Now here is a unique band. Six disparate musicians creating such a beautiful noise. I have to admit that it took me a while to really enjoy their non-hits. I was raised, 20 years too late, on White Rabbit and Somebody to love. Like Jazz, it takes a bit to tune your ear to their particular style. Sure, the aforementioned hits are undeniable, it was their more unusual song structures that took a bit of getting used to.
The most famous line-up for Jefferson Airplane was not their first. The orignal female lead singer, Singe Toly Anderson, left in 1966 to have a baby. Jefferson Airplane wanted to keep the male-female dual lead and went looking for a replacement singer. There were two female singers in the San Francisco area that caught the eye of Jefferson Airplane before Singe left (I wonder how often Singe thinks about what could have been): Grace Slick and Janis Joplin. Grace Slick was already in a band called, The Great Society. Janis was looking for a band. Thankfully they chose Grace Slick over Janis Joplin, though I doubt Janis would have joined anyway – she had other lives to ruin. Grace dumped her band, but not without taking the songs, White Rabbit and Somebody to Love, with her.
And so was born a band that seemed to always be there when a cultural paradigm shift was about to happen. They played the Monterey Pop Festival beautifully (their performance in the film is nothing short of stunning – they were probably the coolest band in America at that time). Stayed up all night, snorting grooves into a table, before taking the stage early in the morning at Woodstock, and putting on a pretty decent show – the hits sounded a little anemic, but they really stretched out on their longer tunes. They tried their best to play at Altamont (the antithesis to Woodstock), that was until Marty Balin, got knocked unconscious by a member of the Hells Angels. Ah, he probably had it coming. Really, they should have punched out Paul Kanter…the smug bastard.
The live footage in Fly Jefferson Airplane is excellent. Pretty much all of their biggest hits are covered. The film begins with some live footage, including Signe, singing, It’s No Secret. It is not actual footage of them playing the song (the audio is overdubbed), but it starts the film off nicely and it looks great. Lots of young kids twirling around in a psychedelicized ballroom in San Francisco. Singe sounds perfect accompanying Marty Balin (the sixties castrato) – just listening to the song as I write this. It is kind of funny, if you see a picture of her she looks a little like Grace’s less pretty sister – a little more homey (not homely). I feel sorry for Marty, it was really hard to tell sometimes whether it was him singing or not.
The interviews are kept pretty civil for this documentary. There is a VH1 special out there where they rip each other to pieces. Well, more like everyone rips apart drummer, Spencer Dryden. Probably because they were jealous that he and Grace Slick were a couple for a while and that it affected the band dynamics. Spencer Dryden was eventually shown the door, but Fly Jefferson Airplane, handles his departure in a much more dignified manner than the VH1 special. Grace later hooked up with Paul Kanter – did I mention he is an asshole. Just want to make sure that I get that across. He has a very punchable face. Paul Kanter comes across as the kind of guy who’d insult you for buying a book in a bookshop he owned.
I do recommend the VH1 special, if you can find it, as it has some great footage of Grace freaking out at a German Audience about WWII. A little late, Grace – a lot of them weren’t even born till after the war ended, but you tell’em. This was during the…what was that band called again, oh yeah – Terrible Starship, era. The best part is the audience starts to leave, and then they all seem to simultaneously come to the conclusion that it would be better to stay and watch a star self destruct. It really is something to see as they file back into their seats with a, “yes, please continue, we are Germans, we can take it” sort of attitude. Only politicians and rock starts can embarrass themselves on such a large-scale. I have been pretty drunk in my life, but I have never gone off on a stadium full of Germans – and had it filmed.
There is one particular moment in the film where the Jefferson Airplane steal some street-cred from the Beatles. French film director, Jean-Luc Godard, asked them to play on top of a building in New York, at lunch hour, for a movie he was making – none of the band really seem to remember it, just another day at the office. It really looks like the Beatles stole this moment for their last live performance in their film, Let It Be. This is probably the most interesting live footage in the documentary. Jack Cassidy (bass) and Jorma Kaukonen (lead guitar) had become a pretty fearsome duo at this point and make this particular song sound pretty heavy for a Jefferson Airplane tune.
The documentary ends with their induction into the Rock and Roll hall of fame. Strangely, the song that is featured, couldn’t have less to do with them as a band. All we see is Jorma Kauken playing his beautiful, and a little sad on this occasion, Embryonic Journey, set to overlaid shots of the band in their prime. Ah…we were all young and beautiful once.