Jefferson Airplane revisits its final flight
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In celebration of Volunteers’ 50th anniversary, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady revisit their band’s final flight.
Jorma Kaukonen: Looking back on the emotional and political landscape around Volunteers, Jack and I were more interested in the musical aspect than being politically involved in the way Paul [Kantner], Marty [Balin] and Grace were. That being said, if you were a San Francisco musician in that time period, it was impossible not to be involved on some level. We just didn’t verbalize it. Volunteers also coincided with all this upheaval in our personal lives. My ex-wife Margareta, Grace, Spencer Dryden—who was Grace’s significant other at that time—and I shared a duplex apartment and it burned down. So I wound up living in the big Airplane house until we found a new place. Looking back from the lofty peak we all inhabit today, Volunteers was a pinnacle for the band—there’s some classic Paul and Grace stuff on that album. There was still so much passion and involvement by the band members, which I think dovetailed with what was going on culturally. After that, Spencer left and that was the end of the “classic” lineup.
Grace Slick: The title Volunteers is not quite as in depth or as important as you might think. Marty, who was the founder of Jefferson Airplane, happened to see a truck go by that said “Volunteers of America” on it. It’s an outfit that helps underprivileged people. He liked the title, so he just used it. [Laughs.] None of us were sure what it meant—we used to just grab things out of the air. I suppose you could turn it around and say that we were rebellious patriots. And lately, I’ve been even more rebellious. When Donald Trump got elected, it made me cry—and I don’t cry. I thought, “If the founding fathers could see what’s going on right now, they’d be stunned.” The President of the United States is a clown. People have joked, “Even you Democrats would pray for Bush.” [Laughs.] It’s even more repulsive now than it was then. I just hope that I live long enough to see another president, like [Elizabeth] Warren, get in there—a regular human being. It’s hard for it to get worse than it is right now. We had Nixon to contend with, but he was a much better president than Trump—unbelievable.
GS: I was invited to [the White House during Nixon’s presidency]. I went to the same college—and I use that word loosely because it was really a finishing school where they taught you how to get a Princeton or Yale boy—as Tricia Nixon. Since it was so small, she sent invitations to all the alumni to come for tea at the White House. Because it was addressed to my maiden name, they just thought I was some broad who went there. I brought Abbie Hoffman, who was one of the Chicago Seven, with me and, as we were in line to go into the White House, security came up to me and said, “I’m sorry, you can’t go in because you’re a security risk.” I said, “No, I’m not. I’m a rockand-roll singer!” They didn’t even talk to Abbie, even though he was standing right there and on the FBI’s most wanted list!
It’s good that they didn’t [let me in] because I had about 600 mics of LSD in my pocket. I knew how to do “formalities” because of finishing school. I had a very long, little pinky fingernail and, as I was talking to Richard, I was gonna reach into my pocket, get some LSD under my nail and then gesture over his teacup. We got a big chuckle out of the fact that he would be wandering around the White House, talking about the walls melting. But they wouldn’t let me in, so I didn’t get a chance to do that. It’s probably for the best—it’s rude to dose people with acid unless they’ve had it before. We used to dose each other—if you left a Coca-Cola can open at one of our concerts, where the Dead or Quicksilver and Janice were, you were gonna get dosed.
NOT A MULTITASKER
Jack Casady: Before Volunteers, we recorded all of our albums in Los Angeles. That’s where you went back in the day. Eventually, Wally Heider put together a new San Francisco studio just so bands didn’t have to slog it out in LA, and we were the first group to record there. That was really the beginning of that San Francisco-era of recording.
GS: San Francisco’s small, and our community of rock-androllers was about 15 bands. Jerry Garcia or David Freiberg would come over and put something on a song and we’d go over there and play on their stuff because it was a loose and friendly community. Our first album came easily because we played all the songs live, over and over again. But the consecutive albums took a long time, and it was very expensive for RCA, who was paying for our time.
We did interact with some of the LA bands—Crosby, Stills & Nash and The Mamas and the Papas. Paul knew Crosby and Stephen from being an acoustic folk singer. One song we did with Crosby was “Triad,” which was frowned on by a lot of people because it’s talking about three people making love at the same time—even his group wouldn’t let him record it. He brought it to me and I said, “Sure, I’ll do that.” I don’t do triads, not because I object to them morally, but because I’m not a multitasker, so doing two people at once would be confusing for me. I wouldn’t like it because there’s too much going on. “Whose leg is this? Whose arm? Is that my left ear?”
SOMEBODY DIFFERENT EVERYDAY
JC: After Surrealistic Pillow, we were able to renegotiate our label contract and take control in the studio. It was a very fertile and exciting time because, usually, the studio was a very nerve-wracking experience. We were able to experiment more—sometimes with great results and sometimes with not as great results. All the guys were doing it—Jimi Hendrix was doing it on his Ladyland album, which I was a part of, and the Grateful Dead started experimenting in the studio.
JK: There was a lot of improv that happened in our live sets. Look at the canvas that Jack, Spencer and myself had a chance to paint on. We had some of the great writers of the American songbook. Paul, Grace and Marty wrote such idiosyncratic stuff, especially Paul and Grace. People occasionally ask me: “Why don’t you solo like you did with the Airplane anymore?” The answer is that we don’t play those kinds of songs anymore. In a live context, our singers allowed us to do that.
In a more traditional, successful rock-and-roll venture, the singer would always be the most important thing, and the side band would get fired if they screwed around. But we were encouraged to screw around. One of the things that I told Grace the last time I had dinner with her was, “I’m really sorry that we played so loud while you sang. If I had to do it over again, the dynamics would have been better.” But it was a real team effort. We supported our great singers as best we could. When the time came to take off, they just said, “fly.” And nobody played the guitar like Paul. He rarely gets the credit that he deserves for the sound of the Airplane. He wasn’t a typical rock-and-roll rhythm guitar player. The mixture of him, Spencer and Jack, in my opinion, defined what became the Airplane’s sound.
GS: Sometimes we’d play for four or five hours. Jorma, Paul, Jack or somebody would yell out “D minor!” and just jam. And Marty or I would make up lyrics. Now, the rappers like Eminem and Dr. Dre do it better than we did—the first time I understood that was when I saw the movie 8 Mile. But mostly, it’d just be instrumental [jams]. Now, it’s more organized as far as who goes on when, what they wear. We didn’t have any exploding chickens or dancers back then—they were lucky that we just showed up with our clothes on. I never wore tie-dye because I didn’t like it, but we wore actual costumes in the ‘60s—sometimes I’d dress as a pirate all day and just go to the grocery store like that. It was great sport to just be somebody different every day—a boy, a girl. I was never an animal because those outfits are too hot, but I was every human you could think of. Though, these days, I’m mostly dressing as a sweatshirt-and-sweatpants human being. [Laughs.]
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