Grace, Paul, Marty, Jorma,
Jack, and Spencer
Rarely, there is a moment in time so frozen in memory that
it can never melt. One of those moments occurred in April of 1967 in the
basement of my ZBT dorm at Duke. The humidity had just crept back into the
spring air in Durham and it was starting to get beautiful as it always does
after basketball season and before finals.
was the day the album (vinyl only) Surrealistic Pillow was released by a new
group from San Francisco known as Jefferson Airplane. Every dorm room of every
fraternity brother played one song over and over—“Somebody to Love.” There’s
nothing like telling a teenager that “when the truth is found to be lies and all
the joy within you dies.” Grace Slick’s voice rang through the clash of guitars
and the pounding bass and drums and the psychedelic era had finally made it to
I love Jefferson Airplane. No, I don’t mean like I love the
Beatles or Stones or even Joni Mitchell. Jefferson Airplane represented
everything I was at 19, young, brash, rude, loud and dangerous. I also suffered
from a bad case of unfulfilled testosterone storm that also exuded from the
stage when the Airplane flew despite being led by the most beautiful female
creature ever to grace a rock and roll stage, Grace Slick.
almost 50 years I have tried to figure out how the music so captured my soul.
First, they were really good. I saw them six times, all at
the Fillmore East in New York. The first was on July 19, 1968 and the last was
in November, Thanksgiving Saturday of 1969. That’s a lot of air mileage from
Durham to LaGuardia for one group.
By far their greatest set that I heard was the second of the
two on the Saturday before Woodstock in August of 1969 when they got on stage
at 1 AM and played until 4:30. To date it is still the greatest rock show I
have ever seen. Hot Tuna was born then as Jorma and Jack played a short set in
the middle of the evening (?early morning?) session. I am not even sure they called
themselves Hot Tuna yet.
Also remember that sound systems in 1969 were not what they
are now. To make that ear-piercing sound the Airplane stacked amplifiers
three-high across the entire Fillmore stage. And fill the hall they did. The
floor pulsed. The air was enough to get you high and the acid rain was not
But I think it was the three lead singers (Marty, Grace and
Paul), the remarkable acoustic/electric Jorma on lead guitar and the creative
and solid 6-string bass and drums of Jack and Spencer that set this band apart.
They also wrote amazing songs.
By 1970 or so it was over. They had morphed into Jefferson
Starship and gone way too main stream for me. Paul basically ran the group and
Jorma and Jack were gone. Spencer died about 10 years ago, but the rest of them
are still with us and Jorma will be playing a solo set at Dosey Doe in
February. I have my tickets!
About 10 years ago, Grace Slick was in Houston selling her
art work as she had become quite an accomplished painter. The woman who cut my
hair and her photographer husband were employed by a local magazine to do the
make-up and photo shoot for the visit. They got me a special pass to go meet
She was surrounded by young people but I pushed to the front
“I was at the Fillmore the Saturday night before Woodstock.
You guys were amazing!”
Grace came back with, “what were you taking?”
“Nothing. The music was all I needed.”
So maybe that’s it.
If you want to really hear this band at its peak, buy the
third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s (available in all formats save 8-track
now). It never sold like Surrealistic Pillow because it was such a leap forward
it took years for many to catch up to what they had done. They had created a
masterpiece released the same week as The White Album and Their Satanic
Tough flying weather on the charts, but not for this
Airplane. Do yourself a favor and listen. The critical ingredients were talent
and teamwork. Hmmm? Sounds like a strategy to me!
“Fly Jefferson Airplane, gets you there on time.”