Tuesday, November 5, 2019

The Airplane Takes Off - The Space Time Mother Fucking Continuum

With Signe Anderson
Paul Kantner  was introduced to marijuana around 1959 by Jorma Kaukonen as students at Santa Clara University. A year older than Kantner, Kaukonen was an accomplished guitarist. Kantner, inspired by Kaukonen (and maybe weed) picked up the guitar and began performing in folk clubs.  At a club called The Offstage, Kantner and some folkies set up the Folklore Center, "selling guitar picks, strings and marijuana." He also started booking acts for the club, including Mother McCree's Uptown Jug Champions (with future members of the Grateful Dead) and David Crosby. JFK's assassination in 1963 "proved the linchpin point of our generation," said Kantner, and "almost switched the universe – What R. Crumb calls the Space-Time Motherfucking Continuum – over 180 degrees. Everything that was before, was not after that." (AM points to "Satisfaction" and "Like a Rolling Stone" from 1965 as the “switch,” but certainly JFK was the political tipping point.) In 1964 Kantner was introduced to LSD by someone who brought it to The Offstage along with a Fender guitar and amplifier. "Went off into the cosmos," Kantner recalls. In the Spring of 1965 Bob Dylan's new album added electricity to folk and Kantner met Marty Balin at the Drinking Gourd on Union Street in San Francisco, not long before Marty opened The Matrix. The Drinking Gourd a bar and sandwich shop decorated like Pier One Imports. Bill Thompson, who would become Jefferson Airplane's manager in 1968, said, “Paul Kantner came in one night and he had a 12 string guitar and a banjo. Marty liked the way he looked, so he asked Kantner to join the band." Signe Anderson was a solo artist who performed at the Gourd. She became the Airplane's singer on Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966).

Grace Wing was raised in an upper middle class family in San Francisco. Feeling like an oddball, she suppressed her interests in classical music and art and took up comic books and R&B, drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes (by the age of 16). She enrolled in Finch College in New York in 1957 and transferred to the University of Miami in her Sophomore year to study art. In 1961 she married Jerry Slick, a film student at San Francisco State College. The two rented a house in Potrero Hill where "we'd grow dope in the backyard, for our own entertainment," said Grace. The couple met a British chemist named Baxter in 1964 who introduced them to peyote, and they soon tried LSD as well. Grace found the Beatles early songs “childish” and prefered Bartok, Prokofiev, the musical "South Pacific," and jazz, in particular Miles Davis's "Sketches of Spain." She played guitar, provided soundtrack music for one of Jerry's films, and soon began spending time smoking pot and making music with Jerry’s guitarist brother, Darby. The three Slicks formed a band in the Summer of 1965 called "The Great Society," after LBJ's failed social program. One morning, while coming down from an acid trip, alone and depressed because his girlfriend had spend the night with another man, Darby wrote, “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies/ Don't you want somebody to love?” 

Drawing on her love of Spanish songs, Grace fashioned a bolero rhythm for a new song of her own. Then, thinking back on her childhood fantasies, she suggested a correlation between the mystical worlds of those timeless tales and the quests that she and her fellow seekers were undertaking as young adults: "One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small/ And the ones that Mother gives you don't do anything at all/ Go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall." 

"What I was trying to say was that between the ages of zero and five the information and the input you get is almost indelible. In other words, once a Catholic, always a Catholic. And the parents read us these books, like Alice in Wonderland, where she gets high, tall, and she takes mushrooms, a hookah, pills, alcohol. And then there's the Wizard of Oz, where they fall into field of poppies and when they wake up they see Oz. And then there's Peter Pan, where if you sprinkle white dust on you, you could fly. And then you wonder why we do it? Well, what did you read to me?"

The Great Society actually recorded "Somebody to Love" and "Go Ask Alice" with Grace on vocals in November 1965, a year before the Jefferson Airplane version hit the charts. After The Great Society broke up and Slick joined the Jefferson Airplane, the band recorded Surrealistic Pillow. Marty Balin contributed his composition "Comin' Back to Me" written in one sitting after smoking some potent weed: "The summer had inhaled and held its breath too long/ The winter looked the same as if it had never gone/ And through an open window where no curtain hung I saw you,/ I saw you Comin' back to me."

Another song on the Album, DCBA-25 refers to the tune's chord progression and to LSD-25. A year later, in 1967, the band graced the cover of the first issue of Rolling Stone and recorded After Bathing at Baxter's, a reference to taking LSD, for which the band's nickname was Baxter. 

The Jefferson Airplane website says of Kantner: "As the '60s wore on, the Airplane became a symbol of the burgeoning counterculture, and Paul reflected this in songs such as "Crown of Creation" (1968) and "We Can Be Together" (1969). To Paul, the "Establishment" included everything from cops who unplugged the band during curfew to the band's own record company, RCA. In "We Can Be Together," he included the line, "Up against the wall, motherfucker," which launched a bitter contest of wills between the band and RCA over its inclusion; the company finally backed down. So much more than contemporaries The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane were the litmus test of mid-60's youth.