“Every time I hear “White Rabbit,” I am back on the greasy midnight streets of San Francisco, looking for music, riding a fast red motorcycle downhill into the Presidio, leaning desperately into the curves through the eucalyptus trees, trying to get to the Matrix in time to hear Grace Slick play the flute” -Hunter S. Thompson
“We played at the Monterey jazz festival, and someone wrote a review… they said we sounded like a mule kicking down a barn door. And we all liked that, you know! We thought, wow, that was great. Among all these jazz guys, we sounded like a mule kicking down a barn door.” -Marty Balin, Fly Jefferson Airplane
The stage is dark.
A giant screen flashes an image of the ocean and a painted red sun behind the band. Three voices harmonize together – a shimmering alchemy of sounds converging into one ringing voice. A wild forest of rhythm guitar pulsates with the light show while the lead guitar cuts through the stage like a river and twists out into the audience. The jazz-rock ensemble Jefferson Airplane perform “Crown of Creation” to an enthralled crowd.
From the first note of their debut album through the last note of 1969’s Volunteers, Jefferson Airplane were a musically diverse force that took the world by storm. They began as a popular San Francisco folk-rock band in 1965, and within two years they skyrocketed to fame with the band’s two seminal hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”
For fans, the magic extends far beyond the band’s two popular hits. Listening to the Airplane is a cathartic experience; it’s an echo tunnel that transports listeners into what rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner once called, “The unbridled passion of the 60’s”. Jefferson Airplane soared to the top of the charts during a time when rock music was exploding with talent, new ideas, and technology; a tide of fantastic bands rode the wave of counterculture into the heart of the New Rising Sun.
Jefferson Airplane were unique among other popular bands of the time, not only for their size as a band (6 members), but for their ability to seamlessly combine folk music with jazz, blues, and psychedelia. They were also a tight, disciplined unit. Their musical professionalism attracted local San Francisco musician Grace Slick – the member who ultimately launched the band to superstardom.
Like all legendary bands, there was a mysterious element to the group that set them apart. The songs were a unique dimension; a dynamic color palette loaded with reverb and layers of sound. They were an ideology; more than any other band of the 60’s, Jefferson Airplane represented the boundless optimism, joy, escapism, and romance of the time.
My introduction to the Airplane began with Grace Slick’s face on the cover of her 1998 autobiography, Grace Slick: Somebody to Love? I was wandering around Walden Books, browsing for anything that looked interesting. I walked up to the front and casually turned toward the new release shelf. A large, shiny cover with a woman’s face captured my eye.
There she was.
I did a double take and froze. The most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life was staring me down with unnerving intensity. What I experienced in that moment was Grace’s infamous “lazer stare”. I was enchanted.
I immediately walked straight over to the book and stared at the cover for another moment. I opened it up and began reading. The promotional quotes were various Grace Slick quips; soundbites about drug experiences, trouble with the law, and various other comic tidbits. They were hilarious.
Okay, I thought, she not only looks like a goddess, but this lady is also funny. She was also a painter, it appeared. The book contained full-page color portraits of rock stars and rabbits attributed to the author.
I paid for the book and rushed home to read it. I read it three times in a row. At some point during all of this obsessive reading, I picked up a copy of the Airplane compilation album, “White Rabbit and Other Hits”.
I listened, and I was hooked. As it turned out, Grace Slick was a fantastic singer. She harmonized with a talented male singer, Marty Balin. The interplay between the various musical instruments and the voices of the two singers was unlike anything I had experienced. Complex layers of minor key madness danced around soft brushstrokes of rhythm. The music flashed with colors while the lyrics evoked rich imagery.
The acoustic guitar in “Today” sounds like water dropping into a dark pond surrounded by neon pink flowers. The drums reverberate with rich hues inside the Airplane’s infamous echo tunnel.
I also remember being obsessed with “Coming Back to Me.” A gentle acoustic guitar cascades behind a flute, but this is no ordinary folk song. Again, here we return to that beautiful dimension unique to the band. The song portrays autumn; the singer resides in a cabin deep in the woods. The imagery is so rich that you can see him. You are him. The windows have no curtains. He looks out the window and sees the ghost of his lover. The purity of Balin’s voice lends itself perfectly to the song’s theme.
“The shadow in the mist could have been anyone, but I saw you…coming back to me”
The chronology of the Airplane’s albums reflect the changing era. The debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off has a song called “Run Around” which conjures the innocent, folksy vibe of music in 1965. The song is awash in late night carnival sentimentality; memories of two lovers romancing around the town under shimmering lights. They read poetry and gaze at the stars.
1967’s “Somebody to Love” represents the big shift in the Airplane’s sound; the whole song pulsates like a light show. Grace’s searing vocal drives the song forward while Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar slides out from underneath the ground and hangs upside down on the ceiling.
After Bathing at Baxter’s is the album where the band gets really interesting. At this point, everyone in the music world was competing with Jimi Hendrix. Hendrix dropped into the scene and blazed fiery new trails of sonic oblivion. Everyone was floored; all the big rock artists started playing differently. As a result, some incredibly weird albums emerged in 1968.
Baxter’s is a big yellow jazz room with wooden floorboards and xylophones. Men with yellow hats pound on hand drums with wooden mallets. The guitar becomes a spaceship. Grace’s singing is vaguely Native American and the lyrics are crazy.
“Doesn’t the sky look greeeen today?”
“Wild Tyme” is a perfect portrait of the shifting cultural movement. The song brings to mind visions of a hippie marching band. Crowds of determined flower children march through streets and over fields, straight into the new vision. Now they’re pouring out of buildings and the crowd is growing. A couple observes all the changes happening everywhere. They’re wild with joy. They have each other, their friends – everything stretches out in endless possibilities. “Saturday Afternoon” is another gem; hillsides full of dancers in the sun, and that persistent chiming guitar is a call to the greater power within you.
The production and general sound of Baxter’s is so bizarre. It’s like they’re playing deep underground. They’re down in the underworld. They’re playing into a bullhorn connected to a telephone wire that snakes up through the earth and plugs into your stereo.
Crown of Creation is Jefferson Airplane at their best. The album combines all their earthy folksiness with striking flourishes of lead guitar and rhythm prowess. The actual song “Crown of Creation” is one of my favorite songs of all time. This song is the neon Electric Forest. The song is full of ancient caves, fields, and gold. Crown is darker than previous albums, owing partly to the increasing song contributions of Grace Slick. She was always the darkest musical force behind the band. Her songs are sardonic, sharp-witted attacks on society.
1969’s Volunteers has a few gems, most notably “Wooden Ships”, but this is the album where the band begins to lose me. Most of the songs are a little too country fried. I was never a fan of The Grateful Dead, I can’t stand that country-hippie sound. However, this country-hippie phase of the Airplane was also a reflection of the changing times. The psychedelic mid-60’s gave way to a brief country farm fad, shortly before heavier bands like Free and Black Sabbath stormed the charts.
“Wooden Ships” is gorgeous. You can see and feel the boat crashing over the waves. You can taste the salt. If I had to pick only one, I would say “Wooden Ships” is the finest Jefferson Airplane song. The song is a fitting goodbye; the Airplane set a course away from popular music with one final, passionate song.
They would never return again. But in their wake, they left an unsurpassed legend for generations to enjoy.
Go Ride The Music.
“And when it comes to that fantastic note… when the rabbit bites his own head off, I want you to throw that f—ing radio into the tub with me!” -Dr. Gonzo, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson