This is a consideration of music and memory: how each evokes, enriches, and enhances the other. This is about Woodstock and Jefferson Airplane. It is about a time four decades back, about today, and about tomorrow.
A week that began badly ended worse. Unable to sleep yet equally unable to work, I ended up somewhat dreaming and somewhat conscious as late Saturday night evolved into Sunday midmorning. I tried to sleep, read, and watch movies, but I would slip into the briefest of sleeps, only to soon wake as cannons fired explosives in my head.
If only the week had not so well matched the last month and full summer. The heat of every day and night, piled on all that has already accumulated, means that now to touch is to touch fire.
All is jumbled here; nothing is clearly defined. There is little difference between interior and exterior landscapes – what is present shifts between dream and memory, between the past as it was, the present as it is, and the future as its imagined.
The way back is the same as the way forward: using solid memories of family, friends, food, films, meals, memories, romance, music, and comrades as points in making an illustrated, montage map. Place the real next to the surreal, the remembered by the imagined, Polaroids of memories, hallucinations, delusions, great voids, dialogue, family members, meals, music, bits of dreams, the logic of nightmares.
I'm sobbing as I write this, been sobbing for hours now. I'm trapped between the power of memory and the grace of God. There is so much talk of and so many different stories about Woodstock now that we are 40 years on. I wasn't there. I totaled a car just as I began to drive there, but I'm not sure I would have ever made it anyway, even without the accident. I'm not sure I had the courage.
Now, in my mythology, that event on Max Yasgur's farm has never meant that much or been all that important. But in the background, talking of Woodstock, is that anchor voice that evidences that there is no understanding of what it is saying yet delivers in a tone that implies that what is being said is as known to the speaker as morning toast lightly buttered and coffee.
I gather memories: a family dinner on Cape Cod with my sisters, their husbands, my wife, my parents, and all our children everywhere. I think of scallops, of platters heaped with fish and vegetables.
The memory is one of color. It is of Ondine, the Pope of Andy Warhol's Factory, the star of Chelsea Girls. He had been staying with us for about a week. His last night with us, wearing his way-too-bright red pajamas, he cooked beef Stroganoff for Ed Lowry, Marjorie Baumgarten, and me.
There was a regular breakfast gathering that Fred Bayless and I hosted on Sunday mornings in our house right near Jamaica Pond in Boston. Gradually, the house would fill with friends, unindicted co-conspirators, ex-lovers, lovers, some that were soon to be lovers, and all who were too soon to be ex-lovers.
Children were everywhere – like fields of wheat rippling in the breeze, only within apartment walls. All are grown adults now; I've heard snippets of their stories since then. One took to saving souls, while another got rich dealing in gold. One ended up making music, almost became a star, but finally couldn't hold on any longer at all. His sister ("just like the Rose of Sharon," as her father would say) used to cry out in the middle of the night. Sometimes then, and always in the morning, I'd change her diapers; now she teaches literature at an Ivy League school.
Fred's and mine weren't born yet. Now, one follows the family calling in Boston; the other is in Eastern Europe, traveling with his mom. Families rarely shrink; they almost always expand. There are others and others', too.
The newscaster talks about Woodstock as if he's describing a Kentucky Derby past or a way-too-large garden party, long drifted into memory. Then he mentions Jefferson Airplane, noting that it was one of the biggest-name bands at Woodstock. I turn off the television. I've started sobbing. I put in the recently bought CD.
"All right friends, you have seen the heavy groups. Now you will see morning maniac music, believe me, yeah. It's a new dawn.
"Yeah, the regular guys ... and Nicky Hopkins."
The band starts playing. Grace Slick's voice comes back, but now it's her voice – not her emcee voice, but her cut-to-the-central-nervous-system-of-my-memory-and-my-life voice: "Good morning, people!" The band launches into the beginning of "The Other Side of This Life."
Marty Balin's voice comes on: "Would you like to know a secret," Slick's voice joins his in harmony, almost in the background, but still there, "just between you and me?"
"I don't know where I'm going next, I don't know who I'm going to be. Wow, that's the other side of this life, I believe it."
Her voice starts rising; the voices fly up together. Sometimes Slick's just singing tones. Then the voices become one voice, then two again, then one. Slick's starts rising, tone scatting, ripping, and growling, and Balin is right there as well.
The music is loud. I'm sobbing. But, as I have for decades now, I'm pledging allegiance to that voice in what is neither a pledge nor about allegiance.
My soul is riding that sound; listening, I become more than who I am otherwise. Even now, old and tired, having drunk almost too much from the wells of experience but having never forgotten the tastes of the running liquids of innocence, I'm ready to run. In my swamps of cynicism, I still believe. The voices fly together: growing, weaving, and interweaving, dancing patterns as they float and shift. The voices, one on top of the other on top of the one riding, one of the band members calls out, "Fred Neil."
The second song of the Jefferson Airplane's Woodstock set is "Somebody to Love," written by Grace Slick's brother-in-law Darby Slick, who was in love with her. God was never my co-pilot – not on a single trip, not on any straight-to-the-dawn drive or all-night run – but that voice, that voice was my co-pilot, heat source, and map. The voice, her voice, was always beside me, driving me from where I was coming from while illuminating where to go.
In the Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog, there is a piece by Ken Kesey about driving with his son to or from a wrestling match. They get into a terrible accident with a train. His son lying on the ground, Kesey writes about his son lying on the ground, a round piece of his forehead popped out in the form of a figure eight, and about giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. About how then he began to pray.
He wrote about how it was not that he was praying or reaching out to God that surprised him, but that he knew right where within himself to go to pray.
Many think of Jerry Garcia as Captain Trips and, by extension, of Kesey as the Chronicler Trips. This is because of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and because of Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Well, go re-read or read Sometimes a Great Notion, Kesey's second novel – the greatest Ayn Rand novel after The Fountainhead and yet not written by Rand (anyone claiming that Atlas Shrugged is a great novel has so confused ideology and fiction that it is best never to talk of literary or any kind of cultural criticism with him or her).
From the first time I heard that voice, and every time after, I've always known right where to go and have never once been even the least reluctant to go there. Tears are running down my cheeks. Grace Slick is singing. My heart will never heal, and my soul is destined to never be whole, but both, right now, are at least full.
This is a voice that never lied to us. Think of how few voices in your life, in your ears, and in your head about which you can make that claim.
Even at the Airplane's most radical and revolutionary, Slick's was a voice that was never without irony – and at its most ironic, it never lacked for passion.
If you wanted to take Grace Slick more seriously, too seriously, that was OK – it was your game, not hers. But she was the rock star who said, "The band that lays together stays together."
One night, she thanked bass player Jack Casady for asking her to join the band by showing up at his door. She was married at the time and was still married when she and drummer Spencer Dryden, also married, began an affair so passionate, it was said they couldn't keep their hands off each other.
Next she became involved with Paul Kantner. After a gig, she showed up in his hotel room to say she wanted to have his child. Supposedly, Kantner didn't care one way or the other, but she was soon pregnant. China Wing Kantner was born on Jan. 25, 1971. While still with Kantner, Slick also became involved with Jorma Kaukonen. Jeff Tamarkin notes in Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane, "Some say their affair – if that's what it could be called in an atmosphere where the very concept of cheating was considered a prehistoric notion – went on for longer than either remembers, with their respective mates ... fully aware of it."
The band member with whom she didn't have sex was the one she was in so many ways the most intimate with theatrically. Their voices soaring, riding on top of or under each other as if they were playful, teasing birds flying at full speed, they performed together, each needing the other. Some think Balin was envious of Slick's lovers.
"I never even kissed her," he said, adding, "I wouldn't let Grace Slick blow me."
Although adamant about not judging other people's personal lives, I often surprise new friends with how puritanical I am in certain ways, though I don't think Puritans would in any way embrace me. "Free love," whether advocated and defended or damned and condemned, always seems a particularly ugly term, a conscious attempt to separate romance and sex: a fiction created by the sex drive as a way of bypassing personal morality.
Slick's romantic journey through the band is not cited to titillate. Instead, it is meant to demonstrate that, at her best and at her worst, she was never less than honest.
Always, there is the boulder to push up the mountain, but it's always been there and always will be. Sometimes thinking about it becomes so hard, and sometimes too much. But when the dawn cracks the black and the morning maniac music begins, there is nothing else to do but roll up your sleeves and start pushing it up the mountain once again.
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