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Jefferson Starship: Strange Times at the Launching Pad

Can Marty do it on the road and will Grace get fueled again

Jefferson StarshipJefferson Starship

Jefferson Starship in 1978

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CYNTHIA BOWMAN is sitting in her office on the second floor of the three-story mansion still known as the “Airplane House,” now home of the Jefferson Starship. “I used to take LSD right over there,” she says, pointing across the street at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, “and come out right there so I could see the Airplane House as I was coming down. 1967. We used to watch for them to come out of the house.”

Cynthia has been the Starship’s national publicity director for two years. Now, in March 1978, she is in the middle of a storm. The Starship has just put out a new album, called Earth. Everyone in the band — and at RCA — senses that this could be the Starship album. They think there are at least three or four singles on Earth. There is, in fact, a lilt to the music, a cohesion to the vocals. And there’s more Marty than ever before … which means, of course, more love songs. Which, if the pattern starting with “Miracles” holds, means more hits. (“Miracles” — Balin’s contribution to Red Octopus — pushed their first album all the way to Number One in 1975.) RCA, not exactly a company of gamblers, is putting more money — possibly as much as $500,000, according to Starship manager Bill Thompson — into Earth than any previous Airplane or Starship record.

The gamble is paying off: a month after its release, Earth is already near a million units sold, and its first single, “Count on Me,” is in the Top Twenty. Now, a six-week tour, the band’s first since late 1976, is under way, and, following three weeks on the East Coast, will take them to Europe for the first time.

But that’s not the storm we’re talking about. These days, that promotion, marketing and merchandising is automatic once you’ve got the product. The storm is the band itself and the press flak that feeds it. Despite their successes, the stories go, the Starship is a band of personal crises, primarily their two lead singers’, Marty Balin and Grace Slick: Balin’s refusal to commit himself fully to the band, his bad-mouthing of Slick and the group, Slick’s alcohol-fueled binges and run-ins with the law.

The critics, meantime, accuse the band of abandoning its radical, political and musical roots. They’re sliding into slickness, they complain, pointing to the strings on recent albums, the dominance of Balin’s love songs and the absence of Kantner’s sci-fi and political voice.

And that’s only what the press knows about. There’s also the audit the band demanded following the relatively disappointing sales of Spitfire, the followup to Red Octopus. There is the tension — and loss of revenue — caused by the band’s being off the road for over a year because Balin doesn’t like road work. There are musical differences that, among other things, upset Balin and further decrease his involvement with the band. There are disagreements about the course the Starship should follow.

With all of this going on, it’s amazing that the group has managed to stay together for four years. And it’s a wonder, come to think of it, that Cynthia Bowman is not back across the street, in Golden Gate Park, eating acid and talking to the trees.

THE JEFFERSON AIRPLANE was never the same after Marty Balin left in 1971. Whatever the contributions of Slick and of Kantner, and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, who helped drive Balin away with their criticisms of his romantic ballads, it was Balin’s romanticism that balanced the harder, more distant music of the rest of the group, that gave the Airplane much of its appeal.

The band didn’t even try to find a replacement.

The Starship — put together when it finally dawned on Slick and Kantner that Kaukonen and Casady were more interested in speed skating in Europe and their own band, Hot Tuna, than in the Airplane — did fine on its first tour. But it wasn’t until Kantner connected with Balin, wrote the song “Caroline” with him, and got Balin to do the lead vocal on it, that the Starship became much more than just another Kantner/Slick project.

Balin, though, hurt by his experience with the band he founded, has refused to sign any contracts. He receives an equal share of the band’s royalties (about $1.16 per unit sold, divided among the seven musicians, manager Thompson and producer Larry Cox).

“I get unbelievable pay for what I do,” says Balin, perched on a pillow on the slanting roof of his house in Mill Valley. “They’re just first takes vocally. I don’t even work on those things.” He could make much more money on the road. But, aside from his commitment to the current tour, he claims he’s not interested. “I want to do things here,” he says.

Balin has produced an album by Jesse Barish, writer or cowriter of four songs on the Starship’s last two albums. He is hoping to produce various local bands. He wants to do a solo album. He is writing “rock operas and musical burlesque satires.” He is interested in films. He could write, direct, act and “make magic,” if only anyone believed like he believed.

“The Starship is too limiting for me,” he says. “There are 8 million stories in this city. The Starship’s only one of them.”

And so the band must wait for him. David Freiberg, who joined the Airplane just before it crashed in 1972, is the Starship’s most outwardly easygoing member. Thirty-nine years old and a veteran of three dope busts, he is a seasoned hippie, his face often lit up with a stoned grin. He and Kantner were fellow folkies in the early Sixties, and with the Airplane and the Starship, he’s weathered the worst of times, including several months on unemployment. Although he and Pete Sears alternate on bass and keyboards, Freiberg considers himself primarily a bass player. And because he is essentially a backup musician, he is upset about Marty Balin. “It seems a shame,” he says, “because my whole attitude is supportive, and if there’s nobody to support, what do you do? I just wish he’d be in the band because we aren’t playing enough. I don’t like to sit at home and have to exercise all the time just to make my hands work.”

Pete Sears agrees. “I’d like to see Marty stay with the band. He’s sort of a difficult guy sometimes, although I can understand where he’s at: he doesn’t want to go on the road a lot.”

The consensus seems to be that the band members don’t like to be kept on a project-to-project basis with Balin. They also believe the Starship could continue without him, although his absence would be costly. Sears, guitarist Craig Chaquico and drummer John Barbata talk freely about possible projects beyond the Starship. It is not the kind of talk one expects from members of a highly successful rock band.

But maybe everybody’s panicking over nothing. “There’s a cliché that actions speak louder than words,” says Bill Thompson, who used to room with Balin and served as road manager in the Airplane’s formative months. “Marty will complain, but the bottom line is that Marty is in the studio with the hits and on the road he’ll be singing those hits.” In fact, says Thompson, Balin has even begun to talk about extending his commitment to the band beyond the current tour, either into a fall tour or another album.

PAUL KANTER, 37, literally cannot be bothered, it appears. He is not the least bit disturbed that ‘Earth’ has only one song (“All Nite Long”) in which he is a major participant. “That’s just what the circumstances dictated,” he says. As for the album’s smoother sound and apolitical stance: “I think it’s a real good album for the times we’re in. We’re just passing out of the Seventies, which is like a big sleep after the Sixties. It’s a light time, and the album feels real good to me on a light level — not the same way, but the good aspects, if you will, of disco. Just the feel … the bubbling level. I don’t think every album has to be serious and heavy.”

Kantner is the band’s acknowledged leader. And although he is best-known for his sci-fi epics (his Blows against the Empire album was the best received of all the Airplane splinter projects), he is happy with his behind-the-scenes role.

“Working with the vocal harmonies,” he says, “is one of my biggest pleasures, like weaving harmonies and backgrounds, and oohs and aahs and just singing along.”

John Barbata comes right out and says it: “We’re more commercial than the Airplane was. The music is better to dance to.” Barbata claims credit for bringing Larry Cox from Los Angeles to produce the Starship (“I didn’t think the San Francisco engineers were that hot”) and, in the studio, “for teaching the Starship how to baffle their amps like studio musicians do, to get separations. My contribution to the Starship is a lot more than Marty’s,” he continues. “I feel that having a good studio drummer — that alone is the basis for making good records.”

As much as Barbata wants “good records” — meaning good, commercial records — there is resistance. Pete Sears, the British keyboard and bass player who has brought, along with his own studio polish, a pleasant piano presence to the Starship’s music, appreciates Marty Balin.

“‘Miracles’ brought in an awful lot of listeners, and it’s an excellent record. No way can I say his music isn’t valid,” says Sears. “But I’d like to go in a more … sophisticated sort of avant-garde rock, whatever you want to call it. I’m not a purist. I enjoy playing with Marty. I just think there’s a danger of the Starship going too commercial, too much in that soul vein. We’re not a soul band.”

Although Kantner denies it, Sears says the group tried too hard to write a hit song for Spitfire, the followup to Red Octopus. “I think Grace and Paul’s forte is the big-production-type Starship stuff.” Sears, who with Slick cowrote Spitfire’s “Hyperdrive,” “Play on Love” on Octopus and “Take Your Time” on Earth, continues, “I don’t think Grace writes commercial lyrics very well. Her mind’s too complicated. She thinks in strange riddles that you have to think about.”

Grace Slick, the evidence of thirteen years of songs would indicate, doesn’t try to write “commercial” lyrics. By far the most prolific in the band, Slick had a hand in four of the nine songs on Earth. “Take Your Time” is a personal speed-of-life song written in response to Balin’s perfectionist pace during the making of the album. She wrote the words to “Skateboard,” Craig Chaquico’s recollection of an accident he had while doing a cameo for the film Skateboard. She contributed some words to “All Nite Long” and wrote a political song called “Show Yourself.”

She is not much for lovey-dovey songs. “I would like our next album to be a little less ‘I love you baby’ and ‘Gee the weather’s really nice and I hope we don’t ever break up because you sure are doo-doo-doo, my girl, doo-doo-doo,’ ” Slick says. “If you’re gonna write something that’s been written 8 million times, it’d better fucking be dynamite.”

She didn’t get much of a bang out of Earth. In fact, “Count on Me” is her “least favorite of all the songs on the album. I’d prefer to hear an individual tell me what he’s really thinking about or what he’s interested in. I don’t like to hear people get all melted up into a pot of stew when they’re actually very delightful individuals.”

The one love song that has impressed her most in recent months, she says, is “You Light Up My Life.”

“I was so damned mad that I didn’t get to sing that song,” she says, her voice suddenly rising. “The first time I heard it on the radio, like a year ago, I thought” — she lets out an agonized cry — “Aahhgg!!! I knew that thing was gonna go like that. And also, since I’m married to a light man, I thought, ‘GOD, that would a been perfect!’ “

The Starship, then, seems to have almost as many musical directions as it does members. And Marty Balin, who has his own gripes about the way the band makes records, blames it all on democracy.

“They have this odd idea that democracy is the way to run a band,” he says. “It’s the worst way to run a band. Everybody has an equal say. I don’t like that jazz.” Balin says songs he’d worked on for days would be remixed because of an opinion voiced by the manager. He would do vocals only to discover himself mixed down. And the reason, he says, was because he didn’t have time to stay in the studio. And because he and Slick have the “lousy job” of “completing everybody’s ideas. We have to stay at home and come up with melody lines, conceptions, lyrics, learn how to sing it.” This, he said, explains why there is only one. Balin/Slick duet on Earth. (To which Kantner drily replies: “If Marty had fourteen years to get an album ready, he would still be rushing at the last minute.”)

Balin, as several Starship members pointed out, is “mercurial.” One minute he’s saying the band is “maturing,” and that “the next album will be great musically.” And he hopes a live album can be made from the current tour. “A live LP would demonstrate the band as something new and exciting.”

Then he says: “I won’t make another record the way we make records. I’ll make this live album because then you can’t mix me out. Making records is mostly just the musicians putting down their thing and getting off. I personally don’t get a chance to be part of it so I’m not interested. I’ll just be a hired writer.”

But then he is saying how he’d like to do an album of only Balin/Slick duets, backed by the Starship. “Boy, that would be boss,” he says. Or he could produce a Slick solo album. He can see Chaquico and Sears fronting entire albums. “I would love to break all the factions down, change the thing of, ‘Okay, Grace, you do one, Marty do one.’ This formula that everybody thinks is so successful is death to me. I think it’s death to the band. That’s why it doesn’t interest me.”

YOU WOULD THINK that the Jefferson Starship would be in a thousand pieces by now. But, despite all the strain, something holds the band together, and it goes beyond music and money. Kantner calls Balin “a distant friend” these days, and all the band members agree that, when they’re not together for work, there are few social relationships among them. And that’s not necessarily bad. But ultimately there is a feeling that, however erratic, Jefferson Starship is special, a unique combination of social history and updated rock & roll. Even as he talks about having a band of his own someday, Pete Sears says the Starship “will concentrate on the Starship for at least two years.” Maybe he’s being optimistic, but if this group of mixed nuts and egos has managed to keep things relatively together for four years, well….

“They’re synergy in action,” says Cynthia Bowman. “All the parts together work better than the parts individually.” Ashortpause. “When the group’s working, that is.”

John Barbata, the drummer, was raised in a “middle-class family,” in Passaic, New Jersey, and was taught to be thrifty. Through his years as a musician, with the Turtles, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (both collectively and individually) and as a session musician (he has some seventy credits), he has either saved his money or invested it in “lots of land.”

So he is upset when he hears Grace Slick say that the Starship “is still sort of San Francisco hippies who would rather sit around than work their butts off to get great success,” and that she is happy with less-than-superstar, Fleetwood Mac/Eagles status “because that means showing up at a lot of award shows.” And Barbata is annoyed with Kantner’s resistance to playing gigs at coliseums and festivals. (Out of seventeen U.S. dates on the current tour, only one will be in a ballpark, the 60,000-capacity Braves Stadium in Milwaukee.)

“Pisses me off,” he says, spitting the words out.


“‘Cause I like to ride the fucking wave, man. I like to fucking play to 100,000 people. I like to get off on that. Half the band does. I’ll be frank with you — four do and three don’t.” Which three don’t?

“Well, Marty might change. Paul and David — they feel they’re ripping the people off. Paul’s main thing is he doesn’t like to play where the sound is bad. It’s a touchy situation. You’re talking $150,000 guarantees versus $25,000 if you don’t play those kinds of places. It’s not that I’m in it for the money or anything; it’s just that I struggled so long.”

Barbata is keeping count on Earth’s sales and he is angry with himself for not writing more songs for the album. “I just didn’t take the time to get off my ass to get a four-track recorder and a couple musicians to get some work tapes. What Craig’ll do or anybody in the band, they’ll write the music and give the words to Marty or Grace and they write the song, they get half the song. Hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

So you can bet that Barbata is cranking out the tunes now, words and music. “It’s just like all of a sudden I got twenty songs to finish.”

Paul Kantner is in his dream house. This is the house, set on an edge of San Francisco near the entrance to the Golden Gate Bridge, that he frequently drove by ten years ago, when he and Freiberg and two or three others shared a flat near Haight-Ashbury. He liked its location and its implied privacy. In April 1972 he and Slick, who had been living in Bolinas, addressed a letter to “occupants” at the house to express their interest in buying it. Two months later, Mr. and Mrs. Occupants divorced, contacted Slick and Kantner, and the following month they moved in. They paid somewhere over $100,000 for it and Kantner just rejected an offer of $600,000.) This is the house he shared with Grace Slick, with whom he lived for six years and had a child, China, now seven. China stays with Paul four days a week and with Grace in Mill Valley the other three.

In a book-strewn room with an ocean view, he sits on his huge bed. China, just before her bedtime, is playing with the back of a battery-operated toy. I ask if she likes her name. “Yeah,” she says. “I wanna change it to Susie, though.” Her favorite group, she says, is Kiss, and her favorite boyfriends are Shaun Cassidy and Ace Frehley. Why not Gene Simmons? “Because he’s drunk.”

After China leaves, Kantner begins to talk. In discussing Bruce Lee, whose Enter the Dragon is playing downstairs on the Videobeam, he reveals that he suffered a cracked skull in an accident some eighteen years ago, “so I can’t fight.”

Although others in the band may look to him as a leader, he says, “I’m totally nonbusiness. I take some of it onto my shoulders out of necessity, but I could never handle the stuff that Thompson has, maybe because my accident was on the left side of my head. I’m totally right-brained as far as dealing with figures, logic and general organized business. That’s what the left brain controls. Right-brained is the more poetic, dealing with abstract things — beauty, truth, justice, air, earth, light, enjoyment, that nonspecific area — judgment rather than order.

I ask about Grace, who, in her interview with me, describes herself as an alcoholic. “I never thought of it in those terms,” Kantner says. “I knew she got sometimes interesting and sometimes strange; sometimes good, sometimes bad. I think she’s been eccentric, and I wouldn’t call that wrong. There were times of great creativity during what she and others might call drunken revelry.”

Kantner could never be protective of Slick, he says. “I could never take on that responsibility. The one time I did take it on — she was being drunkenly abusive — I taped her up with some masking tape, just rolled her up and left her there for about ten minutes, then unwound her. This was when we lived together. It was a very nonviolent approach to dealing with Grace at one of her low points. She thought it was pretty funny.”

Kantner’s right brain must have been at work.

“Gracie has a problem, a real serious problem,” says Pete Sears. “She’s such a beautiful person when she’s sober, a really sweet woman, but it’s like an instant change. It’s more than just being an alcoholic … I don’t know what it is. I know that Grace is searching for something. She’s got all the material things she could possibly want. Same old story — that’s not the answer.

“I hate to get into religion too heavy, but I do believe in the spirits of good and evil. You can become receptive to either. When she gets drunk, the evil forces seem to be able to take over…. There’s like a demon looking at you or something. She just stares.”

And yet, as Sears says, there is the other side. “She broke down at our marriage. We had that big wedding here in Mill Valley and she came up and said something like, ‘Goddamnit, Jeanette, you’re making me cry.’ She got real poetic. It really moved her. She saw something there that she wanted. She wants to be helped so bad. She’s miserable.”

Grace Slick looks radiant. She and Skip Johnson, her twenty-five-year-old husband (and the Starship’s lighting director), are aboard the Lightning Weasel, their forty-foot cruiser, docked in Marin County. The interior is decked out in straight-ahead American middle-crass, with little white curtains, a plaid couch, chocolate carpeting and a full kitchen with a butcher-block-topped oven. Grace, who is thirty-eight, wears a granny shirt over jeans, and, as Skip heads upstairs to take the boat on a cruise around Angel Island, she talks about her most recent fight against alcohol.

Her last public dance with the demon was on January 19th, when, in the guise of a celebrity judge for a San Francisco club version of The Gong Show, she abused contestants, fellow judges and members of the audience, broke a couple of microphones and was dragged offstage while the audience cheered. A few hours later, she was gonged again — by the Highway Patrol — and charged with drunk driving. She was actually stopped on the bridge — “My car blew up” — and when the Highway Patrol came, “I started talking and giving them a load of shit… so they put me in the can overnight.” The drunk-driving charges were dismissed. But the incident led to an exchange with Skip, who told her, “You belong in a hospital.”

“And I started thinking about it and I thought maybe he’s right. Maybe there is some place where they tell you what the hell it is you’re doing wrong.” She checked in, as a patient, to an alcoholic rehabilitation clinic in a Marin County hospital, where she joined a “discussion group” — of usually six to ten people — led by two counselors, themselves alcoholics.

“I was apprehensive at first — I thought, ‘Oh, Christ, they’re all into gestalt and all this kind of junk, people lying around throwing up…. In my case I was with a bunch of old people. They didn’t know who the hell I was, so they weren’t after or for or against anything.” They would ask Slick to explain why she felt she drank, and what she felt while she was drinking. “I’d make a statement and they’d climb on it. I knew it was coming from an honest reaction. It was fantastic — what people can see and you don’t see yourself. Somebody’d nail me with something and you go back to your room and think about it.”

Slick believes she found several reasons for her abuse of alcohol — and other drugs. With her, she said, “It’s black and white, it’s either all or none. I have a big trouble with the middle range, which I’m just trying to find now.”

She was also bored. “The group has not worked for about a year and a half — because essentially we want to sing with Marty and Marry was not interested in working. I think people who have worked, particularly at the speed of rock & roll, for twelve years and all of a sudden it stops … you can’t really start anything else…. Also, since the group is not working, you have to keep the name in the public eye. I’d do anything — you know, a guy from the gas station’d call and say, ‘Would you mind going down there and smearing grease on your face and the first guy who picks it off … or something. I felt demeaned after I was doing that, showing up at record stores and twelve-year-old kids were coming up and saying, ‘What are you doing this for? This is stupid.’ Then I’d have five more vodkas and not care about it.”

The Boarding House affair was a case in point. She didn’t want to show up onstage with no set routine, but she couldn’t refuse the request. To shore herself up, she drank before the show, and the evening became “a blackout. I have no recollection of the Boarding House at all. I don’t remember anything about being onstage except one flash, looking at Country Joe, and he looked really disgusted, but I can’t remember saying anything, can’t remember breaking the microphones, nothing. And yet I drove home.”

Another problem Slick had was her mask of ice, that stare that Sears was talking about. In the nine or so years I’ve known Slick, I’ve been on the receiving end of numerous cold, fixed gazes, at parties, recording sessions and interviews. But the stare only means she’s nervous. “To Grace, all those things — concerts, parties, interviews, photo sessions — it’s all a theater of life,” says Bowman. “She has to get all psyched up. So she appears aloof.” Grace herself explains: “I’m really closed up. I don’t tell people, ‘Well, I know this may sound funny, but I want to tell you that I feel this way and it hurts, because blah-blah-blah.’ I don’t ever tell anybody it hurts ’cause I don’t want em to know I hurt. I want them to think nothing bothers me. But that’s horseshit ’cause the more you suppress that stuff, it boils up, and I’ll have five drinks and go out and murder somebody verbally.”

With Grace Slick, it’s always five — or “8 zillion” — drinks, never one or two. “With a person who is alcoholic, as I am, you don’t ever have one or two drinks. It doesn’t work that way. I’ve never had two drinks in my life…. It’s either I drink and I’m totally drunk or I don’t drink at all. It’s the same way with any drug. I’ll snort my brains out till I get so nervous I’ve gotta have either something to bring it back down or run around the block eighty times or something. That’s why I thought, let’s find out why and figure out what to do about it rather than just stopping, which I’ve done before.”

With the questions possibly answered, Slick says she feels better now “than I can remember feeling since I was about five.” Since the Boarding House, she says, she’s had “zero drugs. I haven’t been totally straight that long since I was fifteen years old,” she laughs.

And, she concludes, she’s confident that she can stay off all drugs. “It’s just incredible to enjoy things again. I didn’t realize that I was being drug-affected because I figured you’re either drunk or you have a hangover, then the next day you’re normal. But you’re not. You’re still physically being affected, just being car sick, irritable, stuff like that. I thought that was normal. Now I realize that I’m not normally like that. So it’s a whole different thing. I may be corny and say, ‘It’s like being reborn,’ but it is very much like having a new perspective shoved into your brain or your soul or whatever. Also a new body.”

Which is about as close to religion as Slick is going to get. “Religion … faith …” she pondered. “It’s a little harder for me to grasp than a dome or a pyramid.”

Early last year, Marty Balin did an interview in Crawdaddy in which he was quoted saying that he was “too big for the Starship,” that he hated Grace Slick doing “that sexy shit” onstage, that when she was still with Great Society, she’d “stare” at him onstage, and that he “wouldn’t let Grace Slick blow me.”

“That article,” says publicist Heidi Howell, “did more to hurt Marty than anything. It made him come off as somebody you’d never want to know.”

But Grace, perhaps putting that mask up again, echoes Balin’s own explanations of the article, of how the writer left off the questions that elicited his responses, how the intended humor in Balin’s remarks was missing, and how, closer to the core, Balin is just too open and blunt with reporters.

“I think he’s a very talented person who’s frightened, a little afraid that it won’t work,” says Slick. “He thinks that people expect more out of him than they do.”

Asked about specific Balin remarks, Slick says that her “sexy shit” “was so obviously hokey that I thought everybody’d think it was funny. I wasn’t trying to be sexy…. I don’t think I’m a sexy individual as the stereotype goes — big lips, big boobs, long blond hair. Dolly Parton I’m not.”

Once, during equipment setup for an Airplane concert for which her Great Society band was opening act, Slick did stare at Balin — and at the rest of the band — “to find out what they were like. And I did that with Marty because he was singing.” As for wanting Balin sexually: “Marty and I have never gotten into each other’s pants,” she says. “It’s probably better, because once you do that, you develop a relationship that if it starts getting too tight, or if you go to bed with each other and you hate it, then you come out onstage and ‘Baah!’ I think it’s better, staying apart in that area. It’s real tricky.”

The Lightning Weasel is almost home. Skip climbs down stairs to ease it into its berth. With his long hair and droopy moustache, he resembles the magician Doug Henning. As he stands at the helm, Slick reaches out and casually strokes his ass. I ask him what it’s like being married to Grace Slick.

Recently, fine,” he replies, performing a neat sleight of mouth.

DAY BEFORE APRIL FOOL’S DAY, Norman Seeff, rock & roll photographer, is shooting the Starship. Seeff is putting together a movie of his sessions, so he has a film and sound crew recording the whole afternoon, which quickly turns into a party, the studio a swirl of workers setting up lights and props, of crew people interviewing members of the band (Seeff himself is wired for sound), of music and food and friends and … how is Grace going to handle this? She’d canceled out the day before, saying she was sick, and Seeff’s crew had to stay over, and Cynthia Bowman raised a bump on her head from banging herself against the floor, in hysterics, after hearing from Grace.

But somehow, the band is here, gathered in little knots: Marty, in his blue satin baseball jacket, perched on the arm of a couch talking with Paul, John and David about the tour. Craig is strapping on a black, customized Boogie Baby guitar that won’t leave his body the entire shoot. And near the rear is Pete Sears with Grace Slick and Cynthia Bowman. Slick fixes me with a long stare, walks over slowly, leans over as if to whisper in my ear, sinks her head onto my neck and plants the softest kiss. Wordlessly, she walks away.

Soon enough, the Starship begins to gather in the posing area, Seeff takes a deep breath … and tries some idle chatter with Balin about yoga. While people shift around, Balin hits the bathroom, and emerges with his hair brushed and his jacket partly open to reveal a black shirt. Then he removes the jacket and slings it over a shoulder. Finally, just before Seeff starts shooting, he chucks the jacket. His sleeveless top shows off an athletic body. Barbata pulls out a tiny mirror and does a last-minute check, and Seeff takes a few standard lineup shots, Grace leaning casually against Kantner, the whole group looking bored.

One of Seeff’s assistants brings out a simple rope-drawn trapeze bar and hangs it over a ceiling beam directly above the band.

“Grace?” Seeff calls out expectantly.

Grace hesitates for a second. And suddenly, from nowhere, Marty Balin reaches up, grabs the rope and does a slow spin onto the bar, then arches backward to move his head, upside-down, closer to the group. Grace automatically takes center position and, with various cameras going, begins to strike dramatic poses, first against Balin, using him as a backdrop, then, quickly, reaching up and kissing him as the blood rushes to his head. For long seconds, she stays on Balin’s mouth, pulling back her lips to bare her teeth for the cameras. She releases him, then begins groping at his legs, for a few more snappy shots, until Balin finally slides down.

During the break, people exchange looks but few words. Balin perches himself back on the trapeze while Kantner and Slick change, Paul from a jacket to silk dress shirt and vest; Grace from a clinging rust dress to a filmy black one. Kantner adjusts her waistband, and Slick maintains the look of a helpless, confused child. “She’s fine,” Heidi Howell assures me. “But yesterday Grace was so nervous she threw up.”

In the next segment of shooting, done to the accompaniment of repeated plays of “Count on Me,” Grace actually grabs at Balin’s crotch, and he jumps, then recovers with a joke: “I didn’t mind,” he tells her, “but you might hurt your hands.” At a signal from Bowman, Slick straightens her head and wipes away a double chin. While most of the band seems content standing and looking somber, she continues to play the temptress, now draping herself against Freiberg and — of course — grabbing at his crotch.

Finally, after nearly two hours, the band disperses, to move on to the Airplane House for more pictures.

Freiberg walks by, shaking his head. “Grace is in a weird place,” he says, sympathy in his eyes. “It’s lucky that I love her.” Later, he guesses that she was “drinking a little bit. I’ve known her long enough to know.”

But Cynthia Bowman says Grace wasn’t drinking. “She was stone-cold sober. I think the part of her that comes out when she’s drunk is a natural part of Grace and it’s just exaggerated by alcohol. But she is capable of being equally bizarre or funny, sober.”

And Slick wasn’t as much childish as helpless, she adds. “She clings to certain members of the group that she’s comfortable with.”

As for kissing Marty: “She does that a lot of times during photo sessions. It’s probably the only time they ever touch each other.” Also, she reminds, “She’s a real grab-ass kind of person. She’ll grab Craig’s ass, she’ll grab Barbata’s ass, she grabs Paul’s ass all the time, but it’s more exaggerated for sure when she’s nervous.”

Still, it is interesting, and sad, and an indictment of sorts, that she is unable to have her fun without arousing suspicions that she’s fucked up again. Even though the suspicions reflect a concern for one of the most difficult women there is to know.

When she wrote,

Show yourself, show yourself to me,
You’re the one who told me, remember,
You told me I was born to be free,

she was talking to America. But she could just as well have been addressing the legacy of the Jefferson Airplane, and what remains of it. 

In This Article: Coverwall, Jefferson Starship


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