October 6, 2002
BY JIM DeROGATIS POP MUSIC CRITIC
San Francisco 1967, the fabled Summer of Love--history
books often cite the time and place as psychedelic rock's high point
(pardon the pun). But as often as not, critics mistake a fascinating
social phenomenon for great rock 'n' roll. The fact is, with a few
notable exceptions like the sophomore album by the Jefferson Airplane,
there wasn't a lot of great rock made in the City by the Bay at the
height of the psychedelic era.
The players who drew national attention to San Francisco
in the mid-'60s are best viewed as trippy folkies, picking their brains
outs while gleefully indulging in the LSD that flowed from the lab of
Augustus Owsley Stanley. Local native Paul Kantner sang at hootenannies,
and Cincinnati immigrant Marty Balin launched the Matrix, a Fillmore
Street folk club. The Jefferson Airplane debuted in 1966 with a surreal
folk sound (one that wasn't nearly as imaginative or accomplished as
L.A. bands such as the Byrds, Love and Buffalo Springfield), and the
group's first manager tried to coin the word "fojazz" from "folk" and
"jazz" to describe their music.
"The San Francisco 'sound' was less a musical phenomenon
than a manner," critic Charles Perry wrote in his definitive history,
The Haight-Ashbury . "It was premised on the simple and straightforward
assumption that this was trip music being played by dopers for other
dopers." But, Perry added, "Most of the rock musicians in San Francisco
were basically folkies learning how to play electrified instruments.
They had a tentative sound at first and played a lot of solemn, chiming
chords on the beat. When it came time for the guitarist to take a solo
break, he often noodled up and down the notes of the scale in a way that
might owe as much to inexperience in improvisation as it did to the
influence of Indian ragas."
This certainly described the early Airplane. The band
was formed by singer/songwriter Balin in 1965 to play at his new club.
The other initial members were guitarist-vocalist Kantner, lead
guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and singer Signe Anderson. After a moving
through a series of musicians (including Skip Spence, a guitarist and
songwriter who filled in on drums for the first album), the rhythm
section solidified around drummer Spencer Dryden and bassist Jack Casady,
whose fluid, loping lines would provide the perfect complement for
Kaukonen's flittery, jazzy leads.
The band's name came from a joke by Kaukonen. The
musicians had been riffing on the monikers of fictional blues players,
and he suggested "Blind Lemon Jefferson Airplane." Its shortened version
proved to be wonderfully evocative, hinting at both old-fashioned roots
and modern technological power.
By 1966, thousands of young Americans were flocking to
the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, drawn by a thriving music scene spawned
by ballrooms like the Fillmore and the Avalon, the plentiful psychedelic
drugs, and the promise of free love. The major record companies took
notice and swooped in, and the Jefferson Airplane was one of the first
local bands to enter the recording studio.
"Jefferson Airplane Takes Off" (1966) was dominated by
Balin's simple folk ballads, which were tarted up by Anderson's fetching
harmonies and the dexterous playing of Casady and Kaukonen. It had only
limited commercial success, but when Anderson quit the group, the band
found the missing piece of the puzzle. Born in Chicago, Grace Barnett
Wing was a child of privilege who attended expensive private schools in
New York and spent time as a model in Los Angeles before moving to San
Francisco, marrying musician Jerry Slick, and joining him in his band,
the Great Society. She'd seen the Airplane and been impressed, and when
she was invited to join the group, she readily left her first outfit
(and eventually her husband) behind.
Slick arrived bearing two songs that would become the
biggest hits from the Airplane's second album. "Somebody to Love" was
written by her brother-in-law, the Great Society's Darby Slick, during a
depressing LSD trip while he waited for his girlfriend to come home. She
wrote "White Rabbit" as a musical tribute to "Bolero" and a lyrical
homage to Lewis Carroll's surreal children's book, Alice's Adventures
In Wonderland. "The adults were saying, 'Why are you taking all
these drugs? This is bad,'" Slick recalls. "But they had read us these
books, like Alice in Wonderland, where she gets high, tall, takes
mushrooms, [smokes] a hookah, [takes] pills ... I was saying, 'You read
us all this stuff when we're little and then you wonder why we do it?'"
When the band entered the studio again, Slick's
powerful, soaring vocals on these two tunes and her fluid, sexy scat
singing behind Balin and Kantner's lead vocals on the other numbers was
the most striking element of the Airplane's sound. The album was
recorded on four tracks by an RCA staff producer in a little less than
two weeks at a cost of $8,000 (no small sum at the time). The band's
friend, Jerry Garcia, appeared uncredited as guest guitarist, though he
did receive a nod on the cover as "musical and spiritual adviser," and
he suggested the disc's name: "Surrealistic Pillow."
Once again, the title is apt--there is a gentle,
lulling, somnambulant feel to much of the album, with the notable
exceptions of Slick's two turns as lead vocalist. Spence contributed the
old-timey, clip-clopping "My Best Friend." (A legendary acid casualty
often mentioned in the same breath as Syd Barrett and Roky Erickson,
he'd make one classic solo album, "Oar," before dropping out of the
music scene.) "Today" and "How Do You Feel" are gorgeous ballads, with
the harmonies on the latter owing a debt to the Mamas and the Papas. The
idyllic "Comin' Back to Me" features Garcia and Casady on intertwining
guitars and Slick on medieval recorder, and "Embryonic Journey" is an
enigmatic instrumental and solo acoustic showcase for Kaukonen.
Musically and lyrically, parts of the disc are very much
tethered to the times. "She Has Funny Cars" is notable primarily for the
pounding drums and repetitive, mantra-like guitar and bass riffs, while
"3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds" is a groovy slice of psychedelic pop with
exceptionally goofy lyrics ("Do away with people laughing at my hair/Do
away with people climbing on my precious prayers/Take me to a circus
tent where I can easily pay my rent/And all the other freaks can share
my cares"). But elsewhere, the Airplane still sounds ahead of its time
and remarkably current. Bathed in reverb and propelled by an insistent
beat, "Plastic Fantastic Lover" is a nicely barbed critique of the
insidious powers of television. Then of course there is "Somebody to
The Airplane's masterpiece and the ultimate anthem of
the Summer of Love boasts a relentless four-on-the-floor rhythm, great
sweeping waves of reverb that make the massive guitar riff and nimble
solo sound larger than life, and a slippery bass line that weaves in and
out of the mix throughout. But the most breathtaking aspect of the
single is Slick's voice.
Even if you didn't know that Slick was stunningly
pretty, with intense, piercing eyes and a brilliant, sarcastic wit, her
singing brings into vivid focus a strong, self-assertive, and utterly
confident woman who is introducing a new role model to rock, replacing
the meek waifs who dominated much of the pop scene, and perfectly
summing up the attitude of a generation (male and female) unafraid to
seize what it wants from life. "When the truth is found to be lies/And
all the joy within you dies," she begins.
What follows is rightly posed as a question, but in
Slick's hands, it becomes an emphatic declaration. "Don't you want
somebody to love/Don't you need somebody to love/Wouldn't you love
somebody to love/You better find somebody to love." The power with which
these lines are delivered leaves little doubt that the singer found and
took exactly what she wanted.
That forcefulness is a strong contrast to the gentle,
tentative questioning of San Francisco's other psychedelic explorers,
and it remains not only the Jefferson Airplane's finest moment, but one
of the most memorable female vocals in rock history.
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