Don’t underestimate the Airplane, even if it’s easy to do. Sure, none of their other music exceeds the concise psychedelia of their best-known songs. Yes, they morphed into progressively lame versions of themselves throughout the seventies and eighties. And yes, their final iteration, Starship, inflicted the world with “We Built This City”, which might objectively be one of the worst songs of all time. Added together, these parts might as well make Jefferson Airplane just another relic. Yet their sum is so much more. Forget the Airplane, and you not only miss out on some fine music, but you also commit a minor act of historical amnesia. If you want to know how sixties music morphed from a battle cry to the soundtrack of Forrest Gump, Jefferson Airplane can reveal some clues. And the best place to start is with their definitive album, Surrealistic Pillow.
You can’t blame the Airplane for putting the Beatles in a Nike commercial, or for all the ex-hippies who ended up voting for Reagan, but no band from the sixties more clearly represents the ambiguities of the white middle-class hippie revolt. At the peak of their career, Jefferson Airplane buzzed the narrow strip that lay between counterculture and its commodification. Their songs had surreal, acerbic, even incendiary, lyrics, and radiogenic melodies. They were constantly at odds with authority—fighting their record company, local noise ordinances, and even law enforcement—but were scorned as sellouts. Altogether, it’s hard to tell if the Airplane wanted to take down the system, or if they were just along for the ride.
From the get go, Jefferson Airplane wanted to make an impact. In the mid-to-late 1960s, San Francisco was ground zero for the emerging hippie scene, and the Airplane established themselves as the quintessential San Francisco band. Today, more people probably think the Grateful Dead fulfilled that role, but Jefferson Airplane was actually more popular early on. The Dead also had a bit of a later start, their debut album coming out seven months after Jefferson Airplane’s first. Back in 1966, a teenage Bob Weir tape recorded Airplane concerts to study the technique of lead guitarist, Jorma Kaukonen.
Their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, which debuted in August 1966, featured a cover of Dino Valente’s “Let’s Get Together.” The chorus captured the feeling of the nascent hippie culture: “Hey people now/Smile on your brother/Let me see you get together/Love one another right now.” These words may sound cheesy now (a quarter century later, Nirvana would ironically bray them in their song, “Territorial Pissings”), but they really did represent a new cultural turn. Love had always been a staple of pop music, but now it was no longer confined to two people. That the Airplane didn’t write the song, and that Youngblood’s later version would be more popular, is beside the point. A new sensibility, embodying a more communal spirit, was emerging in San Francisco, and Jefferson Airplane was at its center.
Surrealistic Pillow—the Airplane’s second album—captured the same moment as it began to spill into national consciousness. The album’s timing could not have been more serendipitous. In the opening track, Marty Balin and Grace Slick sing in sweet, urgent harmony about “trying to revolutionize tomorrow.”Pillow’s second and biggest single, “Somebody to Love”, which hit the airwaves on April Fools’ Day, 1967, was poised to capitalize on one of the first national phenomena of the hippie movement: the fabled Summer of Love.
“Somebody to Love” peaked on the charts in June 1967, just as droves of young men and women migrated to San Francisco to commune with other freaks and rebels at Haight-Ashbury. The literate, hallucinatory “White Rabbit” hit the airwaves around the same time. Eventually, somewhere between fifty and seventy five thousand people would congregate in the area, where they experimented with drugs, slept in the open, had lots of sex, and generally strained the nerves of San Francisco’s municipal authorities. Smaller versions of the San Francisco scene played out across the country, and the Airplane was right there with them all. Only two other bands sold more records during the Summer of Love: the Monkees, and the Beatles.
Together, Jefferson Airplane’s biggest singles of the Summer of Love captured the restless, experimental sensibility of the emerging hippie culture. As to why so many relatively affluent, mostly white, middle-class youths expressed such dissatisfaction with the bourgeois establishment that raised them is a complex historical issue that does not necessarily conform to succinct explanations. And though hippies shared some common sensibilities, it would be also be unwise to paint them with a monochromatic brush. Still, it suffices to say that, for one reason or another, the hippies wanted something, and the Airplane gave voice to that desire.
Over crashing drums and guitars, Grace Slick intones the opening of “Somebody to Love” with the exact moment of disillusionment: “When the truth is found out/to be lies.” The chorus, “Don’t you want somebody to love/don’t you need somebody to love/wouldn’t you love somebody to love”, embodies yearning. Originally penned by Grace’s erstwhile brother-in-law, Darby Slick, to lament a girlfriend’s infidelity, “Somebody to Love” still resonates with a broader disillusionment and longing. It is also one of the best rock songs to come out of the sixties. Marty Balin and Paul Kantner’s acoustic and electric rhythm guitars chug forth with gorgeous clattering consonance. Jorma Kaukonen’s lead guitar manages to sound both plaintive and driving. Above it all, Grace Slick’s voice soars like a great, dark bird.
The psychedelic bolero of “White Rabbit” was unlike anything else rock music had ever seen before. Jack’s Casady’s bassline marches the song forward in perfect time with Spencer Dryden’s martial drumbeat. Kaukonen’s guitar slinks through the rhythm like a technicolor caterpillar. The lyrics, mixing obvious drug imagery with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, are about more than just getting high. “White Rabbit” hearkened a new way of looking at the world, rejecting the rigid prescriptions of “men on the chessboard [who] get up and tell you where to go.” In a time “when logic and proportion have fallen soggy dead”, the denizens of Carroll’s Mad Tea Party have the answer: “Feed your head.” More than just a drug anthem, “White Rabbit” was a call to action, an urge to find oneself and abandon convention.
So the Airplane talked the talk, but did they walk the walk? There is no pat answer. Undeniably, they were steeped in hippie counterculture. The band lived communally in a house on 2400 Fulton Street, where they threw parties of legendary bacchanalian excess. LSD was a staple of their lives, and they were known to lob handfuls of the stuff into the audience during concerts. On American Bandstand, Dick Clark asked if parents should worry about the popularity of bands like them, to which Paul Kantner replied: “I think so. Their children are doing things that they didn’t do and they don’t understand.” A few months later, police in Bakersfield, California arrested Kantner for inciting a riot. The cops had tried to stop the audience from dancing, and he shouted “Remember, there are only five of them and 5,000 of us!”
Kantner’s ominous words on American Bandstand—the squarest show in rock’n’roll—illustrate how Jefferson Airplane managed to be both commercial and counterculture. On one hand, they directly challenged bourgeois establishment values. On the other, if counterculture was going commercial, it didn’t seem to ruffle their feathers. In May, 1967, as “Somebody to Love” climbed the charts and organizers of the Summer of Love prepared to accommodate thousands of hippie pilgrims, the Airplane appeared in Look magazine. The article, titled “Jefferson Airplane Loves You”, seemed to confirm an earlier prediction by an underground publication, the San Francisco Barb, that bands like the Airplane were going to move on “to bigger gigs, better publicity, managers . . . until they are ***STARS***.”
As they appeared in the pages of Look, people could also hear the Airplane in radio spots for Levi’s jeans. They were atypical ads, with non-sequiturs and dissonant melodies, but they still sparked the anger of political radicals, who accused them of selling out. Abbie Hoffman wrote a letter to the Village Voice: “I realize they are just doing their ‘thing,’ but while Jefferson Airplane grooves with its thing, over 100 workers in the Levi Strauss plant on the Tennessee-Georgia border are doing their thing, which consists of being on strike, to protest deplorable working conditions.”
Jefferson Airplane’s commercial success belied a rift that had troubled hippie culture since its inception. For lack of better terms, it could be described as a divide between purists and hip entrepreneurs. The purists saw the hippie movement as a revolutionary culture that rejected the materialist notions that girded the establishment: private property, money, prescribed social roles. Instead, they sought a utopian society free of constraints, where people could express and mold themselves however they chose. For such an idea to work, however, common welfare needed to take precedence over individual gain. No group in San Francisco embodied this ethos more than the Diggers. Taking their name from an agrarian communal movement in seventeenth-century England, the Diggers provided free food, clothing, and medical care for the Haight-Ashbury community. They also harbored a deep distrust of hip entrepreneurs and anything that appeared to flirt with the mainstream.
Hip entrepreneurs, on the other hand, opened businesses that catered to hippie culture. They operated stores that sold hippie garb and music, and ran venues that hosted hippie bands. Such enterprises had no trouble finding an eager market, but it often came at a cost. Hip entrepreneurs faced harassment and threat of eviction from authorities, and were excluded from local merchant associations. Still, the practical aspects of commerce conflicted with a culture that was inherently suspicious bottom-line thinking. Historian Robert Cottrell observes that “hip merchants suffered inherent contradictions in their workplaces, whether involving adherence to a business regimen or the disinclination of certain of their clientele to pay for goods at any price.” As the Diggers asked about a venue that charged $2.50 admission to a dance: “What’s revolutionary about that?”
The Airplane’s success reflected this tension within hippie culture and helped keep them relevant. Jan Wenner, in his Rolling Stone review of their third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, praised them as “the best rock and roll band in America today.” Hubert Humphrey’s staff contacted the band in hopes that they would write a song for his 1968 presidential campaign. Paul Kantner sent them a song that sarcastically called the Vice President “the crown of creation”, before telling him “you’ve got no place to go.” The campaign declined the Airplane’s offering, but the song became the titular track to their fourth album.
And perhaps it was this balance of commercial and counterculture that enabled Jefferson Airplane’s highest altitude. When they tried to up the revolutionary ante, they lost both mainstream cred and countercultural cachet. In opening track of 1969’s Volunteers, Kantner, Slick, and Balin declare “We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we are, we are/and we’re very proud of ourselves.” Down Beat magazine called them “ludicrously smug.” Rolling Stone called the album “excellent”, but groaned, “man, the politics. . . ” The harshest criticism came from the underground press. Bonny Cohen of the New Left paper, Old Mole, fumed against rock stars that “wail out anger and scream revolt, and leave concerts in Cadillacs.” Ed Leimbacker of Ramparts magazine called Volunteers, and the Airplane’s whole counterculture posture, “harmless words and grand gestures rather than truly radical action.”
Jefferson Airplane was in New York on May 4, 1970, when the National Guard fired on student demonstrators at Kent State University, leaving four dead. The band was scheduled to play a free concert at Central Park a couple of days afterward, but a group of students from Yale implored them to cancel and join their demonstrations instead. After a heated internal debate, the band declined the invitation. By itself, this decision probably wouldn’t have gathered much notice, except that Grace Slick scolded the audience for not protesting in New Haven themselves. The incident prompted music critic Robert Christgau to write in the Village Voice: “the Airplane not only has revolutionary pretensions, it sells them.”
Later that week, the Airplane played the Fillmore East, where Slick made an unforced admission. Interrupting “Somebody to Love” with a drunken rant, she told the audience:
You paid $3.50 to come and you probably don’t have it, man, but we do. We can ride in cars that are all closed up and nobody sees us . . . [We] can smoke all this dope and nobody gives [us] any shit. But they give you shit because you don’t have a Cadillac. We do. You know the people you’re rising up against? They right up here on this stage. They’re also in the White House but they’re also up here. Because you had to pay to get in here. It wasn’t free. You’re paying our asses so I can send up and have a shrimp salad and all that shit. You can’t. So you know who you’re putting down? Right here. . . And I’m a jerk because I love it. I love that shrimp shit. So get it, man . . . Take it from me. Grab it from me.
In a rambling, barely coherent way, Grace Slick articulated not only how the Airplane rode the fine line between counterculture and its commodification, but also how they risked becoming a part of the establishment they proclaimed to challenge. If Jefferson Airplane peaked during the Summer of Love, Slick’s onstage rambling (now known to fans as the “shrimp shit rap”) marks a moment their descent gained speed. Over the next two years, album sales declined as internal feuding intensified, until they parted ways in 1972. Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady played together in Hot Tuna. Slick and Kantner created Jefferson Starship. No subsequent incarnation would come close to the success or cultural impact of Jefferson Airplane.
It’s probably for the best. Longevity doesn’t suit a band that captured the spirit of a movement that supposedly treasured the moment, the experience, over material objects. The good news is that they left behind some great albums. “Lather”, the opening track of Crown of Creation, shows Grace Slick at her most poetic and insightful. For all its revolutionary pretensions, Volunteers documents how much they were willing to push themselves as musicians. The eight-minute “Hey Frederick” is an opus of tight musicianship and loose jamming, and one of Kaukonen’s finest moments with the Airplane. Of the four albums Jefferson Airplane released between 1967 and 1969, it’s hard to say which is the best.
Surrealistic Pillow remains their definitive work. Recorded just when the Airplane discovered their potential as a band, it’s release enshrines a unique historical moment. Its is also an example of the complications of gaining success by challenging the mainstream. As Slick made clear in New York, they had grown accustomed to the perks of fame, but she also, at least, expressed some discomfort with the implications of their wealth. Did the Airplane want to take down the system, or were they just along for the ride? Most likely, the answer is probably a little bit of both.
 Jeff Tamarkin, Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (New York: Atria Books, 2003), p. 31.
 Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987), pp. 204-205.
 Gitlin, p. 215.
 Tamarkin, p. 128.
 Tamarkin, p. 91.
 Tamarkin, p. 129.
 Tamarkin, p. 148.
 Robert C. Cottrell, Sex, Drugs, and Rock’n’Roll: The Rise of America’s 1960s Counterculture (Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield, 2105), Kindle Location 3406.
 Tamarkin, p. 130.
 Cottrell, Kindle Locations 3317-3332.
 Cottrell, Kindle Location 3441.
 Cottrell, Kindle Location 3190.
 Cottrell, Kindle Location 3404.
 Tamarkin, p. 156.
 Peter Doggett, There’s a Riot Going On: Revolutionaries, Rock Stars, and the Rise and Fall of 60’s Counter-Culture (Edinburgh, Scotland: Canongate Books, 2007), p. 158
 Doggett, p. 286.
 Ed Ward, “Volunteers”, Rolling Stone, 21 Feb. 1970, http://www.rollingstone.com/music/albumreviews/volunteers-19700221.
 Doggett, p. 288.
 Doggett, p. 287.
 Tamarkin, p. 221.