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The Story Behind The Fly Jefferson Airplane DVD
By Mi2N
(more articles from this author)
2004-11-15
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While touring the United States for the first time in 1966, the Scottish folk-rock singer Donovan began hearing positive things about the vibrant San Francisco rock scene and, in particular, the band considered the city's most emblematic. Pen in hand, he injected a new song with the lyric "Fly Jefferson Airplane, gets you there on time."

For the next several years, millions would take Donovan's advice.

Jefferson Airplane, since their inception a year earlier, had quickly come to personify the cultural and societal revolution whose vortex was San Francisco—"heaven on earth," as co-founder Paul Kantner puts it in this, the first-ever Jefferson Airplane DVD collection.

Jefferson Airplane was no stranger to firsts: The first San Francisco rock band signed to a major record label and the first to score with national hit singles and albums, the Airplane quickly became media darlings, spreading the news everywhere. They were unquestionably responsible for inspiring thousands of young people across the country to migrate to San Francisco for a taste of the free life.

Due to their implicit status as spokesband of choice for the San Francisco scene, Jefferson Airplane spent a great deal of time performing in front of cameras—lucky for us because now, more than three decades after they went their separate ways, we can once again relive some of their most stunning performances.

Jefferson Airplane was, first and foremost, a live band—their creativity manifested most spectacularly as they invented and reinvented their music in front of appreciative fans. The earliest known footage of the group in action—aired originally on a Bell Telephone Hour TV special—captures it onstage in August 1966 at the legendary Fillmore Auditorium, the mecca run by the late promoter Bill Graham, himself a defining force within the San Francisco music community.

This rare film clip of the Airplane performing "It's No Secret," one of the first songs authored by the band's other founder, vocalist Marty Balin, also provides a glimpse of one of the pulsating, ephemeral liquid light shows that were such an integral component of the San Francisco dance-concert experience from the onset.

The woman singing next to Marty on "It's No Secret" may not look familiar if you aren't already familiar with the intricacies of the Airplane's long and winding history. Signe Anderson was a fundamental element of the band's initial lineup, but she was gone by the second album, replaced by the one and only Grace Slick, considered by many to be the first true female rock star—and one of the most original and fascinating artists rock has ever known.

Grace, as drummer Spencer Dryden puts it, "brought a commanding strength and focus" to the music. She was also one of the most beautiful figures in popular music, with a voice that could slice through steel. "Somebody To Love," a song she brought to the Airplane from her earlier band, the Great Society, became the Airplane's first Top 10 hit. The live version here, filmed at the epoch-defining Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, is a prime example of the powerful Grace's gripping charisma and unparalleled artistry at work.

Monterey was, for the entire band, a moment to savor, perhaps the purest expression of the "peace and love" ethos of the times. And the group's Monterey performance of "High Flyin' Bird," a folk song they'd found on a Judy Henske album and played often—but never released on one of their own albums during their lifespan—is quintessential early Airplane. All of their propellers are spinning at full speed here, Grace delivering a spellbinding vocal during her section of the tag-team song.

If there is one song that will forever be aligned with the name Grace Slick, though, it's "White Rabbit," with its snaking bolero rhythm and provocative, Lewis Carroll- inspired story line. "No one thought it would be a hit single," says Dryden, but in fact it has become a classic of the era, a fitting, enduring symbol of the psychedelic '60s. The Airplane performed "White Rabbit" virtually every time they stood on a stage, and when they were asked to guest on the hip Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour TV program in 1967, they brought it to the nation's living rooms during prime time.

Some of the Airplane's numerous television appearances took place on programs that normally attracted a decidedly non-rock audience, however. Perry Como, an old- school crooner popular during the 1950s, must have been scratching his head in bewilderment along with the rest of his viewers as his RCA Records labelmates aired their trippy home movie-style, pre-MTV video of "Martha," a song written by rhythm guitarist/vocalist Kantner about a runaway he'd befriended.

But no Jefferson Airplane television appearance was as charmingly perplexing as their return visit to the Smothers Brothers in 1968. Tom and Dick Smothers were, as Marty puts it, "brothers in arms," cool cats sympathetic to the rock bands of the day and open-minded enough to allow them leeway, much to the chagrin of their network. So when Grace, before heading out front to tear into a raw live rendition of the newest Airplane anthem, "Crown Of Creation," spied a table full of makeup and spontaneously smeared her face with the darkest brown she could find, no one tried to stop her.

"You never knew what Grace was going to do," says lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen in Fly Jefferson Airplane. "She was her own mistress." That controversial blackface incident, along with many other shocking Grace moments, has since gone down in Jefferson Airplane lore—now, finally you can see what the fuss was all about.

"Crown" features a tandem vocal, but Grace once again takes the solo lead on "Lather," a tender, waltz-like ballad she wrote for Spencer upon the drummer's 30th birthday. In an appropriately childlike voice, Grace puts forth the then-radical suggestion that it's perfectly okay, even at such a ripe old age as 30, to remain young at heart. Incidentally, those who have scoured Airplane album credits may be interested in knowing that the fellow seen doing the "nose solo" in this clip from the Smothers Brothers' show is the elusive Gary Blackman, a friend of the band's who co-wrote some of its most memorable tunes.

The next performance is nothing less than one of the all-time greatest visual records of Jefferson Airplane at work. In 1968 the Swiss-French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard began work on a political semi-documentary he called One A.M. (One American Movie). Godard, who felt that the Airplane best represented the youth revolution of the day, wanted the band in his film, and keeping to its somewhat militant spirit, he had the musicians set up their equipment—sans permit—on a hotel rooftop in midtown Manhattan at the peak of the working day. There, as harried New Yorkers below scanned the sky to see what the ruckus was, the Airplane unleashed the most incendiary version of "House At Pooneil Corners," the music "bouncing off the buildings" on this chilled November afternoon.

The Airplane are simply on fire here—bassist Jack Casady looks and sounds positively ferocious, and both Grace and Marty are at their improvisatory, dueling best, having the time of their lives (yes, that is Grace doing a jig when it's over). The performance, which preceded the Beatles' famous Apple rooftop concert in London by months, culminates with the New York City police shutting down the kamikaze attack with threats of arrest. The Godard film was never released, but documentarian D. A. Pennebaker finished it up anyway, renaming it One P.M. (for One Pennebaker Movie).

"House At Pooneil Corners" was a sequel of sorts to the earlier "The Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil," and the live version of that song, originally aired on a program called A Night At The Family Dog, shows the band at the apex of its jamming powers. Casady's bass solo is a scorcher—then, just as it seems things can't possibly get more intense, Jorma Kaukonen unleashes an astonishing guitar solo that mows down everything in its path.

By the end of the 1960s, as the war in Vietnam heated up and civil strife ravaged America, the Airplane, like many of their generation, had become more politically radicalized. But rather than take to the streets the Airplane—arguably the most popular and influential band in America by that time—made their point in song. "We Can Be Together" reflects that period, says Kantner in his Fly Jefferson Airplane interview, when "the flower children started growing thorns." The images that accompany the music here—in a promotional film produced by the Airplane's in-house light show man, Glenn McKay—are a reminder of the perilous, touch-and-go atmosphere in which this band created its crucial art.

The end of that decade also marked the beginning of the Airplane's dissolution. Spencer Dryden was the first of the key members to leave, replaced by a young Pennsylvanian named Joey Covington. The band "felt we needed more power," as Casady puts it, and the formidable Covington had what they were after. The live version of "Plastic Fantastic Lover," from the 1970 public television documentary Go Ride The Music, produced by the renowned San Francisco music critic Ralph J. Gleason, features the band cranking it up to full velocity, while the clip of "Volunteers," one of the band's most poignant anthems, puts that song into its proper cultural and historical perspective.

The Airplane was, says Kantner, "a creature of the '60s," and the group has rightly taken its place among the icons of that era. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame honored them by inducting Jefferson Airplane in 1996, and to conclude this collection, we flash forward to the induction ceremony in New York City, at which some of the group members saw one another for the first time in years. Jorma's solo rendition of "Embryonic Journey," the exquisite acoustic fingerpicking number that had graced the band's breakthrough Surrealistic Pillow album, retains all of its sonic breadth and startling beauty all these years later.

The Airplane didn't always see eye to eye—that internal friction was in fact part of what gave their music its great strength—but in retrospect they acknowledge and understand what gave them their uniqueness and endeared them to millions, what made them such a fundamental part of a generation's existence. As the band's former manager Bill Thompson states, there truly was no other band like them. After viewing this video retrospective, whether you're a veteran fan or have just climbed aboard, you're bound to agree.

Jeff Tamarkin is the author of Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (Atria Books)


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