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The Rockologist: Flying Jefferson Airplane…Again

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When I was a kid, I can remember having two favorite bands. The first was the Beatles of course (for obvious reasons).

The second though, was the Jefferson Airplane. Some of the reasons there should be fairly obvious — Grace Slick’s dark and druggy sexuality made me cream my very hormonally charged thirteen year old jeans the same way that I’m sure they did many other young boys growing up back then in the sixties as I did.

But where the Airplane really cast their spell on me was in the way guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady wove such intoxicating tapestries of sound. They were more like tunnels which took you deep into the rabbit hole Grace sang about actually.

There was nothing quite like the way Casady’s rumbling bass lines sucked you deep down into that tunnel — and there really has never been another like him before or since. Couple that with Kaukonen’s sharp, raga-esque blasts of guitar and you had a uniquely different flight into the other worlds of consciousness altogether. Fantasies of Grace’s own rabbit hole notwithstanding (sorry, couldn’t resist…)

I mean, sure. Grace was every sixties male teenyboppers hippie chick goddess — and undoubtedly the focus of many a pre-pubescent masturbatory fantasy back then (which forty some odd years later, I can now admit included my own). Where Janis was sorta scary, Grace was more like comely, okay?

But while Grace may have made one hell of a psychedelic flight attendant, it was Jorma and Jack who were truly flying this particular Airplane. With these two amazingly gifted musicians as your psychedelic pilots, any additional drugs were completely unnecessary. Fly Jefferson Airplane indeed.

Another thing I used to do back then was mark the songs on my vinyl albums with stars for the songs I really liked. The ones I’d skip over would be unmarked, while others might have one star or two. But the ones which really kicked ass might have four or even five.

When Jefferson Airplane released their first official live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head back in 1969, the song “Plastic Fantastic Lover” was marked with five stars. No question about it. As songs released on live albums go, this one ranked right up there with the fourteen minute version of “My Generation” from The Who Live At Leeds.

To this day, I have never heard a bass riff that rumbled my speakers and my entire being, the same way that this one did, and still does to this day. Kaukonen’s leads — razor sharp and concise — likewise cut through Casady’s deep as thunder bass runs like a knife to butter, and Marty Balin’s vocals here are the icing on the cake.

Not long after this album, as well as the one great studio album they had left in them (1969’s Volunteers), the Airplane disintegrated into the embarrassing mess that eventually became those god-awful Starship albums of the eighties. If you’d like to forget those, trust me, you are not alone.

But for that one brief moment in 1969 — forget the Stones, forget the Who — the Jefferson Airplane were the undisputed greatest live band on earth.

Which is why I submit, they need to leave it at that. The Stones have Get Your Yas Yas Out. The Who have Live At Leeds. And Jefferson Airplane have Bless Its Pointed Little Head. But, can they leave well enough alone? Of course not.

In the end, it is history which ultimately decides these things. But in the meantime, it is up to the record executives and the like to do everything in their power to muck the rest of it up. Just ask the Stones and the Who.

Although they got it right the first time, Jefferson Airplane (or at least the record companies with both the rights and the access) have continued to release a number of live albums in the years since, and none have yet to measure up to the standard of Pointed Head.

The latest of these attempts is a series of four live albums that will be released next month by Collectors Choice Music. Although taken as a whole, these four albums — recorded between 1966 and 1968 at the Fillmore and the Matrix — also fall largely short of capturing the magic of the Airplane as a great live band, they do come the closest to date. They also place things in much more of a historical context, and contain some truly spellbinding musical moments along the way.

Take “Plastic Fantastic Lover” for instance. It’s no mistake that this song appears no less then four times on these four discs (and three times on the November 1966 We Have Ignition set from the Fillmore alone).

Hearing the live evolution of this song — from the lucid, druggy jam most closely resembling the studio version heard on Surrealistic Pillow, to the statically charged version that is closest to the definitive live perfection from Pointed Head heard on the 1968 Return To The Matrix — is a textbook example of watching a song take on a life all of its own onstage. It’s no mistake that “Plastic Fantastic Lover” was the Airplane’s signature live tune — much more so than the much bigger hits like “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit.”

But not to worry — those songs show up here too. Of the two of them, the version of “White Rabbit” fares the better on the 1966 version from the Fillmore.

Grace Slick — still new to the band at the time — plays things fairly straight here, and as always Casady’s bass just kills it dead. By contrast, on a version of “Somebody To Love” from the 1968 Matrix discs, Slick seems to be somewhere else entirely (there is improvisation, and there is also just plain stoned). Here again however, on the intro Casady’s bass thunders along like nothing short of the breath of God himself.

In the final analysis, these live recordings will probably be of the most interest to hardcore students of rock history, and particularly of the sixties psychedelic period. They trace the Airplane from original vocalist Signe Anderson’s final performance, to Grace Slick’s debut (the very next night), all the way through to embryonic pre-release versions of Crown Of Creation songs like “Ice Cream Phoenix” (a standout from the 1968 Matrix set).

As post Pointed Head attempts at bottling the volatile electricity of the original live Jefferson Airplane go, this four disc series is by far the best effort to date.

It is also exactly the official document of the Airplane’s live evolution as a band, that rock historical types have long awaited (previously available streams at Wolfgangs Vault and on bootlegs notwithstanding).

But all historical significance aside — and there are some really great performances spread over this series — Bless Its Pointed Little Head remains the definitive live Jefferson Airplane album, and indeed, one of the greatest live albums ever. You just can’t top that kind of perfection.

The Collectors Choice series arrives in stores on October 26.

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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, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • pablo

    I cannot help but comment on this article by Glen Boyd. Glen does not say whether he actually got to see the old Airplane in person.

    I was fortunate to grow up in San Francisco in the 60’s, and I was 12 years old when I saw my first Airplane concert live at the old Fillmore on Geary. In those days there were shows on Friday nights, Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. As I was so young at that time my parents did not allow me to go out late at night in SF. So I would go down to the Fillmore on a weekly basis on Sunday afternoons. Being the 12 Iyear old kid that I was in 1965, I would latch on to some one waiting in line, and they would vouch that they were my guardian, and frequently get in for free!!

    To see the old Airplane in person was one of the most amazing things even to this day that I have ever seen. Raw, gorgeous music that just oozed of rhythm, depth, and joy. My all time favorit Airplane song still to this day is “Coming back to Me”, because of its simplicity and depth. That would be followed by “Volunteers of America”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”.

    I had the unique opportunity at a very early age to see such incredible musicians as Otis Redding at the Fillmore, Hendrix at Winterland, Love, The Loading Zone with Linda Tillary, Big Brother, Quicksilver, and of course my all time favorite band in the world, The Grateful Dead.

    Thanks for a lovely article that brings back so many fond memories of those times and the Airplane in particular.

  • pablo

    For the record Glen I saw the old Airplane in concert about 30 times.

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

    I saw them just twice Pablo…both times were in 1969 in Honolulu. Thanx for the nice words.

    -Glen

  • Mark Saleski

    i was always sorta fond of 30 Seconds Over Winterland. i know that was the end of things, but Papa John made it all sound very cool.

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

    Thirty Seconds has some fine moments, and I agree that Papa John’s fiddle added a new dimension to their sound.

    But its nowhere near the classic that Pointed Head was/is, and as you note, the band was already in free fall by then. I sort of understand the rationale behind continuing to release these lost live albums for historic value (and there are some great moments on these latest discs)…

    But in the end, you can only go to the well so many times…

    -Glen

  • Toby

    Excellent article! Like you, the Airplane is also my second favorite band, behind The Beatles. I’ll never forget how amazing it was listening to Surrealistic Pillow and Crown Of Creation for the first time. Sadly though I was born too late to see either Airplane or The Beatles live…

  • Dave

    I was just listening to a bootleg Volunteers Sessions disc and ran across this article. Glen is the shit. You should read his other stuff. He’s got a couple of blogs. Very entertaining reading. Great minds think alike Glen! Have you heard that Petty live 4 disc set that came out earlier this year?? My favorite discs of the year right there. Maybe I’ll see you at the Sport sometime soon.