Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Jefferson Airplane And The San Francisco Sound

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 – 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.


russell1200 said...

Their rocking songs tended to have longer life spans, and were more popular at the time as well.

A lot of the music at that time is what I think of as trippy folk music with electrical amplification. If you get Procul Harum Best of Album, you get Whiter Shade of Pale, and a bunch of ok other music like that.

But the style tends to be topical to the time, and is easily duplicated with better sound quality today. Truthfully, the rather wide-ranging alt-folk music of today is often much better. Even if it often suffers from the same lack of vocal presentation.

One type of music that seems to still work today, at least for me, is the various 1970-80ss songs of angst: Neal Young stuff from the Rust Never Sleeps era, or Dire Straights Telegraph Road. Even Billy Joel's Allen Town does pretty well when it got some recent local play because he did a show in the area.

Finally, talking of a band that is dying. I don't know about you, but I hear a stunningly small amount of Beatles on the air anymore. Even when I'm listening to "oldies" stations they tend to get skipped right over.

Glen Davis said...

Jefferson Airplane was a pretty big deal around my area, as the follow up groups Jefferson Starship and Starship were still singing. All of us made jokes about how "We Built This City" era Grace Slick looked like somebody's grandmother. Some of the members are still on the Casino circuit. I guess there's still regionalism in the music scene.

Gordon said...

Yes, when Volunteers came out I sang along to We Can Be Tighter. A painful memory it is. Actually a NY Times Magazine profile explained that the lyrics were taken by their young fans a bit more seriously than the band intended. They pursued an opulent lifestyle. Jorma, for example, drove a Lotus.

Rick Robinson said...

And not a mention of the Fillmore, Big Brother, The Doors. ???

Todd Mason said...

Lennon regretted singing "You can count me out" in the first version of "Revolution" that was released...hence the reversal in the version on THE BEATLES (the White Album).

Unknown said...

I think it may have been music writer Ben Fong-Torres (apologies for any mis-attribution) that, decades later, described how the Haight was still suffering from a "cultural hangover" from the Summer of Love.

Also, it's interesting to note how the once-loathed term "Frisco" has become something of a charmingly retro term of endearment, while no one here---and I mean no one---ever says "SanFran".

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone! Oh and Tim, I use SanFran because I live in a place actually called "Frisco" (it's in Texas, though) I almost never think of San Francisco as Frisco. Also I might've stumbled across that B F-T reference, or at least something along the same lines...I was in my Rolling Stone Cover to Cover CD-ROM the other day and found an issue from the mid-'70s with a long "particapatory journalism" feature on the Haight's glory days, comprised of letters mailed in from hippies who were there. I didn't read it, though.

Gerard Paul Daily said...

You have to view this book as if you were alive at that time and not as a person who can readily look up all kinds of facts on the Internet much later. I bought this book when it came out in 1969. I was 16 at the time and living in my hometown San Antonio. There were only a few music magazines back then that would do in-depth interviews. Hit Parader had interviews but they were usually stretched out over two or three month's time. I bought the first issue of Rolling Stone when it came out and they started doing long-form interviews. That was the magazine's calling card at the time. There was EYE magazine that was published on a national level and that was about it. It was impossible to find Mojo Navigator or any of the first rock magazines in San Antonio.
For someone living at that time in a town that was not near the great music cities on either coast- Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, I welcomed any news of what was happening in what I viewed at the time as cities much cooler than my hometown. That is why I thought it was great that Grace Slick referenced San Antonio in her interview. You also have to view this book from the author's viewpoint. Ralph had to have enough material to warrant the publishers putting it out. I think some of these interviews might have been done for the San Francisco Chronicle originally and published in an edited form and then Ralph came back and transcribed everything in the interviews to flesh out the book. It would be interesting to find out if that was the case. That would explain the Jerry Garcia interview being in the book and also the list of names of all the bands in San Francisco. To someone alive at the time and living in Texas it was interesting to know how many bands were in San Francisco and what their names were. Now, later on you can do the historian's thing of "That was the band that Whats-His-Name was in and it later morphed into this band."
As for Frisco, Texas, Joe Kenney, I live in Fort Worth now and I used to back up a blues singer named Zuzu Bollin, who was from Frisco. He sold the family farm in Frisco to developers for a bunch of money. You might be living in a house built on a piece of his former property.

Joe Kenney said...

Hi Gerard, thanks a lot for the review, and I'm sorry I took FOUR MONTHS to respond! I thought I had responded, but clearly I hadn't. Thanks also for the historical perspective on the book...not to mention the info on Frisco! It is possible I live on land once owned by Bollin's house is right off Lake Lewisville, and would've made for good farm territory. I'm also a fan of those looong Rolling Stone interviews...I have the paperback edition they published in the '70s, as well as that "Cover to Cover" CD-Rom that came out years ago, with every issue from the first up through 2007. The only problem with that one is it's on proprietary software so you have to load the disc onto your PC to read the issues. And also given that it's so old, there are compatability issues, so I had to download a patch to even view it on my current PC -- and even then it only works half of the time. So maybe hanging on to the original issues is still the best!