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Book Review: Take Me To A Circus Tent – The Jefferson Airplane Flight Manual By Craig Fenton

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"The object of this book was not to reinvent the wheel, or in this case reinvent the Plane," author Craig Fenton explained to me earlier this week, describing his remarkable new book on the Jefferson Airplane. "The aim was rather to help the spread the word, and to keep the torch going of one of the greatest bands ever."

Amen, brother. Make no mistake. Craig Fenton's Take Me To A Circus Tent: The Jefferson Airplane Flight Manual is not just any rock book. It is in fact the final, definitive word on the music of the band that most defined the so-called psychedelic acid-rock "San Francisco" sound of the late sixties (the very sound that would define an entire generation).

The fact is, this may be the most extensive, meticulously researched account of the music of any rock and roll band ever. Period. From a purely historical standpoint, especially with regard to the music, Take Me To A Circus Tent delves as deeply into the sixties phenomenon that was the Jefferson Airplane as any rock and roll book ever has.

But let's get one thing straight right up front. This is a book which focuses strictly on the music.


If you are looking for one of those sex, drugs, and rock and roll exposes, you'd best look elsewhere. You are not going to find any tales of band members lying face down in a pool of their own vomit. Nor will you find the sort of acid-fueled sex orgies that have characterized the written accounts of other rock stars from the sixties, fallen and otherwise.

Not that Craig Fenton didn't have his chance. In the extensive research that went into this book, Fenton was given what amounted to an all-access pass, resulting in rare footage such as this, a great clip from the Dick Cavett show in 1969 of the Airplane performing "Somebody To Love," with David Crosby sitting in:

There are complete interviews (and opportunities to dish the dirt) with no less than 32 Jefferson Airplane insiders contained within the 543 pages of this book. These include everybody from original members Paul Kantner and Marty Balin (who says that Fenton "knows so much about the Jefferson Airplane family I had to ask him the questions"), to guys who were there, like Moby Grape's Jerry Miller and Big Brother And The Holding Company's Peter Albin (who remembers the late JA drummer Spencer Dryden).

These interviews make up the latter half of the book. For the first part, Fenton exhaustively and extensively recounts the complete history of every single song written, recorded, or performed by the Jefferson Airplane, as well as off-shoots such as Hot Tuna and the various Jefferson Starship aggregations.

The result is the sort of scholarly work that could have only come from the pen of a true music obsessive. Craig Fenton is basically an Airplane archivist. From his roots as a fan who discovered the Airplane after hearing "The Ballad Of You Me & Pooneil" on progressive rock station WNEW in the sixties, to his own career in rock radio, he has meticulously documented the evolution — the flight path if you will — of the Jefferson Airplane.

In Take Me To A Circus Tent, no less than 121 Jefferson Airplane shows are broken down song by song. There are also some 93 photos, many of which have never been seen before. But we are not just talking about photos and setlists here. Fenton breaks down everything from the first and final performances of individual songs; who played what and when; to songs never before officially documented at all.

On page 149 for example, we learn of an incredible show performed in San Bernardino where the songs "Wooden Ships," and "Volunteers" were performed for the very first time. Later, we learn of a show in 1969 at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park days later where "Good Shepherd" is debuted, but sung by Grace Slick, rather than the version sung by Jorma Kaukonen on the Volunteers album.

That's the type of detail we are talking about here.

However, Take me To A Circus Tent is by no means complete. How could it be? By his own yardstick, Craig Fenton refused to include any information on shows or performances that he could not confirm either through interviews or tapes from his own rather extensive archives.

For example, I had no luck finding my own point of reference to a 1969 show in Honolulu, Hawaii where I had my first exposure to the powers of Jefferson Airplane's live performances myself. As a 13-year-old attending that show at Honolulu's Civic Auditorium, I met the band on a day that also saw one of Hot Tuna's earliest performances opening for JA. Paul Kantner was also busted for marijuana possession that very day in Honolulu near Diamond Head.

Still, this book is about as complete as rock books get.

Word to the wise, though. It is also laid out as something of a master's thesis. This is definitely a book intended more to be painstakingly analyzed then it is to be read from cover to cover. Regardless, I would consider Take Me To A Circus Tent: The Jeferson Airplane Flight Manual your personal reference guide to one of the greatest rock bands ever. As rock and roll books go, this truly is as complete as it gets.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, Ultimate Classic Rock, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://wisdomandmurder.com Lisa McKay

    Really nice review of what sounds like a fascinating book, Glen. I might check this one out based on the strength of this piece.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Thanx Lisa. The book really is a great one that I highly recommend you check out. Thanx again.

    -Glen

  • Vern Halen

    Too bqd it’s likely something I can’t afford and the local library won’t buy.

    I have a friend whose point of reference is that Grace Slick stepped on his foot while he was sitting cross legged on the stage at a show in Toronto in about 1969. He probably hasn’t washed his foot since then.