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Friday, February 19, 2016

Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane is perhaps the quintessential San Francisco psychedelic rock bands, who had a great influence of the music that followed. On last January 28th, an extraordinary coincidence occurred. Two of the original members, guitarist Paul Kantner and vocalist Signe Toy Anderson, died. Anderson left the band after one album and was replaced by Grace Slick, who would become one of the leading ladies of acid rock. Kantner's legacy is much longer.

Like many '60s rock bands, Jefferson Airplane formed out of bits and pieces of other bands. Kantner and Mary Balin were working the San Francisco folk music scene and hooked up. Kantner knew guitarist Jorma Kaukonen from college. Kaukonen was really a blues purist, but would end up influencing a generation of rock and rollers.

The lineup would undergo many changes, but the core group would include Slick on vocals, Jack Casady on bass, and Spencer Dryden on drums. They would basically create the San Francisco sound, primarily with their second album, Surrealistic Pillow. Lyrics like these would define the "Summer of Love":

"When the truth is told to be lies
And all the joy within you dies
Don't you want somebody to love
Don't you need somebody to love
Wouldn't you love somebody to love."

That lyric was written by Darby Slick, Grace's brother-in-law, when they were in a band called The Great Society. She also brought with her a song she wrote, "White Rabbit," which would permanently cement together Alice in Wonderland and LSD:

"One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the one that mother gives you
Doesn't do anything at all
Go ask Alice when she's ten feet tall."

Notably, the song begins with a military-style march, something that would reappear in many other Jefferson Airplane songs, especially the ones Kantner wrote. Consider "Volunteers," which would also be one of the more memorable moments at Woodstock, when early in the morning Slick awoke the crowd with "Good morning, people! It's a new dawn, yeah," then the band broke into "Volunteers":

"Look what's happening out in the streets
Got a revolution, got to revolution"

And then:

"One generation got old
One generation got soul."

Of course, all generations end up getting old. Another song in this vein is "We Can Be Together," which I listened to several times upon hearing of Kantner's death. It's a joyous song, even though it's full of angry lyrics like, "We are all outlaws in the eyes of America," and "Tear down the walls."

Listening to their greatest hits over the last couple of weeks I've marveled at how versatile they were, though. In addition to the head-trip stuff were some beautiful ballads like "Come Up the Years" and an instrumental showcasing the virtuosity of Kaukonen, "Embryonic Journey." There's some good old folk with "Third Week in the Chelsea," epic rock with "Wooden Ships," and then one of my favorite, the unclassifiable "Lather." It was written by Slick about her then boyfriend, Dryden, the first of the group to turn thirty:

"Lather was thirty years old today
They took away all of his toys."

The song is simultaneously humorous but also something of a reminder that that they would all get old. But more than that, the song is intricately produced, with a variety of sounds and a weird guitar sound that sounds like a human voice.

Jefferson Airplane would continue to evolve into Jefferson Starship, and then finally Starship, which would record one of the worst hits of all time, "We Built This City." Kantner was gone by then--he was the only person who was in every iteration of a band that was prefixed with "Jefferson," but was not in Starship.

The double-death of Jefferson Airplane capped off a terrible month for rock and roll deaths,with David Bowie and Glenn Frey. This is the way of all flesh, but there's something about a rock star dying that makes us all feel old and mortal. At least the music lives on.


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