How Jefferson Airplane Defined the 'Summer Of Love'

Perhaps Jefferson Airplane's "Surrealistic Pillow" will remain the anthem of the Summer of Love, but it does not contain the whole arc -- its successors are two other tantalizing pieces of a story that can never truly be told in retrospect.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Jefferson Airplane's 1967 album, "Surrealistic Pillow" is one of the most enduring and beloved representations of San Francisco's Summer of Love. Indeed, the anthemic "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" define the Airplane for much of the public, and some of the album's deep tracks, such as "Plastic Fantastic Lover" and "Today," are also gems in the band's catalogue, but the social impact of the album is just as significant as the music. Released several months before The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," "Pillow" exuded a new kind of liberation, and spoke for an as-of-yet unrepresented group of listeners who would go on to populate an entirely new psychedelic subculture as the snowball of the late 1960s kept on rolling.

But the often-idealized, now-legendary Summer of Love was just that--and when it was over, it was very much over. The new world that many romantics envisioned never came. The psychedelic mecca at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury was left impoverished and overcrowded, with disturbingly young homeless and increasingly hard drugs. But it was immediately clear that the aftermath of the Summer of Love would prove to be an interesting year for the original alumni of California's most far-out street.

Jefferson Airplane's next two albums after "Surrealistic Pillow" have been underestimated in their incredible window into the stunning rise and inevitable dissolution of summer '67. In November, the band released "After Bathing At Baxter's," possibly the band's most psychedelic effort ever, an album so rife with studio experimentation (and doubtless, experimentation of other types) that it took five months to record, from June to October 1967. Tracks like "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil" and "Wyld Thyme (H)" exemplified the vigor and frenzied creativity of the short-lived but legendary scene. Then in September 1968 came an album that many might not have expected of a former pop act -- Crown of Creation was almost mournful; the comedown from the previous summer's trip, gloomy, and lacking the peace, love and idealism that much of Airplane's audience had grown to expect.

The most obvious parallel between Crown and Baxter's comes in the form of two companionate tracks, "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil," Baxter's leadoff, and "House on Pooneil Corners," Crown's closer. Their parallels, outside of the titles (the name "Pooneil" being an amalgamation between folk musician Fred Neil and Winnie the Pooh) are musical and structural more than thematic. However, there are other equally revealing parallels that are not so easily identified.

For instance, both albums feature one song written about a character -- on "Baxter's," Kantner's haunting "Martha" is a childlike, ghostly celebration of a radiant beauty. On "Crown," we have "Lather," a track equally as delicate as "Martha" and no less poignant, written by vocalist Grace Slick on the occasion of Spencer Dryden's 30th birthday. "Lather" is a far more critical, patronizing song, though, incisively balancing humor and pity with the sober realization that the psychedelic generation was beginning to age. While much of the disparity in characterization can be chalked up to the differences between Kantner's and Slick's sensibilities as writers, there is more to it: "Martha" celebrates innocent idealism while "Lather" shows the Airplane losing faith in the youth culture of which they had become the reluctant leaders just a year earlier.

Baxter's most obvious love song, "Watch Her Ride," is ecstatic compared to the three primary love songs on Crown: Kantner's tender but tentative "In Time" and Balin's desperate, manic "If You Feel," are tinged with a darkness not present on Baxter's, and the album's single cover, David Crosby's "Triad," is a sly, sultry track that seems to take liberated interest in sexuality at its most subversive. Love and sexuality are not as simple on Crown as they were before, and the chief songwriters' new lyrics express hesitation, distance, and anxiety as well as blind adoration. Yet at the same time, the love songs of Crown feel much more personal than those of Baxter's. "I need love / your love/ it don't matter if it's rain or shine" is replaced by "dance, sing, sleep and dream / is the music of what I feel / among the many things whenever you're near in time."

In Crown's "House on Pooneil Corners," the Airplane seems to answer the question that they postulated in their closer of one album earlier, the exalted "Won't You Try:" We did try, yet something profoundly larger didn't, or couldn't, and thus, we failed together. A devastating finale, the track's crashing minor chords and wailing triple vocals definitely say a lot, but more so than anything, they insist that the dream is over. Jorma Kaukonen's always-distinctive guitar sounds like sirens -- The Man has won. But "Crown" is not entirely an album of defeat. With the soaring instrumentals and humor that always set the Airplane apart, it is clear that the band retains their spirit.

There is something consistent between "After Bathing At Baxter's" and "Crown of Creation" that changes the relationship between the albums from two contrasting items in a chronology to true complements. The Airplane's superb musicianship is consistent as always: bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden are arguably the finest rhythm section psychedelia ever saw, Jorma Kaukonen played guitar like an orchestra instead of an instrument, and Paul Kantner's combination of space-age sensibilities and folky singing grounded stratospheric dual vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin.

But on a deeper level, what "Baxter's" and "Crown" share is a desire to escape. On "Baxter's," the Airplane flees the pop mold that made them famous for a new psychedelic one meant to set them free, and on "Crown," the band finds that what they thought was their haven is no less limiting. Between the Airplane's later work and the drastically different offshoots (Jefferson Starship, Starship, Hot Tuna, KBC Band, etc.) that followed it, it is very clear that the group continued to see a curious need remain constantly in flux with the popular music scene, move and evolve as new things came to the table, and the success of this strategy varied over the years, but in the case of these two albums, Airplane is almost eerily attuned with its time. Perhaps Pillow will remain the anthem of the Summer of Love, but it does not contain the whole arc -- its successors only serve as two other tantalizing pieces of a story that can never truly be told in retrospect.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community