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On the Passing of the Jefferson Airplane

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It was sad enough that Jefferson Airplane founding member Paul Kantner, the keeper of the famed San Francisco band’s flame throughout its turbulent half-century, died last week, from heart failure. A deeper melancholy set in with news of the death the same day of the Airplane’s first female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson, from cancer. Both were 74.

The coincidence was eerie (cosmic?), but more acute is the sense of generational loss. With Paul’s and Signe’s deaths, the Sixties die yet again, for the Airplane were that era’s quintessential rock group ― flying bravely and brilliantly before stalling and flaming out, refashioning as power pop only to sputter again, occasionally striking a spark but never again to ride the zeitgeist.

Paul is remembered for many things, from his ferocious rhythm-guitar playing and “spaceman political” songwriting, as his former bandmate and intimate partner Grace Slick put it, to facing down the marauding Hells Angels at Altamont. I remember him above all as composer of the Airplane’s ― and perhaps any band’s ― most lyrical acid-tinged love songs. A limited genre, to be sure, but the three songs I have in mind are so tender, so alive and searching, and musically so vivid and new, that for me they have never stopped resounding. Yet none of them made it into the flattened canon that now stands in for what the Jefferson Airplane and the Sixties actually were.

The songs, in reverse chronological order, are “Young Girl Sunday Blues,” co-written with Marty Balin and heard in Marty’s plaintive, yearning tenor on the group’s third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, from late 1967; “D.C.B.A.-25,” from Surrealistic Pillow in early 1967, sung by Paul with Grace, who climbed aboard when Signe departed to care for her baby daughter; and “Run Around,” fronted by Signe and Paul on the Airplane’s debut record, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966), the first album to bear the imprint of the “San Francisco sound.”

If, as I believe, each is a pop-music masterpiece, it bears explaining why they never were recognized as such. For one thing, Grace’s star power so thoroughly dominated Surrealistic Pillow with the megahits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” that it partial-eclipsed everything else about the Airplane before and since. But their obscurity may also owe something to the songs themselves, which are neither anthem nor celebration; rather, they are ambivalent, filled with feelings that don’t quite resolve. More like life than the stuff of pop success.

“Run Around” announces itself with two measures of frailing electric-guitar arpeggios that practically “dance out to space” ― a lyric that appears in the song. These repeat twice, punctuated by chiming guitar chords which are themselves levitated by the gently insistent bass melody from the Airplane’s supremely gifted electric bassist Jack Casady.

Then come the vocals, in close, almost medieval harmony, and my ears say it’s Signe, Paul and Marty sharing a single mike. Their voices, a bit ethereal at the start, draw closer as their story of love lost turns to love re-found:

So slow down run around you’re outa sight

Walk with me and stay the night

We could be near like we used to be before

Aw girl I need more of the times that you turned me round

And there’s no time to turn away love I’ve found

The massed harmony opens to call and response ― Signe’s “walk with me” overlapping with and reinforcing Paul’s “stay the night.” The two aren’t begging but mutually beseeching as they recall what they made together:

So couldn’t we forget about today, start again from where we were

We used to dance out to space without a care

And our laughter come ringing and singing we rolled round the music

Blinded by colors come flashing from flowers that sway as you stay here by me

Yes, it’s psychedelic, but just the good acid. The chord sequence ― most likely by Paul on rhythm guitar ― builds not to the expected climax but to a daring irresolution: a tonic chord suspended over a fifth in the bass for four long beats. Paul and Signe haven’t ascended to a peak, just a resting place. The music’s harmonic ambivalence mirrors the narrative: a deep connection that may or may not endure.

The earlier stanza returns and gives way to a brief, restrained guitar solo before the concluding reprise. As the vocals resume, someone strikes a tambourine, a faint detail you catch if you’re listening closely. It’s a signpost ― a singular moment of improvised grace that, heard today, seems to carry a message from 1966 to the future.

Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, better known for “It’s No Secret” and “Let Me In” than “Run Around,” was followed by Surrealistic Pillow, the blockbuster album that established the Airplane as the adventurous but welcoming voice of the emerging San Francisco-based counterculture. Save for “Today,” a lugubrious ballad co-written with Balin, “D.C.B.A.-25” is Kantner’s only composition on the record.

The song is best known for its title, which paired a reference to the chemical nomenclature for acid, LSD-25, with its recurring bass line that appears in two guises — as D-C#-B-A corresponding to D major, followed by D-C-B-A conveying C major. Yet it too is a love song of sorts:

It’s time you walked away

set me free

I must move away

leave you be

time’s been good to us, my friend

wait and see how it will end

we come and go as we please

Even in goodbye, there are no tears or even regrets. The song ends optimistically:

I take great peace in your sitting there

searching for myself, I find a place there

I see the people of the world

where they are and what they could be

I can but dance behind your smile

you were the world to me for a while

The standard interpretation holds that “D.C.B.A.-25” is a farewell to LSD. That may be (I’ve left out the drug-suggestive lyrics). Who knows or cares now what Paul had in mind when he wrote it. When he and Grace sing invitingly of “purple-pleasure fields in the sun,” you are in Golden Gate Park or the East Bay hills on a never-ending afternoon. Suffused with generosity, “D.C.B.A.-25” is as buoyant and blissful as any song from that era.

The last in my Kantner trilogy, “Young Girl Sunday Blues,” appears on After Bathing at Baxter’s, the Airplane’s sprawling, ambitious and uneven successor to Surrealistic Pillow. Paul wrote five of the album’s eleven songs outright. “Young Girl Sunday Blues,” which he composed with Balin, is actually too solipsistic to qualify as a love song; the “girl” is more an idea than a person, and the story unfolds almost entirely in the narrator’s head.

Yet some fragments dazzle:

Don’t you know what I have found? Maybe you’ve found it too

Today is made of yesterday and tomorrow

Young girl Sunday blues and all her sorrow

What carries “Young Girl Sunday Blues” is the music. The guitars ring out, chime-like, the bass is melodic and kinetic, and Marty’s and Paul’s harmonized vocal is heartfelt and aching. The bridge is astounding, a labyrinth of chord changes that seem to blast through solid rock before circling back to reprise the opening verses. But the climax, which should be joyous, turns sour. The vocal turns insistent, pleading “Please me” over and over, until the guitars lurch and crash. We are less than two years from the wonder of “Run Around” but that innocent time feels far away.

I was a college junior when I first heard Takes Off and fell in love with “Run Around,” in early 1967. I shared it with my sister Ruth, a musician. She must have heard what I did, because the song joined our pantheon that extended from the Goldberg Variations and the Stravinsky Mass to Miles Davis and Frank Zappa. It was part of what bound us at the terrifying March on the Pentagon, through the murders of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the ascents of Nixon and Reagan, and the deaths of our parents in 1985 and 2000.

And one final horror: 9/11. A week after, I’ve made it back to my loft in locked-down lower Manhattan to remove spoiled food from the fridge. The electricity has come back on, and yes, the stereo still works. Can music possibly matter? I think of Ruth, three thousand miles away in L.A. and wishing she could help me and my family. I put on “Run Around.”

With the first wash of the arpeggiating guitar, I feel myself breathe differently, and somewhere during the song ― maybe at the lyric I quoted, or the soft tambourine ― my gloom lifts a little. Sorrow still pervades everything, but for the first time I can imagine being happy again someday.

The next weekend, walking in the country with friends, I remember that Ruth had been pleading with me for months to let go of hurt pride and reconcile with an estranged relative. No way would I. Then I hear Marty and Signe singing: “There’s no time to turn away love I’ve found.”

For Ruth, I did it.

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Charles Komanoff is an energy-policy analyst, transport economist and environmental activist in New York City. 

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