The Jefferson Airplane And The San Francisco Sound, by Ralph J. Gleason
June, 1969 Ballantine Books
Ralph Gleason was a jazz critic who covered rock from its earliest days, and was one of the fouders of Rolling Stone. This scarce papebrack documents the rise of San Francisco rock, with a focus on the Jefferson Airplane – indeed, 200 pages of interviews with all six members. Published in ’69, much of the material seems to have been gathered over a year before, as the Airplane is documented while recording what would become their album Crown Of Creation.
I love reading these vintage rock books and being reminded how rock music was once seen as a liberating but dangerous youth movement. In particular I like to see how groups and albums were viewed when they were new – you can always get a chuckle out of vintage Rolling Stone reviews that diss LPs that are now considered sacred. (I mean those jokers ran a negative review of Abbey Road!!! But to their credit they also ran a positive one.) It’s also interesting to see how groups that were once considered important have sort of slipped out of the public consciousness. I grew up listening to “classic rock” in the ‘80s, and while I knew all the “important” bands, I’ve gotta say, Jefferson Airplane wasn’t one of them. In fact I’ve only begun to appreciate their music in recent years. I mean back then we all knew the Beatles, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Pink Floyd, etc, and you’d always see Grateful Dead t-shirts on the potsmoking teens in high school. But the Jefferson Airplane? Not really.
I’ve wondered about this, and if anything I think it’s the band’s politics that has gotten in the way. While most everyone knows “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love,” probably not too many average rock listeners could sing along to “We Can Be Together,” with its “up against the wall, motherfucker” chorus. Whereas the Beatles and the Stones just let the music speak for itself – other of course than a few random tunes – the Airplane wore their politics on their sleeves. And such things just don’t age very well. Hell, even John Lennon regretted singing “You can count me in” on “Revolution” just a few years after it was released. At least, that’s my assumption on why the Jefferson Airplane’s music didn’t resonate with my generation – at least with the people I knew, and we were all into classic rock. Hell, I was listening to the Who in ’89 when most of my high school classmates were listening to shit like Guns And Roses or Poison or whatever.
Ralph Gleason’s fat paperback documents the time before the Airplane let their politics direct the course of their career; in fact politics aren’t much discussed, and the focus is more on the music. The book captures them just as they’re coming off the success of Surrealistic Pillow and it’s more about them hitting the big leagues, getting beyond their local SanFran creds to a more national audience. And also there’s no sign of the fractional in-fighting that would ultimately break up the group. Singer Marty Balin gives no indication that he’d leave the band just a few months after this book was published, but readers gifted with future knowledge can already see seeds hidden in the interviews: guitarist Paul Kantner raves about Grace Slick, with whom he’d eventually have a child, and bassist Jack Casady says that he and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen are the only ones on the same advanced musical wavelength; in a few years they’d split off to form Hot Tuna.
Gleason starts off the book with an 80-page dissertation on how rock music came to San Francisco; it basically started in October, 1965 with the Family Dog, a group of proto-hippies who were looking for a place to host a rock dance. Dancing is a key theme in these pages, as Gleason informs us of the plight of poor ‘60s kids who were prevented from actually dancing during rock performances – the goddamn pigs insisted they stay in their seats during the show. But seriously, from such minor things revolutions are born, so we learn how it was an uphill struggle to make possible something that today would seem so mundane.
I find it weird that Gleason does little to set up the Airplane; he just sort of introduces them in the narrative with random asides or references. Clearly he figured the readers of the book would know who the Airplane were and would be more interested in the group dynamics. But then that makes his free-ranging history piece even more puzzling, as it’s filled with material that has no bearing on the Airplane. He goes over the dizzying array of groups that formed in San Francisco in the ‘60s, many of them obscure. Some of them, like Petrus (which featured Jorma’s brother Peter) and Ace of Cups (an all-female group that Hendrix raved about), never even got their albums released (Jorma says that the Petrus album sounds “a lot like the first Jefferson Airplane album”).
After this opening, which encompasses everything from Ken Kesey’s acid tests to Tom Donahue and free-form radio to the Human Be-In, Gleason moves into the meat of the book: 200 pages of interviews with the members of Jefferson Airplane. These are very much in the mold of the Rolling Stone interviews of the day: very long, very “loose” in that they come off more like free-ranging conversations than actual interviews. And this book is so true to its era that Gleason even tells us each member’s Zodiac sign in the intro blurb that precedes each interview.
First up is singer Marty Balin, and in the intro Gleason states that this interview predates the others, taken shortly after the release of the first Airplane album. Balin covers the history of the group and how they need to get some national exposure and move beyond their Bay area fame, which of course they’d do with Surrealistic Pillow. I found the most interesting part of this interview to be Balin’s comments on then-drummer Alexander “Skip” Spence, who later went on to join Moby Grape and ultimately released the now-legendary solo album Oar in 1969:
Next is Jorma Kaukonen, a “viking Capricorn,” probably one of the most unsung lead guitarists in rock history. This dude really rips! But somehow his name just doesn’t resonate with people like the other greats – everyone knows Jimi, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, etc. Jorma should be added to that list. Anyway as expected this interview, which like the following ones takes place after the release of Surrealistic Pillow, is focused more on the playing of music, and Jorma’s folk days.
Next is Paul Kantner, who comes off too much the hipster in his interview, almost as if he’s trying to hard to be the “cool cat.” We do get random notes on how he likes to drive around in whatever city the Airplane’s playing in, and also as mentioned he has some glowing comments about Grace. Paul’s probably my favorite member of the group, if only because of his solo 1970 LP Blows Against The Empire, which is one of my favorite albums of all time. Unfortunately he doesn’t talk much about sci-fi or mystical stuff or whatnot, which is what I was expecting from his interview:
Now we come to Grace Slick, who comes off as witty and intelligent in her interview. It covers how she started singing, how her family wasn’t musically inclined, and how she became involved with the Great Society (ie the group she sang for before joining the Airplane). I’ve always felt Grace Slick has one of the best voices in rock music. Her solo LP Manhole is pretty cool, too – one of those nice-price scores I found in some antique store years ago, complete with the booklet featuring all her far-out illustrations.
Up next is bassist Jack Casady, perhaps the only guitarist as unsung as Jorma. This guy is definitely one of the greatest bass players of all time – even Hendrix thought so, as he used Jack (instead of his usual bassist Noel Redding) on “Voodoo Chile.” I recently got the remastered all-analog vinyl reissue of Electric Ladyland, released by Sony Legacy a few years back ($16 at Wal-Mart, folks – I actually bought a record at Wal-Mart!!), and it was like I’d never heard the album before, even though it’s one of my favorites (if not my favorite album ever). Good grief Casady’s bass on “Voodoo Chile” was isnane – it sounded like heavy metal blues circa 1968. I’d say Jimi, who produced the album with Eddie Kramer, recorded it just right – something Casady states is quite difficult to do with the bass:
Next we get to Spencer Dryden, the drummer who replaced Skip Spence and who himself would soon depart the group, to play with New Riders of the Purple Sage. Gleason considers him the most varied of the group members, at least so far as his musical experience goes, but I have to admit I wasn’t as interested in his interview. But for the hell of it, here’s a little of it:
Then we go back to Marty Balin, in a more recent interview than his first one, where he discusses the split with manager Bill Graham. After this we have an interview with Graham himself, and then, apropos of nothing, an interview with Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. This one’s shorter than the Airplane interviews, and though I tried to read it, I just couldn’t connect with it, because friends even though I’ve tried and tried I just can’t get into the Dead:
Anyway this book was interesting as a period artifact, but overall I’m glad I got it via Interlibrary Loan – I couldn’t believe I actually found it listed on Worldcat.org – and that I didn’t pay the outrageous price it goes for on the used books marketplace. I would’ve preferred more of a critical look at the Airplane’s music; instead, the book is mostly just a rundown of SanFran rock history followed by free-ranging discussions with the members of the group. Which is cool if that’s what you’re looking for.