Pick of the Week #2
Paul Kantner and Grace Slick
Silver Spoon

(Sunfighter, 1971)
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By Beppe Colli
Nov. 30, 2020



What a magical Summer, the Summer of 1967... While the memory of the innovative, colossal "double A-side" hit single released just a few months earlier by the Beatles (Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane) was still fresh in everyone's ears; and while the world of "pop & rock" music was busy investigating the hidden mysteries of the Beatles' brand-new "concept album", Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band; two epoch-making brand new singles released by two brand new groups shot to the top of the charts, forever changing those bands' profiles in the marketplace: Light My Fire, by the Doors; and A Whiter Shade Of Pale, by Procol Harum.

In a similar manner - not as colossal, right, but both Top Ten hits anyway - two new hit singles by West Coast rock group the Jefferson Airplane - Somebody To Love and White Rabbit - quickly became part of the music landscape of 1967. While the former, right from its title, soon became part of what was immediately tagged as "The Summer Of Love" (let's not forget the group's 1966 promotional buttons, with the slogan "Jefferson Airplane Loves You"), it was the latter, at that time the lesser hit, that quickly became a cultural watershed. It's easy to see why.

"One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small//And the ones that mother gives you/Don't do anything at all." Over a "bolero" rhythm, as sung by a friendly voice after a tight bass figure starts the song, it gradually increases in intensity (like an airplane just before taking off), before ending with a shout - twice: "Feed Your Head! Feed Your Head!".

Thanks to the Web, today it's possible for us to watch - legally - the group performing this song on the TV program The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, with the group's unblinking singer - her name, Grace Slick - looking into the camera, perfectly conscious that the song she wrote and is now singing means "looking for trouble": "Feed your head!" Really?

Coupled with less belligerent music, White Rabbit could have been a song by Donovan, the singer-songwriter who at the time had already recorded hit singles and albums that perfectly represented the "Psychedelic Experience": Sunshine Superman and whole LPs as "specimens of the Zeitgeist". An ante litteram globetrotter, fascinated by the socio-musical San Francisco scene, Donovan had mentioned the group Jefferson Airplane well before their hit moment, in the lyrics of his song Fat Angel, featured on his 1966 album Sunshine Superman: "Fly Jefferson Airplane/Get You There On Time".

The music performed by Jefferson Airplane on their first album, Takes Off (1966), recorded at the time singer Signe Toly Anderson was still part of the group, has folk and blues as its foundation. Something which will be true, with just minor adjustments, of the whole recorded output of the group's "classic" line-up, from Surrealistic Pillow (1967) to Long John Silver (1972). What will change? The group's technical skills; their assurance in the studio; their confidence while improvising in concert; their fast-growing maturity as both composers and players.

The group featured a fine drummer with a jazz background, Spencer Dryden (playing very fine cymbals, not too far from the Doors' John Densmore, even if their roles were quite different); an original-sounding guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen, who in a short time will become one of the group's most prolific writers; and one of the most brilliant pioneers of the modern electric bass, in its melodic, harmonic, and timbral, aspect: Jack Casady.

While perfectly valid as a listening experience per se, Jefferson Airplane's recorded output travels in parallel to the radicalization of the political-generational confrontation that in those days was so pervasive in the United States (and the whole Western world). What group could have recorded the single titled Mexico (1970), a "hostile answer" to the "Operation Intercept" approved by President of the United States Richard Nixon in order to stop Mexican marijuana from entering the United States? (Song penned by Grace Slick.)

I really don't know that much about the group's male singer, Marty Balin (a "street punk"?), a fine writer of the kind of "love songs" whose influence on the group's music will become less and less important with the passing of time, as society's mood became increasingly violent; and I only know the bare minimum (musical side excepted) about above-mentioned bass player extraordinaire Jack Casady. Possessing a very strong folk music background, rhythm guitarist and singer Paul Kantner - longtime music colleague of future Byrds co-founder David Crosby, and of future Quicksilver Messenger Service member David Freiberg - will soon become the group's leader and their most politically inclined member.

They knew what they were rebelling against perfectly well. The Vietnam War was on their TV sets each and every day, while the draft was a grim reality and guys were coming back dead in an increasing number, for what at first had been said to be a "limited" conflict.

An important fact (in parallel with the Doors): a good portion of the Jefferson Airplane came from a privileged background, with Dryden as a member of a famous family, Kaukonen as the son of an employee of the State Department, and Grace Slick as the daughter of an employee of an investment bank (whose work implied changing one's residence a lot, though in this respect his job could not rival Mr. Kaukonen's, whose family lived as far from the US as Pakistan).

As per Wikipedia, Grace Slick was born in Chicago on October 30th, 1939. High school in Palo Alto, California, she attended the prestigious Finch College, New York, and the Miami University, Florida. She married Gerald Slick, future film-maker and drummer. Then, she got a job modeling for I. Magnin, a "high-class department store", for three years.

Though she soon showed good results on piano, guitar, and as a singer, in those days Grace Slick was not "a musician" in the same sense as the future members of Jefferson Airplane. But in the spirit of the times, together with her husband, her brother-in-law (who later wrote Somebody To Love), and a few friends, the group called Great Society was born: "Let's have some fun, just like all those young people are having". It's from the repertory of the Great Society that Grace Slick will later bring to Jefferson Airplane those songs that will remain the group's only hit singles.

A long time ago, Grace Slick said something like "If there are five cows and a pig, people will look at the pig". Things were not exactly like that, though. As per her model career, Grace Slick played the role she was offered with the svelte attitude of those who are already accustomed to be seen publicly (a few interviews from those times that can be viewed online are a good witness to this). In those times, having a female presence as a rock group's main character was not a common sight.

While Paul Kantner lived his role "politically", as a folk performer who told his tales in music; and Jorma Kaukonen wrote his songs in a blues vein, where the devil is always waiting for us at the crossroads; Grace Slick's lyrics are the most original in the group's discography - though not the easiest to understand, though in time the mix of myth and sci-fi created by Paul Kantner will create quite a few riddles.

Famous opening track of Crown Of Creation (1968), the album that according to many is the most perfectly realized in the group's career, Lather is usually regarded, as per Grace Slick herself, as a bitter portrait of Spencer Dryden, who had reached the age of thirty at a time when the most common slogan among young people was "Don't trust anybody over thirty". But Grace Slick was born only one year later than Dryden. Could one suppose that she had forgotten her birth date?

In a way that's definitely not too common in those days, Grace Slick's lyrics are very often cynical and inscrutable, while the chosen target is often the singer herself. And while the instrumental skills of other members of the group, especially lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and (lead) bassist Jack Casady are an important ingredient of her songs (the group's performance at the 1969 edition of the Woodstock Festival appears and disappears from the Web for mysterious reasons, but at the moment of this writing a video of a 1970 performance of her brilliant song Eskimo Blue Day, off the Volunteers album, is quite easy to find - legally), it's the growing importance of her piano playing in the group's discography that shows Grace Slick playing with great versatility and imagination, in many styles.

Two Heads and Rejoice on After Bathing At Baxter's (1967), Lather and Greasy Heart on Crown Of Creation (1968), Hey Fredrick and Eskimo Blue Day on Volunteers (1969), are the multifaceted sides of Grace Slick's work up to that time, and could well be part of a solo album.

There was more to come, on albums such as Bark (1971) and Long John Silver (1972). But things got weird. Kaukonen and Casady gave birth to a parallel group, Hot Tuna, where they proceeded to revisit their roots, immediately getting good feedback in both record sales and concert attendance. For various reasons, Marty Balin quit the group, as did Spencer Dryden. While Grace Slick got pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter, Paul Kantner being the father (I also seem to remember an operation on her vocal cords).

Paul Kantner recorded a solo album, much acclaimed at the time, Blows Against The Empire. The Kantner/Slick couple inaugurated their joint travelogue with the album Sunfighter (1971), followed two years later by Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun (1973).

Appearing as track #3 on side one of Bark, Crazy Miranda - a song whose tale appears to keep changing its course quite a few times - clearly shows a side of Grace Slick's writing I talked about earlier. "Crazy Miranda Lives On Propaganda/She Believes Anything She Reads//It Could Be One Side Or The Other/The Free Press Or Time Life Covers": Who at the time would have depicted a member of "one side" as being comparable to a member of the "other side"? Given a "dry" type of arrangement, Crazy Miranda showcases the highly creative way Jack Casady's bass dresses Grace Slick's music, with multiple overdubbed basses: in full feedback, pizzicato, "walking", and solo.

While it's simply impossible to locate a song by Jefferson Airplane where Jack Casady plays in a way that's less than admirable - in both periods: the clean Fender Jazz Bass on the group's first three albums, and the highly distorted timbre of the Guild Starfire and the newly acquired amplifier on the group's later records - the performance I'd single out for newcomers as "required listening" is his high-drama solo which appears as a main character in A Child Is Coming, the song that takes the first side of the above-mentioned Blows Against The Empire to its close.

While Kaukonen and Casady were having their fun elsewhere, Sunfighter - just like the more polished Kantner/Slick album Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun, released two years later - features many well-known figures, in primis Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia, who offers a lean lead guitar sound that's quite different from what was usually played by Jorma Kaukonen.

Sunfighter's first side can be regarded as a high point of this period, with its great closing track, When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves. While the album's second side, after a great start, is not so great (and never really was). Silver Spoon (spelt as singular on the album cover, label, and booklet, though the sung lyrics show the word as plural) is the album's great opening track.

And who but Grace Slick could ever think of singing about cannibalism in those days of "peace and love"? Nowadays it appears that the source of the song's inspiration was to be located in Bolinas, a place in Marin County where Kantner/Slick lived for a while. Not a place populated with cannibals, of course; instead, a place where people with rigorous vegetarian customs lived, whose way of living must have been a very strong source of inspiration for Grace Slick.

It's a quite "raw" song, with a beautiful-sounding "rubato" voice intro with strong piano backing, Papa John Creach's violin acting as a counterpoint (Creach had made his first appearance on a Jefferson Airplane album just a few months before, on Bark). After the intro, Jack Casady's bass and Joey Covington's drums appear (Covington having taken the place of Spencer Dryden one year before).

Even if a funny-sounding phrase - "Your Mama Told You Never/To Eat Your Friends With Your Fingers And Hands" - often appears, to ease the tension, the unavoidable horrible question is always there, waiting for us: "What If You Were Starving To Death/And The Only Food You Had Was Me"?

Jack Casady's bass parts will reward attentive listening sessions. My favourite moment in this respect: the distortion and the intervals running parallel to the lines "But I Get Stuck Sideways In Your Throat/Like A Good Old Chicken Bone".

I should have said before that Grace Slick was really a great, and greatly expressive, singer. I'll say it now, in closing.


Beppe Colli 2020

CloudsandClocks.net | Nov. 30, 2020