes me feel a bit old. I had fallen in love with rock & roll about 4 years earlier, with the appearance of the Beatles, and the explosion of good to great songs that came with them and around them. They were one of the influences of the time, but there were a lot of others too, and a lot of musicians who listened to all kinds of music, and allowed all sorts of things to influence what they did. The Airplane started a year or two after the Beatles hit, and took another year or two to get known. Like the Beatles, they came from a city with a vibrant music scene, and a lot of other people were  doing things at the same time, there and other places. I was probably more excited about music then than I’ve been since, though there were a lot more good to great albums to come.

The band was impressively talented. They had four songwriters, all at least competent, and produced songs at a very high level for several years. They were also impressive instrumentally. The guitar-playing on this album is almost uniformly thrilling. Jorma Kaukonen, their lead guitarist, was one of my favorites; I don’t think he did anything much better than his playing here, though he did a lot of other nice stuff.

His main partner was bassist Jack Cassidy, whose fingers were just as nimble, and seemed to share a telepathic bond with Kaukonen. Perhaps because of their daunting schedule, the band couldn’t come up with enough songs to fill out the album, so they included a jam with just Cassidy, Kaukonen, and Spencer Dryden, the drummer. I had only begun to listen to what each instrument was doing in a recording, having listened to songs as sort of gestalt, without much analysis before. I still lack the musical knowledge to analyze in depth; I just know what I like, and I find a lot of it in this album.

It kicks off with The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil, lyrically partly based on a Winnie the Pooh verse. As the band begins the intro, Kaukonen plays very simple fills that accent what’s going on. Then the voices come in. The band also had four singers, three of whom sang most of the time, and harmonized very well.

Grace Slick, the one woman in the band, also used her voice like an instrument, wordlessly accompanying the other instruments at times. She could also be an excellent songwriter, having written the two hits from the previous album. She and Marty Balin (founder of the group) were mostly just singers, though both could play instruments to some extent too. Balin played guitar, but not as well as the other two guitarists. Slick played some guitar and piano, but mostly just in the studio. She was musically educated enough, though, to contribute two songs to this album with pretty odd structures: Rejoyce and Two Heads. The first was based on James Joyce’s Ulysses, and she said later that it was very hard to record. It’s a song that I enjoy singing for my own enjoyment sometimes even now.

Two Heads was based on a difficult rhythm that the other rhythm guitarist, Paul Kantner, couldn’t get, so Slick played guitar on that cut. Both songs illustrate what someone wrote about her a year or two later: songs of the other songwriters build, but her songs are lyrically all over the place, evocative more than logical. To my ears, which are biased and fallible, these two were as good as she ever did; I got tired of that style of writing in later albums.

Paul Kantner was the writer with the most songs on the album, partly because he wrote good songs, and maybe partly because he was able to continue writing when others were too exhausted. Kaukonen has one song, not counting the jam with Cassidy and Dryden, Balin and Slick have two each. Another track was by Spencer Dryden, the drummer, who made a sort of collage (not a real song) when no one else felt like working.  I like all the tracks on this album, which is unusual for me, maybe because of later increasing disenchantment with music, maybe because all of them are of high quality, which isn’t terribly usual. Very few artists can sustain high quality all the way through an album. There are almost always at least two or three cuts that don’t get it, and with many albums having THREE good cuts is pretty good. As difficult as it was to make, the Airplane were on fire when they made this one.

I think a good many of the songs had something to do with the LSD experience, which most, if not all the band had been having in the previous couple of years. It’s not like they come out and say, This is a song about DRUGS. The imagery does sometimes give it away: “On green sand, on blue earth…”,  “I see people all around me changing faces/I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet…” It’s probably unfortunate that, like a lot of other bands of that period, they went on to cocaine and alcohol, which have their uses, I suppose, but aren’t reported to be enlightening drugs as LSD apparently can and could be then. But it seems also to have been a drug that can be dangerous, not in the addictive sense, like many others, but in that one can see things under its influence that one isn’t ready to deal with. There were musicians in that era who had bad experiences with it. Some of them never came back.

The other thing that seems to happen with bands, besides the problems of drugs, which are often used as ways to keep working or to get rest, is egos. Musicians seem particularly prone to getting egotistical and fighting with each other. Maybe it’s not less than in other walks of life, but it does tend to be more public. Like many other bands, the Airplane had factions, and after four good to great albums, started breaking up. Kaukonen and Cassidy formed Hot Tuna, which I liked somewhat, but less than the Airplane. Kantner and Slick formed Jefferson Starship, which Balin later also joined (and wrote the two songs they did that I really liked). A lot of bands broke up in similar ways, and I rarely liked what came next as much as what had gone before.

There seems also (from my limited viewpoint) to be only a certain amount of time in which a band can be really innovative and passionate. Eventually they hit a plateau or a downhill slide. The Rolling Stone’s best period was about 10 years. Out of 50. Their core has stayed together much longer than most bands are able, and their best period was also longer than most. Some artists are capable of producing one great song or one great album, but no more. Those who can do more are unusual. What is even more unusual (in any field) is the artist whose last work is their best. For most people, that comes relatively early in their careers. Beethoven and Eugene O’Neill are two exceptions. There are probably more, but that kind of excellence is very unusual.

There will be people from my generation who remember the Jefferson Airplane, fondly or otherwise. I don’t know how many even of those who remember care much about them anymore. Their time was long ago, but I think they’re worth remembering every now and then.

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