The Core: Jefferson Airplane

December 11, 2019
The Core: Jefferson Airplane

In celebration of Volunteers’ 50th anniversary, Grace Slick, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady revisit their band’s final flight.

REBELLIOUS PATRIOTS

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.

DOSING EDICT

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.]

I AIN’T MARCHING ANYMORE

JC: Ace of Cups played on Volunteers—and they were really the unsung heroes for a period of time, and the first all-girl band. But, the [male-dominated music industry] never gave them their due at the time and, in this business, you’re judged by how long you stick it out. They were around for a few years, before starting families, branching out and going their own ways. Now, they are back and Jorma and I had the pleasure of playing on their double album.

GS: Women have always been singers. That’s not a big jump. A Supreme Court Justice—that’s a big jump. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is phenomenally ahead of her time, and it must have been a real pain in the butt to have to go through everything that she did. But a woman singer—we’ve always been singers. My mother was a singer. When the Women’s Lib people came to me and said, “Will you join in our march?” I said, “No, marching is not what you do.”

At this particular time in history, what you actually have to do is work harder than men—study longer, take more courses— if you want to be a lawyer or a doctor. Burning your bra isn’t going to do it. Warren is just stunning! People don’t know her; people know Joe Biden. But Biden is old like me. We forget things—I don’t even remember my own songs. Old people start deteriorating. That’s what happens, and then you die. It sounds brutal, but that’s exactly what happens. With some people, their brains fall apart—they get Alzheimer’s. With some people, their hearts fail. Warren’s stuff is still working like gangbusters—she’s just brilliant. I hope she gets the nomination and the presidency—not because she’s a woman, but because she knows what she’s talking about. Pete Buttigieg is not bad either. He’s young, but he’s got a perfect record. He’s got everything: military, leadership. He speaks quietly, and he has a good memory.

THE AIRPLANE’S FINAL FLIGHT

JC: There were a lot of different approaches in those first few years of Jefferson Airplane. That was the consummate strength, but also what led to our demise. Everyone got stronger in their material and different directions and wanted to concentrate on that. At the end of the day, with the Airplane, you had five different songwriters stepping onstage and only so much time for everybody’s stuff. By the time we got into our late twenties—and I was 21 years old in 1965, the youngest guy in the band—people had been developing. Grace wasn’t as confident in her playing as I thought she should be. Nonetheless, she has this classical training, and she has one of the most interesting and original approaches on the piano. But, she was very happy to have Nicky Hopkins come in and do some piano playing on Volunteers; he’d listen to the way she played and put it together.

Jorma and I were always playing. We’d finish an Airplane set at 12 or 1 a.m. and play until daybreak. Paul, Grace and the guys didn’t like to go on the road all that much, so we didn’t tour relentlessly but, in order to hone our skills and get better at what we were doing, Jorma and I wanted to play live, so we started booking shows as just the two of us. We signed with RCA and introduced some different material—some of it drawing from the Piedmont, Gary Davis school. Later on, as that started to develop, we added some other instruments. That was the beginning of Jorma writing a lot of songs that used elements and techniques from old-time music, without relying on that genre. As our own sound started to develop, through late 1969-‘70, we booked some shows and went out as Hot Tuna.

GS: Paul and I didn’t know what was going on because Jack and Jorma took off to one of the Scandinavian countries to do some speed-skating. They didn’t call back, and they were just gone. So Paul and I started making records as Jefferson Starship. We had to rename it because you couldn’t call it Airplane unless all of the original members were making the record. It was the end of Airplane.

Jack and I were recently talking about it—there are just times in marriages, in businesses, where it has to end. People get perturbed or feel like they have to do something else. I know Jorma wrote about it in “Third Week in the Chelsea.” We were at the Chelsea Hotel for a couple of weeks doing nothing but publicity, and Jack and Jorma didn’t like all that hoohah—they just wanted to be musicians.

Now, I’m a screw-off who got lucky. I’m not a really good musician—I can more or less play block chords on the piano. I’ll hear something in my head and sit down and bang on the piano until I get it. And I can write lyrics; that’s a little easier for me than the music. But Jack and Jorma are real musicians—they can read music and, now, they actually teach during the summer. I was OK with doing publicity because I can sit around and pose and answer questions. And that’s why they stopped—it just wasn’t for them. And Jefferson Starship is still going on, in one form or another.

JK: Two things were evolving at the same time. Grace recently asked Jack: “Why did you guys leave the band anyway?” If I had to do things over again, I would have done it in a more adult way rather than vanishing from the scene. But, at that time, I was just growing away from it. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the band, or didn’t like the music; I was just becoming more involved in where I was going musically. Jefferson Airplane is such an interesting beast on so many levels because we had the big hit with “Somebody to Love,” and “White Rabbit” to a lesser degree, but we weren’t really a hit-making band.

ROCK -AND-ROLL RETIREMENT

GS: I haven’t been on the road for years, and, now, I have a foot condition that really keeps me from going anywhere. I felt very uncomfortable being an old person on a rock-and-roll roll stage. If somebody else wants to do it—and the Stones actually still do it very well—that’s fine, but I felt like a jerk so I stopped. I felt like a jerk doing it even when I was 40, and I stopped when I was 49, besides a couple of benefits, and shifted over to painting, which actually came first. I used to paint angels when I was little, and my parents made them into Christmas cards. I’m not a genius, but I don’t suck either. As I said, I only do one thing at a time. I only have one car, one child, one house, one job. I just don’t double up—one man at a time, too. [Laughs.]

JK: It’s a dangerous thing for me to say because I was part of it, but we were a significant American band in a lot of ways. We were our own masters at all times. We had three lead singers and whoever’s song it was, obviously, ended up being the big dog. And the other two singers did the really interesting harmonies. I exist in the Americana world more often than not and I love it, but those traditional Americana harmonies, in some ways, are predictable in their nature. The harmonies that Grace and the guys came up with were so off the wall. As a player, it was exciting stuff.

JC: Before Jorma and I did some [Airplane tribute shows a few years ago], we sat down like we used to when we were so much younger—in a hotel room, on the edge of a bed with a guitar and a bass. We relistened to the records in order to get the style and the feeling of the day and were just amazed at how complicated we made a lot of these songs. [Laughs.]

We’ve also been going back and pulling out some old songs for [Hot Tuna’s] 50th anniversary, which has been fun. Jorma and I just finished this long summer tour and, at the very last concert, we looked at each other and said, “This is more fun than it’s ever been.”