November 16-22, 2005

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Star Pilots

Jefferson Airplane pass a milestone

By Greg Cahill

With songs awash in new sounds, drug imagery and rebellion, the Jefferson Airplane soared into the spotlight 40 years ago, launching a musical revolution that still reverberates through a new generation of neo-psych artists. That rock milestone has inspired a pair of recent releases: Got a Car Cultureolution! The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane (Atria; $18), a new book by Jeff Tamarkin; and the two-CD greatest-hits compilation The Essential Jefferson Airplane (Legacy/BMG), featuring 32 career-spanning tracks.

The band's journey began in earnest on Aug. 13, 1965, when the Airplane took the stage at the Matrix in San Francisco, a Fillmore Street nightclub co-founded by singer and bandleader Marty Balin. At the time, the band's volatile lineup included Balin, singer Signe Toly Anderson, guitarists Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Bob Harvey and drummer Jerry Peloquin.

It wasn't long before the band's trademark psychedelic folk-rock caught the attention of the burgeoning San Francisco music scene. Within a year, singer Grace Slick had replaced Anderson, and Jack Casady and Skip Spence (who would leave the band a year later to make way for Spencer Dryden) had supplanted Harvey and Peloquin, respectively.

Their 1966 sophomore album Surrealistic Pillow, which spawned the hits "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," introduced acid rock to American mainstream culture. The brocade British folk-rock artist Donovan bolstered their credibility that same year when he name-checked the band in his drug paean "Fat Angel" ("Fly Jefferson Airplane, get you there on time"). And Life magazine splashed the icy acid queen Slick across a two-page spread.

Jefferson Airplane eventually self-destructed, fading out in 1972 in a series of personal rifts and side projects before morphing into the corporate-rock band Jefferson Starship.The rest, as they say, is very colorful history, indeed.

Tamarkin, who is the editor of Global Rhythm and has written liner notes for various Airplane and Hot Tuna reissues, is encyclopedic in his approach. He meticulously chronicles the band members' biographical details and the band's rise and fall. You learn that Slick slept with every band member, including her brother-in-law Darby Slick, and that Balin and Kantner had huge egos that led to monumental clashes over control of the band. The former fact is probably news to some fans, the latter not so surprising.

Tamarkin is obsessive about exposing the inside story of the band and presenting the contextual backdrop. Nixon, the Vietnam War protests, the San Francisco music scene, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, the Grateful Dead, David Crosby, Nancy Reagan and even Charlie Chaplin make appearances in the pages of his book. But these prosaic accounts fail to bring this colorful cast of characters fully to life. The writing simply lacks the cinematic vibrancy of the show-me, don't-tell-me maxim.

It would be better that this tale be told by a stronger writer not so close to his subjects. And one doubts that the original band as a unit have many more of the "new dawns" that Tamarkin touts in the closing paragraph.

Meanwhile, the two-CD anthology, combining studio and live tracks, is one of the better devoted to the Airplane's recorded music. It ranges from folk-tinged instrumentals ("Embryonic Journey") and psychedelic pop ("White Rabbit") to political anthems ("Volunteers") and blues ("Feel So Good").

Like Tamarkin's book, the Legacy/BMG anthology is proficient. Maybe someday the record label will devote a proper box set to this most influential of San Francisco bands. I suspect Tamarkin will write the liner notes.

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