Counterbalance: Jefferson Airplane – Surrealistic Pillow

One pill makes you larger, one pill makes you small, and the 179th most acclaimed album is this week's Counterbalance. Remember what the dormouse said: Feed your head with a 1967 psychedelic classic.
Jefferson Airplane
Surrealistic Pillow

Klinger: It’s hard to imagine now, what with the thick tie-dye blanket of sameness that’s been cast over everything to come from the 1960s (or as it’s more frequently known, The Sixties, man…), but there used to be a fairly bitter rivalry between the San Francisco music scene and their counterparts in Los Angeles. San Francisco viewed the L.A. as opportunistic dilettantes, co-opting and commercializing their far-out hippie dream. L.A. on the other hand, really didn’t care one way or the other, because L.A. Come to think of it, that’s not really much of a rivalry at all.

Either way, now that the dust has settled it seems that history has been marginally kinder to the SoCal scene. After all, the Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow marks the first appearance of a 1960s San Francisco band on the Great List — it clocks in at a respectable No. 179 but still lags well behind L.A. groups like the Doors and Love (but still ahead of the Byrds, which I think is the silliest part of this whole discussion).

I don’t really want to dwell too much on all of this, but it is interesting to listen for the little differences that place a group within its scene. And there are few records more emblematic of their scene than Surrealistic Pillow. Maybe its in the surprisingly spare production, or in the communal back and forth between singers Marty Balin and Grace Slick, or maybe its in the earnest folkiness that’s never too far below the electric surface. Despite the presence of the icier hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” — which Slick brought with her from her previous band the Great Society — this is an album of tremendous warmth. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the Jefferson Airplane until I put Surrealistic Pillow up for our Counterbalance consideration, but I’m really finding myself drawn to this record. How about you, Mendelsohn? Are you digging this groovy scene?

Mendelsohn: It’s far out, Daddy-o. Seriously, though, stop talking like that. I will tell you what I like about Jefferson Airplane. Two words: Grace Slick. Big surprise, right? Now before I get to my Garth Algar impression, I want you to know that I think Jefferson Airplane squandered her talents. Not only did Slick provide the missing piece to make Jefferson Airplane work, she wrote the one song that, in my mind, represents the psychedelic freak out that was the Summer of Love in such blinding glory that it puts all of her contemporaries (and bandmates) to shame. Say what you want about “White Rabbit”, but that song is perfect and perfectly encapsulates the merging of unmitigated hope and creeping fear of the late ’60s. Slick also co-wrote the song that broke the band to a national audience, as she single-handedly took Jefferson Airplane from SanFran and delivered them up to a straight-laced America that wasn’t prepared to look upon her beauty. If we ever get the penny pinchers over at Counterbalance HQ to spring for that time machine, I’m going back to 1966, slapping the instruments out of the hands of the rest of the band and then demanding that they let Ms. Slick write the whole album.

I know that Jefferson Airplane was Marty Balin’s baby and with out him, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’m not trying to discredit that man’s achievements, nor the contributions of the rest of the band. There is some excellent material on this record, by him and the rest of the band, but I don’t want to listen to any of it after thinking about what could have been. Now, I’m going to turn on “White Rabbit”, then I’m going to climb into the bath tub and when the song hits that crescendo, I want you to throw the radio into the tub with me — after that please finish this piece however you see fit.

Klinger: There is no way on God’s green earth that I’m going anywhere near you while you’re in the tub. Also you really should concede that Surrealistic Pillow is very much a group effort, with songwriting contributions from most of the group (including their former drummer Skip Spence, who wrote the charming “My Best Friend”, then went on to join Moby Grape and eventually release the ultimate fabled acid-casualty album Oar). It’s true that Grace Slick was the straw that stirred the drink, but it took a village to create this record. And only “White Rabbit” is credited to Slick (Grace, that is — her brother-in-law Darby wrote “Somebody to Love.”)

Mendelsohn: I just want more Grace. In an attempt to get double (technically triple) the Slick, I found the Great Society’s version of “Somebody to Love”. The Great Society was the band Grace was with her husband Jerry and, of course, Darby. They recorded a version of the song, originally called “Someone to Love,” a couple of years before Grace would join Jefferson Airplane. The Great Society opened for the early incarnations of Balin’s group, which is how Balin came into contact with the lovely Mrs. Slick. Having found the Great Society’s version of the song, I can tell you that it is terrible and I am therefore forced to concede the point to you.

Klinger: Yes! Score! Well, either way, I don’t want to diminish what Balin brought to the table. Wrangling hippies has to be an exhausting task, and even then he had the capacity to put together a song that’s genuinely moving (“Today,” with that astonishingly naked line, “I’m so full of love I could burst apart and start to cry”) or something that creates a legitimately propulsive groove (I’m thinking “3/5 of a Mile in Ten Seconds” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”). No small feat, really, especially for someone who I feel has been sort of written out of this story in favor of (again, the very talented and charismatic) Ms. Slick.

Mendelsohn: I know, it’s unfair. There is some very good material on this record that justifies its place on the Great List. It wasn’t until I sat down and listened to “Today”, that it really hit me, Balin is an accomplished interpreter of the folk genre. Beyond the two hits, I think the real strength of the record is the folk-inspired material. After “Today”, you have “Come Back to Me”, another beautifully wrought ballad, “How Do You Feel” is a little more uplifting and the instrumental, “Embryonic Journey”, always serves as a nice interlude. I can do without “My Best Friend”, but that song is sort of goofy to begin with.

Klinger: But goofy is what we like about hippies! Otherwise they’re just a bunch of self-serious nutters going on about peace and love and so forth. Jefferson Airplane makes a lot of this seem like fun, and in 1966 and ’67 it still probably was. Haight-Ashbury apparently turned pretty dark pretty fast after this, which makes this recording of mostly good vibes seem all the more precious. To my ears, even the vaguely ominous-sounding “White Rabbit” has a playful sense about it, from its “Bolero” echoes on down. And yes, by the way, “Embryonic Journey” suggests that Jorma Kaukonen was a guitarist who never quite got his due.

Jefferson Airplane carries some measure of baggage with them (pun intended? Hell, I don’t even know anymore.), what with their subsequent rebrandings as Jefferson Starship, purveyors of ’70s satin-jacketed AOR arena-rock, and eventually just Starship, a corporation dedicated to the manufacturing of processed cheese. Maybe Grace Slick knew she was trampling all over her legacy and was savvy enough to distance the band from all that (on the other hand, based on the interviews I’ve seen with her, it’s possible she might not care one way or the other). And maybe that’s all for the best. Maybe that makes it easier to hear Surrealistic Pillow as the efforts of an entirely different band, one for whom the connections are almost coincidental. Either way, I’m glad I finally settled in with this record and took the time to listen to it as more than a history lesson. I encourage folks out there in Internetland to do the same.

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