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Jefferson Airplane’s edifying trip

Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane
By Jeff Tamarkin, Atria Books, 448 pages, $27.

During the first five pages of Jeff Tamarkin’s Jefferson Airplane bio, two clichés about the ’60s go through the shredder. First, group founder Paul Kantner, in his foreword, invokes and discards the most tired phrase used to sum up the counterculture: " Nobody concentrates on . . . the unbridled joys and ecstasies of the era, well beyond the mere sex, drugs and rock and roll. " One page later, Tamarkin challenges the old saw that if you can remember the ’60s, you weren’t there: the Airplane members were there, he points out, and they remember.

It’s a fitting set-up for a band who never fit into any easy pigeonholes. Jefferson Airplane never got their rightful place in pop history, in part because their one-time opening act, the Grateful Dead, took their place as the totem San Francisco band. But you could argue that the Airplane were a more appropriate symbol for the era. They were wildly inspired and extremely messy, with messy personal lives, a messy up-and-down career, messy and sprawling albums. The members were responsible for some of the best and worst music of their era. Play the Airplane’s glorious Woodstock version of " Volunteers " back to back with Starship’s 1984 hit " We Built This City " (both of which feature Grace Slick) and you’ve got the decline and fall of the ’60s in a nutshell.

Given the band’s long history of personnel changes, side bands, and spinoff projects, it’s a story that needs a lot of untangling, and Tower Pulse/Goldmine contributor Tamarkin — who’s done the liner notes on a couple of dozen Airplane-related reissues — is the man for the job. The approach he takes is somewhere between a VH1 profile and a music geek’s overview. Because the band have been the subject of a salacious Behind the Music episode, there isn’t a lot of new dirt to dish. Yes, the members did every drug going (Slick was an alcoholic and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen a junkie; Kantner is apparently still a pothead). Yes, Slick got drunk on stage and said rude things about World War II to a German audience. And yes, she slept with almost everyone in the classic line-up — singer Marty Balin was the odd man out, perhaps because he’s quoted here as saying, " I wouldn’t let Grace Slick blow me. " So much for those joys and ecstasies.

The portrait that emerges of the core Airplane members isn’t always flattering. Kantner was a tyrant, Slick a spoiled brat, Balin a prima donna; Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady were two apolitical guys who just wanted to play. By the end of the book, with the umpteenth in-fight and the Airplane dropping the ball on their disappointing reunion album, even Tamarkin seems exasperated with his subjects. Yet one comes away with a good deal of affection for this dysfunctional family, who cared more for their music than they did for one another. And Tamarkin gets past the VH1 mentality by allowing that the Airplane’s excesses — at least in the early days, when free love and acid were the diversions of choice — helped fuel the brilliance of genre-defying albums like 1967’s After Bathing at Baxter’s, whose title is revealed to be an acid reference.

The main attraction for fans is the detailed dissecting of each Airplane-related album — no small feat when dealing with all the obscure solo, Starship, and Hot Tuna releases that came out in the ’70s and ’80s. Tamarkin allows himself to write more emotionally than he has in the past, giving peak albums like Volunteers and Baxter’s their due. Fans can finally learn what the Dead’s Jerry Garcia did on the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album (not much, it appears), and what the band were thinking when they recorded the eccentric 1971 disc Long John Silver (not much here either). And one can giggle at stories of the RCA censors freaking over harmless lyrics like " The nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips " (a reaction that led to the withdrawing of the Airplane’s first single, " Runnin’ ’Round This World " ).

There’s also a moral here. By the ’80s, most of the Airplane members had grown up, started kicking their addictions, and become productive members of society — and they made a lot of bad music, including the latter-day Starship hits and the 1989 Airplane reunion travesty (Kaukonen & Casady’s Hot Tuna had at least become a dependable if predictable jam band). But during the ’60s, a bunch of irresponsible hippies were allowed to drop acid, screw around, and advocate the overthrow of the government; and the result was life-affirming art. That’s something to ponder.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003
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