A Revolution! - The Turbulent Flight Of Jefferson Airplane
Skelter 2003, £14.99, pp408
reasons why artists and groups from the past can be considered to be "relevant"
are many, so even a careful examination will leave many gray areas and a few
unsolved mysteries. It goes without saying that commercial success can automatically
give a name some "currency" - for in., consider Paul McCartney, Elton John, the Eagles
and the Rolling Stones. Then there are those "nostalgia" acts -
albeit of a minority appeal - who can make the faithful witness a blast from
a past when music really stood for something - a good example being the Sex
Pistols reunions. Obviously, a premature death can do wonders for one's career
- see Jimi Hendrix and the Doors, and more recently Nick Drake and Jeff Buckley
(but - curiously - not his dad, Tim). Being mentioned all the time doesn't
hurt, either - check the Velvet Underground (the snowball/bandwagon effect
will make everything confused). It's obvious that present conditions will
give a framework - hence, the current popularity of the Byrds (and Gram Parsons)
thanks to those musicians who align themselves to the (so-called) stylistic
sub-genre alt country; add the perennial relevance of the MC5 and the Stooges
for those who have decided that knowing how to play one's instrument is not
terribly important. Then there is the case of the forgotten name who suddenly
appears from the fog of the past - recently, it's Love (Skip Spence didn't
quite make it).
Given the current climate, I wasn't really surprised by the deafening
silence that greeted the tenth anniversary of Frank Zappa's death. And I'm
not expecting big celebrations for the thirtieth anniversary of the release
of Hatfield And The North's debut album. But there are two cases that I find
really puzzling. The first being Creedence Clearwater Revival, a group that
at the end of the sixties practically owned the airwaves and whose "elementary"
- but highly sophisticated - "roots rock" with a low rhetorical
quotient (pretty influential, I'd say) should have more than a few chances
given the USA's current climate. And then there's the strange case of Jefferson
Jefferson Airplane's "classic" line-up released quite a
few albums that still sound good: Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing At
Baxter's, both from 1967; Crown Of Creation (1968); the ebullient live album
titled Bless Its Pointed Little Head (released in 1969); and Volunteers (also
from 1969), maybe their best. Other albums are far from mediocre: the two
that were released after the group had undergone some personnel changes -
Bark (1971) and Long John Silver (1972); the first three albums by the group's
rock-blues spin-off, Hot Tuna; and the same is also true of albums recorded
by various members of the group plus guests, such as Blows Against The Empire
(1970), Sunfighter ('71) and Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun ('73).
A democracy always of the verge of splitting, Jefferson Airplane
sported a nice and very personal vocal blend, had four solid composers of
disparate styles and an instrumental side which saw the presence of one of
the most original bass players in the whole history of rock (Jack Casady)
and one of the few guitar players of whom it can be said that he really invented
a style (Jorma Kaukonen). It's obviously impossible not to mention Grace Slick,
in those days one of the few (two? three?) "women in rock": a highly
personal vocalist, an animated presence on stage, a sarcastic, corrosive personality,
a writer of fantastic songs that - though participating of the "spirit
of the age" - are among those who less suffer from the passing of time
(an anthology featuring only the songs she penned for the group would easily
make the Top 20 in a "classic rock" chart).
But the history of Jefferson Airplane goes hand in hand with that
of the political and cultural changes of the era of which the music of the
group can be considered to have been a part. The Vietnam war (and the draft),
the increasingly common drugs use, the slow ascending of a new musical aesthetic,
the "gap between generations", a different attitude towards politics,
are reflected in the music of the group. A group that - let's not forget it
- was incredibly popular - and so, highly visible - at the time.
Though it's quite difficult to believe it, Got A Revolution! (the
title comes from a line in the song Volunteers) is the first book that deals
with the history of the group. There have been two books about Grace Slick.
The first, Grace Slick: The Biography by Barbara Rowes (1980), was good precisely
because it was the only one; then there was her autobiography, not surprisingly
called Somebody To Love (1998), from the title of the song that together with
the lysergic hymn White Rabbit is the most famous - and the most commercially
successful - in the Jefferson Airplane catalogue.
Jeff Tamarkin is in many ways the right person to tell this story:
a witness of the times, quite familiar with the history and the discography
of the group, the former Goldmine editor has also penned the liner notes to
many booklets of Airplane and Airplane-related CDs. So we have a meticulous
research work - and direct access to the musicians, who had the opportunity
to comment on those facts from a long time ago (and they don't necessarily
remember things the same way). Pretty exhaustive when it comes to biography,
the book offers a lot in the socio-political department. The reader will have
the opportunity to remember - or to encounter for the first time - all that
was important in the city of San Francisco - places, facts, personalities
- and also in the United States.
Just its being the only book about the group would make Got A Revolution!
an indispensable book in any case, but the sheer volume of facts and stories
makes it indispensable for both newcomers and for those who - though fans
of the group - never had access to reliable sources. The only problem of the
book is its brevity - which in a way can read like a funny statement, given
the fact that the book is more than 400 pages long (by the way, there are
some pictures, an index, a discography, a bibliography and an index of some
Web sources). The fact is that Tamarkin has chosen to tell the whole story,
including the Jefferson Starship "commercial renaissance" of the
seventies and up to those terrible eighties (the years of Reagan and MTV).
Which, given the book's perspective, is a perfectly legitimate goal. But the
fact makes it unavoidable to sometimes present a very superficial analysis
of the records and the music; and if the space is not a lot when it comes
to the "classic period" albums, it becomes stamp-size for those
second-period (but by no means terrible) LPs mentioned above. (Sometimes one
has the impression that Tamarkin knows the albums so well that he forgets
this is not necessarily true of the reader.) But I could be wrong (and given
the current degree of attention span it could be argued that the information
offered by the book is probably way too much).
Beppe Colli 2003
| Dec. 12, 2003