Fifty Year Friday: John Coltrane; Jefferson Airplane “Surrealistic Pillow”
“One positive thought produces millions of positive vibrations.” — John Coltrane
Coltrane’s left us fifty years ago on July 27, 1967. He played, improvised, and composed music for a number of essential albums including “Blue Train”, “Bags and Train” with Milt Jackson, “Giant Steps”, “Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane”, “My Favorite Things”, “Live at the Village Vanguard”, “Duke Ellington & John Coltrane”, “Coltrane live at Birdland” with an incomparable version of “Afro Blue”, the one of a kind “John Coltrane and Johnny Hartman” album, and the classic “A Love Supreme.” Also of note is the June 1965 session (released in 1970) as the album “Transition” with the title track being essential to fans of the music contained in a”Love Supreme.” There is also music recorded in 1967, released years after Coltrane’s death, that could be classified as Free Jazz including “The Olatunji Concert: The Last Live Recording” recorded on April 23, 1967. It’s interesting to compare a 1963 live version of “My Favorite Things” to the 1967 version:
Thank-you, Mr. John Coltrane for the all this incredible music you provided.
Twenty-six year old department store model, Grace Slick, a graduate of Palo Alto High and resident of the Bay area (San Francisco Bay area) after reading an article about one of the local bands, Jefferson Airplane, in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, went to see them live where they played regularly (“The Matrix”, a club on Fillmore Avenue) and was soon inspired to start a band, with her husband, his brother, and three others.
This band, “The Great Society”, named after LBJ‘s set of programs to address unjust social conditions, soon opened for other more established Bay Area groups including Jefferson Airplane, and eventually attracted the attention of Columbia Records which offered them a recording contract at about the same time that the Jefferson Airplane was looking to replace their female vocalist, Signe Toly Anderson. Mrs. Anderson, an expecting mother, felt that she could no longer tour with the band and take care of a newborn and so gave notice, informing the public, on October 15, 1966 with words befitting any flower-power child: “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye.”
Grace Slick left her band, which not being able to continue without her, disbanded, and she joined Jefferson Airplane, bringing with her two particularly notable songs: the Great Society’s lead guitarist’s medium-tempo song “Someone to Love” and her own drug-inspired composition, “White Rabbit.”
Jefferson Airplane embraced both Grace’s powerful singing and these two tunes, which they re-arranged, maybe not for the better, but certainly with greater commercial appeal.
“Surrealistic Pillow”, Jefferson’s Airplane’s second album and the first album with Grace Slick takes advantage of Grace’s high-energy vocals from the very first track, where her background vocals are of more interest than Marty Balin’s main vocals and perhaps the main melody itself. The second track, is “Somebody to Love”, played with more force and at a faster tempo than the Great Society arrangement.
This album also includes a song that Marty Balin wrote originally for Tony Bennett: “I wrote it to try to meet Tony Bennett. He was recording in the next studio. I admired him, so I thought I’d write him a song. I never got to meet him, but the Airplane ended up doing it.” Jerry Garcia plays guitar on several tracks for this album including the short repetitive electric guitar phrase heard here:
“Today” is followed by the evocative, marijuana-paced (and perhaps marijuana-influenced) Balin composition “Comin’ Back to Me.”
Side 2 starts with “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Second”, more for dancing then listening. “DCBA” is relaxed and with somewhat puzzling lyrics:
“It’s time you walked away and set me free”
“I take great peace in your sitting there
Searching for myself, I find a place there.”
and then in the middle of this
“Here in crystal chandelier, I’m home.
Too many days, I’ve left unstoned.
If you don’t mind happiness
Purple-pleasure fields in the sun.
Ah, don’t you know I’m runnin’ home.
Don’t you know I’m runnin’ home (to a place to you unknown? )”
“How do you feel” is one of those innocuous feel-good songs that would be comfortably at home on an album by The Mamas and Papas or The Association. “Embryonic Journey” is an excellent acoustic guitar instrumental, composed as part of a guitar workshop in Santa Clara by Jorma Kaukonen three years before he was invited to join Jefferson Airplane band by friend and fellow-classmate Paul Kantner.
The penultimate cut of the album, is the standout “White Rabbit”, rearranged musically to be succinct, focused, rhythmic and eerily similar to Ravel’s Bolero. No concessions were made lyrically:
“One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all:
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.
“And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call:
When she was just small.
“When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low:
Go ask Alice
I think she’ll know.
“When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said:
‘Feed your head.
Feed your head.'”
I think it is at this point in time, more or less, that the commercial interests of the major music labels became more important than censorship of music with anti-establishment lyrics. During the last eight weeks of summer, it seemed that one could not turn on Southern California AM radio without “Light My Fire” or “White Rabbit” being played at least once in any given hour. As a twelve-year old, I knew something was changing in the world around me as an older culture began to buckle under the weight of newer ideals — even if those ideals were plainly self-indulgent.
“Surrealistic Pillow” ends with a trippy, protypical Haight-Ashbury tune, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, mocking the ascendancy of the boob tube:
“Her neon mouth with the blinkers-off smile
Nothing but an electric sign
You could say she has an individual style
She’s part of a colorful time.
“Secrecy of lady-chrome-covered clothes
You wear cause you have no other
But I suppose no one knows
You’re my plastic fantastic lover.
“Her rattlin’ cough never shuts off
Is nothin’ but a used machine
Her aluminum finish, slightly diminished
Is the best I ever have seen.
“Cosmetic baby plugged into me
I’d never ever find another;
I realize no one’s wise
To my plastic fantastic lover.
“The electrical dust is starting to rust
Her trapezoid thermometer taste;
All the red tape is mechanical rape
Of the TV program waste.
“Data control and IBM
Science is mankind’s brother
But all I see is drainin’ me
On my plastic fantastic lover.”
Music can transcend time, be a document of its time, or both. “Surrealistic Pillow” is indisputably an important musical document of its time. As as listener, you must decide if it transcends time. For those of us that grew up with this music, it tends to take us back in time, which, I suppose, is as valid way as any to transcend time.
Track listing (from Wikipedia)
- Side one
- “She Has Funny Cars” (Jorma Kaukonen, Marty Balin) – 3:14
- “Somebody to Love” (Darby Slick) – 3:00
- “My Best Friend” (Skip Spence) – 3:04
- “Today” (Balin, Paul Kantner) – 3:03
- “Comin’ Back to Me” (Balin) – 5:23
- Side two
- “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” (Balin) – 3:45
- “D.C.B.A.–25” (Kantner) – 2:39
- “How Do You Feel” (Tom Mastin) – 3:34
- “Embryonic Journey” (Kaukonen) – 1:55
- “White Rabbit” (Grace Slick) – 2:32
- “Plastic Fantastic Lover” (Balin) – 2:39
Personnel (from Wikipedia)
- Marty Balin – vocals, guitar, album design, lead vocals on “Today”, “Comin’ Back To Me” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, co-lead vocals on “She Has Funny Cars”, “My Best Friend” and “Go To Her”
- Jack Casady – bass guitar, fuzz bass, rhythm guitar
- Spencer Dryden – drums, percussion
- Paul Kantner – rhythm guitar, vocals, lead vocals on “How Do You Feel”, co-lead vocals on “My Best Friend”, “D. C. B. A.-25” and “Go To Her”
- Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar, lead vocals on “Come Back Baby” and “In The Morning”
- Grace Slick – vocals, piano, organ, recorder, lead vocals on “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit”, co-lead vocals on “She Has Funny Cars”, “My Best Friend”, “D. C. B. A.-25” and “Go To Her”
- Signe Toly Anderson – lead vocals on “Chauffeur Blues” (UK only)
- Skip Spence – drums on “Don’t Slip Away”, “Come Up the Years”, and “Chauffeur Blues” (UK only)
- Additional personnel
- Jerry Garcia – “spiritual advisor”; guitar on “Today”, “Comin’ Back to Me”, “Plastic Fantastic Lover”, “In the Morning”, and “J. P. P. McStep B. Blues”
- Herb Greene – photography
- David Hassinger – engineering
- Rick Jarrard – production