When you read some tributes to artists who have just passed, you will oftentimes see that the article might start off with some funny anecdote or even some mention of why someone was so musically important and it’s supposed to hit you with some kind of depth. Mine doesn’t start out that way, but it eventually gets to where I really want to take it.
This is so fuzzy that I can’t even recall the exact date. I’m guessing around 1984. I was going back and forth between taking classes at Lane Community College and the University of Oregon. At both places, I would take classes on Rock Music history. When I was taking one of the classes over at Lane, there was this guy who was younger than I was who was really bugging me about how he really wanted me to go see Jefferson Starship at The Hult Center For The Performing Arts here in Eugene. I really did not want to go, but the guy was just insistent as hell. So, I finally caved in and I went. Look man, I knew what was going to happen. What I never saw coming was the clarity of what I already knew in my mind as a certainty.
We both had great seats and I could see everybody nice and clearly. I witnessed a look in the eyes of both Paul Kantner and Grace Slick. They were looks that really made me sad because it made me hate the ’80s music scene all that much more. I saw Grace and Paul looking at each other and at various people in the audience and completely phoning it in while the audience was going nuts. They were completely mechanical that night and they had anger in their eyes that confirmed to me that they would much rather have been playing with the original Airplane rather than the Starship. It was obvious to me. I couldn’t believe people were missing it. After the show was over, the guy told me I was nuts for my observations. I felt bad for him, but my observations were validated later on when Grace eventually revealed that she was embarrassed by the stuff she did with them in the ’80s.
Ah yes! The Jefferson Airplane. If there was ever a band who personified the San Francisco Bay Area and the whole envelopment of everything which was the ’60s, it was them. The beautiful thing about them was that they had the front end of the psychedelic era from which to start showing themselves off. And when I speak of the front end, I am speaking about what many Bay Area natives refer to as the true Summer Of Love. It was the one in 1966. This was the unadvertised Summer Of Love. It was the time before the rough elements began to hem their way into the Bay Area. It was from that time that their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, sprung. Signe Anderson was a member of the band during this period. “It’s No Secret” was the hint of what was to come. It’s also an album which should be given more due, but it’s follow-up took off like a shot in such a bold way that it got left behind. And with Signe’s leaving the band behind after that first album, Grace Slick came along from The Great Society.
Though a person could make a case for a ton of great albums which came out from the ’66-’68 period from the San Francisco bands, I honestly think the greatest case could be made for Surrealistic Pillow as having been the album that launched it all. I am certain there are some out there who might feel that spiritual is a word which one would not associate with the word psychedelic or even the Psychedelic Era. It has to be said though. Surrealistic Pillow is spiritual. It lays before you the philosophy of an entire geographic area which spread throughout the entire world. You can hear it in “My Best Friend”, “Today” and “Coming Back To Me”. I hear these three songs in the fog there. I hear those songs in the spirits that hang around in San Francisco. You don’t have to always point the finger to “Somebody To Love”. It’s too obvious for a Bay Area person. It’s the contemplative material, man. At the end of the day, that was what everybody was getting to. Paul would eventually get more obvious about adding the Science Fiction elements into the Jefferson Airplane, but he was the guy who picked up philosophy from reading books and incorporating it into the music.
Paul was a central part of all of this. Just like Jorma Kaukonen though, they both had experiences of being in the South Bay and took them up to San Francisco with them. They used to hang out in Santa Clara and San Jose before there ever was a Jefferson Airplane. I would bet that Paul knew every square inch of Old Town Santa Clara. And there’s something about having hung out in Santa Clara and San Jose and then going up to San Francisco and melding it all together. It made for a hell of a blend. You had the open let it all hang out part in San Francisco and then the private, staid South Bay people who were ready to hop into the fire feet-first. Those South Bay people led their parent’s lives during the day and then lived their open lives at night. I honestly believe both helped shape what became the uniqueness of what we would know as the counter-culture from 1966 through 1969.
By the time of the 1967 version of The Summer Of Love, the advertised one, the Airplane was expanding and beginning to reflect the harder edge coming into existence around them. It reached its height when they released Volunteers in 1969.
This is what I was thinking of when I was attending that Starship show back in the ’80s. I kept wishing that Paul and Grace could have had Jorma and Jack on that stage and that it wasn’t so slicked up. I wish it had been real, distorted and defiant.
I am so saddened by these two losses. They both happened on the same day. Signe and Paul are now a part of the spirits. They will now be a part of those voices I’ll hear whenever I am in San Francisco.
I knew that Signe was originally from up in Portland, Oregon and then she had worked her way down to San Francisco and became a brief part of a storied history of a storied band. It has only been a relatively short while that I knew of Paul’s having had Santa Clara and San Jose connections before he became a complete part of the San Francisco scene. I am so glad to have read that Paul never left San Francisco. I was privately shocked to have learned that Grace always preferred Los Angeles over San Francisco-even back during the ’60s. Paul walked among those spirits and went through the changes with them.
And if Paul could be a prickly interview subject, well, then I guess he had a few things to deal with. Don’t we all? A short while back, I was listening to a morning radio show on my local Eugene FM station that has been around since 1969 where one of the morning guys was talking about his bad experiences while attempting to interview Paul some years back. I don’t know if I would have fared any differently with him by just talking to him and not interviewing him at all. It’s just that I get uncomfortable when I listen to people talking about their bad experiences with musicians when they spend a good portion of putting out incorrect information on bands. This morning guy has a history of doing this. I’d have liked to have heard what the guy said when the news came around about Paul and Signe’s passing on and if I would have wanted to slam my car radio with my driving hand or not. I prefer giving Paul a pass because he gave us some great music. More importantly, he helped to spearhead people into viewing life through a new prism. I don’t recall that there was a rule that said an artist has to be without imperfection in order to make their mark. Besides, just remember something.
There is no such thing as so-called normality in the music business. There never was any back then nor will there ever be any in the future. I’m sure Paul saw plenty of it and that it influenced his world view over the years. Signe never needed a pass. From one article I read this evening concerning her passing, she held the band together when they were going through their original dysfunctional times together. For that, she was probably a private saint to them all. She walked away from it because she wanted to live a life more connected to a literal family-hers. History makes spirits out of all of us through different paths. Signe got out of the storm. Paul was right in the eye of it.