Hoppe on the Arts: Fly Jefferson Airplane 

Paul Kantner passed me my first joint.

Kantner was rhythm guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, the hottest band in San Francisco at the time -- January 1970. We were chatting in the Airplane's Victorian house off Golden Gate Park. Grace Slick, one of the band's lead singers, joined us. I don't know what (or who) made me more dizzy.

I'm not sure that anyone listens to the Airplane anymore. They had two big hits -- "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" that get occasional play on oldies stations. Otherwise they seem all but forgotten.

I was reminded of what a shame this is the other day when I put a CD of their Crown of Creation album on while messing about in the kitchen. Released in 1968, it sounds fresh as ever. And relevant.

After enjoying breakthrough commercial success, the Airplane cut a series of decidedly noncommercial albums. Albums, that is, without obvious hit singles. The first of these, After Bathing at Baxter's, is a psychedelic masterpiece and about as perfect a rendering of that crucial year's counter-cultural zeitgeist as I can imagine. It's an ambivalent celebration of life as altered state. It's also an amazing ensemble recording, a highwater mark for the band's passionate street-singing style and improvisatory musicianship.

The Airplane was basically two bands in one: the folk chorus of Grace Slick, Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, and the jam band of Jorma Kaukonen on guitar, bassist Jack Casady and Spencer Dryden on drums. This was an era of great rhythm sections (Cream, the Stones, the Beatles, et al.), none was more creative than Dryden and Cassady.

Crown of Creation followed Baxter's. It's an attempt to build a bridge between the band's commercial reputation and it's genuinely experimental side. This means it's an album of songs. But the songs are full of unexpected tangents and spiky, at times apocalyptic, attitude.

Kantner, one of the band's main writers, was a sci-fi freak on a mission to show how this literary genre could be bent to a rock beat. Crown was his first and arguably most successful attempt. Composed during the thick of the Vietnam War, the album explores an empire in crisis -- social, sexual, political, environmental. What I think makes it so powerful is its seemingly conscious avoidance of the didactic. Unlike the later Volunteers, which attempts a kind of manifesto (and in so doing presages punk), Crown sets dark poetry to music. Even in its most charged moments, it feels like electric chamber music.

Oh, and it really swings, too.

Grace Slick's contributions to the mix are formidable. "Greasy Heart" could have been written tomorrow by a woman as smart as she is angry. It's a radical critique of modern sex, sensitivities, and, to cop a phrase, appetites for interpersonal destruction. It's almost criminal that this song hasn't been adopted as some kind of misanthropic anthem. It may still be too radioactive for most ears. Like a lot of what Slick wrote, it also features a wicked sense of humor.

Around the time the Airplane recorded this record, French director Jean Luc Godard asked them to join him on a rooftop in Manhattan for an impromptu concert. It was winter. This was before the Beatles would pull the same stunt in London for Let it Be.

The band looked great, in spite of their cold weather bundling. And they played a ferocious version of "The House at Pooneil Corners," Crown of Creation's dystopian closing track. A crowd gathered in the street below; cops arrived and shut things down.

It's a dated bit of mischief. But, if anything, that music makes more sense today than it did then.

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David Hoppe

David Hoppe

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