Classic Music Review: Surrealistic Pillow by Jefferson Airplane

jefferson_airplane_-_1967_surrealistic_pillow

This review is the result of diligent preparation, people! I deserve your full attention!

I arranged last month’s trip to Europe so that my flight home would land in San Francisco instead of Seattle. This allowed me to spend some time with my parents, experience a nurturing environment to help me through my jet lag and actualize a scheme I’d cooked up during my travels. The night before my departure, I called mom and dad to finalize arrangements.

“What are you going to want to do? Anything special? Do you want us to make dinner reservations?” my mother asked, in French, since she knew I was on my game with the language.

“Let’s just wing it for dinner, if that’s okay,” I replied. “But I do have one request. Is dad on the other phone?”

“Je suis ici,” he replied. His French is really lousy, so I switched back to English.

“Dad, I want to sit with you and mom and immerse ourselves in the San Francisco Sound. Pull them all out: The Dead, The Fish, Big Brother, Quicksilver, The Airplane, Beau Brummels, the works.”

“Don’t tell me you want The Sons of Champlin, too,” he answered with a sigh.

“Yep, the whole shebang. I want to hear it all and hear what you two remember about those times.”

“Since we were stoned most of the time, I’m not sure how helpful we can be.” My father’s such a wit.

“Don’t worry, we’ll light some incense, turn on a black light and it’ll be like a flashback!”

That afternoon and evening turned out to be a blast! My mom even wore an old hippie headband and beads for the occasion, lit some cone incense and my dad pulled out his impressive psychedelic poster collection! We started with Sal Valentino’s Beau Brummels and listened to everything from It’s a Beautiful Day to early Santana to Cold Blood. Somewhere along the way we called for a pizza from Marcello’s and sat around drinking wine while I listened to the music and my parents shared their memories (and occasionally covered their faces in embarrassment). They described the excitement of the scene, how they’d often hitchhike to get to a concert (my mom was great bait in her youth), lectured me on the integration of music and “consciousness-raising,” and admitted that they did indeed fuck on one of the sofas at the back of the original Fillmore Auditorium during a set by Procul Harum. I heard about various be-ins, sit-ins and love-ins (they fucked at one of those, too). They also talked about Vietnam and the peace movement, but interestingly enough, the music we were hearing rarely dealt with the war at all, with Country Joe’s “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” a noticeable exception. The San Francisco Sound seemed a world unto itself.

We ended the extravaganza appropriately with “Colors for Susan,” a very long opus from Country Joe & The Fish that consists of nothing but chords to trip out on. When my father had carefully tucked that piece of vinyl into the sleeve, I sighed and said, “These bands weren’t very good, were they?”

My mom laughed, my dad tried to argue, but I have learned that it is impossible to have a rational discussion about music with someone when the music you’re talking about is the music they cherished in their youth. There are certain generational preferences that are simply inexplicable to other generations. My evaluation of what I heard was that Carlos Santana, Jerry Garcia and Jorma Kaukonen were the best pure musicians of the bunch by a comfortable margin; that Janis Joplin is the most overrated singer in history (and that her band flat out sucked); and that most of the music defined as the San Francisco Sound was era-specific and fails to pass the test of timelessness that characterizes truly great music, whether it’s Kind of Blue, Revolver or “Waterloo Sunset.”

The experience also confirmed my original hunch that the strongest album from the Summer of Love album was Surrealistic Pillow, the second effort from the Jefferson Airplane. I loved this album so much as a kid that it was one of the five vinyl recordings I selected from my father’s collection when I vacated the parental nest. Since returning from my trip (not that kind of trip, my trip to France!), I’ve listened to it the requisite three times and it still delights this Gen Y girl in the Year of Our Lord 2013. Although it does contain a couple of hopelessly dated passages, most of the songs demonstrate more life, more cohesion and way more talent than anything else that came out of San Francisco in the acid bath of the mid-60’s.

One of the band’s special talents is beautifully demonstrated in the opening number, “She Has Funny Cars.” This is the melding of Marty Balin’s and Grace Slick’s voices. The two alternative verses (not really a middle, not really a bridge) are completely enthralling, with Marty taking the lead and Grace delivering a counterpoint vocal that blends beautifully with his. It’s really a shame that these two would soon grow to loathe each other, depriving Jefferson Airplane of a unique advantage that few bands have ever had. At least Surrealistic Pillow provides us with several examples of the pairing of these two voices, both made more appealing when working together.

Grace brought two songs with her from The Great Society, and both turned out to be the band’s biggest hits. In “Somebody to Love” she is in total command, belting out the vocal with high-powered intensity, holding those notes in lengthy, glorious streams of pure kinetic energy. Jorma Kaukonen gets to display his fingerboard talents with a sizzling lead, another unique talent that separated the band from their less-talented competitors on the scene.

“My Best Friend” follows, an orgy of harmony and counterpoint vocal that is one of the great feel-good tunes of all time. Jorma’s counterpoint guitar is often missed because of the exhilarating vocals, but deserves attention here for its ability to ground the sweetness with solid guitar riffs. Marty Balin’s gorgeous love song, “Today” follows, and though he can sound a bit over the top at times, the loveliness of the melody tempers his occasional departures into the maudlin, as does the sweet guitar counterpoint provided by Jerry Garcia. The even softer “Comin’ Back to Me” follows, with light acoustic guitars providing the background along with the organic sounds of a recorder (played by Grace Slick). This is a period piece of the best kind, a dreamy, reflective number that calls up images of long-haired ladies blowing on dandelions to scatter their seeds to the wind:

One begins to read between the pages of a look
The shape of sleepy music and suddenly you’re hooked
Through the rain upon the trees, the kisses on the run
I saw you, I saw you comin’ back to me.

“3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds” is a cheeky little hippie rock number, complete with references to “blowing my mind,” freaks and inflation in the illicit drug market. The energy of the performance and the tightness of the band (particularly Paul Kantner’s steady rhythm guitar) save it from being relegated to the flower power heap. “D. C. B. A.-25” is an odd little song that demonstrates clearly that Paul Kantner and Grace Slick were not as strong a pairing as Marty and Grace (though Paul and Grace would wind up fucking each other). This segment of the album is rescued by the lush harmonies of “How Do You Feel?” another dreamy and thoroughly delightful display of joyful vocal interplay.

Jorma Kaukonen’s signature guitar piece, “Embryonic Journey” comes next, as fresh today as it must have sounded in the spring of 1967. This is a piece I could listen to again and again, marveling at Jorma’s ability to maintain the groove as his hands dance over keyboard and soundboard. I love the occasional forays into rough, rhythmic loudness, which help this sweet piece of music rise above the period’s passion for dreaminess.

“White Rabbit” is so iconic that it’s a wonder that, after all these years, it still manages to grab your attention through its steadily rising drama. Grace Slick never wrote a better song or delivered a stronger vocal. The bolero form certainly advances the sense of drama, as it did for Ravel and for Roy Orbison in “Distant Drums,” but the absolute command and confidence of Grace’s vocal as it slowly gathers strength until reaching its peak at the end provides more than enough drama all by itself.

Surrealistic Pillow closes with the sassy “Plastic Fantastic Lover,” the song on the album that I feel is most closely aligned with the times. That’s not to say it’s a throwaway; again, the energy and enthusiasm of the band make this one a keeper. But the lyrics . . . well, I guess you had to be there:

Her neon mouth with the blinkers-off smile
Nothing but an electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She’s part of a colorful time
Secrecy of lady-chrome-covered clothes
You wear cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You’re my plastic fantastic lover

Surrealistic Pillow remains my favorite window to a world I wish I’d experienced first-hand. Although much of that period may seem silly and muddled, it also loosened restrictions and expectations concerning what you wore, how you spoke, what you did and who you could become. For a brief time in our history, there were a significant number of people who believed in love over hate, peace over war, sexuality over prudishness and exploration over acceptance of the status quo. I’d take 1967 over 2013 any time, primarily because one quality that characterized 1967 was hope . . . something that is pretty much absent from the world today.

 

 

5 responses

  1. Michael Chaney | Reply

    I really enjoy these stories and reviews. All so thoughtfully written.

    I agree on this Airplane record.

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  2. […] Jefferson Airplane, Surrealistic Pillow […]

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  3. […] breaking free from parental paradigms, I developed into a Summer of Love skeptic, and except for Surrealistic Pillow, I have tried to avoid reviewing albums classified as psychedelic. Although I’ve always found […]

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  4. I know what I’m about to write is sacrilege, but I prefer some of the Starship stuff to some of the Airplane’s. Most critics seem to regard early Starship (1970-76) as stoned dribbling hippy shit, and their later stuff (early 80s plus) as the worst gated-snare sawtooth-synth corporate gloss (well, even critics sometimes have a point) but fuck ’em. I hate critics. How many of them have played through shitty sound systems, to crowds of angry drunk fuckwits in suburban beer barns with appalling acoustics and horrible toilets? How many of the male critics have had successful sexual and emotional relationships with real live grown up ladies? How many have taken a knock because they’ve tried and failed, but got up anyway and tried again?

    So I have a soft spot for Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun, even though it DOES contain its share of drug-fucked air-headisms. It also has Ballad of the Chrome Nun, Sketches of China and Across the Board. To name just three absolute fucken crackers. So there. I like Blows Against the Empire and Dragon Fly and Red Octopus. I like late period Airplane when they were really Kantner and Slick and were interchangeable with various solo and random combo projects (Sunfighter, Manhole et al).
    The reason is, I think there are better melodies and a strongly celebratory sexual emphasis (fucking is a revolutionary act in itself?, dunno if I’ve got that right), passion, abandon and skill in the vocal work, and a cohesive, utopian political philosophy tying them thematically. The early albums are strongly tied to the classic 1966-68 SF underground scene, now so celebrated as a high point in the morphing of pop/beat music into capital R Rock, but they can sound dated and naive. But you’re spot on, Pillow has a lot of shit hot moments. Grace Slick is one of the greatest singers ever recorded, even though technically, she can be criticised by every sexually-intimidated critic who ever crapped himself at the thought of having to get up in front of people instead of carping snarkily from his bedroom computer.

    I briefly bought Creem Magazine when I was too disgusted with RS to pay for their shit any more. The over-rated, permanently shit-faced blubber-guts Lester Bangs was writing for Creem, and had splattered out a typical critic’s hatchet job on an artist’s best efforts. A dissenting reader sent in a 3 word response, printed in the next issue. It read, “Lester Bangs dogs”.

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    1. The Starship did some good stuff, but their sense of self-importance turned a lot of people off, even in the SF Bay Area. I know people who go ape-shit whenever the subject of “We Built This City” comes up.

      Don’t get me started on mainstream critics. The more research I do, the more offensive I find them.

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