Book Review: Phases and Stages
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Aug. 22, 2003
Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson AirplaneBy Jeff Tamarkin
Atria Books, 432 pp., $27 For eccentric folkie Paul Kantner, life changed overnight. "A guy brought a Fender guitar and amplifier, with reverb and vibrato, and LSD, all in one fell swoop. Went off into the cosmos." He wasn't the only one. The entire Bay Area folk scene was turning on and going electric. Kantner then formed a band with singer-songwriter Marty Balin and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen that eventually included singer Grace Slick. By 1967's Summer of Love, when San Francisco was the epicenter of a musical and cultural revolution that shook Amerika to its core, Jefferson Airplane was the top band in the city, if not the whole country.
"Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" scorched the Top 40 with a breathtaking new sound. Surrealistic Pillow crystallized that psychedelic San Francisco sound and was among the summer's top three LPs along with Sgt. Pepper and The Doors. Jefferson Airplane was flying high, even doing radio ads for Levi Strauss. Yet for a band as popular as they were at such a critical cultural moment, they've been largely forgotten.
Veteran music writer and former Goldmine Editor Jeff Tamarkin traces the band's tortured, dysfunctional, serpentine history from its folk-rock origins through innumerable permutations, transformations, and side projects like Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship, and the bloated, crassly commercial Starship. The six members of the band's quintessential lineup are each profiled extensively, and the interweaving of a huge cast of characters and events reads like an afternoon soap, replete with ego-driven personality conflicts, ample substance abuse, and lavish rock-star lifestyles. Coverage of the band's early years includes a requisite social history of the SF scene in the Sixties. Tamarkin, unfortunately, devotes barely a paragraph to "underground" radio, whose role in proliferating music and the values of the counterculture explosion should not be ignored.
As the only San Francisco band of that era with all of its essential members still alive, perhaps we haven't heard the last of Jefferson Airplane. Talk about a long, strange trip!