Hall of Records

Jefferson Airplane: Crown of Creation

by Michael Tatum

Released: Setpember 1968 (RCA)

Spencer Dryden turned thirty on April 7, 1968. A milestone for anyone of nearly any era, it was particularly significant in 1968, when the rallying cry of the counterculture youth was not to trust anyone over thirty, even if you were, like Dryden, the drummer for one of the hottest hippie-identified rock bands in America, Jefferson Airplane. To commemorate the occasion -- and the paradox -- his band mate and then-girlfriend Grace Slick composed the oddly tender faux-Childe ballad (get it?) "Lather" (the title being a reference to the hirsute Dryden's nickname -- he cultivated a fondness for straight-edge razors). With a curiously unfolding melody and chord progression not unlike Seal's "Kiss From a Rose," the titular character suffers familial and societal pressure to, essentially, cut his hair and get a real job now that he's "stopped being a boy" -- his college friends having become, respectively, a chairman at a bank and a sergeant who commands "his very own tank." To be sure, there are some covertly self-aggrandizing lines (I'm thinking particularly of "And the children call him famous/What the old men call insane"), but excise that couplet and you are left with one extraordinary stanza that regretfully looks forward to Slick's own transition to middle-age, and thus to everyone else's of her generation: "He looked at me, eyes wide, and plainly said/'Is it true that I'm no longer young?'/And I should have told him, 'No, you're not old'/And I should have let him go on, smiling, baby wide." Born in 1939, Slick would turn thirty herself soon enough. Perhaps in an effort to stave off the inevitable big bad maturity, she performed "Lather" on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in blackface. Earlier in the program, when the band tore through the electrifying title track from Crown of Creation, their then-current record -- and from our modern vantage point, their best -- she delivered a Black Panther salute.

With her strident mezzo-soprano, kinetic charisma, and uncommonly bewitching good looks, Slick was the obvious aural and visual focal point for Jefferson Airplane, but she didn't found the band. That distinction belonged to the far simpier Marty Balin, who commandeered the abortive 1966 folk-rock debut Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, which tanked commercially, although I should point out that their cover of Dino Valenti's effetely sappy "Get Together" unwittingly provided the blueprint for the Youngbloods' version a year later (and doesn't that shorthandedly tell you everything you need to know?). Slick replaced original female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson shortly before the Airplane entered the studio to record their next album, 1967's Surrealistic Pillow, by which point they had metamorphosed into an entirely different band -- blame Slick, better drugs, or the realization which side their whole grain bread was buttered on, but finally the Airplane were interested in playing something resembling rock and roll. The problem with the scatter shot Pillow however is that not everyone is on the same page -- Balin makes like he wants to be Denny Doherty (albeit without John Phillips writing his lyrics), while otherwise superb guitarist Jorma Kaukonen makes like he wants to be John Fahey (albeit without Fahey's resourcefulness with found and original material). Nevertheless, the album became a major hit, riding the tidal wave of the two major songs Slick brought with her from her former band, the Great Society: her brother-in-law Darby's "Somebody to Love," a blazing rocker which turns out to be less a come-on than a put-down, and the hypnotic, re-purposed bolero "White Rabbit," which sneakily yanked innocent radio programmers down the lysergic acid rabbit hole. Because she put them on the map culturally and commercially, Slick, who as a newcomer hadn't signed a contract with RCA like her band mates, wielded a great deal of power, which led to resentment from Balin, who also loathed her unorthodox singing style -- "Whoever slept with Grace controlled the band," he once remarked bitterly, referring to her affairs with Dryden and then lead guitarist Paul Kantner. This cynically sidestepped two plainly obvious facts. First, the control belonged in the hands of no one else but one very headstrong woman. And second, Balin owed that headstrong woman his career.

Before we go any further, let's address two things that might make the Airplane off-putting to the modern day audience. The first is Dryden's ungainly drumming. This is a major stumbling block in accessing this band's music, especially to music lovers weaned on punk and hip hop, though conceivably those who care about Janis Joplin and Creedence Clearwater Revival have already made their peace with that. One thing I will offer in Dryden's defense is that unlike, say, CCR's poor Doug Clifford (who kept it bone-simple) Dryden makes up for his lack of rhythmic sophistication, particularly on Crown of Creation, by electing to play fills and accents rather than straightforward beats, a stratagem which sounds counter-intuitive to rock music but surprisingly, pays off musically -- you never know whether the next snare or cymbal hit might be coming from. The second problem with the Airplane however, will come as a surprise in regards to a band so beloved for their vaunted three-part harmonizing: vocally, they can't blend for shit. Maybe Balin had a point to kvetch about Slick's warbling: he croons, she wails, and Kantner struggles to make his gawky baritone heard above the ramshackle cacophony. But once again, that's also turned to an advantage on Crown -- when Grace upstages Balin with one of her discordant high notes, as she does on the bridge of Balin's "If You Feel," it's damn near as arresting sonically (indeed, as hooky) as one of Kaukonen's catchy riffs. It helps also that Crown eschews the placid prettiness of Pillow's weaker moments in favor of the acid rock they developed on 1967's transitional After Bathing at Baxter's. While that record deserves much blame for laying the foundation for '70s prog-rock, it's a minor step forward at least in the sense that it's far more of a piece of its predecessor. Crown of Creation elaborates on the best elements of these two records -- the songwriting of the former with the hard-driving aesthetic of the latter -- for a package that may not have generated any hit singles (Slick's "Greasy Heart" stalled at #98 -- ouch), but is far more rewarding than any of the other releases from the band's so-called "classic" period.

Though I'm fairly certain they didn't intend Crown of Creation to be a concept record about encroaching maturity -- bands like this are better off letting things occur by happenstance than orchestrating grandiose plans -- with the opening "Lather" setting the tone that's exactly what it turned out to be. Kantner's mighty title track lays out their dilemma out very plainly: "Soon you'll attain the ability you strive for/In the only way it's granted/In a place among the fossils of our time." He lifted much of its lyrical inspiration from John Wyndham's science-fiction novel The Chrysalids, which details the history of a post-apocalyptic band of stragglers and nomads who outlaw the genetically different in their tribe. Though Kantner's adoration of the novel strikes me as highly suspect (no one understands the truly beautiful among us, do they?) "Crown of Creation" is really about the uncertainty of the future, wondering whether or not you'll repeat the same mistakes as the parents you don't want to end up emulating: "Life is change/How it differs from the rocks/I've seen their ways too often for my liking/New worlds to gain/My life is to survive and be alive for you." Considering how many counterculture-identified songs of this time damn the straights and squares and old fogeys who don't get it without wondering when their own number will come up, this song is tonic indeed. It also creates a nice context for Balin's "Share a Little Joke," which reaches out to a disillusioned friend, as well as (though it pains me to admit it) Slick's version of David Crosby's infamous ménage à trois advertisement "Triad," the ambiguous pronominal antecedents of which blur the intended genders nicely. The galvanic, gratifyingly dissonant finale "The House at Pooneil Corners" brings the innocence/experience themes full circle. With "Pooneil" a portmanteau of two of Kantner's heroes, A.A. Milne's Winnie the Pooh and the Airplane's singer-songwriting buddy Fred Neil, the song observes a holocaust in progress -- stars spinning, sun scrambling, moon circling like a vulture -- that might as well be a metaphor for a decade soon drawing to an end (perhaps at the moment that Hell's Angel thwacked Balin's head with a pool cue at Altamont). It earns its rather jarring use of the words "bullshit," "idiot," and (!) "rhinoceros." And the vulnerable admonition "You know I'm still goin' need you around" reaches the soul in ways their questionable stabs at poetry do not.

The Airplane foundered badly after this, and never quite recovered. 1969's Volunteers saw them trying their hand at country-rock, a style for which they had never displayed a knack, and weak material on the order of "Good Shepherd" and "The Farm" (sincere or parodical? who cares?) didn't help. Then maturity set in for real -- the band kicked out Dryden when he and Slick went Splitsville, while Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady formed the feeble blues-rock side project Hot Tuna. Balin left the fold, and Kantner, whose love of sci-fi had led to embarrassment on Volunteers' overrated "Wooden Ships" ("Say, can I have some of your purple berries?" might be a splendid epitaph, don't you think?) never really had the vision, musical or otherwise, to capitalize on the power shift -- despite Balin's petulant thoughts on the matter, sleeping with Grace Slick apparently only took you so far. As for the Queen Bee herself, she suffered through a decade of alcoholism (never knew she revealed a left boob in Creem) only to suffer indignation in the '80s as the co-lead vocalist on that goddamn piece of shit "We Built This City." Maybe they were right the first time -- maybe adulthood really does suck. "The world around you/Never catches up with you," Balin sang on the great "Share a Little Joke," but of course that's not true -- they knew that then. But though the romanticism of the late '60s was always an existential dead end, I'm thankful they also knew enough to outrun the turn of the Earth, no matter how futile, when the common sense of their elders told them to stand still.

May 2, 2014, Odyshape