by Michael Goldberg
Monday, May 28, 2003
The Rise & Fall Of Jefferson Airplane
Plus John Hammond comes into his own
Flyin' High With Jefferson Airplane
Perhaps the most endearing thing about Jefferson Airplane that emerges from Jeff Tamarkin's in-depth biography of the group, "Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane" (Atria Books), is how unconcerned with being trendy or hip the members of the group were during their heyday from the mid-'60s into the early '70s.
Probably no other San Francisco '60s-era rock band other than the Grateful Dead reflected their times and their place better than the Airplane, and over the course of his 432-page book (which is set for a June publication), Tamarkin makes it clear just what kind of "freaks," to use a term of the day, the members of the Airplane were.
There was apparently no gap between the Airplane's onstage image and their offstage lifestyle. At a time when youth were experimenting with psychedelic drugs, free love, radical politics, communal living and artistic experimentation, members of the Airplane plunged in head first, living out the counter-cultural lifestyle of their times.
Singer/writer Grace Slick lived with or slept with a number of band members, including drummer Spencer Dryden, guitarist/singer/writer Paul Kantner, and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Tamarkin touches on (without getting into People magazine territory) the band members' male/female relationships, their drug and alcohol intake and the many crazy stunts they pulled, including the time Slick appeared on the Smothers Brothers TV show in blackface, as well as a few instances when she exposed herself to concert audiences.
But the most exciting thing (aside from the music) about the Airplane was that they were fearless. They remade their world, and pushed things to the limit. They didn't give a damn about how things were supposed to work. They indulged their desires and pursued their dreams. And they were open to the unexpected twists and turns that their lives took. I was just 13 years old when the Airplane and other San Francisco bands began doing their thing, and the freedom they symbolized at that time was inspiring.
Tamarkin, the former editor of the record collectors' magazine Goldmine, is probably the foremost expert on the Airplane; he penned liner notes for many of their reissued albums as well as for the box set Jefferson Airplane Loves You.
"Got A Revolution!" covers not just the Airplane years, but continues after the group split up, following former members making albums as Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship and on their own. But it is the story of the Airplane the first 230 or so pages of the book that I found most interesting. Which makes sense, of course.
Jefferson Airplane recorded a series of striking albums between 1966 and 1969: Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter's, Crown of Creation, Bless Its Pointed Little Head and Volunteers. Beginning with the folk-rock of Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, the group experimented with rock and pop music, and came up with a number of classic recordings.
Like other U.S.-based musicians, the early key members of the Airplane which included, besides Kantner and Kaukonen, singer/writer Marty Balin and bassist Jack Casady were influenced and inspired by the Beatles. Mostly coming out of the folk/blues scene of the early '60s, they at first made electrified folk music. But as they played dance-concerts in the Bay Area, providing a soundtrack for the local underground scene, their music morphed into a new kind of guitar-heavy rock.
For me, it is the continuing power of their best music that made me want to read a book about them. Tamarkin does an excellent job of telling us how the group came together in San Francisco and how they created their unique music.
I only wish that he'd written the entire book about the mid-to-late '60s period, the way David Hajdu did with "Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Fariña and Richard Fariña." Frankly, as the '70s began, the world changed; the Airplane's music became less interesting, and the group's importance waned. And their story loses its power; they became just another bunch of musicians trying to keep their careers alive.
Like the '60s, the Airplane's story began optimistically. Much of the early years were fairly "groovy," as we used to say. The last few decades were not so sweet. Members slid into hard drug use or alcoholism, their popularity subsided, the music suffered.
Modern-day fans of indie rock would certainly find much of interest in "Got a Revolution!," and would also do well to check out some of the Airplane's early albums. They might be surprised at what they find.
The Evolution of John Hammond
It was clear with his 2001 album, Wicked Grin, that something new was up with bluesman John Hammond. That album is a blues masterpiece, an exquisite interpretation of 13 Tom Waits songs, produced by Waits (who played guitar and piano on it, and even did some singing on one song, "I Know I've Been Changed"). The idea of taking an album's worth of Waits' blues-influenced songs and treating them as if they were blues standards was a bold idea, and Hammond pulled it off. He gave each song his own spin, making the the listener believe that these songs were his.
Wicked Grin was enough to motivate me to make the hour-plus drive from Sonoma, Calif., where I live, to the Oakland jazz club Yoshi's to see Hammond live the other night. From Waits' opening number, "David Hidalgo's 'No Chance,'" it was clear that Hammond has truly come into his own as a superb singer and guitarist. He now clearly feels free to take on non-blues material, and he has the confidence that comes with decades as a professional musician. There's nothing tentative about John Hammond these days. He even wrote his first song, "Slick Crown Vic," a terrific blues number that opens his recent album, Ready for Love.
The last time I saw Hammond live was in the late '70s. At the time, he was a solid performer of acoustic blues, performing the songs of Robert Johnson and others. My recollection, though, is of a young man who was mostly the sum of his influences, which overshadowed whatever unique "voice" was inside him. That is no longer the case.
At Yoshi's, as on the excellent Ready for Love, Hammond sings like no one else. He's got a soulful voice that contains the wisdom of having lived a lot of life. There's a Southern quality to Hammond's singing, one he learned when he began in the '60s, but that's now simply part of who he is.
Hammond is a tall, lanky man with grey hair that he combs back in what I think of as a '50s style. Outfitted in a short-sleeved, dark blue shirt, grey slacks and white leather shoes, Hammond looked the part of the slick bluesman. But when he sang, he sweated bullets as he worked through such songs as Waits' "Heartattack and Vine" and George Jones' drinkin'-the-pain-away "Just One More."
Following the recording of Wicked Grin, Hammond put together an amazing band that includes the legendary Augie Meyers (who co-founded the Sir Douglas Quintet and played the now-classic organ on the group's '60s hit "Mendocino") on accordion and keyboards, drummer Stephen Hodges (Tom Waits), guitarist Frank Carillo and bassist Marty Ballou.
During the first set at Yoshi's the band played well, providing support behind Hammond, whose elastic face contorted in pain as he delivered country weepers, a whole mess of dark Waits compositions including "Clap Hands" and "Shore Leave," the Rolling Stones' "Spider and the Fly," Willie Dixon's "Who's to Blame" and "Comes Love" (recorded by Billie Holiday).
But the first set was just a warm-up for what came next. The band took things to a whole other level. Meyers, who is a master of "stupid" rock piano (you know, where the keyboardist is banging a couple of notes during an entire verse) as well as classic blues piano, rocked the house on "Murder in the Red Barn," while adding a Tex-Mex feel to "Can't Remember to Forget." Meanwhile, Carillo suddenly seemed to have been taken over by the ghosts of guitarists Harvey Mandel and Michael Bloomfield. Hammond let him take a good share of the lead guitar breaks, and Carillo showed how well he understands the blues by playing dirty, distorted solos that brought to mind a rowdy Texas roadhouse.
Hammond himself has always been a fine guitarist, but these days he's way over the top. He wears fingerpicks when he plays; at times it was as if he were caressing his guitar, as the notes fell like raindrops through the air. More often, Hammond delivered tough, angular solos that at times recalled Picasso's cubist works; his playing made you smile. It is a rare thing to find an artist who, at age 60, 40 years after appearing at the Newport Folk Festival, is now at the very top of his game, and heading north.
Singapore Sling, The Curse of Singapore Sling (Stinky): Singapore Sling are what we used to call, in the early '60s (when I was just a little kid), a garage band. You know, like The Sonics, the 13th Floor Elevators and the Standells (who had a national hit with "Dirty Water," that classic garage-rock song that is covered here). As anyone who has listened to a Nuggets collection knows, garage rock was often informed by a very psychedelic guitar sound, and that is certainly the case on bruising sonic explorations such as "Listen," which sounds like the band is Eight Miles High and rising. Of course this is 2003 and not 1966, and so this Rejkyavik, Iceland-based combo can also draw on everyone from My Bloody Valentine to the Jesus and Mary Chain for additional inspiration. And I hear a bit of the Roy Loney period Flamin' Groovies in singer/songwriter/guitarist Henrik Björnsson's vocals. Put this one on in the early morning hours and let your mind float downstream.
Various, It'll Come to You... The Songs of John Hiatt (Vanguard): Usually tribute albums are abysmal failures, hit-or-miss affairs with a few highlights and a bunch of loser records that don't cut it when compared to the original recordings by the artist they are meant to honor. Not so with It'll Come to You.... The key, of course, is John Hiatt himself. Hiatt has made some killer solo albums, but he's first and foremost one of the best songwriters around, and this 13-track album doesn't have a single bum cut. From Buddy & Julie Miller's verson of the Stonesish "Paper Thin," through beautiful renditions of "When We Ran" (Linda Ronstadt) and "The Way We Make a Broken Heart" (Rosanne Cash), this is the kind of album you'll play again and again which is what I've been doing. Other highlights: Patty Griffin's exquisite "Take It Down," Buddy Guy's "Feels Like Rain" and one I'm sure you've already heard, Bonnie Raitt's rip-roaring interpretation of "Thing Called Love."