Jefferson Airplane Grunts: 'Gotta Evolution' - Rolling Stone
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Jefferson Airplane Grunts: ‘Gotta Evolution’

The original psych-rockers chat about their new record label and latest album, ‘Bark’

Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane circa 1970.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

For Jefferson Airplane, here in the fall of 1971, six years and a month since that first gig at the Matrix, it’s like the title of the new Hedge & Donna album: Revolution, with a black-felt “X” over the “R.” But in two thin strokes, so that the original whole word is clear — if not more obvious for the masking job.

Manager Bill Thompson is talking evolution, here in the second-floor office of the Jefferson Airplane mansion, about the only room in the house that’s the same, since Grunt Records came into existence — and into 2400 Fulton — to help push Airplane members into yet another era. It is big business now, with Grunt Records — and even a sub-label being thought around, to be called Snort — and a roster of artists headed by Jefferson Airplane and Airplane members as so-called “solo artists” and a lot of ideas on revolutionizing the record industry. And if you can get all six of them together for a group shot these days, you still see a lot of strength, muscle to back up the ideas. Viking-browed Jorma and mum’s-the-mouth Casady — Hot Tuna! Grace and Paul and a Sumo-kicker of a baby girl now named China. Fiddling Papa John Creach, black, bent over and spryer than ever with even an album of his own now cutting. Surfer boy drummer Joey, who still doesn’t seem to fit, yet brought Papa John into the scene and turned a Santana-Tuna jam into one of the most-played tracks on Bark, the new Airplane album, “Pretty As You Feel,” sounding so pretty you’d think Marty Balin was still around.

“August 13th, 1965,” muses Bill Thompson, stroking at his Buffalo Bill-whiskers and flashbacking through his round, wine-tinted glasses. “They had a stand-up bass. It was all acoustic except for Jorma, who had a small amp. Then Paul got a bigger amp, then Jorma got a bigger one than that. Then Paul got a bigger one than that. And then Jack came into the group, and he had two amps …”

Thompson was 24 then, veteran of three years at the San Francisco Chronicle as a copy boy, and he was living with Marty out in the fog (called Sunset) district, on 16th Avenue. “Marty was always an incredible dreamer, ‘I’m gonna start this group,’ he said. ‘It’ll be — five guys and one chick, we’ll do folk music and have electric instruments with it — and we’ll call it folk-rock.'”

From the beginning, the copy boy was the hustler. Even before the Airplane had opened at the Matrix, Thompson got a story into the Sunday Chronicle — by John Wasserman, then second in line behind Ralph J. Gleason — complete with a photo of Balin. Then, “I got Ralph to go down and hear them, and he did a review, a fantastic story. … Then we got mentions in Herb Caen [the most popular gossipist in town], the sports page and the society page. The society editor Frances Moffat knew Grace — Grace was married in Grace Cathedral, did you know that? — and the Airplane played a fol de rol — a society thing MC’d by Danny Thomas. They booed us, but the Chronicle did a big story.”

Thompson soon enough quit the paper to join the band. “They’d just fired their first manager, and they wanted me to talk to the straight press.” Bill did promotion work at an ad agency before the Chronicle. “I’d go to the airport and get their tickets, and the guys and Grace would be carrying their own guitars and stuff.” And between his “Jefferson Airplane Loves You” bumper strips and the group’s breakthrough appearances at the Monterey Jazz and Berkeley Folk festivals, the dream came true. Marty designing one of the first ballroom posters; the Airplane being the first out of the pack with a big record contract, the first to run their own national tour, the first to say this and that on their records, and now the first San Francisco group to have their own major independent record label, backed by a lot of money from RCA and a lot of energy and muscle — the group shot, flex-flex.

Now Bill Thompson, former roadie, is Head of Business Affairs for the new dream machine. And Marty Balin, the founder, is gone. And Signe Toly Anderson, their first chick singer, is in Oregon with her baby. And Grace Slick is a mother for the first time, living with father Paul and seven-month-old China in Marin County by the ocean, in a house with a studio in the basement for Kantner and Slick’s solo and duet grunts, with a swimming pool whose redwood perimeter will take another six months to polish, lay down and finish; with a geodesic dome for meditation and vocals; with Japanese GBC Mini TV cameras watching the crib and the garage; with a beaming living room where Paul — who’s off coke now, by the way — is reworking the dividing wall between the front area and the house proper, and … tear down what wall? Mother-what?

Bill Thompson is talking about how the Airplane and San Francisco have affected music and the business, and it’s difficult, of course, to just sum it all up in one sentence. But, he tries, “Since the Beatles, people started listening to the music, and there are people all over the world whose consciousness is changing. And you keep learning. For one thing, you learn that you can’t change people by beating them over the head, or bombing, or whatever. That’s the old style of revolution. You try it, it fails, you move on to something else.”

Up against the wa-all, muther-FUC-ker …

“For a while, I thought that was the way …” Thompson tries to fish back a little farther, for an analogy. “Like in Animal Farm … wasn’t it … when the pigs took over the farm … and after a while you couldn’t tell the difference between how the pigs ran it and the old rulers.”

 Couple of weeks ago, Public Broadcast Service reran the Airplane/Dead/Santana night at the Family Dog on the Great Highway, one of two TV specials on San Francisco rock. The other, also featuring the Airplane, was called Go Ride the Music.

“Well, music,” says Thompson. “Music’s still the thing …”

“The revolution has been won in a lot of aspects,” says Paul, propped up on his bed, his back to the ocean. “It’s still on the balance on a lot of things, and you can’t tell which way it’s gonna go. But a lot of things have been achieved which have been gone after.”

It’s not that the Airplane have ever been that clear. Balin, who urged that walls be used to back motherfuckers up against, also sang, “Go ride the music.” In the new album, Bark, while Paul continues his wishful singing into the universal Netherlands, Grace is warding off the pigs she’s spotted through her GBC: “Lawman — I’m afraid you just walked in here at the wrong time/my old man’s gun has never been fired but there’s a first time …” But where the Airplane have always been gray, their image, for a lot of people, has been hard jet black. Friend of Abbie Hoffman; acid queen at Tricia’s tea party; gotta revolution. “Well,” says Kantner, who chalks up “civil rights” and, after a thoughtful pause, “the war protest thing” as battles won, “I line myself up more with George Jackson (the Soledad Brother slain in San Quentin) than the other side. But it’s not down to that black and white level. America itself is down to a quadro-schizo mood, and it’s just hard to predict what’s going on.” There are still copies of the latest Berkeley underground papers among the heaps here, along with the erotic art books, the Whole Earth Catalog, and, of course, Dr. Spock.

* * *

Jorma Kaukonen, he of the mumps-browed Heston features, tank-top shirts and Aztec jewelry, has his mind akimbo, looking forward mainly to Hot Tuna’s third album of blue funk. It’ll be recorded at the end of their October tour, probably at the Chateau, a small club in the Santa Cruz Mountains where the Tuna’s latest, on RCA, was recorded, and where he’s comfortable. “I’ve known it three years; it’s out there in the forest, in the redwood trees.” Or maybe it’ll be recorded in a restaurant-club in Bodega, also good tuna territory. “The gigs tend to be a lot more friendly in those kinds of places — because they’re not so big.”

Hot Tuna was born out of the yawning gaps in the Airplane schedule. This doesn’t tell the exact story, but in the liners for The Worst of Jefferson Airplane, you see where there were five months between Crown of Creation and Bless Its Pointed Little Head (the live album). Then nine months before Volunteers, released in November 1969. In 1970, nothing except the collection of the worst. Well, shit. Jorma Kaukonen plays every night. And Jack Casady plays even more than that! So lead guitar and bass began playing — under their own simple names, in the first configuration of Hot Tuna — at the Matrix. Then, when it got to be time for some serious recording, they were at the New Orleans House in Berkeley. Now, it’s Jack and Jorma and, behind them, Papa John on elastic violin and Sammy Piazza on drums. Piazza, from Waco, Texas, met the Tuna at a gig in San Diego, they jammed, and, as Kaukonen is wont to say whenever he’s dealing with history, “One thing led to another.” So it was that Spencer Dryden and Joey Covington had their stays, and Marty sang with them at one point, and Jorma’s brother Peter was part of it at one time, and Will Scarlett, a sort of mysterious harp player who toted a self-built vari-scaled harmonica around the local folk scene, was in and out.

“I’d been thinking about a Hot Tuna thing for a long time,” said Jorma. “There’s a kind of music I had in mind, and the Airplane just didn’t play that music. And Jack and I — we’ve listened to it for a long time. We’d be in a hotel room with nothing to do and I’d teach him the stuff I knew.” Jack and Jorma, way before Marty started dreaming, played together, in Washington D.C., in a high school band called the Triumphs, Jorma on rhythm and vocals, Casady on lead guitar. “We did Ricky Nelson hits. And I’d have to use Jack’s Wollensak tape recorder as an amp, with the microphone tucked under my belt next to the guitar. And the bass man didn’t have a bass, so he’d just deaden all the strings of a Gretsch guitar …”

But before that, Jorma didn’t play no rock & roll. His music came from “spade radio stations” and his own records, Muddy Waters and Little Walter and Jimmy Reed. That’s what he taught Casady on the road with the Airplane. And before the blues, there was overseas travel, as a preteen, with his father, director of the Asia Foundation, and Jorma heard Asian woodwinds, and sitars and other strings in Pakistan and Borneo, and that, too, stays with him. “Now and then I’ll hear an odd record — a foreign thing — and I’ll adapt it into a couple of passages. Like the folk music of South India, or a Japanese Koto record. If I hear a lick I like, I’ll play it in every song for a week. I like to steal licks.”

At the moment, Kaukonen is among the help on Papa John’s album, and, eventually, there’ll be a Jorma album. “I want to do a completely acoustic record. Do one side of things that lend themselves to that treatment, and then I’ve got a friend, Tom Hobson, who might do the other side, just do what he wants.” But Hot Tuna is the thing, and here’s where a wing takes off on its own pattern. “We’ll probably tour much more than the Airplane,” says Jorma. “I’m more motivated in that direction, where Paul and Grace sort of like to hang out.” Also, where Kantner’s ceiling is a sky-wide constellation, and his eyes are “sun finders,” and his ears are 16-tracked, Jorma likes to play in little bars. If not that, then his living room. “I’m almost kind of afraid to get hung up in the mechanics and expenses of big studios,” he says. “I like to sit on the floor in my living room and push little buttons. The room’s 40 feet long and the acoustic sound is real good. I think the acoustic album will be cut in my living room.” And it’s a short ride, by Harley, to the midtown studios from his home in the St. Francis Woods part of town. “I don’t mind going down to the studio to do that.” Which makes it sound like he’s only doing sessions with the Airplane.

“I’m a little more involved with Hot Tuna — technically it’s more demanding — and more fun. In performing and playing in the Airplane, everybody’s on more or less the same footing, but the stuff I do and write — it’s not really the stuff the Airplane does. For the Tuna things, we’re all down there in the studio; for Jefferson Airplane, if it’s something like you’re really involved with — like your song — it’s a different story. If it’s not, you’re not producing.” Thompson concurred: “Whoever’s tune it is, he’s the leader of the group that night.” Or Kantner, talking about Joey Covington’s self-portrait a capella “Thunk” in the new album: “I pushed to have it in. A lot of people thought it was too bizarre. Well, I don’t understand it, either, but I don’t care. It’s his … I mean, if everybody had to like everything in this group, we’d put out one LP every two years — with one song on it.”

* * *

“Sometimes,” Jorma says, “I think I have more privacy at my home here in the city than Paul and Grace do, out there on the beach.”

Let’s see, last week it was the Grace Slick Death Rumor, with issit-trues flying from Anonymous Caller to UPI to radio stations and back and forth, almost to the point of sending disc jockeys scurrying into record libraries to fish out “White Rabbit.” (“Which song would you want them to play when you die?” I asked. “Scabs Are Forming,” said Grace.) Couple weeks before that, it was another round of Grace Splits, this one having her on a solo tour. Grace helped a lot, of course, by crashing her Mercedes into a bank at the Golden Gate Bridge and winding up with three concussions and a still-hurt right side of the mouth. And she is doing a solo album, but aren’t they all?

Despite it all, Grace and Paul have shifted gears, out past the country and not quite yet on that starship — but there is that wood and glass dome in the yard, a definite improvement over the first model Paul had atop 2400 Fulton. “Then a big spectacular windstorm just blew it off the roof,” geodetically wiping out a car on the way back to Earth. And Paul’s writing about the beach and babies now — “There’s a song called “Sun Fighter” in our next album (Grace and Paul’s), all about all the shit that’s gone down on the beach, the oil spill and everything.” Still, he continues to think about and receive information on his starship. He flashes a copy of a NASA Technical Report — rubber-stamped “Classified” on every page — entitled “Relativistic Models of the Universe With Pressure Equal to Zero and Time-Dependent Uniformity.”

Kantner reads and laps up the introduction at the same time. Mr. Wizard as a boy, in front of his first Erector set. And if none of it flies, well, “‘War Movie’ is the alternative future to the starship.” “War Movie” being Kantner’s song of evolving optimism, set in 1975, “at the Battle of Forever Plains/all my people hand in hand in hand in the rain/the laser way won the day/without one single living soul going down/the government troops were circled in the sun gun found themselves on the run/… from our nation/the rock is raised no need to hide/from the other side now … transformation.”

Paul Kantner, father and head of a household — not just a third floor room at the Airplane mansion, as it was before their move last Thanksgiving — is, if you’ll pardon the expression, mellow. His house is no palace, but there’s land to roam, room for a studio in the basement, and, most important, the ocean as a backyard, and it’s almost worth the $100,000. Especially since RCA paid for it. “This just came at the time we were negotiating, and they’d break for anything to get us to sign again. So I got them to get the house for me. But it’s really worth it to them, for me to have the studio here. That saves thousands of hours at a $100 an hour.” Besides, Kantner’s own album is nearing gold-record status, and he can ask for little gifts.

So Paul is happy, padding around his new pool while Grace swings China back and forth, suspended off the high green beam inside. Grace is back to thin; trim, to be nice about it, cheeks healthy, the mouth not bothersome at all, smartass sense of humor intact, and a new Mercedes in the garage … why, she even wrote a song about it all in Bark: “Never Argue with a German if You’re Tired or European Song.” On the lyric sheet, it looks like a lark, the German spelled out phonetically (Sticken in mine haken/sticken in mine haut/fugen mine gas mit mine auss pucken), but Grace explains: “I didn’t know any German, so I got all the lyrics from different people in the street. If I heard someone talking German, I’d go up and say ‘Hey, can you help me, I’m writing this song, and I need to know how to say this in German. ‘”

What she said was “Stitches in my crotch (‘That’s about the baby’)/Stitches in my face/mixing my spit with my gas/Don’t argue with a German. My automobile goes real fast/but it drives into walls …”

In the crash on the 13th of May, Grace suffered “Three concussions. I must have fallen asleep, because I can’t remember going into the bank — you know, that moment when you think, ‘Aggh, I’m gonna crash!'” The big Mercedes was destroyed, and she spent a week in the hospital. Now, she lets Paul drive them into town, but she’s suffering no after-scares. “I like cars. You drive a car like you ride a horse, it’s the thing of being able to feel it. But I don’t have the time to feed a horse, and you can run a car into a wall and just get another one.”  

Her major joy, of course, is China. (Renamed that from her original, certified name, which is ‘god,’ by Paul. “It was just out of the blue,” said Grace. And there’s no connection either to the country or to Abbie and Anita Hoffman’s baby, “America.”)

“Babies are really interesting to watch,” says Grace. “They’re new people. You can watch phenomena happening through them, because they have no preconceptions. Like when she was down in the studio and she heard a high-pitch noise, she looked up. I’d never heard of that before. High-pitched sounds apparently make a person think it’s coming from the ceiling.

“And they watch commercials. A TV commercial just sucks them in. The sound level is up over the other programming, and babies respond to it.”

China has her own room, sizable and airy, very Victorian with fading pink floral patterns on the wall, a little brass bed, with the remote TV camera sitting in a field of towels and caps in a rattan cabinet. For Kantner and Slick, the TV is no extravagance. Downstairs in their studio, they’re not going to hear their baby cry, and this is the way to keep in touch.

Other TV sets litter the rest of the house, along with piles of books and magazines, tapes, plenty of guitars, the acoustics upstairs near the bed; the electrics in a rack in the studio, along with the grand piano and the electric Hammond, the Altec speakers and the Ampex tape machines (wide-band and quarter-inch), and the make-do Fairchild 8-track.

Despite the electronics, it’s a soft enough house, with plenty of your Design Research rugs scattered over the straw floor mat. And, of course, there’s that dome, designed by Roy Buckman, a furniture-making friend of the family’s who built the torture rack for the Airplane house and is now doing the boardwalk around the pool.

It’s a beautiful dome, triangular wood doors and glass windows where Buckman and Kantner saw fit; a reflector of the ocean, and, on its platform, a starship at first glance.

“It’s an Indian thing,” Kantner explains. “They said that square areas were bad for man. The thing is, 90-degree angles are one of the only things constructed by man.” Kantner stretches out his right hand to represent a wall, his left index finger to be a person. “It cuts the flow as you go along the wall and hit a corner. All the Indians’ things were circular. It’s not really explainable, but you feel pleasant inside a dome. It’s like cocaine. It’s mildly euphoric — but you can’t define it.”

Grace offers: “It’s a drugless way of positioning yourself where you feel the best.”

And Paul volunteers: “I’m off cocaine. It doesn’t taste good anymore. I had so much, it got to the point where you couldn’t breathe.” And the cost? Shrug. “Not noticeable. The group paid for it. It was a business expense.”

And Grace? “After the accident, my doctor told me to stay off heavy drugs. And I had half a bottle of wine — I can usually take two bottles and be OK — and my feet came up from under me. So, yeah, he was right. But,” smile, “I do now.” What kind? “Oh, I still like coke, but each individual person has to find whatever chemistry they’re made up of. No two people can take the same amount of the same kind of drug.”

And whatever did happen to that old dope song, “White Rabbit”? We take you now to the bathroom. And there it is, 45 RPM gold — under the toilet seat lid. “It’s just something for the boys to look at when they take a leak,” says Grace. “It fits.”

* * *

Forty minutes later, down the wavy road from Stinson Beach past Sausalito, through the Golden Gate Bridge, and back at their old house, new company headquarters, Bill Thompson is interrupted by a Grunt staffer telegraphing the word that Bark looks to be a chartbuster, Number 30 next week in Record World. And RCA’s sending out a press release that it’s already certified gold, RIAA, and hey, has anything really changed?

The answer is yes. Grunt Records is the Airplane’s own label, and RCA’s role is manufacturer and distributor. Before, it was all RCA, with the Airplane signed to a contract and seemingly locked in mortal combat. “RCA even a year ago we didn’t even consider,” says Thompson. “We didn’t feel they had the distribution, and they sucked in a lot of ways. But they’ve made a lot of changes. On The Worst album they printed up 150,000 copies. Of course, it ran out immediately, and people would go into stores and there wouldn’t be any around. Well, since then they’ve added some heavyweight cats.”

In fact, that’s why this time around there’s talk about gold records a week into the stores. “The RCA sales force got enough pre-orders for it to be gold.

“Another thing, in England and Europe, I know the Airplane is a large group, but the record sales never indicated it. Recently RCA had eight of the Top 25 singles in Europe. They’re starting to kick ass there, too.”

Simply, Thompson said, “RCA, among all the companies we talked to, was the only one that realized what Grunt wanted to do, and how we could help RCA and help turn RCA around.”

And even more simply: “They’re paying the money now,” along with the promise of total autonomy and freedom.

Grunt Records, at this point, is the Airplane, Hot Tuna, Kantner and Slick as soloists and a team, and Papa John (his album, now in progress, with jazz men, a brass section, a swing-guitar player and the rest of Hot Tuna all chiming in, will “cover all music,” he says, “from all times and all places,” beginning with “St. Louis Blues.”) Also on the record will be Mike Lipskin, Grunt’s production/engineering man, who plays piano (he’s Willie “the Lion” Smith’s protégé), and Jack Bonus on sax and flute. Bonus also sings, and he’ll be a Grunt artist, produced by Lipskin and his roommate, Marty Balin. “Marty will still be working with us,” said Thompson. “It’s his choice,” said Kantner. “He can produce records … maybe come back to the Airplane later, or do an album of his own if he gets a band together.”

“Marty just got tired of recording and playing live,” said Thompson. Balin had three tunes that were going to be in Bark, “but it came to a point where the group didn’t know if he was going to be with them anymore, and they didn’t want to have material on the album that they couldn’t do on the tours.”

Balin has said he’s producing a new Bay Area group called Grootna, but Thompson said Grootna definitely will not be on Grunt. Why not? “No comment. It’d be too negative to have it put into print.”

Marty himself is in New York, Thompson said, “working on a script for a book or something,” and Balin has generally avoided comment on his own evolution and dissolution, from founder and lead singer to just a crew member, when Grace joined and became the focal point with the songs she’d bought over from Great Society, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” Attacked early on by the New York rock press — what there was of it back in ’67 — for his love songs in Surrealistic Pillow, he shrunk fast, to the point where he wrote only half a song — the lyrics for “Volunteers” — on that album. His solemn face also faded behind a full beard and hair that gave him an unmistakably Charlie Mansonic phiz on stage.

“Well,” says Thompson, saying all he can say that can be put into print, “we hope he’ll help on the Papa John album, and he told me he’ll write some things for the Jefferson Airplane. And if he so decides, he’ll be an artist on Grunt. Man, he’s still part of the Airplane in a way, even though he’s not in the group. He’s certainly part of the consciousness.”

Others lined up with Grunt now are Peter Kaukonen, a musician in his own right who’s graduated from his last group, Black Kangaroo, and the re-formed Ace of Cups, once an all-women band, now eight pieces, three of them men.

For weirdness, there’s another Covington discovery, a “little band,” Grace reported, consisting of “a 10-year-old white kid on guitar, a 12-year-old fat black drummer, and a Chicano bass player around 10 or 13.” Then there’s a group based in Bolinas, back out in Marin County, called One, led by a guy named “Reality” who, again Grace reporting, “plays sounds through his mouth. Like a one-hand horn section.” One is also eight pieces, with three or four bands within the band capable of everything from Arabic to jazz music. One, in turn, are sometimes backed by Circ d’Sol, a troupe of some 14 people who juggle, swallow swords, and do other magic.

Those are the Grunt acts. Thompson tells what Grunt offers them that’s so different from all the other record companies: “A very high royalty rate — all the artists on Grunt get the same. We’ll try and help them get their own publishing. They have total artistic freedom.” Which means nothing if there’s not enough time or money. Grunt hopes to build — or have nice new RCA build for them — a studio; meantime, “they get a very high amount of studio time, and a guarantee of a much higher amount of promotional money than the Airplane ever got,” with how it’s used left up to the recipients.

“This can be one of the biggest things in the record industry,” says Thompson. “If we’re successful, other companies will have to give artists more freedom. The artist has been fucked too long.” Grunt, he said, will try not to bust its own seams. “I don’t know how many groups we can have, maybe up to 20 or 25 in three or four years.”

Thompson, the hustler, is getting to know the business, raw as you still are after only five or six years. He looks at the Rolling Stones label: “The Stones aren’t doing it the way they could. Atlantic Records just gave them a label, and Atlantic promotes and does everything. It’s good for the Stones, but what about new artists they might have?” Locally, Bill Graham has two labels, Fillmore and San Francisco. “But they got no guarantees from Atlantic and Columbia; neither one has spent any money, so what do you have?”

Back on the beach, Kantner watches Grace bounce China around like a lumpy pillow. The man’s going dreamy again. “This is OK — for now. I mean, I’d like 10,000 acres of redwoods plus an ocean. Or a spaceship in a wide-open universe. That’d be interesting for a while.”

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