Talk about the Summer of Love and three things come to mind—music, marijuana and the Jefferson Airplane. Their album Surrealistic Pillow was staple for record collections of every hippie I knew. With absolute certainty I would have no reservations saying I have heard “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” literally thousands of times through the years. Jefferson Airplane was the absolute master of the psychedelic folk/rock ballad. In many ways they were the voice of a generation lost in space.
When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s “off with her head!”
Remember what the dormouse said:
“Feed your head
Feed your head
Feed your head”
– Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit – June, 1967
Their roots go back to very foundation of psychedelic rock, San Francisco, CA, 1965. They were the first of a new breed of musicians coming out of the Bay Area. You could say the first airplane was 23 year-old Marty Balin who had already achieved minor fame as an early sixties pop singer on Challenge Records (Founded by Gene Autry). He was inspired to develop a hybrid of the pop and folk music by listening to Simon and Garfunkle, and The Byrds.
Balin met another bay area native Paul Kantner and together they started chumming around San Francisco nightspots with rising stars Jerry Garcia, David Crosby and Janis Joplin. Marty Balin got the idea for a nightclub that featured emerging rock and roll acts to play in the bay area. With a group of investors he opened the legendary Matrix in a renovated pizza parlor on Fillmore Street.
While auditioning musicians for the house band at the Matrix, Kantner next recruited an old friend, blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen . The foundation of Jefferson Airplane was being laid. Drummer Spencer Dryden was recruited on percussion and a short time later bassist Jack Casady replaced original member Bob Harvey. The core instrumental lineup fell inline. What was missing was the voice. Female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson joined the group but left in 1966 following the birth of her child. The magic that solidified the Airplane’s place in rock history was the arrival of the queen of psychedelic rock, Grace Slick.
Slick had been fronting for another popular San Francisco band of the period, The Great Society. When she left them she brought two songs with her- the aforementioned Somebody to Love and White Rabbit.
The only thing left to do was name the band.
I had this friend [Talbot] in Berkeley who came up
with funny names for people. His name for me was
Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane (for blues pioneer
Blind Lemon Jefferson). When the guys were looking
for band names and nobody could come up with
something, I remember saying, ‘You want a silly
band name? I got a silly band name for you!’
— Jorma Kaukonen in a 2007 interview.
The first night together with Grace Slick was at the Fillmore on October 16, 1966. It was a pivotal moment in the group’s history.
Over the next five years the Jefferson Airplane filled concert halls from coast to coast playing their unique style of rock. They were the only supergroup to play all of the Major festivals– Woodstock, Monterey, Altamont, and a headline spot at the Isle of Wight Festival. In 1968 they took off on a major tour of Europe, with Jim Morrison and The Doors, playing sold-out shows in the Netherlands, England, Belgium, Germany and Sweden.
In the late ’60s, early ’70s, factions within the group split off to do their own side projects, notably Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen’ return to the blues, Hot Tuna and one of my favorites from the era, Paul Kanter’s Jefferson Starship – Blows Against the Empire project. Collaborators included Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, Mickey Hart, Jack Casady, David Crosby, Graham Nash, and David Freiberg.
With such a diverse set of egos, obsessions, and addictions at work, the band began to unravel in 1971. Balin went into extended seclusion and in March of ’71 announced his departure from the group citing disagreement with the musical direction as his reason. The fact is Balin had been deeply affected by the death of Janis Joplin and quit drugs at a time when the rest of the group was amping up their own relationship with drugs. In many way he was the odd man out after the Kanter/Slick, Kaukonen/Casady cliques developed.
The first Jefferson Airplane album without Marty Balin as the musical engine behind the band was the September 1971 release, Bark. Musically the album is considered a massive disconnect from the Jefferson Airplane of old.
In The Rolling Stone Record Guide (1st edition, 1979), editor John Swenson wrote, “After Balin left, the group literally fell apart. A cursory listen to the wretched Bark (deleted) will prove the point.”
Following the editors advice I cranked up Spotify and took a listen. Swenson was most kind with the word wretched.
Things change so fast, you can’t use 1971
ethics on someone born in 1971.
– Grace Slick
The next and last album to be released as the Jefferson Airplane, Long John Silver, was not much better. To try to fill the musical void left by the exit of Marty Balin the Airplane recruited David Freiberg, formally of Quicksilver Messenger Service. The album clearly exposed the musical split within the current Airplanelineup. The Kanter/Slick regime, which embraced the cerebral music offered up on the Empire recording, and the other side of the musical universe Casady and Kaukonen with their blues roots.
In 1972 the current lineup of the Airplane was touring to promote Long John Silver. They played a free show in Central Park that drew over 50,000. The tour ended with two shows at Winterland on September 21 and 22. At the end of the second show the group was joined on stage by Marty Balin, who sang lead vocals on “Volunteers” and the final song, “You Wear Your Dresses Too Short.”
Without counting the reunion as Jefferson Starship, the Winterland shows were the last time the Airplane lineup came together in concert.
Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.