Posts Tagged ‘Jorma Kaukonen’

See the source image

In 1965, a new band called Jefferson Airplane was making waves in the San Francisco Bay Area. Word reached a famous record producer down in Los Angeles. The following story has never before been published in its entirety. With the news that Phil Spector has passed away, The Airplane recall the full tale of their meeting for the first time.

Marty Balin, one of Jefferson Airplane’s lead singers and the band’s co-founder, had arranged—without the knowledge of the Airplane’s’s then-manager, Matthew Katz—for the band to audition for Phil Spector in Los Angeles. Spector’s sister had heard the commotion about the group up in San Francisco and had called Balin to see if they might be interested in playing for Phil Spector. Being a brand-new band, of course they were!

The call had taken place in the late summer of 1965, barely a month after the group’s first public performance, and just a week after Ralph J. Gleason’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle raving about this new band. A number of record executives were already looking at the group as a possible signing, but none were as high-profile in the industry as Phil Spector. The New York native was still considered the finest pop record producer in America, maybe the world, and had been for a few years. His string of successful records with the Ronettes, the Crystals and, more recently, the Righteous Brothers, was lauded as monumental, and his trademark “Wall of Sound” technique was emulated by dozens of competitors, among them the massively successful Beach Boys and Four Seasons. To be taken under Spector’s wing could be a major coup for the band.

The Airplane, accompanied by Katz, flew to L.A. to meet Phil Spector. What they weren’t yet aware of when they boarded the plane was that Spector was also known to be something of an eccentric, a reclusive character who was notoriously difficult to deal with. In later years, several of the artists he worked with, among them his then-wife Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes, would tell tales of brutal treatment by their mentor. According to recollections from those who knew him, Spector was always surrounded by bodyguards, was rumoured to flash around firearms, and was a taskmaster in the studio. (He would, of course, famously spend his final years in prison, having been convicted of murdering actress Lana Clarkson.)

But here, on September 20th, 1965, was the new sound out of San Francisco, mild-mannered Jefferson Airplane, unproven, unknown and waiting for Phil Spector to size them up. The band members remembered it well. In interviews conducted by this author for his Jefferson Airplane biography, Got a Revolution!, they flashed back to their memorable meeting with the so-called “Tycoon of Teen.”

Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitarist): We went to Phil’s place and of course Phil Spector was [acting like] Phil Spector. We set up in his huge house in Beverly Hills, and I remember he had his bodyguards and the whole deal. He had a…I don’t remember if it was a pellet pistol or a real pistol. Probably was a pellet pistol. He was shooting and stuff. Made me uncomfortable and I left after we played.

Marty Balin: When Jorma and I tried to leave and his bodyguard showed us his gun, we said, “Get out of the way. What are you gonna do? Shoot us?” He [Spector] was a little strange. He was always looking in the mirror and while he was talking to us he was looking at the part in his hair. And then, under this stairway, he had all these drawers that came out, full of all this great grass. And he never offered us one joint. So I looked at Jorma and said, “Man, let’s get out of here.” So he and I walked out. I said, “We can’t take this guy.”

Bob Harvey (original bassist): Matthew wanted him to produce the band. I’ve never seen a more paranoid bastard in my life [than Spector]. I mean, heavies with 45s. He’s out there in space! He didn’t want us in the room where he was at, in the big room, so he had us play out in the hall. And it was pretty strange. But he and [guitarist/singer/songwriter Paul] Kantner hit it off. They talked and talked and talked. The rest of us went back to the cars and packed up the instruments and everything, and he and Kantner talked for another 45 minutes, inside there alone. And it seemed like just because of the rapport that he had going there with Kantner that maybe something was going to happen because of it. If you could put up with his insanity, good things could come out of it. As long as you could cope.

Paul Kantner: It was interesting, given his reputation. But he didn’t like us.

Signe Toly Anderson (original female lead singer): I remember his stone-cold entrance hall. I had to sit there for two hours while we waited for him because he wasn’t available. Excuuuse me.

While they were in L.A., the Airplane also auditioned for several other labels, including Capitol, Columbia and Colpix. Ultimately, they signed with RCA Records, beginning a relationship that would last more than two decades, through  changes of style, personnel and even band names. They never saw Phil Spector again.

See the source image

See the source image

There are three versions of the Jefferson Airplane’s debut LP, each with a dedicated mono and stereo mix. The “first” (and rarest) version is the 12-track uncensored version, which was originally released on August 15th, 1966. This version was quickly recalled and the track “Runnin’ Round This World” deleted off side 1 due to the line “the nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips”. Very few of these original copies have survived, and they usually sell for an awful lot of money.

Jefferson Airplane “Takes Off” is the debut studio album by the American rock band Jefferson Airplane, released in August 1966 as RCA Victor LSP-3584 (stereo) and LPM-3584 (mono). The personnel differs from the later “classic” line up: Signe Toly Anderson was iniatally the female vocalist and Skip Spence played drums. But both soon left the group—Spence in May 1966, Anderson in October and were replaced by Spencer Dryden and Grace Slick, respectively.

RCA executives found some of the lyrics too sexually suggestive. They had the band change the lyrics in “Let Me In” from “I gotta get in, you know where” to “You shut your door, now it ain’t fair”, and “Don’t tell me you want money” to “Don’t tell me it’s so funny”. In “Run Around” they had the end of the line “Blinded by colours come flashing from flowers that sway as you lay under me” altered to “…that sway as you stay here by me”. With “Runnin’ ‘Round This World” the executives insisted that “trips” in the line “The nights I’ve spent with you have been fantastic trips” referred to taking LSD, though the band insisted it was merely common slang. Even replacing the word “trips” with a guitar arpeggio did not placate RCA’s concerns with the line’s sexual connotations and refused its inclusion on the album, and the recording remained unreleased for the next eight years.

The “second” version to appear of this album happens to be exactly the same as the first version minus “Runnin’ Round This World”. However, these copies were also soon recalled, and two tracks replaced for the “Third”, final, and most commonly found version of the LP. The two tracks “Let Me In” (with lines “Oh let me in, I wanna be there/I gotta get in you know where” and “Don’t tell me you want money”) and “Run Around” (having “… that sway as you lay under me”) were re-recorded with censored lyrics.

The ”first” US pressing of the debut by Jefferson Airplane has three versions, released in both mono and stereo, the first two of which are extremely rare: 
1) Six tracks on side A, the sixth being ”Runnin’ Round This World”. This contains the original versions of both ”Let Me In” (with the lyric ”Don’t tell me you want money”) and ”Run Around” (with the lyric ”That sway as you lay under me”). The backcover has no caption ”RE” in the top right hand corner.

2) Five tracks on side A, ”Runnin’ Round This World” is deleted. Still, the original versions of ”Let Me In” and ”Run Around” are included. The backcover does have the ”RE” caption.

3) Five tracks on side A. The re-recorded versions of ”Let Me In” and ”Run Around” are included with the offensive lyrics altered. Backcover identical to 2).

This second version has also become somewhat uncommon, and is discernible from the third version only by the etched matrix numbers or by listening to the record itself. Only the “third version” has been fully reissued on CD in both mixes, although a couple mediocre-sounding vinyl-sourced tracks appeared on the most recent remaster.

This transfer is from one of the 2nd version LPs (-12S / -3S) . I definitely prefer this original version, if for no other reason than it is clearly what the band intended to be released before they were censored by RCA Victor.

The album’s release drew little press attention at a time when mainstream newspapers did not normally cover rock releases and the rock press was yet in its infancy. Crawdaddy! magazine highlighted the album on the cover of its January 1967 issue, which included a three-page review by the magazine’s assistant editor, Tim Jurgens, who called the album “faulted” yet “the most important album of American rock” of 1966.

The Band:
Marty Balin – vocals, rhythm guitar
Signe Toly Anderson – vocals, percussion
Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar
Paul Kantner – rhythm guitar, vocals
Jack Casady – bass guitar
Skip Spence – drums
Spencer Dryden – drums (on “Go to Her,” alternate version of “And I Like It,” and alternate version of “Chauffeur Blues”)

See the source image

Jefferson Airplane loomed large among the giants of San Francisco psych-rock, experimenting with folky and druggy sounds on their string of influential ’60s LPs. Their vision crystalized on 1967’s ‘Surrealistic Pillow,’ the first of four records to feature their classic sextet lineup of vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin, singer-guitarist Paul Kantner, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden. That album also marked a commercial peak, spawning the definitive hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.”

By the time Jefferson Airplane took the stage at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair on the morning of August 17th, 1969, they were understandably very tired. The San Francisco group had been scheduled to perform the night before, a Saturday, but delay upon delay resulted in their set being pushed back again and again.

Following the Who’s well received set, the Airplane plugged in and woke up anyone who’d dared to fall asleep. “Alright, friends,” Grace Slick addressed the sea of humans, “you have seen the heavy groups. Now you will see morning maniac music. Believe me, yeah, it’s a new dawn.”

With Nicky Hopkins sitting in on piano, the Airplane, who were paid $15,000 for their morning’s work, played to the throng but all of the band members later agreed that their performance was anything but inspired. When the filmmakers assembling the Woodstock documentary later approached the group about being included, they were given the thumbs down.

Best Classic Bands’ editor has interviewed all of the members of Jefferson Airplane who performed on that day, some of whom have since left us, as well as others involved in their appearance at the festival. Some of the following recollections appeared in his biography of the band, Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane. Others have never before been in print.

As you’ll see, not all of their stories coincide. Hey, it was a long time ago.

Spencer Dryden (drummer): We drove in from Tanglewood [in Massachusetts], where we’d played with B.B. King and the Who, through the Catskills: real pretty, farmland and trees and rolling valleys. We got into the town of Liberty [N.Y.], where there was a big Holiday Inn where everyone was staying. Everybody was in their rooms talking and in the bar, hanging out with Keith Moon.

Some of the guys in the band went [to the festival site] that night, before the thing started, to check out the stage and see what it was like and they came back with stories about how it was amazing—everybody in the world was there. It had rained the night before and there were worries about whether the show was going to go on.

There was a helicopter that was ferrying people back and forth from the hotel to the site and show times were being changed. They’re saying, “You guys gotta get over here right now.” This was the middle of [Saturday] afternoon.

Bill Thompson (manager): The [Holiday Inn] was the great scene. Everybody was staying there. It was Janis, Grace, Marty, [Jerry] Garcia and Pigpen. Keith Moon was in my room all night, smoking pot. We flew to Woodstock in the helicopter. The [promoters] were hoping to get 50,000 people. They weren’t set up for more people than that.

Spencer Dryden: We couldn’t get a helicopter so we had to drive in.

Grace Slick (singer): We were supposed to go on at nine o’clock at night.

Spencer Dryden: We were supposed to go on at midnight. We finally went on at dawn. And by that time, most of the audience was asleep.

Before us on Saturday night, they had Santana, Creedence Clearwater, Sly and the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, the Who, the Dead. [Before we went on] I went to [promoter] Michael Lang and I said, “Where’s the money?” [He said] “Oh, man, you know, this is so beautiful.” They’d all taken acid and were barefoot. “This is so beautiful, man, all these people; it’s so cool.” “Yeah. Where’s the money?” Finally I went to [managers of other bands] and I said, “Look, these guys are gonna fucking burn us unless we get this. This is bullshit. Look at all this money. They’re making a movie,” and the whole thing. So on Saturday afternoon we demanded the money. And Saturdays, in ’69, used to be like Sundays are now with banks. They weren’t open. But somehow or another Michael Lang got this guy to go in the bank on Saturday and open up the vault and we all got paid. Bill Thompson: We insisted on closing [Saturday night] at Woodstock. We always closed; we were the headliner. We were big enough at that time to get our way. It was amazing how many people were there, 400,000. We couldn’t believe it. It was raining and muddy. These guys [the promoters] weren’t anticipating it.

Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitarist/singer): We went on like 18 hours late, something ridiculous. My wife was there but I had this girlfriend who had also shown up, so I was really concerned with keeping the two of them as far apart as possible. My ex-wife used to claim that one of the reasons I played so long was that I was afraid to face her when I came offstage, and there could have been some truth to this. I could hardly wait to get onstage at this particular venue.

Marty Balin (singer): Woodstock was a lot of fun. It was a muddy mess at times. I remember it being something really spectacular for me, the stage and the lights at night and the performances. But we didn’t get to go on until morning, and by then we had been drunk and re-sobered up and drunk again and sobered up. I mean, it was terrible by the time we went on. The sun was coming up, people were asleep in the mud. It was a corny time.

Grace Slick: Woodstock everybody remembers with a little more fondness than I do. I have a bladder about the size of a dime and you couldn’t get off the stage to go to the bathroom. It was not that well organized. I don’t think they expected as many people as they did.

Glenn McKay (light show operator): I always had a bad taste about Woodstock. I waited the whole fucking night. I even cut holes in my $2,000 screen so that the wind wouldn’t take it away. And then the Airplane comes on and the sun comes up. [A light show] can’t compete with that.

Spencer Dryden: Paul [Kantner, guitarist/singer] had said, “Well, if we can’t go on at midnight, we want to go on as the sun comes up.” Unfortunately, the Who were playing and they were in the middle of their set when the sun came up and they didn’t care a whit whether the sun was coming up or not.

Jorma Kaukonen: I wish that I had more significant memories of Woodstock. I didn’t have any grand epiphanies or moments of extreme clarity. But I do remember thinking, this truly is unbelievable. Because it was, just the mass and the feeling of “usness.”

Paul Kantner (guitarist/singer): It was a little harsher than normal but fun, interesting. The edge, dealing with the unexpected. I like that, particularly if you deal with it semi-successfully. We didn’t necessarily deal with being onstage semi-successfully. We were pretty ragged.

Bill Thompson: Paul killed [the band’s appearance in the documentary film]. He thought the performance was bad, because they had taken every fucking drug around them. He was very adamant about it. So we didn’t get in.

Marty Balin: It was a mess for our performance but it was the beginning of what music can do politically and as a force.

Jack Casady (bassist): There were plenty of things wrong with it, but basically Woodstock was a great event that was full of chaos and full of aspects where nobody knew quite what was going to happen next. It became a media phenomenon. It’s not my most favourite performance, by any means. Everybody’s dog tired, out of tune and had been awake for about 24 hours. It wasn’t the optimum time. I guess we played OK.

Spencer Dryden: I don’t remember it being one of our best shows. I do remember [pianist] Nicky Hopkins being on there [sitting in with the band], which was nice, because if anything else, he helped glue the band together. And then I remember that we drove back to the hotel, no more helicopters, and Nicky didn’t have a room so he stayed with me and [Spencer’s wife] Sally. And Nicky is the loudest snorer I ever heard in my life.


Spencer Dryden:
 [After Woodstock], we got back in the cars and we had to go to New York to do The Dick Cavett Show that night. Hendrix was supposed to do it but he couldn’t so Joni Mitchell did it because she couldn’t get to Woodstock, so there was just this big multi-proportional screw-up, logistics gone bad. Joni was very afraid and had stage fright and David Crosby kind of helped calm her down. Nicky Hopkins (guest pianist): I did the [Airplane’sVolunteers album, then they said, “Can you come and do this open-air concert with us in the east? It’ll be about three days.” I sort of liked the idea and I said yeah, I’ll come down. So I went with them and it turned out it was Woodstock. I sat in with them—there was some talk at that point about me joining them, which never happened. Then I did a TV show with them afterwards.

Grace Slick: Woodstock was unique in that there were a half million people not stabbing each other to death. That was its main claim to fame. And it was a statement of, look at us, we’re 25 and we’re all together and things ought to change.

Jorma Kaukonen: I think it would have been hard to overhype Woodstock, just because of what happened there. Woodstock was a significant event.

In June 1967, The Beatles album ‘Sgt. Pepper” had just hit the US and the Summer of Love had barely began when Jefferson Airplane headed from San Francisco to L.A. The year 1967 saw the emergence of an entire new wave of American rock, much of which centered around the San Francisco scene of bands like Moby Grape, Country Joe and the Fish, The Grateful Dead and the Quicksilver Messenger Service. And within this cohort, no group showed more promise, exerted more influence or found more early success than Jefferson Airplane.

They’d spend the next four months recording ‘After Bathing at Baxter’s” It was their third album with the classic lineup. Following the smash success of the debut ‘Surrealistic Pillow” fired by two unexpected AM radio hits (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” they had a surprisingly big budget and creative carte blanche from their major label, RCA Records. 

They also had a radical plan: to move past the poppy folk-rock that had been the Airplane’s stock-in-trade since the band’s first version formed in 1965.

Airplane, signed to RCA, started the year with a record already under its belt, 1966’s Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Its gently twisted folk-rock had received decent reviews but hadn’t sold much of anything. That wouldn’t hold true for Surrealistic Pillow, the group’s second album

To start with, that meant beefing up the studio sound to match the group’s live shows. As in, Jack Casady’s bass had little heft on ‘Pillow’—not at all the fat-toned omnipresent rumble my teen self witnessed at the Café Au Go Go in spring 1967.

Besides, the group’s dynamics and ambitions were rapidly evolving. Internal frictions were pivoting them in directions heavier sounds, art-rock song forms, looser vocal interplay that would define the Airplane going forward.

On ‘Baxter’s’, the creative and personal tensions that would undermine Jefferson Airplane’s cohesion over the next three years found powerful artistic balance. Despite period-piece flaws an overlong jam, some hippie-dippy lyrics it is arguably the most daring and accomplished album this trail-blazing band ever made.

When the Airplane cut ‘Baxter’s’, the San Francisco counterculture they were such an integral part of was peaking though nobody at the time knew it. The album’s dazzling array of song structures unusual, eccentric, oblique distills and reflects that scene’s trust and hope in the joys of experimentation. It sought to embody the shared feeling that the world was open to question and on the cusp of change.

As was the Jefferson Airplane itself. Their internal chemistry was deliberately shaken up to yield a sometimes uneasy democracy, where all six members contributed compositions, dialed up new sounds, and pushed at the edges of their talents. It didn’t always work; why would it? But it’s why ‘Baxter’s turns through a marvelous kaleidoscope of sounds, moods, and textures that are darker and denser, more layered and aggressive than anything they’d done to date.

Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen were among the key drivers of the sonic shift. Casady honed his agile, melodic runs, which routinely spilled with jagged finesse across bar lines, while playing R&B with the likes of James Brown; he and Kaukonen had played together since high school. Back then, ironically, Kaukonen played rhythm to Casady’s lead guitar. All those years gave the duo an almost telepathic interaction (Hot Tuna,) that drummer Spencer Dryden, a trained jazz musician with years of experience, prodded and anchored with skilled finesse. They all came to ‘Baxter’s wanting to inject more jamming into the mix a la the Grateful Dead, Cream, and Hendrix.

Grace Slick joined the Airplane just in time to record ‘Surrealistic Pillow’; somewhat ironically, she brought that album’s surprisingly edgy hits with her from her old band, The Great Society. Adept on keyboards, gifted with a supple, richly timbred voice, she was catalytic, strong-minded, and far from a hippie earth mother. On ‘Baxter’s, she was determined to pursue her idiosyncratic composer’s voice and explore her fierce feminist perspective.

Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, originally a folk singer who idolized Pete Seeger, went to a military high school which helps explain the martial rhythms and feels to many of his songs. Since ‘Pillow’, though, he had started developing his own offbeat song forms and wanted more space for them. That and his shrewd musicality and sense of the times led him to buy into the others’ ideas and redirect the Airplane’s flight plans.

That left co-founder Marty Balin, an ex-folkie with an acute pop sense who, as singer and writer, was at the center of the earlier Airplane. Watching his role diminish on ‘Baxter’s didn’t exactly elate him. But he also knew he owned one of the band’s biggest assets: a fantastically flexible, expressive, and outsized tenor that, whether out front or part of the blend, capped the group’s utterly distinctive singing.

In fact, with Balin and Slick, the Airplane had two of rock’s most distinctive and charismatic singers. Their vocal ranges overlapped, though with very different timbres that offered possibilities they soon learned to manipulate and maximize. On ‘Pillow’, Kantner’s baritone anchored their nuanced blends. On ‘Baxter’s’, though, their approach becomes looser and richer, with harmonies unwinding into counterpoint lines and offshoot solo moments; that became another Airplane signature and helped shape subsequent outfits like The Band.

Then there’s the material, ranging from grungy garage rock to cantilevered art rock. At the dawn of classic rock’s golden era, ‘Baxter’s’ surveys the teeming musical landscape and filters it through the Airplane’s hydra-like sensibilities and talents. Sure, there are clunky moments. But they’re far outweighed by the thrilling, at times purposely disorienting probes into new turf.

Still, this early “concept” album has its share of disposable pretension, like grouping tunes into “suites.” Sometimes this makes some sense. The first, “Streetmasse,” gathers the initial three songs, which share a sense of whimsy, assembling “found” materials, and youth perspectives. “The War is Over,” the second “suite,” yokes two quite different Kantner pieces that share themes of connectivity and change. “Schizoforest Love Suite,” the last, contains “Two Heads” and two songs interwoven, so that fits. For the other two, your guess is as good as mine.

“Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil”

By now Jorma Kaukonen has mastered the joys of feedback, and his opening longer and more intense live is a call to arms that starkly contrasts with the sonics and poppier feels of ‘Surrealistic Pillow’; it will be a band staple from now on. Strutting in Kantner’s favored 2/4 sprung rhythms, the lyrics, a la William Burroughs, mash up pieces of A.A. Milne’s kids’ poetry. (Slick thought folk-blues artist Fred Neil, a Kantner pal and model, resembled Winnie the Pooh and dubbed him Pooh-neil.) Its multipart structure is tight and complex; the dynamic and rhythmic contrasts create breathtaking drama between the strut and the hovering chorus. And the finale’s sly harmonies create an open-ended feeling that segues into the next cut.

“A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly”

OK, this collage is definitely period-piece, but it’s also clever dada-style fun: making it ‘Baxter’s second track illuminates why the band originally asked Frank Zappa to produce the record. Dryden, who composed it, was a skilled jazz musician who took a lot of crap from “serious” players for working with these guys, and his uncle happened to be Charlie Chaplin, so maybe comic irony came naturally. That irreverence was as much a part of hippiedom as drugs and courses through ‘Baxter’s—though in Slick’s hands, it can turn more savage.

“Young Girl Sunday Blues”

This brilliant blues-rock piece navigates around almost every blues-rock cliché—no mean feat. Dryden’s preternatural ability to shift accents and mesh with Casady’s fluid, serpentine bass powers the band’s supercharged engine. The inventive craft shaping Airplane charts is evident in how each section’s instrumental colors and interaction morph. The yearning tune and emotive (if druggy) lyrics let Balin unleash his loose, rangy tenor to terrific effect while avoiding standard-issue blues moves. Ironically, it’s also the only song on ‘Baxter’s that Balin, until now the Airplane’s chief composer, penned with Kaukonen. From here on, their mutual antipathy grew.

“Martha”

Ah, the Summer of Love: this paean to Kantner’s then-girlfriend, the runaway teen daughter of Sausalito’s mayor, has its hippie-lyric moments, but also gestures toward the incipient feminism (“She does as she pleases”) that Slick’s pieces deepen and slam home. Structurally, it’s a tour-de-force, playing minor and major keys off each other to yield a Mideastern/modal feel. Its impacted syncopations are punctuated by Casady’s sudden climbs up the neck. The tonal colors rotate and mutate: Casady’s burbling bass against Slick’s breathy snake-charmer recorder, Dryden’s delicate blocks, Kaukonen’s slicing fuzz guitar. Then comes the entropy of the finale’s gradual slowdown, until there is only Kantner’s voice, intoning, evoking, remembering: the bittersweet transition between the preceding and following tunes.

“Wild Tyme”

The track lifts off like a rocket, with a hooky riff delivered by an entwined guitar army crackling with Kaukonen’s barely suppressed feedback. At times the vocals are backdrops for the Kaukonen-Casady-Dryden proto-metal instrumentals; then the mirror flips, in that patented way this band veers away from clichés just when you expect them in order to feed dramatic tension. Kantner’s often eccentric chord progressions, like Ray Davies’, swerve in unique ways that encourage the Airplane’s powerhouse instrumental core, prodded by Casady’s ever-restless rumbling, to dive headlong into openings and teeter enticingly on the edge of chaos.

“The Last Wall of the Castle”

Teetering on the edge of chaos is actually this track’s goal. Here the rough edges running through ‘Baxter’s’ experimental ethos are foregrounded, as the high-octane rhythm section, spearheaded by Casady’s frenetic bass firing off counter-rhythms and filigrees, at once drives and battles with its grooves, creating disruptive tension as it romps hungrily through its varied sections. “The Last Wall of the Castle,” whose tightly-packed, half-spoken lyrics and soul-influenced chords reveal very real connections with the Nuggets-style garage rock then bubbling out of college towns across America. Where a garage band would stick tightly, head down, to the beat and song structure, the Airplane’s rhythm section struggles to break free, pulling the band into a thrilling middle ground between jam and song, the driving rhythm fraying into a heaven of skidding, slicing guitars. The record isn’t precise because the band isn’t going for precision – instead, it’s the sound of a rough democracy in living action.

“Rejoyce”

Grace Slick’s art-rock compositions on ‘Baxter’s’ highlight the dawn of feminism. No hippie earth mother, she wields her assemblage culled from Molly Bloom’s internal monolog in Ulysses—the ur-modernist experimental novel that, like the Pooh stories, was a counterculture fave like an acerbic rapier, slicing openings for women to speak truth to a man’s world. Her music is provocatively eccentric and experimental, anchored by her limber, accomplished piano, too often overlooked as an essential Airplane ingredient. Dryden’s horn chart evokes jazz classics like ‘Sketches of Spain and the ride-out incarnates the feminist pushback lurking beyond men’s glances and desires. It remains one of classic rock’s most powerful, unsettling songs.

“Watch Her Ride”

Sure, this Kantner anthem’s lyrics are shot through with hippie clichés, but they also link up, at least tentatively, with Slick’s feminism: relationships between males and females aren’t about possession, but about the freedom to share hope and risks. But skip, if you prefer, and focus on the densely textured musical layers, far subtler and more finessed.

“Spare Chaynge”

Here’s where the boys who’ll become Hot Tuna get their wish to stretch…and oh yeah, it’s too long and meandering with sporadic jawdropping passages. So try a different angle: listen to it upside-down, focusing on Casady and Dryden. Kaukonen, the feedback maestro and fingerpicking genius, is frankly at his weakest in extended solos like this. Remember that Casady played lead while Kaukonen played rhythm in high school, that Casady plus Dryden create tension and release as casually as breathing in and out, and you’ll find half to two-thirds of this comes interestingly alive, its rawness a sharp contrast with the rest of the album. But it’s still too self-indulgent.

Freedom is also the best word to describe what is arguably Baxter’s definitive track. In an age of overly indulgent jams, the dark, minimal grind of “Spare Chaynge” is astonishing, a bass-heavy excursion that slowly builds to a crescendo of pounding drums and circling guitar. As close to “free rock” as almost anything on record, the jam has a sense of space and style that reflects the band’s ballroom-honed chops. It conjures an aggressive, almost primal minimalism, resembling something from early Can or Hawkwind.

“Two Heads”

The gated percussive shock that opens this Slick piece punches this album’s ambitions about art and feminism home with brooding menace mixed with savage humor. What can you say about a line like, “Wearing your comb like an ax in your head?” The clipped harpsichord is teamed with Casady’s now-surging, now-thumping bottom-end bombs for a disorienting study in contrasts that mates perfectly with the lyrics. Slick’s rich contralto can wail or sneer, while Balin’s ghostly soaring behind her mimics the lyric’s central conceit while reminding us this outfit boasted stronger, more unconventional vocals than almost anyone else around. All that is just part of what makes it timeless.

“Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”

This phenomenal two-tune mashup—it’s not a medley, really knits together the album’s moods and themes into an uplifting and challenging finale; its sonics, pacing, structure, and execution recap ‘Baxter’s musical journey before releasing listeners back to reality. See, the album wasn’t meant to be a soundtrack for the LSD-laced times; it was meant to embody them in musical form. So this highly wrought composition and chart, with dazzlingly mutating mini-sections that pulsate with mesmerizing tension and release, puts you inside the psychedelic peaks of the San Francisco hippie dream, the gatherings at Golden Gate Park, where the moods were free and easy and hope was abundant and change seemed imminent and palpable. Naïve? Oh, sure. But I still listen to this cut on 11 to find reasons to believe in the future.

RCA was unhappy about how long and complicated the sessions for ‘Baxter’s were. After the gold rush of ‘Surrealistic Pillow’, with two hit singles showcased on prime-time TV shows as well as AM radio, ‘Baxter’s two singles didn’t crack the top 25; the album peaked at 17 and never went gold.

Whatever. ‘Baxter’s set the Airplane’s conceptual template for the next three years. The band, obviously, disagreed with the market. But by 1970, its internal tensions, synthesized on ‘Baxter’s into ear-opening creative leaps, would tear it to pieces.

All around them, too, things were falling apart. The Summer of Love unleashed an overwhelming influx of runaway teens, drug dealers and pimps, and cops on the fragile, insular hippie counterculture’s epicenter. In its wake, the original scene-makers regrouped and dispersed. Baxter’s is, without a doubt, a record of many flaws – its jams can go on too long, its sequencing is uneven, and those oh-so-hip-at-the-time sound collages haven’t aged particularly well. It’s also a remarkably sloppy record; vocals often run askew, full band hits are fudged and the drumming occasionally runs aground. Yet, in a lot of ways, the album is a thrilling listen because – not in spite of these problems.

No ’60s concert scene was better documented than the San Francisco explosion . But of the official releases that came out at the time, the one to have is this Jefferson Airplane set, recorded during October ’68 dates at SF’s Fillmore West and a month later at Fillmore East in NYC. Here in that time between Monterey and Woodstock, between the albums “Crown Of Creation” and “Volunteers” , the band was growing daily in confidence, muscle and a knack for making the most of the moment. The constantly shifting dynamic of vocal triad Grace Slick, Marty Balin and Paul Kantner was a nimble beast, but more evident than ever was how much the tandem of guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady formed the beating heart of this band.

Must-hear song: Balin’s “Plastic Fantastic Lover” has fury only hinted at on the Surrealistic Pillow studio version . But the real treasure is the version of folk figure Fred Neil’s written staunch and steely “The Other Side Of This Life” , a live Airplane staple from the early days, but never before seeing official release.

The cheat: Not only was it pieced together from several dates, some of the songs themselves are multi-date spliced jobs.

The live rock album really took flight at the end of the decade with Bay Area bands like The Grateful Dead “Live/ Dead”  Quicksilver Messenger Service  “Happy trails” , Big Brother & the Holding  Company(parts of ’68’s ) Cheap Thrills . It made perfect sense: part of the San Francisco mystique was the live experience, the sense of community and unpredictability, bands being given the space—and the state-of-the-art sound systems to take winding (and long) musical trips. With , a combination of 1968 recordings from the Fillmores East and West on both coasts,

The Airplane

Jefferson Airplane made one of the defining albums of the band’s career, with dynamic vocal interplay among its three singers (Marty Balin, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner), a blues spotlight for guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and Rock Me  , a swirling rendition of Donovan’s “Fat Angel” (“Fly Jefferson Airplane, gets you there on time,” it goes, making this a self-referential self-tribute), and a soaring 3/5 of a Mile In Ten Seconds . The Airplane were a strange amalgam, part post-folk (there’s a terrific take on Fred Neil’s “The Other Side Of Life” on ‘Pointed Little Head’), part psychedelic rock, part electric blues, and it could all get scattered, but when it locked in, they were one of the more mesmeric of the groups who came out of San Francisco scene. If you want to get a sense of what made them, on a good night, so special, you can start here.