Monday, February 27, 2017

The Mothers Had a Weird Journey

[ED: Originally Published in Zoo World, April 23, 1973 and Written by Arthur Levy].

Courtesy of Getty Images
"The first time I ever took the Mothers out on the road I approached it from a sociological point of view. "After the first tour I made a statistical analysis, in a crude sort of way, of what had happened, trying to gauge response in different parts of the country. The customs, the folkways, and the morality at the time we went on the road varied widely from area to area. The first place we got off the plane when we did our first tour was Washington, D.C. We were doing a thing on a UHF station where a guy announced they were gonna have a freak out party on this record hop dance show and told all the kids to wear the weirdest clothes they could wear. And we had kids wearing two different socks and you worked your way down from there. That was a freak-out party at the time."
The Mothers of Invention
If omens still mean anything in America, the good kind of omen, then it's time we all congratulated Frank Zappa for keeping the Mothers of Invention alive for the seven years since an album called Freak Out! was first unleashed. And hope for at least another seven years of whatever it is that Frank has been doing until now, which is, uh ... weird, y'know?
"From there we went to Detroit and did a television show there. There was no audience to see and we played at a roller rink in some part of Detroit and the kids were still 1950s there.
"Then we went to Dallas and worked in a shopping center at a place with a TV show emanating from it. It was a sunken room with high windows that were at street level so the people could look in and see a TV show going on. And the kids were 1950s, still doing the dance where the legs go off to the side," and Frank makes an upside-down "V" and wiggles the two fingers to show how they danced.
"And I got back from that tour and I couldn't even imagine what was going on around the rest of the country 'cause I hadn't traveled that much prior to the tour. That was Analysis number 1: I came up with the result of total mystification on the part of all parties concerned. And it seemed that there was a definite need, in the audience, for an alternative to what they'd been presented with thus far in terms of music, entertainment, something to do. It seemed like most of the kids we saw on that tour had already been sold a complete bill of goods by everybody who was making novelties, men's wear, women's wear, shoes. They'd gotten a kit and each area was into its own little merchandising thing.
"Each tour after that I would gather little bits of information on what the kids were doing, what it was like to live in different parts of the country and up until now I think the South is probably still the best in terms of just the best attitude towards being alive."
If Frank's conversation seems a bit unorthodox compared to what you know or have heard about him over the years, it might be because he was talking over dinner in a Bavarian restaurant not too far from a stage where he and the newest aggregate of Mothers were to play a return to Florida, of sorts, a place that Zappa had known well ever since he inaugurated Marshall Brevitz's Thee Image (forerunner to Thee Experience, the rock hall whose name he took with him to California when Jim Morrison shut out the lights on rock 'n roll in Miami, March, 1969), warming up the club for bands like Led Zeppelin, Moby Grape, the Jefferson Airplane, Spirit, the Grateful Dead, and a host of other bands that Marshall Brevitz brought to Miami regularly in the heyday of 1968. 
Now Frank Zappa sits in a Bavarian restaurant surrounded by people who've long since forgotten about such things and, frankly, hardly even notice the table with the twelve musicians and hangers-on. Between bits of goulash and splaetzle (Frank calls it "dumpling debris"; Steve the Roadie calls it "dumpling leavings") Frank talks about Marshall in California.
"He's in Los Angeles. My last two albums were recorded in his studio, Paramount. He doesn't own it any more, though, it was changed over, sold out over somebody's head.
"It was a good studio that's really good to work in but it's so busy that they don't have adequate time to maintain the equipment. So you take your chances. You go in there and a vital piece of equipment might not work. So the engineer will call the maintenance man who'll call Marshall who'll sort of show up with something to eat, you know, while you're sitting there waiting for the machine to work. We've been served barbecued dessicated chicken and hot dogs and many things. I had so many equipment failures there that the next time it's gotta be pheasant under chartreuse or I'm not coming back. Pathetic."
Business is bizness with Frank, though, and any talk is inevitably going to wander in the direction of Herb Cohen, Frank's legendary business manager and dealer supremo who's had his say in everything from Wild Man Fischer and the GTO's to Alice Cooper, Tim Buckley, and Ruben and the Jets, the latest Bizarre spinoff.
"Herb's doing fine, he's into architecture now. We just bought an office building on Sunset Blvd. and we renovated it - what do I mean 'we' - Herb designed some decorations for the building which are not exactly my idea of a good time but he likes it and he's gotta work there.
"You see, Herb, being a world traveler, has seen architecture of many lands. And one of his favorites is the Moorish Arch. Only the Moorish Arch, in all of its grandeur, has been translated into stucco by some guys he found in Los Angeles. He says 'Open these windows here, a Moorish Arch,' like that. And they say 'We can do it', so they bend a little tin and put stucco around it and they're all different and all crooked.
"But it has a courtyard in the middle of the office building and he can sit in his office and look across and see two ugly Moorish Arches. That gets him off, really, he loves it. There's a few other designs and factors he's come up with. We've got an 11-foot hand-carved door in the front. It was quite attractive for the first, I'd give it, 3 weeks. And then suddenly the weather got to it. They must've put one coat of varnish on it and already the parts are getting weird. So it's not Apple Records, what the heck."
Apple should live so long. With the great Southern and Western Expedition under full throttle (a Midwestern and Eastern Expedition are slated for April or May; Japan, Australia, and New Zealand are scheduled in June; and an invitation to the Iron Curtain countries of Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia is also under consideration - all with this band) things are under a full head of steam, with an awful lot of attention focused on young Jean-Luc Ponty, the French violinist Zappa has known but a short time.
"I met him over here, he was working on some albums for World Pacific, about 2 or 3 years ago. I got a phone call from Dick Bock, the producer, who said he wanted to introduce him to me and I said 'sure' and he came over to the house.
"I'd heard of him before but his English wasn't as good then as it is now and so we couldn't talk very much at that time. It was a little weird, heh heh. But his English is a lot better now especially since he's seeing parts of the U.S. that a European tourist might never go to. Learning about things like the Waffle House, which is real big in Georgia."
The album that came out of that initial meeting was called King Kong, a remarkable work when you consider that budgetary limitations put studio time at a premium and restricted several of Jean-Luc's solos to one take only. But now, with Jean-Luc and Frank working together, things are more promising.
"We've recorded some stuff already that's gonna be released. There's one piece that I like very much, just he and I playing together. He's playing the baritone violin and I'm playing the bouzouki, which, in case you don't know, is a Greek, long-necked mandolin that I had tuned a funny way. And we improvised a duet that's about 12 minutes - turned out really good. I haven't named it yet but you'll know it when it comes out cause it doesn't sound like anything you've ever heard before."
The band is being recorded every night it plays - on one sixteen track machine (just in case something of album quality should transpire), one reel-to-reel stereo unit, and two cassette decks, which the band listens to collectively on the bus or plane between dates. The cassettes are the best learning device available, according to Frank, allowing the musicians to adjust whole sections of the presentation if necessary, relative to each other.
"Because of the instrumentation and because of the whole thing being spread out across the stage, there's no one person in the band who can hear all of the parts at any one time. You really can't tell – I don't even trust my own judgment from what I hear onstage because I don't have any perspective of it. I hear more of George's amp (George Duke, ex-Cannonball Adderley and Waka Jawaka keyboard man) cause it's right behind me and I can only guess what's going on in other parts of the stage.
"So when everybody listens to a tape of it all have an equal shot at tightening things up. I think it's a very practical way to do it and it's all for the benefit of the audience 'cause they get a better program out of it," which is spoken with the smiliest smile Frank has smiled since the conversation began.
Once the band is to the point where all the "musical technical" stuff is memorized it's time to work on the choreography, always a vital part of any Mothers assemblage onstage.
"It's structured up to this point: I say 'at this point everybody will move', I won't say exactly what they're supposed to do. One implication is that they're to twitch rhythmically at a certain area, cause if you start saying '2 to the right, 2 to the left, back up' and all that stuff, it's gonna look hokey. But just the idea that a sudden burst of kinetic energy is released onstage at that musical moment where it means something is very effective.
'"I think that it tends to emphasize what the music is doing. The other main advantage is that when you work in a hall that holds 10-15,000 people, anybody who's halfway back in the hall sees you the size of a peanut. And if you're standing absolutely still while you're playing the visual element of the program suffers greatly and the person in the audience starts to nod out. It's hard for them to retain a long interest span on inanimate objects. But if you keep it moving a little bit ..."
Returning to the gig on the bus after dinner at Bavarian Delight, Frank mused into a song called 'Montana', a story song almost as outrageous as 'Billy the Mountain', the mammoth production epic that was the highwater mark of Flo 'n Eddie's tenure with Zappa. 'Montana' is considerably shorter than 'Billy The Mountain' when performed onstage ('Billy' took 4 weeks to put together and 6 months to perfect on-stage before it was recorded) with an interesting story to it:
I might be movin' to Montana soon,
just to raise me up a crop of dental floss.
Raisin' it up, waxin' it down,
in a little plastic box I can sell uptown.
By myself I wouldn't have no boss,
but I'd be raisin' my lonely dental floss.

The last thing anyone ever mentions to Frank Zappa these days seems to be Flo 'n Eddie, ex-Turtles Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, who've risen to the heels of success now, not quite a year since leaving Frank's company. While there are those of us who maintain that Flo 'n Eddie's disposition to Frank is considerably kinder and more good-natured than say, the attitudes of his ex-bass player Orejon (now back with Captain Beefheart, himself not the world's most fanatical Zappa-booster), Frank nevertheless maintains a strict attitude in their direction, especially concerning the hype Flo 'n Eddie disseminated to get some initial publicity when they left the Mothers.

"I was amazed that they could be so low-grade cause they were saying some outrageous lies and stuff just to get some kind of copy in the papers. View it as you wish, sensationalism, mere sensationalism."

Zappa and the band spent two and a half hours on-stage for their Florida audience and no one yelled out for 'Louie, Louie' even once. Or 'Caravan' with a drum solo, for that matter. Or 'Help, I'm A Rock'. Instead it was 'The Zombie Woof', you see, as Frank says: "A 'Zombie Wolf' would come from New England but a 'Zombie Woof' is interdenominational, he's Interfaith, you know what I mean? That's all I can tell you."

Friday, February 17, 2017

Them: How "Gloria" Became the First Lady of Rock 'n' Roll

by Mitchell Cohen, Music Aficionado:!/article/how_gloria_became_the_first_lady_of_rock_n_roll_by_mitchellcohen

Courtesy of Getty Images
Gloria is built on just three chords that any garage band can play and that almost every garage band has.

Yet the list of artists who have covered this simple tune include many who sit on top the rock pantheon: Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Patti Smith, Tom Petty, David Bowie, R.E.M., Iggy Pop, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Elvis Costello … Bill Murray strapped on a guitar and played it at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival, the Grateful Dead used to jam on it, and it might be the only song that Jon Bon Jovi and Johnny Thunders have in common.

How did such a minimal song have such a huge impact? Why does it still reverberate today, in arenas, at festivals, in bars and studios? And how did Gloria become such a resilient rock and roll heroine?

What we know about Gloria

Written more than fifty years ago by Van Morrison for his band Them, the story the song tells couldn’t be more archetypal: the singer (usually but not always male) knows this girl and he’s eager to tell us about her, but he doesn’t (again, usually) share much in the way of detail. She comes down the street, up to a room, knocks on a door, enters, makes the singer extremely happy.

She is, nearly all the time, about five feet, four inches tall (on the original demo, she was five feet). As physical descriptions go, that’s at once very specific and very incomplete. Dark-haired or light, curvy or slender, who knows? At just about midnight, she appears. There is, we can assume, something sensual about the way she moves, because the song itself slithers with an air of hypnotic mystery, those three chords (E-D-A) setting the scene.

On the debut studio recording by Them, Morrison takes the listener into his confidence, and it’s a little like bragging, as guys do. He wants to tell us about his baby (on the demo, she’s his “gal”), but aside from her head-to-the-ground measurement, he doesn’t tell us much. She makes him feel good. For some reason, he feels compelled to spell out her name before he says it, “G-L-O-R-I-A,” as though it were something exotic or complicated. It’s not.

OK, so she does whatever she does with Van, and instead of describing what that might be, he spells her name again. He wants to make sure we get that right, maybe in case the police find him in his room one night, the victim of foul play, and we’re asked who the perpetrator might be. I’m not certain, officer, but he’s been seeing this woman who’s about five feet, four inches, and her name is G-L-O-R-I-A.

“Gloria” was cut at Decca’s studio in West Hempstead in the summer of 1964, the first Them session. Them had been doing the song live for a while in Ireland clubs, but from all reports, they were not the most adept musicians in the studio, so the producer brought in some ringers, and here’s where the saga of “Gloria” gets a little fuzzy.

It’s pretty clear from the audio evidence - compare the demo’s sluggish drumming to the finished studio version - that London’s top session drummer Bobby Graham was recruited. Graham told an interviewer for the Independent that Morrison “was really hostile as he didn’t want session men at his recordings. I remember the MD, Arthur Greenslade, telling him we were only there to help. He calmed down but he didn’t like it.”

In addition to Graham, guitarist Jimmy Page was, in all probability, on board. Page: “It was very embarrassing on the Them sessions. With each song, another member of the band would be replaced by a session player … talk about daggers! You’d be sitting there, wishing you hadn’t been booked.”

There’s something so compelling about the record, the rawness, the sudden startling instrumental leap midway through, Morrison’s intensity, the erotic momentum, the flurry of drums at the end. It was the sexiest thing. And it was stuck on a B-side, the flip of Them’s second U.K. single,“Baby Please Don’t Go.”

In England, “Baby Please Don’t Go” went to #10; in America, on Parrot Records, “Gloria” was the side that got a bit of attention, and it made it into the top 100 (#93 peak) for exactly one week in May 1965. That might have been that for “Gloria.” Except it wasn’t. You know the line about how the Velvet Underground’s first album didn’t sell many copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band?

It was like that with “Gloria”: it wasn’t a hit, but all around the world, local bands who discovered it found a Holy Grail. How many group rehearsals everywhere began with “Let’s try ‘Gloria’?” If you hadn’t been playing guitar for very long, this was an instant entry-level classic, and if you were playing gigs and didn’t have many songs in your live arsenal, you could stretch out on “Gloria” for a while, just keep that going. If you had a kid on Vox organ in your little combo, even better.

Which U.S. group latched on to it earliest? Depends who you ask.

Some sources attribute the premiere American cover to the Human Beinz from Youngstown, Ohio, who released it on an independent EP (they later had their one hit with a cover of the Isley Brothers’ “Nobody But Me”). There’s also some evidence that the Mississippi band the Gants jumped on the ball first.

It’s a track on their 1965 album, and singer-guitarist Sid Herring, in the liner notes of the compilation Road Runner! The Best of the Gants, says “Our version went to number three in Chicago even though it wasn’t on a single. But our record company kept telling us, ‘That’s not the hit,’ even though we begged ’em to put it out. When I first heard the version by the Shadows of Knight on the radio. I said, ‘Hey guys, they’re playing our record.’ They’d copied it so close that for about ten seconds I thought it was us.” The A&R people at Liberty, the Gants’ label, were probably right; their take on it is a little too unruly to be a radio hit. Even if Shadows of Knight, from Chicago, did hear the Gants’ “Gloria” on the radio and were inspired to mimic it, their version is cleaner and more pop.

By the time the Shadows of Knight record went top ten in the spring of 1966 (Parrot even re-released the Them 45 to compete with it, and it cracked the hot 100 again), “Gloria” was on its way to being ubiquitous. You couldn’t escape it: the Hombres, the Bobby Fuller Four, Thee Midniters, the Outsiders, the 13th Floor Elevators all did it; there were versions in France, Yugoslavia, Indonesia, Australia, Brazil, Germany, Mexico.

An all-girl band called the Belles redid it as “Melvin,” a less mellifluous name to shout (and spell); the Challengers and Sandy Nelson cut it as instrumentals, which sort of missed the point. Most versions were fairly straight-forward replicas of the Them/Shadows of Knight template, but other artists took considerable liberties. It became the “Aristocrats” joke of ’60s rock: once you established the basic premise, you could go off on any kind of improvisatory walkabouts as long as you eventually landed on the punchline: “G-L-O-R-I-A.”

There are all kinds of amendments. Midway through, the singer of the Trashmen says, “This is starting to sound like a Trini Lopez record,” which really makes me want to hear a Trini Lopez version of “Gloria.” And some of the foreign versions don’t get the translation too precise, “What I feel about my baby,” the vocalist of Delfini (from Yugoslavia) starts the song, “She calms me down.” Which is only time you’ll hear Gloria described as relaxing. Also, he seems to spell her name “G-L-O-I.”

By Them and the Shadows of Knight, the song clocked in at a tidy two and a half minutes, but that was too constricting for groups like the Hangmen, the Blues Magoos, and the Amboy Dukes, all of whom easily exceeded the five-minute mark and turned it into early psychedelic-rock. The Standells, live in 1966, turned the song into comedic fodder, the singer saying that Gloria looked like “Jayne Mansfield with a hernia” (whatever that means), making a “booby trap” joke, and confessing that when Gloria came up to his room, she took out her false teeth and gummed him to death.

Part of the brilliance of “Gloria” is in its vagueness and ambiguity. It feels explicit, but that’s a trick. The whole song is an ellipsis. Gloria is an object of desire, someone who makes it all so easy: she comes up to your room, raps at your door (at a Bottom Line gig years ago, T-Bone Burnett compared her knock to the drum beat of Al Jackson Jr. from the M.G.’s), no pining, no scheming (feminists might point out that the feel-so-good factor is one-sided; we don’t know if Gloria’s night ends satisfactorily).

The narrative is a sketch, but over the years, some of its interpreters have felt compelled to flesh it out. Leave it to Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix to make the goings-on considerably more graphic. It was a part of the Doors’s set since their nights on the L.A. club circuit (you can hear how the dynamics of “Gloria” got appropriated for the “Light My Fire” climax, for example), and the American Morrison went much further in his on-stage embellishments, some of which came out officially on posthumous Doors releases.

He addresses Gloria directly, and sometimes there’s a predatory creepiness: “Meet me at the graveyard, meet me after school.” On one released version, he yells, “Here she is in my room, oh boy!” and for nine minutes it’s like a cautionary after-school special: her dad is at work, her mom is out shopping, and he’s giving her aerobic instruction: “Wrap your legs around my neck/Wrap your arms around my feet/Wrap your hair around my skin.” Some of it is like an interview, or a prehistoric internet chat: “Hey, what’s your name, how old are you, where’d you go to school?” What’s her name? Is he missing the whole point of this song?

Not to be outdone, Jimi Hendrix, on a pretty slamming off-the-cuff version with the Experience from October 1968, also asks her name (have they never heard this song before?), and she replies (he says), “It don’t make no difference anyway … you can call me Gloria.” Wait a minute: you can call her Gloria? Has this been a pseudonym all along? Is she a call girl? (that would explain the midnight knocking). A groupie? More likely.

Hendrix mentions that Mitch Mitchell and Noel Redding also have “Gloria”s, and there is some kind of “scene” going on that involves the arrival of a pot dealer and, subsequently, the police. “Gloria, get off my chest,” Jimi says. “We gotta get out of here.” Meanwhile, he’s playing some amazing guitar, and Mitchell is just on fire, and the song is a long way from its beginnings with Them.

Van Morrison

It still belonged to Van Morrison, who has had a notoriously ambivalent relationship with some of his earlier hits, but has almost always stuck with “Gloria”: it’s on his landmark live album It’s Too Late to Stop Now, and he’s revisited it over and over through the years, on record with John Lee Hooker, live with U2 (who not only have done Morrison’s song, but wrote their own song called “Gloria”) and Elvis Costello, on TV with Jools Holland’s big band.

But in 1975, Patti Smith found a way to radically reinterpret it by incorporating it into the lead track from her debut album Horses. The cut is in two parts, the first ("In Excelsis Deo") starts off with a stark statement of intent - “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine” - and keeps building and building until Smith through a window, sees a “sweet young thing,” and she’s transfixed.

It’s almost unbearably tense, the way Patti’s group coils around the melody, the rising excitement in her voice. It’s midnight (naturally: that’s when this always happens), and the woman comes up the stairs in “a pretty red dress” and knocks on the door, and you don’t even realize it, but the song is sneakily turning into Van Morrison’s: Patti asks the girl’s name. “And her name is … and her name is … and her name is … G …” you know the rest.

With this performance, Patti’s done two things. She’s made a breathtaking breakthrough that’s completely new, and connected it with rock tradition (her guitarist Lenny Kaye is steeped in the era of “Gloria,” and compiled the essential garage-rock collection Nuggets). It was a tremendous cultural moment.

Nothing has been able to stop “Gloria” because the song is whatever it needs to be. It’s remained a rock staple. Iggy Pop did it live (and singing “I-G-G-Y-P-O-P”), Joe Strummer’s pre-Clash band the 101’ers had it in their repertoire and so did Bon Scott’s group the Spektors, Santa Esmeralda cut in in ’77. On his 1978 tour, Bruce Springsteen often would include it as part of a medley with “She’s The One,” and sometimes “Not Fade Away.” R.E.M. was performing it in the eighties, and so was David Bowie, in conjunction with his own “The Jean Genie” (and, at least once, with “Maria” from West Side Story).

Some more recent live interpretations stand out. At Red Rocks (2001), Rickie Lee Jones starts to play it, and after about a minute and a half, it turns into a reminiscence. The band keeps on riffing on those three chords, those chords that give the singer all the freedom in the world to amplify, to comment, to reflect.

“I was twelve when this song came out,” she says, “and I have never forgotten, I would never forget, that’s why I will never get old, what it felt like to me as he described this [and here she pauses] girl.” “I’m gonna shout it all night, gonna shout it every day,” the song goes, and if you were around twelve years old when it came out, as Rickie Lee was, or you were more like fifteen or sixteen, as Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty were, that shout of ecstasy was something that made possibilities open up for you. And that’s why Springsteen (who introduced it at a 2008 show by saying “Bring it back to where it all started! Follow me boys!”) and Petty can’t stop going back to it. It probably was where it all started, in their nascent rocking days.

Petty makes it almost like a prequel. It became a set-piece for him and the Heartbreakers in the late nineties, and up to this century, and there are versions floating around, from German TV, from Bonnaroo, where he unspools a story about walking on an uptown street and approaching this woman: “Don’t walk so fast,” he tells her. “I’m a true believer and I loved you at first sight.” She spurns him, she bolts (in one version, she tells him he smells like marijuana), and he’s getting nowhere.

Like Springsteen in “Rosalita,” he plays the only card he has. “I got this little rock and roll band,” he says. “Things are going good.” We don’t know what happens, ultimately, except this: all he wants to know is her name, this tiny shred of information. And suddenly, he hears it. Not from her, but from the wind. The wind began to sing her name. At this point, Petty’s audience knows what its part is, and the band has been patiently waiting for this eruptive moment, and like a huge gust of wind, the name rises up from the crowd, louder and louder: “Gloria!” Because even five decades after she first appeared, there’s no one anywhere who doesn’t know who she is, and the power she has.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Crown of Creation’ by Jefferson Airplane

“Is it true that I’m no longer young?” Grace Slick sang in “Lather,” the luscious and cinematic opening number of “Crown of Creation.”
Slick was singing about the arrested development of her lover, the Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden, but by extension she addressed the fast-forward aging afflicting the San Francisco scene. That sunny Summer of Love had given away to the chill winds of LBJ’s 1968.
“Crown of Creation” finds the Airplane coming of age, wary but not yet transformed into the jaded radical-chic collective that rolled out “Volunteers” a year later. The erratic and playful psychedelia of “After Bathing at Baxter’s” gives way to songwriting for adults:
“Long time since I climbed down this mountain before,” a weary-sounding Martin Balin sings on “In Time.” “Things I’ve seen here make me want to go running home.”

Slick, a painter, ponders the 1960s’ boho dance - underground art as commerce - on the album’s single, “Greasy Heart”:
He’s going off the drug thing ’cause his veins are getting big
He wants to sell his paintings but the market is slow
They’re only paying him 2 grams now
For a one-man abstract show
And has anyone ever captured the highs and lows of the hippie era better than Kanter in this lyric from the title track, boiled down to haiku: “You are the crown of creation / and you’ve got no place to go.”

The unease comes packaged beautifully. The band performs with precision and assurance, lead by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, team players and not yet a faction (their work at times points to the heavy metal of the great live album to follow, “Bless Its Pointed Little Head”).

Time is a major theme. War and the sickening events of 1968 are the undercurrents. “Crown of Creation” does no duty as a concept album, however. It is a collection of songs, some far better than others, most of them recorded on-the-run while the band met its rock-star obligations.

Jefferson Airplane psychedelic band

Despite the album’s prescience and longevity, it remains woefully underrated - here we have the Airplane at their psychedelic peak. They soon would become a rock band, angry and disenfranchised, but with one great album left in them.

“Crown of Creation” opens with a triple offering of morning maniac music.

Slick’s “Lather” employs studio effects to tell its tale of an aging man child. It was inspired by Dryden’s turning 30, and by the arrest of bassist Casady for nudity. The effects - a child’s fearful query; a blast of firepower from a tank - flirt with kitsch, but hold up well. Slick uses a conversational storyteller’s tone, lovely and knowing. “I’m singing the song quietly and softly, like a little kid,” she recalled years later. All other studio Airplane albums open with rockers; commencing with this quiet number is part of “Crown of Creation’s” confident genius.

Balin and Kantner’s “In Time” celebrates a lover, a hippie chick cast in psychedelic tones, “in the colors of what I feel.” A less obvious companion to “Baxter’s” “Martha.” “In Time” brings to mind the softer side of L.A. band Love.

David Crosby’s “Triad” completes the opening trilogy. Slick finds the humanity in Crosby’s come-on to a pair of competing lovers. It is the closest to an embrace (and reaffirmation) of the hippie ideal to be found on the album, and it remains stunning.

Things get back to Airplane(/Hot Tuna) business as usual with Kaukonen’s “Star Track,” a meditation on fame and the scarcity of time. Kaukonen works out with his wah-wah pedal - the guitar effect is your constant companion on this album - warning the listener: “Running fast you’ll go down slow in the end.”

Balin’s “Share a Little Joke” delivers a seemingly whimsical message, belied by the instrumental chaos just below the surface. “I believe in half of you,” Balin sings to his friend. The song reportedly touches on mental illness.

Drummer Dryden gets credit for the brief bit of electronic music, “Chushingura.” It’s a sort-of sequel to “Baxter’s” “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly.” Dryden has said it was inspired by the soundtrack to an old samurai film.

Side 2 opens with more generic Airplane and more wah, as Balin works out on the tambourine-shaking ode to freedom “If You Feel.”

Kantner’s classic title track marches to martial beat. The bandleader foresees the yuppie apocalypse in the pages of a science fiction novel:
Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for
In the only way that it’s granted
In a place among the fossils of our time
(Kantner borrowed from the post-apocalyptic novel “The Chrysalids”).

“It’s trying to make the point that science fiction is politics, and politics is science fiction,” Kantner later explained.

“Ice Cream Phoenix” has Kaukonen returning to the scarcity of time, with Slick providing a surreal vocal interlude.

The rocker “Greasy Heart” finds Slick in full badass mode, dispensing advice in a jumble of words straight out of Lewis Carrol. “Don’t ever change, people,” she warns. “Your face will hit the fan.” It’s a slap at cosmetic beauty and plastic people - a la “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” “It sounds like I’m pointing fingers, but (I was) living it,” the former model has said.

“The House on Pooneil Corners” concludes the album with a scalding dose of acid rock. The title and the familiar amp-shaking feedback that begins the song suggest it’s a mirror-image sequel to “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” from “Baxter’s.” Kaukonen, Casady and Dryden slash and burn their way through as Slick’s Middle Eastern-influenced vocals summon the darkness.

Lyricists Balin and Kantner’s vision is distinctly apocalyptic:
Everything someday will be gone except silence
Earth will be quiet again
Seas from clouds will wash off the ashes of violence
Left as the memory of men
There will be no survivor my friend
Truth in advertising: The cover of “Crown of Creation” showed the band caught up in a mushroom-shaped cloud. The h-bomb, Kantner said, is our civilization’s technological crown - and the thermonuclear holocaust one very possible outcome seen from the badlands of 1968.