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.”