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.