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
—“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,” 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.”
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.”
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
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.)
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.”