Graded on a Curve:
Paul Kantner, Grace Slick & David Freiberg,
Baron von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun

In which a band of hippies well past their sell-by date grokk themselves into a state of universal bliss, which unfortunately does not always extend to the listener. That said, the album’s participants (including all of the members of the Jefferson Airplane) do sorta kinda pull 1973’s wonderfully titled Baron von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun out of their asses, not by means of lysergic lyricism but mostly by way of the guitar wank of one Jerry Garcia, one Craig Chaquico, and one Jorma Kaukonen. Not to mention a heap of songs with likable melodies, likable enough even to allow you to forget the words, which in keeping with the Jefferson Airplane’s obsession with space age bullhockey sound like they just time-traveled in from 1967’s Summer of Love.

Released in 1973 at the same time as the Jefferson Airplane’s Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, Baron von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun gave Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and David Freiberg (originally of Quicksilver Messenger Service) the opportunity to lasso up the cream of San Francisco’s moribund psychedelic scene, in addition to such outliers as Papa John Creach, David (Grrr!) Crosby, and Chris Ethridge of the Flying Burrito Brothers. The album is as atavistically “psychedelic” as a paperback copy of Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan, as Kantner’s tune “Your Mind Has Left Your Body” and Slick’s lyrics to the unfortunately titled “Fat” (“So we all went through the wall/No one uses doors anymore/We all want to be that small/We can’t fit if we’re fat and that’s all”) make clear. And this despite the fact that the detritus of the Haight’s head scene were more likely, thanks to the proliferation of hard drugs that had replaced acid and pot, to walk into walls than through them.

“Walkin’” is the hit, what with Garcia throwing down on steel guitar and Creach playing some great electric violin, and Kantner and Slick swapping vocals one moment and singing in tandem the next. But it’s Garcia who steals the show, both with his guitar and a banjo, just as it’s Kaukonen’s electric guitar that saves the mid-tempo Kantner vehicle, “Your Mind Has Left Your Body.” Ah, but he gets a nice assist from Garcia on steel guitar, as well as from Slick’s surprisingly tolerable wailing in the background. As for the song, it’s a heavy hippie bromide about time travel and your riders of the rainbow and tiny Day-Glo unicorns for all I know, taking big horsey bites out of the cotton candy of your mind, and would have sounded dated in 1968, much less 1973. When it came to the death of the counterculture, there’s one thing I know—the Jefferson Airplane were the last to get the memo.

“Harp Tree Lament” is a lovely tune, and sounds like CS&N would sound if they weren’t unbearable, what with its nice ensemble vocals and loping melody. I don’t have the guts to check out Robert Hunter’s lyrics, but they don’t matter; this one would still be a winner if they were singing excerpts from Hitler’s Mein Kampf. As for “Fat,” Slick’s vocals are inexplicably muddy, but the melody is serviceable, the shared vocals have an almost gospel feel, and Garcia plays some crisp guitar. The handclaps towards the end are nice too. Meanwhile, “Ballad of the Chrome Nun” features Chaquico on lead guitar, and our boy Craig wails and wails, while Slick and Kantner collaborate on vocals and Garcia plays some sweet, sweet steel guitar.

“Sketches of China” opens with some ceremonial (and ludicrously stereotypical) gong work gratis the Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart, but the song is lovely, what with Kantner and Slick singing along to a great melody while Garcia plays some righteous guitar underneath. “It ain’t what you want/It’s what you need” sing the duo as the song goes out, which reminds me of some band or other that came out of England in the mid-sixties, while “Flowers of the Night” opens sounding like Steve Miller only to morph into what sounds to my ears like bad Fairport Convention, offers us all a quick tutorial on revolution, and would be unbearable if weren’t for Chaquico’s stinging electric guitar and some excellent keyboard work by Freiberg. That the band was still talking revolution in 1973 speaks volumes; it’s as if somebody put them in collective suspended animation in 1967.

“Across the Board” is Slick’s very dubious contribution to women’s liberation; her soaring vocals are impressive, but what she gives us is pure macho bullshit: “You can’t cock yourself woman,” she sings, then adds, “You need a man.” And that’s nothing compared to the cock size politics of “Seven inches of pleasure/Seven inches of going home/Somebody must have measured/All the way down the old bone.” And I think I’d hate the song, despite Slick’s impressive vocal chops, if it weren’t for the way the song morphs at the halfway mark into one helluva jam, with Garcia playing some of the fiercest guitar I’ve ever heard from the guy, while Slick plays some cool piano.

“Fishman” is another Slick contribution, and opens like a loser only to turn into a hard rocker with that swirling psychedelic sound. Chaquico sounds like Garcia, and this tune is the closest in sound and spirit to the Summer of Love. As for “White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmachine Blues),” it highlights some stately vocals by Kantner and takes its good old time attaining altitude. And when it does, it’s too late, and I don’t think I’ll be listening to this track again anytime this side of the celestial convergence, brothers and sisters.

The bottom line? Baron von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun features a lot of great musicians showing off their chops, and some fetching melodies as well. I enjoyed it far more than I expected. But make no mistake, as our politicians like to say—the collective ideals of this motley crew, as expressed in their lyrics, are so behind the times as to be risible. You can either forgive them by calling them as quaint as your grandma’s porcelain pajamas, or snigger, as I’m wont to do, because theirs are the amusingly atavistic ramblings of a rock group that took so much acid they simply failed to notice that it was no longer 1967.

Were they idealists? Stuck in a time warp? Or cynically filling a niche, as music critic Robert Christgau seemed to imply in 2005, when he cuttingly dismissed the Jefferson Airplane as “Rock and Roll Hall of Famers still busy symbolizing the Summer of Love almost four decades later.” Calculating hippies, who would have thunk it? Hell, no wonder that Hell’s Angel at Altamont punched Marty Balin in the nose. He could smell a psychedelic huckster a mile away.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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