By the time I discovered punk with ‘White Riot’ in 1977, I had soaked up a fair bit of previous counter-culture history and music. History never really repeats itself, but as Nic has commented many times on these pages, sub-cultures and counter- cultures seem to have a recurring arc or trajectory, rising up then falling back to earth with a crash. There is a bit of such an arc here, although for dramatic effect I will start like this:
Look what’s happening on the streets
Gotta revolution got to revolution
We are all outlaws in the eyes of amerika
In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge fuck hide and deal
We are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young
All your private property is
Target for your enemy
And your enemy is
We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves
Up against the wall
Up against the wall motherfucker
Tear down the walls
Tear down the walls
And the human name
Doesn’t mean shit to a tree
All from Jefferson Airplane’s 1969 ‘Volunteers of America’ .There is a live clip (only 3.37) of the band playing ‘Volunteers’ here
But it wasn’t the Airplane’s revolutionary rhetoric that first got me interested in the band. It was their reputation for excess of a rather different kind, which I discovered in the school library of all places. It must have been early 1974 and I had been reading my way through every interesting book in Kirkcudbright Academy library when I found one about rock’ n’ roll. How It got their I will never know, but there it was so I read it. Discussing cutting edge rock, the author reckoned that the best ‘acid rock’ album was ‘After Bathing at Baxters’ by Jefferson Airplane and explained how the group had spent the summer of love (1967) in San Francisco taking lots of LSD and then going into the studio and experimenting with psychedelic sounds to produce a masterpiece – far superior to the Beatles ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’. Far out!
So I got a copy Easter 1974 and over a few hot sunny days played it over and over again. Even without the aid of any form of drug, it sounded amazing, the music just soared and flew out of the speakers. It still does sound amazing and the music still soars.
I have replaced the 1974 vintage vinyl with a cd copy. This gives a bit more background to the recording. The band did not spend all their time in the studio. They were managed by Bill Graham and he insisted they played gigs every weekend , whilst recording during the week. This was unlike the Beatles who had become a studio only group by the time they recorded ‘Sgt Peppers’.
The previous Airplane album was ‘Surrealistic Pillow’. It had been recorded in 13 days in 1966 and sold a million copies, staying in the top 5 of the US album charts through the summer of 1966. The singles ‘Somebody to Love’ and ‘White Rabbit’ had been top ten hits. Both are now pop classics.
No doubt getting bored with having to belt out White Rabbit yet again every weekend, the Airplane wanted to do something different, to make an experimental uncommerical record. So Grace Slick (a psychedelic Siouxsie) wrote a song inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses called ‘Re-Joyce’. Here are part of the lyrics:
There, are, so many of you.
White shirt and tie, white shirt and tie,
white shirt and tie, wedding ring, wedding ring.
Mulligan stew for Bloom,
the only Jew in the room
Saxon’s sick on the holy dregs
and their constant getting throw up on his leg.
Molly’s gone to blazes,
Boylan’s crotch amazes
any woman whose husband sleeps with his head
all buried down at the foot of his bed.
And here is the song itself
I still rate ‘After Bathing at Baxter’s’ as one of the best records of all time. Although if you just read lyrics like these:
If you were a bird and you lived very high,
You’d lean on the wind when the breeze came by,
You’d say to the wind as it took you away,
“That’s where I wanted to go today”.
Will the moon still hang in the sky when I die,
When I die, when I’m high, when I die?
If you were a cloud and you sailed up there,
You’d sail on water as blue as air,
You’d see me here in the fields and say,
“Doesn’t the sky look green today?”
You would probably disagree. Even if you hear the song here
For more tracks see here
And then? I will skip ‘Crown of Creation’, already done ‘Volunteers’ and then in 1970 the group split. Then two of the group – Grace Slick and Paul Kantner went into space with ‘Blows Against the Empire’ a science fiction inspired album about hi-jacking a starship and heading off out into the cool and the dark.
The acid revolution had turned sour by 1970. The war in Vietnam continued (with the illegal bombing of Cambodia about to start), President Richard Nixon was in power and all the psychedelic dreams and counterculture schemes had turned to dust and bitterness. The first two references are to the 1968 Democratic party Conference in Chicago 1968 which turned in to a riot and Ronald Reagan, B-Movie start Governor of California, later Mr. President.
You know I remember the 23rd of November
In the abyss of Chicago you can see the barbed wire – pigs around a lot of
The witch hunters wail and they bark and they wheeze and they try to turn us
into their poison
You unleash the dogs
of a grade-B movie star governor’s war
While you sit in the dark –
insane with the fear of dying
We’ll ball in your parks
– insane with the flash of living
I AM ALIVE
I AM HUMAN
I WILL BE ALIVE AGAIN
So drop your fuckin’ bombs
Burn your demon babies
I WILL BE AGAIN –
You know – a starship circling in the sky – it ought to be ready by 1990
They’ll be building it up in the air even since 1980
People with a clever plan can assume the role of the mighty
and HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7000 people past the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru the cities of the universe
free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music
the day is on its way the day is ours
The starship was a fantasy. The actuality was the ‘get back to the land’ movement which spawned a thousand communes. The expectation was of some catastrophe, of a neo-Nazi Amerika… so all the hippies who weren’t quite dead decided to grow their own food and live on the land…a guy called Stewart Brand (who had been one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Prankesters – of Electric Kool Aid Acid Test fame) set up a Whole Earth Catalog. It was a data base of useful tools for back to the land hippies – for making, building, growing their communities. Some few years later Brand turned it into a computer bulletin board and helped start what was to become the internet / computer revolution. Science fiction became technological reality. Not a starship, but the world wide web. But enough of that. [ There are two recent books on the ‘hippies to the internet’ theme on my bookshelves but can’t find them…one is called ‘What the Dormouse Said’ > White Rabbit/ Airplane]
And now here is the is the last bit of this story:
I was irridescent
I became transparent
I was absent
With which ( the song Starship) – see here the album ends.