If you smile at me you know I will understand
‘Cause that is something everybody everywhere does
In the same
Volunteers was released in late 1969 and became the last album released by the classic line-up of Jefferson Airplane. I can’t think of an album that better captured the sound and mood of a particular generation at an exact point in time. The tone of the album was by turns defiant, pissed off, weary, and anarchic. And sometimes surprisingly gentle.
To provide some context, the album was recorded prior to Woodstock, released after. The mood of the country was sour and divided. Richard “I Am Not a Crook” Nixon* had taken office as President in January and to say he and his henchman, sorry, Vice President were unpopular was an understatement.
They hated hippies and hippies hated them right back. An already-lost Vietnam war was raging, Nixon was “waging peace” by expanding it because he was an asshole, campuses were being shut down by students and young people who were not highly patriotic were seen as traitors.
Into this volatile mix, the Airplane dropped Volunteers. Originally called Volunteers of Amerika (America with a ‘k’ to reflect what the band saw as creeping fascism), they were forced to change the title due to a similarly-titled faith-based organization. And probably due to RCA not wanting to sound like some fucking Maoist unit.
But revolution was in the air and the Airplane reflected that in their music starting with the lead-off tune, “We Can Be Together.” (Nicky Hopkins on piano.)
We are all outlaws in the eyes of America
In order to survive
We steal, cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide, and deal
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent
I never thought of San Francisco bands as just bands – they were a community. The Dead, the Airplane, Moby Grape, Joplin – they all hung together, got high together. It was a scene. Of all the bands that came out of San Francisco, far and away my favorite was the Airplane and the only one I ever saw. They were just a damn good band and not as loose as bands like the Dead.
They had a unique sound and I just love, love, love the combined vocals of Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and Marty Balin. Half the time it didn’t sound like they were even harmonizing, just going their merry way, singing freely, Gracie sailing above them.
“Wooden Ships” is a song composed by Paul Kantner, David Crosby, and Steven Stills. It’s about the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and was recorded on this album as well as on CS&N’s debut album. It’s a beautiful yet tragic song.
Take a sister by her hand
Lead her far from this barren land
Horror grips us as we watch you die
All we can do is echo your anguished cry
Stare as all you human feelings die
We are leaving
You don’t need us
And then there’s the song “Volunteers of America.” More revolution. This is a rockin’ tune that I wish lasted a little longer. But I think they were going for a single. I always find it ironic that you have to call for a revolution using the tools of the capitalist system that (supposedly) you’re trying to overthrow.
Anyway, this is the version from Woodstock. The Spotify is from the Fillmore.
Lsst but not least is one of my very favorite tunes from the album, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s reworking of the traditional hymn “Good Shepherd.” Even if you’re not particularly religious – which I decidedly am not – I think you can appreciate the spiritual feel of this. Silas, who is named in the song, was a part of the early Christian community who accompanied Paul the Apostle on his missionary journeys.
Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady formed the band Hot Tuna which frequently performs (yes, I just missed them) this number.
If you want to get to heaven
Over on the other shore
Stay out of the way of the long-tongued liar
Oh good shepherd, feed my sheep
One for Paul, one for Silas
One for to make my heart rejoice
Can’t you hear my lambs a’callin‘
Oh good shepherd
Feed my sheep
- Grace Slick – vocals, piano on “The Farm”, “Hey Fredrick”, “Eskimo Blue Day” and “Volunteers”, organ on “Meadowlands”, recorder on “Eskimo Blue Day”
- Paul Kantner – vocals, rhythm guitar
- Marty Balin – vocals, percussion
- Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar, vocals
- Jack Casady – bass
- Spencer Dryden – drums, percussion
- w/Steven Stills, Jerry Garcia, Nicky Hopkins
*Slick and Tricia Nixon, former President Richard Nixon’s daughter, are alumnae of Finch College. Slick was invited to a tea party for the alumnae at the White House in 1969. She invited political activist Abbie Hoffman to be her escort and planned to spike President Richard Nixon’s tea with 600 micrograms of LSD. The plan was thwarted when they were prevented from entering after being recognized by White House security personnel, as Slick had been placed on an FBI blacklist.