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Jefferson Airplane Today

RS hangs out with the band at home and in the studio as they record ‘Volunteers’

The Jefferson Airplane

Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane in 1969.

Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Paul Kantner, Spence Dryden, and Bill Thompson are in the lounge at Wally Heider’s new studios in San Francisco. A few feet away, on the other side of a heavy door and an air closet, Jorma Kaukonen is adding another track onto a tune for the next Jefferson Airplane album. Marty Balin and Grace Slick are there to watch and listen.

Thompson, the Airplane’s manager, is trying to generate some ideas for an album title. So far, he says, there’s “Marbles,” which would go well with a color shot of “this shitty, ugly old Indian Peyote blanket that’s wrapped around a board, with marbles glued on it forming a face.” And there’s “A Flag for Your Window,” which would go with a black and white photo of a downer kind of scene. It’s a guy holding a newspaper on which is printed a full page size U.S. “flag for your window” (on national holidays, the San Francisco Examiner does that kind of a thing). Nearby is this old man wearing a ship-shaped hat made out of a sheet of newspaper. On his brim, the headline reads: “Eisenhower Is Dead.”

“Yeah, well, I don’t know,” Kantner is saying, leaning back over the end of the sofa against the wall. “I think we oughta call it Squat on My Grunt.”

And Spence, thinner, darker, and hairier than ever, with a full black moustache ending where his sideburns pick up, is the first to stop chuckling. “Man, I really thing we should call it 2400 Fulton. You know, put a bunch of derelicts and freaks on the porch and put that on the album. That’s where its all gone down this year.” The salute-to-our-home-stead, After Bathing at Baxters riff.

The door opens, and Grace’s head pops out. She steps into full view, her right hand holding the heavy door ajar. She nods at Thompson with a short, perfunctory smile. “The doctor will see you next, sir.” She disappears.

And this is pretty much where the Airplane are at today. They’ve finished their sixth album now, and they’re into their fourth year as a musical unit. But despite the years and the trips and the successes and the madness, they’re pretty much the same old Airplane.

Grace Slick is still around, now a two-year veteran of rumors having her leave the group, and she’s as outrageous as ever. Just a couple of weeks back, she strolled into the elegant showroom of British Motor Cars, dressed in a loose silk ensemble and sandals, her befogged hair looking like a ball of sea weed held down by a headband. She joined a small gathering at a corner of the room, where a 1969 Aston Martin, tagged at $18,000, was resting in shiny blue splendor. “WOW, what’s that?” she cried. She was told, in a dismissing, who-are-you? tone, that it was an Aston, equipped with an automatic shift, just in. “FAR OUT!” she screamed. “That’s just what I want. I’ll take it!” And she did, paying for the machine in cash.

The rest of the Airplane is just as free-form and unpredictable, as always they’ve been. An album title, uppermost in most recording rock groups’ priority lists, will come, with time and little prompting, to the Airplane. (As it is, the strongest contender for the next LP’s title is Volunteers of America, with the cover art a photo collage put together by Grace and Kantner. The “Flag for Your Window” photo will probably be included in the montage.)

Unpredictable. Grace and Paul doing album cover art when it’s always been Dryden the hottest to do a cover; Grace and Paul, when Marty’s supposedly the most polished and proficient artist among the six.

The album’s taken the most time this past half-year; seven full weeks at Wally Heider’s new 16-track studies in San Francisco, plus a couple of weeks of mastering at the RCA studios in Los Angeles. But there’s also been an on-going legal battle with ex-manager Matthew Katz; a hectic concert swing in the southern and eastern reaches of the country, where Thompson and bassist Jack Casady were busted for being in a room where two joints were found; another bust while filming a segment for Jean-LucGodard; an irritating series of on-stage tangles with authorities, and the slow re-establishment of Jefferson Airplane as a native San Francisco group. All of these events have served, Thompson says, to bind the band closer together than ever.

The first thing to consider, then, is the band’s collective denial of persistent break-up rumors. Grace Slick was said to be going to Elektra as a solo artist, with drummer Spence Dryden going with her as her producer. That rumor sprouted up from —– of all places –— the Airplane’s own label, RCA Victor. But the rumors were quickly riddled with a fusillade of “no comments” from Grace, from Thompson, from Elektra’s president Jac Holzman, and from Elektra’s West Coast director, David Anderle. “She likes us and we like her,” Anderle allowed, “and I hope it happens, but there’s nothing definite, nothing to announce.”

Too, when Grace and Spence took ill last year, Kaukonen and Casady —– the itchiest-fingered members of the band —– took off and started jamming together, appearing at small local clubs simply as “Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady.” They’ve put together an LP of their own —– made up mostly of instrumental blues and jazz numbers, a lot of the music improvisational. But, again, no sign from either Kaukonen or Casady that their act is anything more than an avocation within a vocation.

Today, Dryden and Kantner live at the grand mansion at 2400 Fulton; Grace has a house in Sausalito; Marty rents a house in Mill Valley; Casady and a pet owl live in San Francisco, and Kaukonen has a home of his own, also in San Francisco.

The band gets together for practice in a fully-equipped carpeted studio in the basement of 2400. Four large overhead speakers hang in one area of the dark but airy room, near a small electronics workshop. In a nearby corner is a four-track tape recorder, while all over the floor are strewn miscellaneous guitars, drums, chairs, and, here and there, leftover copies of Airplane souvenir program booklets.

Against one wall is a blackboard where lyrics and chord structures of tunes-in-progress are neatly written. “Revolution,” a Balin composition that features some of the best harmonizing the Airplane’s ever done, is on the board. It’ll probably compete with “The Farm,” a stompy new addition to the band’s concert repertoire, to be the Airplane’s next single. You can sing along:

“Up against the wall

Up against the wall, motherfuckers

Tear down the walls

Tear down the walls [4 bars guitar]

We can be together…”

Upstairs, on the main floor, is where the more majestic aspects of 2400 Fulton Street are evident. This is the house Tiffany built, back around 1904; this is the house Enrico Caruso is said to have stayed at after the great earthquake and fire; this is the replacement for Baxter’s, the $5000-a-month pink Beverly Hills mansion the Airplane partied at while attempting to cut their third LP, at the height of their commercial success in 1967.

In some ways, 2400 Fulton, bought a year ago from a rich 93-year-old rancher, is a worthy-enough heir. There’s a wooden, one-passenger elevator that —– if repaired —– could tow people between the first and second floors. On the first floor stairway landing is a pastoral stained-glass window in muted greens and browns. Just how nice a piece of glass it is might be indicated by the fact that the Airplane were offered $10,000 for it by a previous owner of the house.

Fixtures of the house notwithstanding, the Jefferson Airplane have impressed the mansion with its own brand of living. The visitor is greeted first by a room filled with ping-pong table. Next in sight, the dining room –— larger and more lavish —– is occupied by a billiard table. A big cardboard box for Mishka, one of the ten cats at the mansion, dominates the kitchen area, along with a huge steel refrigerator. Then, past a toy submachine gun and a real videotape recorder, onto the second floor, you reach the official Airplane business offices. Hallway walls are bare (by hip/house standards) except for Beatle posters and an old Coke ad. The third floor is mostly living quarters –— for Kantner, for Grace, when she stays overnight, and for a couple of friends of the band’s. Spence’s quarters are on the second floor, his door marked “House of Bishops Committee Room; Bishops Only; Keep the Fuck Out.”

That, as Dryden put it, is where it’s all gone down this past year for the Airplane.

The new album is due out by the end of July. Where previous recording sessions have been emotionally and psychically exhaustive affairs for the band (“Man, we’re the worst people ever in a recording studio,” Balin said during the Bathing at Baxter’s sessions), the Heider sessions were almost breezy. “We just know more about studios now,” Kantner said. Again, producer was Al Schmidt; engineer, his brother Rich.

“This is the first studio album we’ve recorded in San Francisco,” producer Schmidt said. “They wanted to do one up here just because it was such a drag being away from home.”

At home in the comfortable, dimly-lit Heider studios, Kaukonen stood behind the engineers, adding another guitar track onto “Eskimo Blue Day.” Seated in front of the board, looking into the main studios, Balin and Grace direct Casady as his fuzz bass whines out harmony lines.

Cuts for the album include two Grace Slick compositions, “Eskimo Blue Day” and “Hey Frederick”; a pair by Jorma Kaukonen, “Together” and “Good Shepherd,” Balin’s. “Revolution,” and two tunes on which Kantner collaborated. One, written with Airplane art director Gary Blackman, is “The Farm,” on which Jerry Garcia plays pedal steel guitar. The other is “Wooden Ships,” which Steve Stills, David Crosby, and Kantner composed (no official credit is given Kantner, however, because his involvement in the Airplane lawsuit would have tied up royalties). The album, at this point a solid 45 to 50 minutes of music, also continue “Spence’s City Song” and “J.P.P. McStep Blues” by Dryden.

It’s a beautiful Airplane album, with the Balin-Slick punctuation (Ye-ah!) between verses more joyful than painful; and for those who thought the Airplane sound too full to add onto, there’s Garcia on his countrified Hawaiian guitar on one track and pianist Nicky Hopkins pounding out piano tracks on several other cuts.

Kantner, typifying the Airplane’s in-public feelings toward their company, doesn’t think there’s any material in the package commercial enough to put out as a single. “We just haven’t come up with anything,” he said, “and we don’t pay attention to RCA anymore anyway. They can release whatever they want to.”

But the album, with the communal flavor of composing contributions from five of the six Airplane; with great lyrics ranging from romance to revolution; and with the tasty ornamentations of Hopkins and Garcia, is bound to make RCA – in spite of the Airplane – happy.

But, again, the album is but one phase of the Jefferson Airplane’s movie. A summer of rest, dotted by a few festival dates, is expected to crash to a halt by early fall. Tours to Alaska, to the Soviet Union, and to the Far East are all in serious talking stages, according to manager Thompson.

Also in the works is a film on the Airplane being shot by Grace’s husband Jerry. “What it is,” Kantner says, “is we’re putting out a film on ourselves for a feature or for TV. Grace’s husband is shooting it and Glenn McKay is putting it together. It’ll be like ‘A Day in the Life Of,’ you know –— centered around our house and dealing with the six of us and what we think. It’ll have us playing out at Speedway and doing free things in Chicago, and stuff at Winter-land. “The only thing special about it, it’ll be up to us to put the thing out, and it’ll be done when it’s right. No deadlines and hassles with producers and stuff.”

Free concerts have become —– along with an outrageously wide variety of busts and near-busts –— a thing with the Airplane. Almost as soon as they settled back into San Francisco, they started showing up at Golden Gate Park for free sessions. They played a People’s Park benefit at Winterland and helped Bill Graham net some $17,000 for the Berkeley street people. They joined the Grateful Dead for a weekend at Winter-land; then, last week, they shared the bill with the original Charlatans for another old-timers’ get-together, at the opening of the beachsite Family Dog on the Great Highway.

On the road, they’ve tried to squeeze in a free show for almost every paid concert they do. “It’s just a thing,” Balin says. “We just decide it’d be groovy and wouldn’t hurt the promoters any, so we do it.” In Chicago, the Airplane played Grant Park, site of the worst of the slaughtering at the Democratic Convention last August. This time some 50,000 persons assambled, without incident, to hear Grace sing and tell them to “buy acid with the five dollars you would have had to spend for this concert.”

The Jefferson Airplane, while successful as the unchallenged standard-bearer of the San Francisco rock scene, has been less fortunate on the legal front. In a hotel room in New Orleans, Casady and Thompson were busted on the cannabis charge. Earlier, in New York, the group were being filmed by Godard atop the Pennebaker Studios doing a couple of numbers. Sure enough, cops ascended the edifice and busted the group for playing without a permit. Godard, of course, has included the sequence in his An American Movie –— with soundtrack by the Airplane.

In both Miami –— part of the band’s spring tour into the southeast –— and in Santa Clara, scene of the Northern California Folk Rock Festival –— the Airplane had the power disconnected from under them, supposedly for overstaying property owners’ invitations. Shades of the Bakersfield, California “inciting to riot” troubles of late 1967.

And, at home again, the six members of the group have been spending a lot of time trooping down to the courthouse in San Francisco’s Civic Center, testifying in the massive lawsuit thrown at them by their ex-manager. Between court sessions, they’ve been taking turns jetting down to LA to help master the album tapes.

Still, the Airplane –— from all appearances —– seem to be feeling no pain.

Jack Casady, looking like a long-haired Don Knotts behind tinted glasses, walks into the studio with an attache case at his side, joining Kantner, Dryden, Dryden’s chick, and Thompson.

For the past few minutes, Dryden, pouting, has been trying to convince Thompson that the LP should be a double-LP set. “This LP is the best one yet, man and we shouldn’t rush it.” Yeah, Thompson had soothed, but RCA’s rushing it and they’re paying the bills.

“Man,” Casady says, oblivious to the previous discussion. And he proceeds to spin off a monologue about the L.A. smog, about his super-powerful bass amp, for which “a guy called Owsley” is inventing a new kind of battery, about his new Mini-Cooper –— “it really gets it on”; about Stranger in a Strange Land; now about how he’s going to “paint my car bizarre.”

The door opens. Grace shows half her body, looks around. “Ah yes, Mr. Casady,” she says, spying Casady cross-legged on the floor. “The doctor will be with you in a moment.” She disappears again.

In This Article: Coverwall

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