When you think of Jefferson Airplane, it’s almost inconceivable that your thoughts wouldn’t be auspicious. They bulwarked some of the most famous songs and ideas in rock and roll from the ’60s, including the open embrace in the “summer of love” of finding “somebody to love” and “feed(ing) your head,” or always being opened minded, rather than a prejudiced, antiquated square. Formed in 1965, they come from San Francisco, generally thought of as the next-coolest place in the country to LA, and were temporally grounded in the culturally premiere scene typically associated with that time and place. They had a vocalist, Grace Slick, with steely, indestructible pipes, capable seemingly of peeling the paint off of the walls, as harmless as she might look.
Plus, these guys were just funny. One time I bought my mom a used record of Volunteers at our record store in South Bend and every Airplane member had their own quote on the back, next to the picture. For one of them it was something like “I hear there are some hippie types hanging out on this island. I sure hope they nip that one in the bud, toot suite.” Jorma Kaukonen pled for aliens to stop sending negative energy from other planets, Grace Slick instructing then to simply “Point that things somewhere else,” whereas she wasn’t talking about a gun, this time. In this SFGate article I just read pertaining to their ’96 induction into the RRHF, it says that Paul Kantner’s response to having Joan Osborne replace Grace Slick at the induction ceremony was “‘60 percent no and 40 percent… no.’” Then Balin, in about the last thing you’d expect any egotistical, pompous rock star to do, suggests that they actually PERFORM Osbourne’s songs, instead of their own. Jorma Kaukonen responds to inquiries as to why the members don’t associate with each other anymore with the simple interrogative conclusion of “’Why would we?’” Hmm, that’s understandable enough. I guess.
Never really having found them to have a “classic album” under their belts (an opinion pretty well corroborated by the masses, in my experience), I’ve always preferred 2400 Fulton Street, which I used to think was just a bizarrely named compilation but I’ve found since is a bona fide best-of, as well as a paean to the house in San Francisco where they all lived communally during their creative apex. Certain moments like the genuineness and fragility of “Come up the Years” and the beautifully liquid sound of Jorma Kaukonen’s instrumental guitar number “Embryonic Journey,” as well as, loosely, “Plastic Fantastic Lover” and “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil,” always served to bolster the centerpiece “White Rabbit” in terms of rock and roll that was listenable but also trippy and galvanizing.
Also, any detractors of the Airplane have to understand that this music was coming out at a time when it still marked a “revolution,” in its own way. Sure, there’s the electric guitar-driven power-pop of “Somebody to Love” but in a way I’m just talking too about the ambient, arpeggio-borne and obstinately non-structured “Comin’ Back to Me,” which could almost stand as the first ever instance of “alternative” rock just for its willful inappropriateness for radio (whereas obviously the “alternative” became the “mainstream” in the ’90s, in a case of serious cultural anomaly). Songs like “Comin’ Back to Me,” the closeur on side a of probably the Airplane’s strongest album Surrealistic Pillow, warrant stoned, temporally copious listens, not the sort of money-minded cursory examinations which a record label might administer for the purpose of capitalization. Insofar as “album-oriented rock” ever became a thing, I don’t see how it’s possible to disprove that Jefferson Airplane had at least a part in its propagation, with their distinct and purposeful, though pluralistic, approach to songwriting.
It’s impossible to discuss this band without mentioning their two breakout singles, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” both of which pop up on sophomore effort Surrealistic Pillow. I can only discuss “White Rabbit,” unfortunately, as the son of hippies, who must have first heard it sometimes in the early ’90s on one of my parents’ vinyls or maybe on classic rock radio, a little later. And classic rock is probably the best zeitgeist into which to ground “White Rabbit,” other movements like “bubble gum pop” or “folk-rock” not really doing justice to its angular content and edgy guitar sound, respectively. Like Ann Wilson of Heart, then, Grace Slick has a voice that just preternaturally devours the sonic landscape, providing the primary vehicle behind the song’s muscular flair, appropriate in this case of course since she’s credited with writing both the music and the lyrics. More so than their other songs, too, I think, the lyrics on “White Rabbit” still hold up as a credible set of hippie tenets, in their own right: amidst chaos in a crazy, ever-changing world (mind-boggling in that the assassinations of ’68 hadn’t even happened yet at this point), to always keep an open mind is a victory in and of itself. It’s similar to a quote I once read from D.H. Lawrence, an avid commenter on our modern age and the tragic implications thereof, which was something like to every truly be yourself in life, even just for one instant, is the real miracle. Still, with all this optimism, “White Rabbit” plays like an END, in a sense, with its inimitably pointed structure and with the “real world” devolved into a malady of fiction (Alice in Wonderland, in this case), and so even stands as something that can emit some real closure, unlike other haplessly “optimistic” folk-rockers, when the popularity of contemporary rock and roll falls off and our nation’s leaders die by unseen hands.
“White Rabbit,” I think, all would agree is a success. Anybody not a fan of it is probably not a fan of the human race at large. “Somebody to Love,” too, is a perennially popular radio number of power-pop, a little bit more adherent to traditional rock and roll structure with its verse-chorus format, aligns itself not only with classic rock immortality but also the time-specific “summer of love” (in fact it might very well be its theme song, seeing as it came out a few short months before said summer). In its optimism, though, or implicitly optimistic stance on the world prescribing this thing called “love,” it limits itself to antiquity, in a certain sense, today playing as a relic of a time when people still had true hope for music.
Also, it’s galling in that it places “love” over the individual: there’s this sort of unflinchingly critical disposition toward the fictional character (which I’ve always envisioned as a white male, though that could be just because that’s what I personally am). No compliments are paid to the person and the musician narrator is tautologically superior to him or her, through her wisdom and integral understanding of how to successfully live life. Also, it offers the logical fallacy that ATTEMPTING to find somebody to love will actually yield that desired objective, when we all know, through things like reverse psychology and “playing hard to get,” the actual case is often the opposite. Finally, the most glaring logical fallacy might be the “straw man” that anybody would have ever said that “finding somebody to love” were a bad idea, or an undesirable end, the type of fictitious figure to which Slick seems to sing during the tune.
Save for a couple of cringe-worthy hippy-dippy moments, like “My Best Friend” and the band’s insipid cover of the already corny “Let’s Get Together,” 2400 Fulton Street finds itself largely listenable on the whole, though with a couple of snags which get in the way of its allotment as a “classic” best-of, probably. And if you don’t think there’s such a thing as a “classic” greatest hits collection you’ve apparently never heard of Toad the Wet Sprocket (or you’ve heard their songs a million times and still don’t know who they are, more likely). Anyway, “She Has Funny Cars” is a jaunty, digestible capsule by and large, with an unconventional, syncopated guitar rhythm and basic, damaged amorousness manning the helm of the vocals. There’s something obnoxiously indignant, though, about when Slick utters the words “Fat and round” in return to Marty Balin’s indication that “Some have it nice”. It’s like she’s viscerally savoring the opportunity to criticize these people, which again might be white and male, the sociological demographic with historically the most privilege, granted. I must say her droll little ballad “Lather,” written in dedication to Skip Spence whom she was dating at the time, has grown on me over the years, with a sort of vaguely Irish hymn-type ephemeral aspect and majesty about it. “Greasy Heart,” too, the finale to cap off 2400 Fulton Street in distinct but ham-handed style, features this ornery diatribe against an artist: “He wants to sell his paintings /But the market is slow”, an observation offered with obvious tongue in cheek, as if to mock his prospective opinion that the market is slow and that the dormant sales can’t be attributed to an aristic flaw or shortcoming of his own. And again, the derided subject is male, presumably white. Slick is credited with penmanship of both music and lyrics on the albeit listenable “Greasy Heart.”