Jefferson Airplane – Crown of Creation – (final of 2)

We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves
Up against the wall
Up against the wall
Motherfucker

—“We Can Be Together” – Paul Kantner, Volunteers album.

Wikipedia: “Grace Slick’s recruitment proved pivotal to the Airplane’s commercial breakthrough—she possessed a powerful and supple contralto voice that complemented Balin’s and was well-suited to the group’s amplified psychedelic music, and, a former model, her good looks and stage presence greatly enhanced the group’s live impact.”

I personally also dug the fact that Grace didn’t play the “chick in the band” role or jack up her feminity or anything like that. She was cool, she partied hard, she fucked guys if she felt like it, she swore like a trooper- she was no bullshit and that’s all there was to it. Society had ideas about how women were “supposed” to behave but she never got the memo.

The band, swept up in the media’s discovery of this den of hippies in San Francisco, got more and more exposure. Donovan mentioned them in a song (“Fly Jefferson Airplane gets you there on time”) and they got coverage in Newsweek as one of the faces of this new wave.

But it was early 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow that put them in the big time. During her time with the Great Society, Slick used to perform two songs, “White Rabbit,” – which she wrote – and “Somebody to Love,” which her brother-in-law wrote. Slick “appropriated” these great songs and brought them with her to the Airplane.

Every time I hear “White Rabbit” I think of what a great song it is. And I wonder how Slick – who was a model from Smith College with no musical background – came up with a song like that. Hell, I’ve been playing music for years and everything I come up with sounds like a variation on “Johnny B. Goode.” Slick – “I wrote that after taking LSD and listening to Miles Davis’s Sketches Of Spain album for 24 hours. It was going to be called Feed Your Head.”

Pillow had both these tunes and some other great stuff including an excellent acoustic Jorma number called “Embryonic Journey” that I simply must learn one day. In listening to this album now, it’s clear that the Airplane were still very much headed in a pop or folk-rock direction, the acid having not yet kicked in. There are times on the album where – with their harmonies – they sound like the Mamas and the Papas.

Here’s Grace and the boys lip syncing “White Rabbit,” (I’ll save “Somebody to Love” for the inevitable Spotify list) of which Slick said, it was “supposed to be a slap to parents who read their children novels such as Alice in Wonderland and then wondered why their children later used drugs.”

Spotify link

Surrealistic Pillow stayed on the Billboard charts for over a year and was very much a part of that 1967 “Summer of Love/Sgt. Pepper” year. (Along with Hendrix, Joplin and Otis Redding, they played the Monterey Pop Festival.) There was a popular song that year written by John Phillips called “San Francisco” that advised those visiting to “wear some flowers in your hair.” Alas, that as much as anything led to the influx of a bunch of hippie wannabes to SF and Haight Ashbury’s eventual decline into burnout city.

However, success doesn’t always bring happiness that might be expected. And so the band got heavier and trippier in sound due to the popularity of bands like Cream and Hendrix but at the same time, Marty Balin’s ballads were becoming less desired. And Balin felt the band’s egos were getting out of control.

The Airplane’s next two albums – After Bathing at Baxter’s and Crown of Creation – still consisted mostly of short, radio-friendly length (but less poppy) songs which contained more psychedelia as well as fewer hits.  I never really got the feeling they gave a shit about hits and always had kind of a “fuck you” attitude. Which I liked.

Although I liked their earlier stuff, I think these albums are where I really kinda started to dig the band. I’m not sure that I heard either of them the day they were released but I eventually caught up.

This song, “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil*” demonstrates one of the things I love about this band – the vocals. It doesn’t sound like they necessarily even try to harmonize per se so much as well, everybody sing, let’s see what happens. I love how Slick just sails above everything like a wailing banshee.

This combination of driving rock, weirdness and seemingly improvised vocals is what does it for me with this band. Listen to Casady’s bass playing on this. He’s fantastic and reportedly part of Gracie’s decision to join the band. Slick – “I wanted to have an affair with Jack Casady. I love bass players, and he’s the best.”

Spotify link

I was really hoping to find a nice long live version of “Crown of Creation” but alas, can’t. I always dug the band’s nailing the generational divide and I was glad I was on their side of it:

In loyalty to their kind
They cannot tolerate our minds
In loyalty to our kind
We cannot tolerate their obstruction

Spotify link

Rock promoter Bill Graham had, for a time, been the band’s manager. But for reasons that are not clear, Slick and Graham didn’t get along and so they dumped him. (In those radical hippie-dippie times, anyone who was actually making money promoting bands was seen as the bad guy. Even if it benefited those bands.) I guess they eventually made up as I stumbled on this 1984 TV interview with Slick, Graham and Jerry Garcia (who as always, looks like an unmade bed.)

It might surprise you as well to know that despite singing together, Slick and Balin weren’t the best of friends. “He wasn’t very communicative,” Grace relates. It appears, too, that he was really in the Signe Anderson camp. Who knows? Maybe he was jealous of Grace but she says he is the only band member she never stayed in touch with. From everything I can gather, this seems to be more a function of him being dickish toward her than anything else.

In early 1969, the band released a live album called Bless Its Pointed Little Head which really showed off their instrumental chops. The classic album cover showed Jack Casady seemingly passed out at the end of a long row of wine bottles. Interestingly, one of the tunes was Donovan’s “Fat Angel” that I mentioned above.

I saw the Airplane at Fillmore East in 1970 with this version of the band along with Papa John Creach. I was pretty young and I am here to tell you that it was about as fucking mind-blowing as it sounds both in terms of the band and just the overall environment. (Since Bill Graham owned the Fillmores, clearly the band got along with him just fine at a distance.)

Spotify list

The band’s next big gig was at Woodstock in August of 1969. I’ve written a whole series on that momentous event which you can read starting here if you’re so inclined. The band made it into the album and the film. The longer version of the movie which I saw not too long ago has the band doing a blues with Slick sitting idly by watching. My guess is she’s not really a blues singer but I found it odd to have her just sitting there on stage doing nothing.

In late 1969, the band also played the Rolling Stones’ Altamont/Hell’s Angel’s nightmare clusterfuck. This concert – just four months later – was the Antichrist of events, the exact opposite of the entire peace, love ethic of Woodstock. Watch Gimme Shelter if you want the big picture.

When Balin wades into the crowd to try to settle things down, he gets knocked out by one of the Angels. Paul Kantner gets into an argument with one of the Angels when he grabs a mic and sarcastically thanks them for knocking his lead singer out.

Somewhere in between those two iconic events, the band released an album called Volunteers. Go check out my earlier take on this album. There’s some more good stuff (and songs) there including a bit on Grace’s aborted attempt to visit the White House to screw Nixon over. (I wish Trump was as befuddled and clueless as Tricky Dick.) Not to mention the fact that the band pulled one over on those pussies over at RCA by using the word ‘fuck’ creatively.

For me, there isn’t a heck of a lot more to say about the band as, after a few more albums they fizzled out. Marty Balin had for a long time felt like the odd man out and split. Spencer Dryden was kicked out. Grace Slick – who had a significant substance (especially alcohol) problem – crashed her car at over 100 MPH near the Golden Gate bridge while drag racing Jorma. He pulled her out of the car and saved her life.

Hot Tuna at least tried to keep the vibe going by doing acoustic blues. To the lasting disgrace of everyone involved, Kanter pulled the band into a more commercial vehicle called Jefferson Starship. Their major claim to fame was a suckfest of a tune called “We Built This City On Rock and Roll,” which to his shame has lyrics by Bernie Taupin. (Even Slick later disavowed it.)**

I guess the band can be somewhat commended by never having done a disco song or an actual song for a toilet paper commercial. Otherwise, I shit in their general direction.

Oh and Paul Kantner and Grace Slick had a baby. (“I found someone to love,” she said.) China Kantner did some acting, perhaps most memorably being a recurring character on comedian Tim Allen’s Home Improvement sitcom. (Which, BTW, was contemporaneous with Seinfeld and which was often equally funny if not as culturally significant.)

The band, minus Dryden, actually reunited in 1989 for a tour and an album. I can’t recall that having a heck of a lot of impact other than perhaps nostalgic. Clearly their time had come and gone.

Jefferson Airplane was inducted (by Phil Lesh and Mickey Hart of the Dead) into Greenpete and CB’s favorite organization, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and was presented with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

Marty Balin, Spencer Dryden, Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson have all shuffled off this mortal coil, the last two, weirdly, on the exact same day. As mentioned in the previous post, Casady and Kaukonen roll on as Hot Tuna. Grace Slick lives in Malibu these days and paints. Sober a long time, she put out an autobiography a few years back called (what else?) Somebody to Love: A Rock and Roll Memoir. I haven’t (yet) read it but I credit it here as I pulled a few quotes from it.

I leave you here with something fantastic and – I might add – groovy. This is “Wooden Ships” from that exact same Fillmore East concert I attended long ago. How about that?

*Singer/songwriter Fred Neil was a friend of the band and hung out with them a lot. Slick thought he looked like Winnie the Pooh and so this is (sort of) about him. And if any woman thinks that I look like a cartoon character I am hanging it up.

**This POS song has made more “Worst Song” lists than any song this side of “Sometimes When We Touch,” “You’re Having My Baby,” and “You Light Up My Life.”

41 thoughts on “Jefferson Airplane – Crown of Creation – (final of 2)

  1. Cool! Though I have to say – and, of course, as a yuge Neil Young Fan completely unbiased here😀- CSNY’s version of “Wooden Ships” sounds 10 times better. Admittedly, the comparison may be a bit unfair since CSNY are probably second to none when it comes to harmony vocals.

    As for “We Built This City,” yeah, the lyrics are kind of stupid, though the melody is kind of catchy. It really very much sounds like an ‘80s song. Plus, whoever came up to associate rock & roll with building cities at least deserves some credit for creativity!😆

    Now the silly tune is probably gonna be in my head for the rest of the day!🤣

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    1. Better, agreed though I don’t know about ten times better. For the record, co-written by Kanter, Stills, Crosby. A great song. And if you want to listen to a great song that associates rock and roll with cities, look no further than the infinitely superior “Cities on flame with rock and roll” by BOC. And while that Starship song is running through your head, ponder the meaning of “Marconi does the mambo.” Get back to me on that. 😂

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  2. (Thanks for the namedrop, Jim.) I loved reading this, though not because I’m an Airplane fan. I think you hit the nail on the (pointed little) head in a few places, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why people praise “White Rabbit” so much. I’ll agree that there’s an ominousness to the music, and I like how it slowly builds in intensity. But the words? Are you serious? Alice in Wonderland and “Feed your head”?! Jeez, this cartoon poetry is exactly why my conservative friends diss the 1960s. Totally embarrassing. There are many, many drug songs that are far better than “White Rabbit.” This one just hit in the right place at the right time, that’s all, and the Airplane’s entire career was built on that one song (plus, to a lesser degree, “Somebody to Love,” both of which Grace did earlier with the Great Society). Anyway…as CB says…that’s my “take.”

    You’re totally right about Grace Slick, though. She’s the only appeal for me with JA. What a woman, as ballsy as Janis, but looked like a goddess. I hope she lives forever. And I don’t like Marty Balin much, either. I saw a performance and interview on TV, and he dissed all the other JA members, and acted like he was Frank Zappa or something. A total egotist. (Though, truth be told – and unlike you – I actually like some of his pop material with the Starship. And “Spitfire” has some good stuff on it.)

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    1. As to “White Rabbit,” sure. But consider that she did it after an acid trip, etc. And yeah, there are better drug songs but I dunno, I find the juxtaposition of Alice in Wonderland and the drug scene compelling. And let’s get real and recognize that NOBODY was saying “feed your head” on a Top 40 hit back then. I saw this song as much a message to our generation as it was to our parents. She was doing her best Timothy Leary. It was code.

      As to embarrassing lyrics, I don’t think we can get too far up on our high horse. You’re a Doors fan as I recall. “Hello I love you let me jump in your game?” No, not (I think) a drug song. But really? And I worship the Beatles and many people love “Hello Goodbye.” Again, really? But at the end of the day, “White Rabbit” may not have dated well but I still dig it. And Grace’s voice is so powerful and the tune so compelling she could have been singing the SF telephone book and it wouldn’t matter. Sometimes it just washes over you, ya know?

      You and Christian have convinced me that maybe I’m being too harsh on Starship. They just seemed too slick (no pun intended) and commercial by half. To see a once-great band from the ’60s that embodied that era just become, what, plastic fantastic lovers just bummed me out. I did like Balin’s “Miracles” FWIW even though maybe he’s a dick.

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      1. I know what you’re saying about Starship. But I think they’re representative of a lot of ’60s counterculture bands who were just plain burned out by the mid-70s and decided to “relax” a little (strongly encouraged by their record companies). And there were a few good songs. I enjoy “Fast Buck Freddie,” “St. Charles,” “Cruisin’,” and a couple others.

        You made a good defense of “White Rabbit” (even though I’ll never like it). The “feed your head” line hasn’t dated well, but was probably bold for its time. While it’s far less “poetic” or chilling than a song like Lou Reed’s “Heroin,” both songs were eye openers and helped pull rock further away from Pat Boone, which is always good.

        (And if you disagree that the original “Heroin” is a better song than “White Rabbit,” I might have to kill you…that’s your third death threat.) 🙂

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        1. Right. And if you watch the Slick/Garcia/Graham interview, Grace makes the point that times change and you have to move on. So she defends punk and its energy for example, I don’t think Jerry was too keen, Graham was hating it. I have no problem with bands moving on. I have problems with when they get worse. But that may just be because the audiences aren’t as discriminating, radio isn’t as demanding and bands have to cater to that market. We’ve seen that long, slow decline over a number of years I think.

          I think “Heroin” and “White Rabbit” are both excellent songs but I especially dig the live Lou Reed version. Also I think they’re sending different messages. I think “Rabbit” is saying “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,” and “Heroin” is darker. I think they both make their points. But other than both being about drugs, they’re kinda hard to compare as songs.

          As to death threats, if as a blogger your’e not getting a few then you’re not pissing enough people off, hence doing your job. 🙂

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        2. Didn’t know Buffy Sainte-Mari’e’s song. Interesting. I didn’t know much about the Charlatans at the time but came to love them, largely due to Dan Hicks. CB and I are rabid fans of Hicks and his Hot Licks

          Since I didn’t know her song, I went looking for it. You have to go look at the comments. The first one will amuse you, the second one perhaps blow your head off. 🙂

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        3. Thanks, Jim. I’ve become a big Buffy fan in the last few years. A lot of my rock heroes had roots not only in blues, but also in folk (including the Airplane). Hoyt Axton started as a folkie. Folk gets a bad rap sometimes for being precious and naïve, but the best artists have lasting impact: Dylan, Seeger, Guthrie, Buffy, Joni, Phil Ochs, and Fred (Poo)Neil. Overseas there were the more musical Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn, Ann Briggs, ISB, expats Paul Simon and Jackson Frank…

          Buffy’s still going strong, still looks damn good, and lectures regularly. Anyone who gets blacklisted by J. Edgar Hoover is OK in my book! Here’s a “recent” tune you might like, that sums up how I feel, too: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XKmAb1gNN74

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  3. There’s a gloriously conceived conspiracy theory based around the West Coast music scene of the time. Author, David McGowan wrote a book about it called Weird scenes inside the Canyon. It involves Laurel Canyon being a CIA run community where a bunch of army brats like Jim Morrison, Frank Zappa, John Phillips, Stephen Stills, et al were all basically creations of ‘the
    Company’ meant to present as anti-establishment but who actually steered ‘the kids’ in particular directions considered less ‘threatening’ to America’s interests by the Agency.
    There’s a long list of mysterious deaths and odd happenings associated with the Canyon. It also claims that the hippies were created purely to destroy the anti-war movement, which of course they did. It’s all pretty baroque but he paints quite a picture of a culture under manipulation. I actually enjoyed the trip even if it is more a tale from an alternate reality than true to any actual history.

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    1. OMG, that is so fucked up. I’ll check out the website out of morbid curiosity. But I am definitely not going down that rathole. Boy, there were conspiracy theorists everywhere instantly for a painful thing like Notre Dame burning. I bet there are people right now who think your whole move from OZ to NJ was part of some vast New World Order conspiracy and the JG story is your elaborate cover. Hmmm. Wait a minute …. 🙂

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        1. Ha! The second death threat in as many weeks. “I’ve killed men for less,” you said but I forget why. You are a monster, a cold-blooded assassin bent on taking over the world. I like it!

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        2. Well, I do have this huge Bowie-knife which is a real knife not a little tiny one and I feel that it’s kind of going to waste. It’s the Aussie dilemma, apparently.

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        3. Man I don’t care if Nicole is a hundred. If she ever said Leave Your Wife For Me, I’d have to entertain that thought for at least a day or two.

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      1. Your writing (always incomparable) is the only reason I read it. Like I said the music passed me by. Canadian? With more than a bit of Yank in me. I did mean to say that your piece was interesting. Maybe one day out of the blue a Airplane tune will side swipe me.

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        1. Good point. Either that’s where you guys channel all your rage or we’ve mischaracterized you guys all these years. And this is the US so we definitely never get it wrong. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

        2. BTW, I appreciate the comment on the writing. Most of the feedback I get in life is, essentially, “fuck you” so it’s nice occasionally to get some positive reinforcement.

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        3. If I didn’t enjoy the read i wouldn’t keep coming back. There’s always tidbits and things I learn but mostly it steers me into some good music. We have lots of common ground. You have an open mind on music that is admirable.

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        4. I wish it were open-er. It has taken me quite a while to appreciate country. I will never be a fan per se but I like more than I let on or than you might think. I tried hip hop and yes, but not a lot. I hate opera unreservedly. But I’ve been rethinking the whole disco thing and now realize I’ve been quite unfair to it. Therefore I hereby announce that at least once per quarter if not every 12 weeks, I will do a deep dive on disco. First up – an incisive look at KC and the Sunshine Band.

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        5. I really try to keep it clean on my opinions of certain music but the couple genres you have pointed out come close to CB getting nasty. Maybe I’ll hide behind a fake name and do some ripping of music that hurts.

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        6. Hey listen, I try to keep it on the up-and-up too. But every once in a while ya gotta tear into the lousy music. If they’re putting it out, I have no compunction about pushing it back.

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