Graded on a Curve: Jefferson Airplane,
The Worst of Jefferson Airplane

You should be ashamed of yourself. Here the most important date on my holy calendar has come and gone, and you didn’t buy me a single gift. I’m talking about the anniversary of Altamont, of course, the benighted free concert held on December 6, 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. Four people died, one poor fellow at the hands of the Hells Angels, who were hired to provide security. The Angels, anger fueled in part by the $500 in beer they received as payment for their services, also rendered Jefferson Airplane vocalist Marty Balin unconscious with a blow to the head, which is why the anniversary of Altamont is also known to strict religious observers such as myself as “Punch Marty Balin in the Mouth Day.”

Altamont is perhaps rock’s most significant day because it, along with the Manson Family killings, put paid to the Age of Aquarius. It was the end of the innocence, to quote that dick from the Eagles, the high water mark of peace, love, and understanding, and on that dark day the glorious lysergic wave of good vibes and universal brotherhood broke and receded forever, as Hunter S. Thompson so astutely notes in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

I write all of this because the Jefferson Airplane was Thee Official Band of the LSD era. “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” were as much countercultural signifiers as they were songs, as was “Crown of Creation,” as in “you are the.” But the whole scene went south, first with the numerous drug casualties of Haight-Ashbury, then with Charles Manson’s bloody murder spree and the disaster at Altamont, about which Grace Slick noted, “The vibes were bad. Something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive and unsure day. I had expected the loving vibes of Woodstock but that wasn’t coming at me. This was a whole different thing.”

Peculiar is one way of putting it; ominous would probably be a better word. The combination of bad trips, wasted Hells Angels spoiling for a fight, and the frustrations attendant upon putting together a huge concert on very short notice all exacted their toll, and the vibes at that speedway in the middle of nowhere were so far from loving that the Grateful Dead, whose idea it had been to hire the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels to provide security in the first place, skedaddled by helicopter (like refugees catching the last chopper out of Saigon!) without ever taking the stage, freaked out by the disintegrating security situation.

Anyway, on to 1970s The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, a greatest hits package with a wonderfully self-deprecatory title. It’s probably rock’s densest and most direct expression of countercultural unity, what with songs like the beautiful “We Should Be Together” and the great “Volunteers,” which I think is the best song they ever recorded. The Worst of Jefferson Airplane’s 15 cuts span the band’s career from its pioneering days with vocalist Signe Toly Anderson (i.e., 1966’s Jefferson Airplane Takes Off) to 1969’s Volunteers, from which the lovely “Good Shepherd” (as well as “Volunteers” and “We Can Be Together”) was taken. The most cuts (four) were taken from 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow, which only makes sense as it remains the band’s best known album; in addition to “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” the contributions from Surrealist Pillow include “Today,” which is very reminiscent of the Grateful Dead’s folk pastorals a la American Beauty, and the too precious for its own good guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey.”

As for 1967’s After Bathing at Baxter’s (evidently “Baxter” was the Airplane’s code word for acid), the songs included on the “Worst of” include “Martha” (which includes one of the worst lines in rock history, to wit, “She sifts the hairy air that’s worn and wood-swept”) and the very psychedelic “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil,” which features one freaked-out guitar and lots of unison singing by Balin and Slick. “Chushingura” is a short and very trippy instrumental written by drummer Spencer Dryden, and it comes from Crown of Creation, as does “Crown of Creation” (duh) and the sound-effect laden folk-rock number, “Lather.” A weird one, “Lather,” and the perfect ticket for your next voyage into interstellar overdrive, my friendly psychonaut. As for “Plastic Fantastic Lover” it’s a bona fide kick-ass rocker and the band’s token representative from 1969’s live LP Bless Its Pointed Little Head.

I originally intended to review 1973’s live Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, but Marty Balin isn’t even on it, and what good is celebrating “Punch Marty Balin in the Mouth Day” by reviewing an LP on which Balin doesn’t make an appearance? No good, no good at all. The truth is that just as Altamont marked the high water mark of the hippie dream, The Worst of Jefferson Airplane marked the high water mark of the Airplane; albums like 1971’s Bark and 1972’s Long John Silver were relative disappointments (although I have a soft spot for the latter LP), and before long the Jefferson Airplane would morph into the abominable Jefferson Starship and Marty Balin would be uttering those infamously dumb lines, “I had a taste of the real world/When I went down on you girl, oh,” which are proof positive that what Balin really needed was for the Hells Angels to punch him in the kisser again, just to show him what a taste of the real world REALLY feels like.

There are innumerable other Jefferson Airplane compilations out there, but like I say this one highlights the best material from the Airplane’s best albums, and spares you some of the hirsute hippie hoo-hah that would come later. Because the Jefferson Airplane never got over the Age of Aquarius, and continued to purvey New Age/Space Age acid twaddle long after its sell-by date. In short, they were the band that never grew up, and constituted a kind of time capsule of the Peace and Love Generation long after said mythical beast had slipped into a long heroin-induced nod.

So, yeah. Here I am without so much as an Altamont Day gift under my dead Altamont tree, drinking brown acid-spiked eggnog and watching Gimme Shelter, the 1970 documentary about that fateful day. And I can’t help but wonder what’s wrong with people today, cuz them who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. And if that’s true then the Hells Angels will have punched Marty Balin in the nose in vain, and that’s nothing short of tragic. Hippie idealism was a beautiful thing for about a half hour, but all those acid-soaked, love-bead-wearing boys and girls flashing the Peace symbol had to wake up to the awful reality of life on this planet sooner or later, which is why Altamont, as tragic as it was, was also salutary; sure “we should be together,” to use the Jefferson Airplane’s own words, but we never will be, and if there’s better proof of this than what went down at the Altamont Free Concert on December 6, 1969, I’ll be damned if I know what it is.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A
(Is for Altamont)

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  • Derek Christian

    Isn’t, technically-speaking, every JA record their worst? They are to the rock ‘n’ roll canon what Mozart was to dancing the Watusi. I suggest that every day be Punch Marty Balin in the Mouth Day.

    • Michael Little

      Wow, you hate the Jefferson Airplane even more t than I do! I didn’t think it was possible! I mean, even I like Volunteers! Cheers, my friend!

      • Derek Christian

        I like the first :10 of White Rabbit, before she sings

  • Don Kain

    Dear Michael Little, I respectfully disagree with 90% of what you have written in your review of Worst of the Jefferson, and the band in general. The Airplane and later Jefferson Starship were able to communicate (through their live and recorded music) INFORMATION about the cultural changes and ideas that were springing forth at light speed from the San Francisco area in the 60’s and early 70’s. Remember, this was a time when there was no internet, no media of any kind that could reach the expanse of the rest of the country, let alone the world.

    The first thing that you have to get about their style of communication is that it is genetically meant to be slyly satirical, self mocking, political, cynical, hopeful, and visionary. That is a lot of information to put into vinyl recordings and performances. Remember, this was 40 years before Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert were on TV. Admittedly, it can be difficult to decode their transmissions from today’s perspective.

    Their albums were like an epistle to the hinterlands about the changes in the consciousness of humanity. Just take, for example, the cover art alone. Surrealistic Pillow, apart from the title, is your usual friendly folk/pop presentation. Mild by today’s standards but very “wierd” for 1966. Next up is After Bathing at Baxter’s, a leap into psychedelic chaos that even their own audience had trouble with. Don’t forget the drawings and poetry on the paper sleeve that cradled the vinyl. Cut to 1968’s offering, Crown of Creation. Lest we settle into groovy trippy wow-ness, there is the fucking nuclear holocaust on the cover of my rock n roll record! And just for shits and giggles, they inserted a double sized black and white photo of newly assassinated presidential candidate Robert Kennedy’s dog, Brumus. How’s that for a “feel good ” message? Cut to 1969 post-Woodstock, pre-Altamont album titled Volunteers, the cover formatted like a newspaper with satirical “coverage” of the “festival phenomenon”.

    Something is happening and you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Little?

    You say that the JA never grew out of the Age of Aquarius? In truth, they were always post-whatever that song and label meant. They challenged status quo America and their status quo hippie children to wake from the dream and see the nightmare of mind control and political/corporate exploitation. With a sense of humor and kick-ass rock and roll. (Just listen to Bless It’s Pointed Little Head, and name me another live album from that era that is as energetic and furious!)

    Regarding what you see as New Age/Space Age twaddle and hippie idealism that is past its sell by date.

    Do you think that the human race has exhausted its potential for the development of consciousness? Have you read anything about current neuroscience? Have you heard of neuroplasticity?

    If you think that it is passe to consider the benefits of gathering with other people to celebrate the joy of human existence, please look at Barbara Ehrenreich’s book, Dancing In The Streets: A History Of Collective Joy.

    Do you think that the United States has a dangerous tendency towards Imperialism, or empire building? Maybe you don’t, but if you do, why talk shit about Jefferson Starship when they were the first (in my teenage years, 1970) to call attention to that perception ie. Blows Against the Empire?

    Do you think it is a good idea for people to question and actively oppose a government that lies and spies on its people while serving the interests of corporations?

    Do you think that these commonplace progressive attitudes just appeared one day out of thin air? Or perhaps at a time long ago in a far away galaxy, there were intelligent, clever artists who were both funny and visionary.

    What do you think, Michael?

    • Michael Little

      Hi Don: Thanks for your wonderful and lucid comments. I’m afraid I don’t have the time to go into all of your questions, but I can say that 1) I think the US is a danger to the world, 2) that it is a wonderful idea for people to question and actively oppose what I think is a police state (I’m talking about the US, natch) and 3) you are undoubtedly correct about “these commonplace progressive attitudes” not having arisen from nowhere.

      I also appreciated your history lesson. I would, however, respectfully state that the JA were by no means the sole conduit of information at that time, as you of course know. I would also question how prescient their view of the Zeitgeist was, given how shocked they were by the horrors of Altamont. Something was happening and they didn’t know what it was, to use Dylan’s phrase myself.

      I concede that my review was simplistic, and that my view of that time is tinged with sarcasm and cynicism. I’m no idealist and the hippie dream has always struck me as risible. But that’s not fair, and I know it. It’s easy to judge a time and place when you are as distant from it as I am from the Age of Aquarius.

      In short, I think you make many very valid points, and I’m glad you took the time to respond to my piece. I’m honored, in fact.
      I will ask you to look at the grade I gave the album. With every new exposure to their music, I grow more impressed by their songs.

      Thanks again, Michael

      • Don Kain

        Hi Michael. Thank you for your thoughtful reply. Your points were well taken. As I said to Christian, it’s great to be able to respectfully talk about the music we love. Your response has made me a fan and I look forward to more of your writing.

        Don

    • Derek Christian

      “(Just listen to Bless It’s Pointed Little Head, and name me another live album from that era that is as energetic and furious!” Okay:

      The Who Live at Leeds
      Quicksilver Happy Trails
      MC5 Kick out the Jams
      Stones Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out
      Hendrix Band of Gypsys

      • Michael Little

        Nice list my friend!

      • Don Kain

        Hi Derek. Yes, excellent list, and I agree with every one being in that upper echelon. And who cares about rating “the best”? When art is transcendent, it is, by definition, beyond. Thank you for reminding me of this great music. PS Its great to talk music and be respectful of one another’s opinions.

  • dan_oz

    Wow. I just dropped in to wish you a (belated) happy PMB day [&] I find this whole conversation around it. I believe Don has made some fantastic points but like yourself I don’t wan’t Marty to have been punched in vain. Lest we forget.

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