No one expected the Airplane to fly again, but with 'Red Octopus,' the band has a hit record and a new life
Two windmills shorn of their vanes stand where Golden Gate Park meets the sea in San Francisco. Paul Kantner often detours to drive by them on his way to the black, cedar-pillared Jefferson Airplane House near the park. This city has always glowed a bit—a place where fantasies regularly displace reality—and the park, with its windmills, is the core of the dream. Ten years ago, the Jefferson Airplane soared out of there, flew high and then zigzagged to earth again like a dried leaf in a wind from a new direction. Now, its reincarnation, Jefferson Starship, is growing out of the humus.
Who would have expected the Jefferson Anything to have a Number One album in 1975? Surely not them, nor RCA, nor the record buying public, who had written them off as the charred remnants of a bygone era. But with the Airplane's old front line, Grace Slick, Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, they have come back strong and hard.
"Nostalgia, that's how they first started to sell us," Balin said. "But we were a little better than just nostalgia. We were musical and something new, with lots of energy."
There's no question that Starship rings with echoes of the Airplane but Balin is right when he talks of something new at work as well. The Jefferson Airplane was one of the first and the most important band to emerge from San Francisco. It became known for its howling, raging music and its imperious iconoclasm which evolved from pharmaceutical to political radicalism. The Starship's musical structures reflect the same pyramiding architecture but with less hard-edged screech. Jorma Kaukonen developed into a driving power guitarist while Craig Chaquico, the new band's lead player, has a lighter touch, more melodic and lacking Kaukonen's slashing "killer instinct." Balin and, to a degree, David Freiberg weave a strand of funk into Starship's fabric that brings welcome respite from the Slick/Kantner formalism. Moreover, instead of one ostentatiously rumbling Jack Casady on bass, Starship has the depth of two bass players, Freiberg and Pete Sears, both of whom double on keyboards. The richness of choice in textures and the new band's enthusiastic delivering of them, although still not equal to the heights the Airplane often reached, has given them their success.
Balin's most prominent contribution to the new band is a single, a love song he wrote called "Miracles" that rose to Number Three. Besides being the leading edge of Red Octopus's commercial success, the song was crucial within the band: It balanced the scales that "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" had laid heavy thumbs on in 1967. Balin had formed and led the Airplane but Grace Slick stole his public thunder with those two hits. She was the only willowy, laser-eyed, siren-voiced woman bouncing around rock & roll and no one could take their eyes or ears off her long enough to notice him.
He left in 1971 after ever diminishing contributions, retreating to a small house and an anonymous life to lick his wounds. The Airplane began a slow descent and in December 1973 RCA realized it would never fly again. The company responded by cutting off the band's salaries. Freiberg, who had come on the last tour a year and a half before to fill in the harmonies Balin's departure had deadened, went on unemployment to meet his house payments. Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, their bubble burst, decided to form a band and try and build something new.
Freiberg, of course, would come along. The Plane's last drummer, John Barbata, also an obvious choice, impatiently encouraged the move. Papa John Creach, the 58-year-old funk violinist who joined the Airplane in 1970, was willing and they found a guitarist in Craig Chaquico, a fast-fingered kid a friend of Kantner's introduced to the group. Peter Kaukonen, Jorma's brother, joined to play bass and they had a band. The name Jefferson Starship, first used on Kantner's solo album Blows against the Empire, was chosen both to conjure the past and, hopefully, define a future.
The band passed the first test in spring 1974 on a short tour booked into small halls to guarantee sellouts in case the masses had forgotten. Grace dressed like a Ming madame on a state visit to Mars and played the diva to the hilt. Hair peppered with gray she had dyed away for ten years and plump enough to earn Elizabeth Taylor references in every review, she looked all of her 35 years but still cut through as randy, self-possessed and outrageous as ever. The band played energetic sets framed by her opera, Manhole, and Kantner's sci-fi epic, Blows against the Empire. There was none of the Airplane's firestorm brilliance but none of its leaden, overvolumed bullshit either.
The last years of the Airplane had been cold. "You could see Jorma come down on Paul behind his back," Barbata remembered. "Jack and Jorma stuck together, that old buddies thing."
"We were waiting for Jorma and Jack," Freiberg said of the time Paul, Grace and he did solo projects. "They kept saying, 'Sure we'll do another Airplane album. Just wait a couple months.' It dragged on for practically two years. On that last Airplane tour it became obvious there wasn't really an Airplane."
The outside projects were done in floating combinations of the three including even Grace's "solo" Manhole, which had one Freiberg song on which she never appears. At the same time they cranked out one last Airplane album, a dismal epitaph called Thirty Seconds Over Winterland, that Freiberg called "a piece of manure but it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be." It was a frustrating period but the constant activity masked it for them. Looking back on it Grace recently said, "It was frustrating, but when I'm doing stuff I don't say, 'This sure is shit.' I can look back on it and, knowing what I feel now, the difference is appalling."
On the night of Nixon's resignation, coproducer Larry Cox was gently helping Grace hone the vocal on "Hyperdrive," a song she'd written with Pete Sears for their next album, Dragon Fly. She and Paul had met Sears during the Manhole sessions at Wally Heider's and, impressed with both his keyboard and bass playing, had invited him back from England to join Starship. Standing in the aquarium light of the studio, she painstakingly cut the lead, her long silk caftan swishing around her as she stalked the microphone, eyes closed, intent on every phrase.
Finished with "Hyperdrive," Grace added a backup track to "Caroline," a song Balin and Kantner had written for the album and for which Marty had come out of his self-imposed hibernation to sing lead. She carefully found space for her patented skirls. "Ah, that's it," Cox sighed after a few punch-ins. Listening to the playback, Grace popped open a Heineken's and cracked, "Sure sounds like the Airplane."
"That's the idea," Balin said dryly.
Marty Balin was the soul of the Airplane, the web spinner who drew all the parts together. His personality has a mystical bent that's reflected in a house filled with books on esoteric disciplines and histories of ancient cultures. It gives him a detachment that only occasionally breaks down.
"Yeah, it fell apart," he said recently about the Airplane. "Everybody was on drugs and coke. We couldn't rehearse, everything was a yelling match. Whoever could yell the loudest got their way. I just got bored with that and said, 'Here, have fun, goodbye. I'll watch you die for a while.'"
"The biggest thing that hit Marty and knocked him down," Kantner said, "was Jack and Jorma's treatment of his songs. They'd say, 'You write such shitty songs. Your lyrics suck, man.' Really cold, right out front. They did that after Surrealistic Pillow was a hit. It might have been humorous, tongue-in-cheek, but I could never tell and after that Marty just closed in."
"Jack and Jorma hurt my feelings but it was no big deal," Balin said when asked about Paul's evaluation. "I was down on everybody. They were all stoned all the time and you couldn't talk to them. Each guy wanted to do their own trip. There was no cohesiveness and that's my job, I always figured, keeping things together. At the time, Grootna was rehearsing in the basement of the Airplane House and I'd go down and help them because they were talking to each other. That was my refuge."
Balin eventually produced Grootna's album for Clive Davis at Columbia but his prickly personality soon intervened. "We didn't exactly hit it off," he understated about a meeting he had with Davis. "They were treating Grootna nice to get to me, and when I found out, I told him what a fucking asshole he was."
Balin was further alienated from the Airplane when, six months after he had stopped working with them, they signed a new and very lucrative contract with RCA that established Grunt Records. They did not include him and Marty blamed them all for his "loss of a record company."
He occupied himself writing a screenplay and slowly edged back into music with a band called Bodacious. He signed a short-term deal with RCA and whipped out an album in 13 days. A cult item, the record is a tasty example of Mill Valley R&B with good tunes (Starship performs two in their current set) and Balin in good, if somewhat alcoholic voice.
Kantner made the first move toward a reconciliation with Balin in late 1973, writing him a letter which, according to Kantner, said, "I'm really sorry it got shitty four years ago. I really like singing with you. I've got some nice changes if you'd like to write a song together."
The recalcitrant Balin responded to Kantner's emotional openness. "When I was in the Airplane, nobody ever complimented me, ever, never," he insisted. "Now, Paul comes up and says, 'Hey man, I like singing with you. It's great being with you again,'" and that really makes me feel good. It hits me real deep. It's the first time anybody's done it for ten years and for that, I'll work my ass off for the guy."
The interaction between Balin and Kantner was the key to the Airplane's early successes. Kantner is a driving organizing force; Marty a creative, visionary one. "We could have gone on being the premier American rock act for years," Kantner said. "We were all competent enough to play and sing in tune but not live in tune anymore. Without Marty there was no centrifugal force pulling all the parts together. Without that force it just went ... whew."
Why did it take so long to try something new?
"I was waiting to see if everything would spin together again ... in grand hope," he chuckled wistfully.
To support Dragon Fly, the group went on the road. RCA, goosed and oiled by Manager Bill Thompson and seeing a chance to recoup the money they had advanced Grunt in huge sums, worked as hard as the band and they gave each other a gold album. "Caroline" garnered the most interest because it "sounds like the Airplane" and when they ended the tour at Winterland in November 1974, Balin showed up to sing it as an encore.
Walking onstage, his eyes glazed with nervousness, his mouth formed a tight smile that could have passed for bravely borne seasickness. When he took the mike, the band unconsciously formed a semicircle behind him, both to support the veteran fledgling and to ensure they played the long song with no gaffes. Grace stood next to Paul, staring at the back of Balin's head when she wasn't intent on her harmonies, a grin spread ear to ear. It worked, and when it was over Balin beat a hasty retreat.
He'd been impressed with the band that night and, not long after, he responded to Kantner's request that they get together and joined the band for Red Octopus. Asked why he rejoined the group, he smiled and said, "I like doing the last thing anybody would've expected." Given what Balin wanted, though, it was a logical choice. Bodacious had been a lesson: The group never made it out of clubs. "I don't want to be a singer no one knows with all this music in me and when I die they discover me. I want audiences out there while I'm on that stage."
With Starship, he could guarantee that and by actively becoming a member of the band and giving it hits, Balin had a lever to pry out of RCA the six-figure writer's royalties the company had not paid him for all the Airplane albums since Surrealistic Pillow. The funds were frozen as a result of a suit filed by an early manager of the Airplane.
Although definitely a full-time member and getting paid as one, Balin has yet to sign any contracts with Starship, either management or recording. The old wariness remained undissipated and he often took pleasure in describing himself as "just a hired hand, that's all." In response the rest of the group treated him delicately, careful not to push or pull too hard.
At a recording session early last spring, Grace was cutting the counterpoint backup vocals for "Miracles" Balin had written "so they wouldn't be singing on top of me." She took off on one of her Arabian improvisations and at the end of the take Marty chided, "Hey Grace, none of that. This is background singing. There are no individuals." Her face went opaque. She folded her arms and uncharacteristically made no reply. On the next take she sang little but the words and notes. Slowly, she eased back into her stylizations and by the last take, was adding just enough of her sliding and slurring to let you know it's her back there. Marty had made them tasty.
Later that same night, Balin prepared to lay his lead on the previously recorded track of "Sweeter than Honey," a song of Pete and Craig's they'd cut before any words were written. After a few run-throughs, he came back into the booth to listen, saying to no one in particular, "I could sure use some Jack Daniels for this one. The key's too high. I might have been able to make those notes ten years ago but no more." Balin downed half a tab of Ritalin to add an edge to the vocal while someone went out to fill his request. Later, paper cup in hand, his voice came over the monitor. "This is the first hard liquor I've had since Christmas. I made a promise to myself if I was gonna do this thing, I wasn't gonna drink. Now, I'm breaking my promise to do it." He grimaced at the dilemma and chugged down the Jack Daniels.
Ready to cut with half the bottle gone, he grabbed the mike off the stand and whipped the cord free while Kantner lowered the lights to a red glow. It was samples for the tour night and everyone except Balin was flying high. He pumped the raunch beat with his arm: "... in love with you, bay-bee!" A small crowd had gathered in the booth, loving every minute of the five takes. Thompson bounced, Freiberg grinned and Kantner just smiled, commenting, "Somebody order a case of that shit for the road."
Balin was back and burning and afterward, drunk to the point of giggles, he careened outside. "Yeah, it was good! It's a hot tune!" Almost immediately, though, he remembered his stance of participation without commitment and added, "Uh, if you like that kind of music."
When he rejected the Airplane, Balin also rejected its brand of heavy rock and in doing so, part of himself. He prefers black music and sees himself ideally in a progressive rhythm & blues context. His real genius lies in the welding of his favored musical forms into the structure and sound of "white rock." The early Airplane did exactly that with folk music and electronics and one of Balin's biggest disappointments with them came when they declined to respond to his love of soul. With "Sweeter than Honey," the "love one another" chant he adds to Kantner's "I Want to See Another World" and even the sensuality of "Miracles," he is finally being given the freedom to bring those elements into the band.
After the Starship had recorded but not yet mixed the album, they hit the road in April '75 to tour secondary markets and colleges. Balin still held back, camouflaging nervousness with reticence; he still let the others carry the harmonies in the material he was unfamiliar with. Papa John was a consistent crowd pleaser with his funky fiddle boogie. The tour ended Memorial Day weekend with a free gig in Golden Gate Park. On the overcast Friday afternoon, Balin showed up unshaven and surly. "I almost didn't make it. But I'm here," he said, swigging on a pint of rye, "me and the Jefferson Starshit."
Balin's ill humor came in part from Grace's indisposure. Her predilection for alcohol and stimulants had kept her up all night, and behind sunglasses her eyes crackled with don't-fuck-with-me antagonism. As she often does when she feels insecure (like the pre-Dragon Fly tour), Grace had come in costume, a lurid rust-and-turquoise-embroidered jacket with a matching cowboy hat. She weighed 150 pounds and the bright colors did nothing to deemphasize them, creating an overall effect of an upholstered matron inflated to the bursting point. However, the strong energy evoked by these traditional dates in the park for the people propelled the band high enough to earn good reviews.
The album was released June 26th and began its climb to the top. No decision had been made about a single but airplay indicated a cut-down version of "Miracles" was the choice. To almost everyone's surprise, the song rocketed to the Top Five. Suddenly Jefferson Starship had a hit single, a song that made it not only on the pop charts but also into the Easy Listening listings and Continental Airlines' in-flight programming. The album has sold close to 1.5 million copies and has pulled Dragon Fly back into the Top 100. "It's scary," said Barbata.
Another surprise was Papa John Creach's departure before the next tour. The deft violinist had been straining to keep up both a group and solo career. "It got to the point," Kantner said, "that we'd get off a tour and he'd go right out. You know, leave halfway through the last gig for his first. He never got time to come and practice with us. Before a tour he'd come in for three days and just fill in."
Oriental tapestries and a picture of Bruce Lee hang in the three-story atrium just past the Japanese entrance to Paul and Grace's house in San Francisco. For three years they have been enamored of all things oriental: Kung Fu, acupuncture, even a name for their precocious and sassy blonde four-and-a-half-year-old daughter, China. Paul takes a serious interest in the martial arts and his strong stocky body shows it but Grace is more a dilletante. "I'm still squishy," she said, grabbing her upper arm.
The breezeway between the outside gate and the double front doors is piled with empty equipment cases and China's toys. The band had commandeered their living room for rehearsals for their October tour (their last in '75) and had set up facing the floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The house is big, sleek and wood paneled; its airy space is sparsely filled with fur-covered chairs and Middle Eastern furniture.
One day early this fall, Grace Slick was standing in her living room, facing the band, dancing and trying out harmonies off mike. She had lost 30 pounds in the last six months and was an image of the stunning woman who had transfixed audiences back in 1967.
"Losing weight is easy," she said. "You don't need a fat farm, all you do is stop eating. I'd have a quarter of a cheese sandwich for breakfast, the same for lunch and a salad for dinner, plus," she added with a glint in her eye, "all the liquor I could drink."
"Please Come Back" punched into the room with David on bass and Sears playing a guitar. Freiberg sat on the coffee table as they tried a long, out of time, rave-up ending. "Encore, encore," Grace applauded. "You turkeys got anymore songs?"
Suggestions, discussions and attempts at an ending absorbed 20 minutes and, with a gig in the park two days away, time injected tension. "I'd like to keep it simple," Barbata said, "because this band has a hard time keeping it tight."
"I disagree," Paul shot back, his cantilever chin falling to his chest. "We keep the ending of 'Ride the Tiger' tight." A few more tries and John blithely throws his sticks in the air. As a studio drummer and an expensively hired hand with CSNY, Barbata worked with some of the music business's most explosive egos and seemed genuinely amazed by the cooperation in Starship. "I haven't seen one guy say, 'Fuck you,' in an argument and I haven't seen an argument in two years. I can't believe it. It works."
Barbata is the businessman of the group, "more than any other individual and even as much, maybe more than Thompson," he said with some pride. He developed his proficient chops on 60 studio albums with the likes of Leon Russell, Eric Clapton and Dave Mason and joined the Airplane in their last days. Brash and self-confident, he pushes his perennially laid-back San Franciscan cohorts to work with at least one eye on the commercial side of the music business. The Airplane, and Bay Area bands in general, have been notorious for their lack of concern for commercial realities. For Thompson, Barbata has been a welcome ally in urging the band to back up their album releases with heavy touring and, now that the technology is acceptable to them, in considering playing larger halls. There is still much too much integrity in the band for them ever to become a hit machine milking their success for whatever it's worth, but John's influence has brought into balance their often snobbish, self-defeating slaps in the face of what for the Rolling Stones, for example, is just good business.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, David Freiberg, an old friend of Paul's from their folk days, is the essence of unperturbable and unreconciled hippiedom. Everyone's favorite, he has a grin and a dose of good humor for every occasion. "Everyone in this group is crazy in a completely different way," he said laughing. "I sit in the middle and agree with all of them so I must be crazy too."
Around five, the rehearsal ended and everyone headed home to get ready for Craig Chaquico's birthday party at the Airplane House later in the evening.
Red Octopus had just reached the top of the charts and Kantner was obviously pleased. "Who the fuck knows?" he shrugged lighting a Camel. "I don't know why we were successful the first time nor do I know why we weren't successful for a while. Relatively unsuccessful," he qualified. "I've been in awe and mystery of that from the beginning."
Paul Kantner spent most of his childhood in military and parochial schools and he described himself as always "rebellious" and "a fuckoff." In those years, he learned to mask deep emotion with willpower and a firmly set jaw. It is no wonder then that his creativity has found its home not in affairs of the heart as with Balin but in epic fantasies and stellar landscapes. "I don't write love songs too much," he said. "I sort of always feel self-conscious."
Bill Graham once called Kantner "a tenacious, obstinate, beautiful cuss." Paul shields himself from the world with noncommital answers, a laconic sense of humor and a thick cloud of high-grade marijuana. With daughter China, more than anyone else, the wall breaks down and he interacts unguardedly.
Once, in the dressing room at Winterland, China ran up to him, immersed in fantasy. "Daddy, Daddy, I make you invisible. I can't see you!"
"That's right," he replied. "I'm not here."
Are those sharper needles or am I just numb this morning?" Grace asked Ron Dong, her Kung Fu instructor and acupuncturist whom the Starship had flown from San Francisco to New York to do a series of "tuneups." She sat in an armchair in the Warwick Hotel, half-a-dozen needles protruding from her ear, and Paul sat similarly punctured on the couch next to her. Ron moved from one to the other twisting the stainless steel barbs. Neither has been to a Western doctor in three years and Grace explains the effect as "unclogging the freeways."
Grace has never discouraged her notoriety and seems truly fond of her fame, enjoying both the privilege and the nonsense. She has always attracted recognition; during her one year at Finch, she dated a boy from Princeton and was selected as Tiger Club Girl of the Month, for which she described the qualifications as being "halfway fuckable. Jesus, I wish I still had that picture. I'd release it."
One big change in the band's recent music is Grace's willingness to sing love songs instead of her often idiosyncratic paeans to cannibalism or James Joyce. Marty called it "doing the thing as opposed to your own thing." Red Octopus saw steely Grace singing not only "I love you" but also "baby."
"That used to drive me crazy," she said, "because I don't call anybody anything except their names. I don't call Paul 'lover' or 'darling'; I call him Paul. Nothing cutie-pie. I thought for about a year, 'Oh God, this is terrible. My face must be red.' But now it doesn't bother me. It's phonetics.
"I can get off on Marty's lyrics, as corny as they are, because everybody feels that corny one time or another. 'Comin' Back to Me' just ripped my brains out. I think to be sentimental, somebody has to admit to feelings just as dumb as the ones you've had. I can't verbalize them though. I can feel it but can't express it either lyrically or offhandedly. I just have to sit here and use my eyes. I look at people and think, 'I sure hope you know what I'm talking about because I can't talk.'"
And what happened to the political themes?
"Politics don't provoke many epic rock & roll songs today," Grace said. "I can't write about Gerald Ford bumping his head."
Grace has always had the adjective icy applied to her: She can be brittle with her carapace of glinting sarcasm and sharp-edged with her outspoken intolerances, but her warmth and essentially good-natured humor begin to flow once you've accepted her basic premise, that nothing is serious or sacred.
I asked if they wrote to some envisioned peer group.
"Peer group?" she snorted. "I'm too old to have a peer group. Everybody in my peer group is dead."
Acupuncture finished, Grace and Paul, rubbing their ears, went to lunch with the band and the president of RCA. Over the years, the company and the band have had their differences but, with Octopus already over a million in sales, everyone was quite chummy.
Ken Glancy, president of RCA, sat at the head of a long table. The group, all except the ever-friendly Freiberg, sat at the other end with Thompson and assorted minions in between. Obsequious waiters served chicken florentine and Château Lafite Rothschild, "an off year but a good château," according to David.
Before listening to a test pressing of their next single, "Play on Love," another Sears/Slick song, the group was given free rein in the record storage room. Balin, incredulous that they were giving him anything, kept asking, "We can take these, huh?" Assured that he could, he found around 40 albums and went downstairs and mailed them off to himself. Their postage. While everyone loaded their arms, someone popped open a bottle of Dom Perignon. Grace's eyes flashed and with full knowledge of her outrageousness, she cracked, "Jesus, you guys got the market cornered on Dom. I'm not gonna sign with anybody else."
The band owes the company one more album and with the way their stardom is growing with Octopus, RCA wants dearly to keep them on the label. Thompson is entertaining offers as high as a half-million dollars from almost all the major labels. One big question mark is that Balin refuses to sign anything. He has told the group he would work with them all next year, meaning another album and tours to support it, but other than that he claims he will not commit himself. He talks seriously about signing a solo deal with Arista, having patched up his difficulties with Davis. "Clive wants to make me a star," he said, but recent negotiations broke down when "they offered me an eight-album deal. He said he'd take three from the Starship, so I figure he'll take two from me." With no contractual agreement from him, even if he says he'll continue working with the group, the number of zeroes on any Starship deal will most certainly go down.
Many reviewers have attributed Starship's success solely to Balin. Although it's true they could never have come back with such force without him, he could never have done it on his own. Together, Balin. Slick and Kantner conjure a very special energy. Of course, money is a factor but the real truth is in the relationship, personal and creative.
It is midtour 1975 but Radio City is reminiscent of the Fillmore East six years earlier. Against the backdrop of a towering Mayan temple, Grace commands the stage, moving and posing in quick cuts like her conversation. Wearing a filmy red dress with a spider web inset into the bodice and a jagged hemline, she talks a line from "Across the Board." "Seven inches of pleasure, seven inches of pleasure coming home!" and a heavyset girl in white blouse, shapeless corduroys and crepe-soled shoes yelps and rises in her seat. Near the end, they do "White Rabbit." From the first bass notes, the audience is on its feet. Craig's slithering Latin solo introduces Grace, who slaloms in, around and through the familiar melody. She puts them away.
Onstage, Balin has none of Grace's self-possessed panache but instead offers alternately a moody Romeo and an elegant punk caught in an R&B whirlwind. On his first tour with the band, he wore work shirts and stay-pressed pants that made him look like a befuddled plumber who had wandered onto the stage. By the last tour, the pants were leather and he moved among the musicians with a sly insouciance, working hard to get both himself and the audience off. "Watch what I do," he once told me, "not what I say."
After the show, Balin slouched in his room looking drained and tired. He's a loner by choice, an odd amalgam of innocence and cynicism and rarely trustful of the world and the people around him. "I don't have any friends," he once said. "Friends stab you in the back," and later, "I can't fall in love."
Where do all the love songs come from then?
"Ideals, I guess. That's why I write them."
Bill Thompson remembered Balin from before the Airplane. "Marty would paint every day. We were always broke though and he couldn't afford canvases. But every day when I'd get home from my gig, there'd be a new painting over the one he'd done the day before."
It is the doing that gets Balin off. A Zen romantic, he is a Don Quixote for whom the act of questing is more important than the laurels at its end. His energy and concentration come in massive bursts during which he sleeps only a few hours a night and then crashes for a day at a time. "I'd like to exhaust myself." he said. "Burn myself out. I would love a band to push me off the fucking stage ... if they could, I'd like the challenge because they can't push me off the stage. I liked Jorma because he'd try to kill me up there. But he couldn't and that's fun. That's what people come to see. I like that."
He is the James Dean of rock & roll. tough because it hurts too much to be tender, taking the stand of an outlaw because. although the life span is short, the freedom is complete. He values this above all else, the option to be what he feels at the moment, an artist, a drunkard, a rock & roll star.
He's making himself a star again, not because he particularly values fame but because he knows it will give him the freedom to do what he wants. The recognition of his capabilities as an artist is important. Although resigned that Grace will always have more people calling her name outside of stage doors than he, Balin intends to even up the race. At a friend's house in Los Angeles, he said, "We were in Albuquerque and they were playing 'Miracles' every half hour and every time they'd play it, the guy'd get on and say, 'That's Grace Slick and the Jefferson Starship.'" He chuckled at the absurdity and then his eyes slightly narrowed. "I'm gonna make them eat that. I'm gonna write so many good songs that that will be the biggest joke in the world."
When Grace heard the story, she threw back her head and bellowed. "Amazing!!! Have the fuck at it, sucker, cause you sure can do it!"
The last dates of the tour were booked into San Francisco's Winterland Auditorium, a Friday and Saturday night in the beginning of November. At the end of their third tour of the year, their fatigue. was noticeable and there's something about the second to last night that always takes the wind out of their sails. This one was no exception and although the Examiner gave them an adulatory review, Thompson's assistant. Jacky Kaukonen, nailed them with hers. "four on a scale of ten."
Like the Airplane, Jefferson Starship can never be quite sure when they come onstage what will come out. They think of themselves as a new band whose elements have not yet jelled. After a particularly lifeless show in Los Angeles, one observer remarked. "This is more a cavalcade of talent than a band." It is an impression reinforced by the long bass, drum and guitar solos that punctuate the set and the changes in focus from one lead singer to another through its course.
"There's still that 'anything might happen,'" Balin admitted. "This band is based on energy and you've got to give it out every night. Some nights I don't have it. Some nights Grace doesn't. Some nights Johnnie doesn't. And one person makes it erratic. Everybody has to be on and then it will work. Everybody antes or you don't play."
Part of the problem, but also perhaps the only way the band could exist at all, is its habit of deferring constantly to individual tastes.
Starship functions much more smoothly than the Airplane ever did. Maturity and an overriding desire for the band's success has sanded down the burrs of bumptious egos. The group works without a strong creative leader. Kantner calls the songs onstage and provides a steady flow of nudging energy but backs off from defining taste. "All you've got to do is keep your guitar in tune," he said. "From there on it's subjective." Balin is again a catalyst, bringing in new ideas, urging diversification. but his creativity and interest come in bursts and cannot be counted on to offer constant pressure. Grace, although often precise about her material and her contributions to other's songs, lets the men run the group. The other members, writing music but not songs, are in no position to assume a leadership stance although all contribute to the free flow of suggestions. The result has been a slower than necessary development of a seamlessly welded band.
Just as everything pointed to an off night on Friday, everything pointed to a good one on Saturday. The guitarists had turned down and halfway through the opening number, Balin flashed an okay sign to the soundman. The first three numbers establish the power centers: first Kantner's "love song to the Oriental people"—"Ride the Tiger"—then Grace's "Somebody to Love" and then Balin's "There Will Be Love." The sold-out audience applauded when Balin walked from behind the congas he occupies himself with onstage to take the lead on the latter and he smiled at Grace at the recognition. The two sang the choruses magnificently, crooning the "ooooh babies." their voices locked in tangled intercourse.
Grace is everyone's muse and cheerleader onstage. She sings along with everyone, smiles during the solos, her eyes pulling better and better riffs out of the musicians. The flow between Craig and her is particularly obvious with Grace standing perfectly still while he courts her with his guitar. "Look Grace, no hands."
They got hotter and hotter as the night progressed. Sears took a thundering solo. Balin played Charles Boyer to Grace's arrogant aggressor, a sly seducer with a half grin lifting one corner of his mouth as he sidled up to her during the tumultuous closing number. "Sweeter than Honey." She responded by rotating her denim-clad body against his crotch, and ever playful Chaquico put his guitar between their spread legs.
They gathered after the set in the dressing room to drink Bill Graham's champagne. A week later, Graham called himself "a groupie for that weekend" and explained that it marked the tenth anniversary of the first gig the Airplane ever did for him. "Star-ship have never had the mass adulation they're getting now and it can go either way," he said. "You can become an asshole or you can stay the same. With them, they've gotten nicer."
"You're sounding really good," he told Kantner over clinking glasses. "The whole stage thing is so much better. Craig really pushes."
After a couple of bottles had made-their way around the room, Chaquico slapped Graham on the back and said with more conviction than coherency, "No wonder everybody says you're an asshole. You're really a nice guy."
Graham glared and grinned at the same time. "Listen kid," he told him, "I ate my first Hell's Angel before you were born."
After the festivities in the dressing room and some quick changes out of sweaty clothes, everyone headed upstairs for food, more champagne and many friends. Even Balin, who abhors parties, was there, joking with Trish Robbins and her band the Mirrors who had opened the show with a set of humpy rhythm & blues. Pete Sears and his wife Jeannette left early. The Englishman, uses no drugs and drinks little to keep his head clear for his hobby of acrobatic flying. Kantner carried a bottle of champagne for his personal use and no one ate the cake after someone said the Dead had sent it. David wandered around rather aimlessly, his face an unchanging silly-putty grin, and kept trying to leave. Craig huddled in a corner with a young woman and Grace sat on the steps tired and smiling at the beginning of a long, long night.
Larry Cox had already furrowed his brow for the next album as he moved unassumingly through the crowd. The strain of three hours in the remote studio, recording the show live, showed on his face as he expressed concern about "overconfidence," Barbata left about 4 a.m. with a bottle and two women in tow.
So a year of work ended. Two weeks later, Red Octopus moved for the fourth time into the Number One position on the Billboard album charts. This time knocking off Elton John.
Who would have believed it? Marty Balin would. "Ya know, I put the Airplane together to be the biggest group in the country and we did it. Now, we're going to do it again with Starship and that's something." A cagey smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. "Not many people get the chance to do it twice."