Flight Plan: A look back at the Jefferson Airplane

F24181E6-7158-45B4-9712-68C237FD8111A little over forty years ago, some people got a few friends and a few bands together, and threw a party. It went down in a farmer’s back forty in Bethel, New York, and things got a little hot and a little crowded and just a touch iconic. There was also music, rather a lot of it.

Everyone who was there, at least those of us who didn’t take the infamous brown acid, has a favourite set. Alvin Lee with Ten Years After burning it up. Joe Cocker singing “With A Little Help From My Friends” in what sounded like Martian patois. Joan Baez, pregnant and tranquil and yet somehow fierce, silhouetted against the evening sky.

Some sets appear on nearly everyone’s list of whoooo, MAMA! moments: The Who, Jimi Hendrix, CSNY. When asked, my own first choice for best set that weekend is always the same: the set that Grace Slick called Morning Maniac Music. Jefferson Airplane, flying the festival to a whole new place for me at the crack of dawn. That set – with the regular guys, and Nicky Hopkins!, thank you Ms. Slick – left me a hardcore Airplane fan for the rest of their existence. I still am.

Woodstock was 47 years ago at this writing (2016). The following year saw the release of an album that has never left my top five list of Best Evers: Volunteers. And this year, riding the nostalgia boogie board, we have the release of a nice little clutch of stuff.

Boy oh boy, have I got some flying to do. Luckily, I’ve got everything I need for a nice long trip with one of my favourite bands ever: two books, and a glorious stack of CDs. Let’s get this sucker in the air.

From Collectors’ Choice Music Live, we’ve got a nice chronology of four CDs spanning 1966to 1968. The first offering, Signe’s Farewell, is an oddity, done at Fillmore West in October 1966; it’s the final show for the band’s original frontwoman, Signe Anderson. The roots here were folk, and Anderson carried that very well, but the band was evolving into something much harder and sharper-edged, and doing it with speed. The second CD, Grace’s Debut, a two-set show from the same month, gives us the first taste of the new frontwoman: Grace Slick.

I’ve always had an issue with Slick’s voice or, rather, with her use of it: it shows me nothing of the woman behind it. Slick comes from the same era as Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell. Slick was a songwriter herself, but unlike the others, she reveals nothing of herself. For me, that’s a problem, like biting into a candy bar in the expectation of finding a soft centre, and finding it empty. Her voice always seemed to be to be exuberant, but after a while, it began to grate on me a bit. On these early Airplane shows, though, the exuberance is front and centre, just as Slick was.

The third disc in this package, We Have Ignition, is from barely a month later, and Grace has hit her stride. She seems fearless here, letting it rip, finding the occasional moment of lovely blend with Marty Balin’s balancing vocals.

It’s not all about Grace Slick, though. The Airplane (and, of course, Hot Tuna a bit further down the road) boasted one of the best and most idiosyncratic guitarists on earth, in Jorma Kaukonen. And they had a dream of a rhythm section in the legendary Jack Casady on bass and Spencer Dryden behind the drum kit. The nucleus of power and talent in that threesome was mind-blowing then, and listening to it four decades down the line, they still glow in the dark. Good, good stuff.

The final CD in this particular collection, Return to the Matrix, takes the band back to a San Francisco music landmark for a show in February 1968. Not much to say about this one other than the fact that it left me damned drowning in nostalgia. A standout here is the version of Paul Kantner’s wonderful ode to what San Francisco was supposed to be about, “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”, a drowsy sensual acid trip into the happy place of “acid, incense and balloons”.

I missed the early Airplane shows on their home turf. I was on the opposite coast, and too young to have taken that flight when they started out; in 1966, I was twelve years old. My Airplane shows were all caught on the East Coast, 1968 and beyond. But there’s a fifth CD on my desk, Jefferson Airplane: The Woodstock Experience (RCA Legacy), and this one, I can speak to personally. I was there. I didn’t take the brown acid. And here it is, top to bottom, from Grace’s “morning maniac music” intro that woke me out of the bleary-eyed stupor staying awake all night for the Who’s incandescent performance had left me in through a wonderful, soaring thirteen-song set that literally rattled half a million people with the energy serving as lift beneath the band’s wings.

I’m not going to deconstruct that set. That’s not what I do and in any case, that’s not what Woodstock was about. I’m just going to tell you to get this one and close your eyes and listen to it, end to end. Listen to the urgent relentless pulse of “The Other Side of this Life”. Listen to the passion in the three-part harmonies Kantner, Balin and Slick pull off during “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”. Listen to the definitive version of “Volunteers”, a call to action like an accelerated heartbeat. Listen to Casady’s bass, every decibel as strong as the real thunder that shook the festival on and off, and sent people scurrying for cover. And listen to the band’s guest piano player, because the piano is one of the main reasons the Airplane’s set is something apart from the rest.

The CD is a double, because it includes a remastered edition of Volunteers. This really is the best of Jefferson Airplane, in every sense.

I’ll finish up with the two books on the subject. First up is Craig Fenton’s “Take Me To A Circus Tent: Jefferson Airplane Flight Manual” (Infinity Publishing 2006). Fenton is an expert on the Airplane; there are other editions of this, including an updated 2008 version. Fenton’s passion for the subject at hand, and his thoroughness, are both admirable, but, sadly, I’m not wild about the production values on the book itself. It could have used an editor who really understood about how to work with photos. I also found myself feeling swamped by there being literally too much minutiae. Short take: it’s a great book for fans of a particular type, but I’m not that type. My fondness and fascination for and with the Airplane is not in the technical details, but in the big gooey oh hell yes! moments of the music itself.

I infinitely preferred Jeff Tamarkin’s “Got a Revolution!: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane” (Atria, 2005). Tamarkin’s got a book on the Grateful Dead in the works, coming out next year, and I’m seriously looking forward to that one.

About Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots — and quiet little towns — of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out, from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, and a few stops in between.

But home is where the heart is. Since her first look at the Bay Area in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. In 1981, after spending some years in Europe, she came back to Northern California to stay.