Inkwell: Authors and Artists
Bruce Umbaugh (bumbaugh) Thu 17 Jul 03 10:41
For more than two decades, Jeff Tamarkin has been one of the most respected and prolific music journalists in the country. For 15 years he was Editor of Goldmine, the "bible" of record/CD collectors. Prior to that, he served as the first Editor of CMJ and as Editor of Relix. He was also the first Editor of Grateful Dead Comix, and has written for dozens of publications, including Billboard, Pulse, Creem, Mojo, Newsday and ICE, and has contributed to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music and the All-Music Guide. He has written the liner notes for more than 50 CDs, including most of the Jefferson Airplane catalog, as well as related CDs by Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship and solo albums by the members of those bands. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (Atria Books) is his first book. Published in June 2003, it is the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band, and was written with the cooperation of all of the band members. Jeff is currently the Editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt, and their son, Max. Leading the conversation is Inkwell.vue host David Gans. David is a musician, writer, radio producer, and online raconteur who has spent many years doing for the Grateful Dead what Jeff Tamarkin has done for the Jefferson Airplane.
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Thu 17 Jul 03 11:01
Thanks for inviting me into the Inkwell! Let's talk Airplane...
David Gans (tnf) Thu 17 Jul 03 14:43
Great to have you! We have been colleagues for decades, and in fact you were my editor at Relix on a few occasions. Am I correct in recalling that the Airplane were the first of the "San Francisco Sound" bands to score big in the record business?
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Thu 17 Jul 03 17:09
Well, I guess that depends on your definition of "San Francisco Sound." The Beau Brummels actually preceded them to the charts with "Laugh, Laugh" and "Just a Little" in early 1965, but they were more of a pure folk-rock band. For that matter, so was the Airplane when they first started out. They had a standup bass and their repertoire largely consisted of folk and blues covers. Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Signe Anderson and Bob Harvey (their first bassist) all came out of the San Francisco folk scene, which was rather rich at the time. But by the time they replaced Harvey with Jack Casady and Jerry Peloquin with Skip Spence, they started to expand their sound, becoming more electric (i.e., louder). They also began writing their own material, which--due to a number of factors--took on that psychedelic glow we all came to love. So if there is a San Francisco Sound, then the Airplane, as defined by the music on their first and second albums (Jefferson Airplane Takes Off and Surrealistic Pillow) was probably responsible for its direction and for getting it out to the world. But I'm not wholly convinced there ever was such a thing as a San Francisco "Sound," per se. Although you can definitely find similarities in the approach that Jorma, Jerry Garcia and, say, John Cipollina or Sam Andrew took their lead guitar work, or even between Casady and Phil Lesh, you can't really say that the Airplane, the Dead, Big Brother and Quicksilver sounded that much alike. They all liked to jam on a song, true, and had a general looseness in their onstage attitudes, but vocally, for one thing, those four bands had almost nothing in common. I would agree that there was a San Francisco Attitude more than a San Francisco Sound.
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Thu 17 Jul 03 17:12
Anyway, to continue where I left off, the Airplane was undeniably the first of the San Francisco rock bands to score big in the record business. They were the first to sign to a major label, RCA (the Beau Brummels were on an indie label), and the Airplane paved the way for the other SF bands to get deals. (Some of them, like Quicksilver, weren't even sure they wanted to make records but they all eventually did.)
David Gans (tnf) Thu 17 Jul 03 23:02
> I would agree that there was a San Francisco Attitude more than a San Fran- > cisco Sound. Oh, I like that a lot. There are some early recordings of the Grateful Dead in which they sound rather like the Beau Brummels, and like a lot of other bands of the time. If the Airplane sounded like that at all, it was only for about ten minutes. (They never had that spooky organ, for one thing.) The Airplane did sound a lot like some of the folk and folk-rock acts I heard when I was reading Richie Unterberger's "Turn! Turn! Turn!" and "Eight Miles High" -- the baritone and the girl singer with a fairly wide interval between their melody lines seem like an obvious model for the Airplane. The only Airplane album I ever paid much attention to when I was a kid was "Surrealistic Pillow." I didn't know what to make of "After Bathing at Baxter's" nor the ones that followed. Now I hear them and I hear a lot of very interesting stuff, but it didn't seem like very accessible music to my teenaged pop (hippie wannabe) mentality. Can you tell us a bit about how they fared in the biz through those early years?
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Fri 18 Jul 03 05:19
First, regarding the early recordings, I agree about the Dead/Warlocks stuff--it would have fit very nicely on the Nuggets compilation. THey were much more of a punky garage band than the Airplane. JA didn't have as much of an R&B influnece--no Pigpen among their ranks. They definitely had a blues influence, but that was mainly Jorma, and he was more influenced by the acoustic country blues of Rv. Gary Davis and Blind Blake than the hard electric blues that influenced the Dead. Both Kantner and Balin (who were really guiding JA at the beginning) had deep folk roots. Marty had just come out of a quartet called the Town Criers that was doing the harmony thing that was popular at the time, ala Kingston Trio, Rooftop Singers, Limeliters, etc. Paul was also very much influenced by those groups, especially the Weavers. So really, what JA did at first was to amplify folk music--not unlike then contemporaries such as the We Five (you're right--all of this is covered thoroughly in Richie's excellent books). But that entire phase didn't last more than six months or so. When Casady joined the band, he and Jorma immediately started pushing the electric envelope, as it were. And you're right, they never had that spooky organ thing going (which I happen to love in the early Dead material)--Airplane was strictly a guitar band. OK, getting to your question about "the biz." Without re-writing the first half of my entire book here, suffice to say that as soon as the Airplane gained a little power at their record company, which occurred once they sold massive qualtities of "Somebody to Love," "White Rabbit" and the Surrealistic Pillow album, they pretty much took the bull by the horns and decided they were going to call the shots with the next album. For Takes Off and Pillow they had been assigned producers and engineers by the label (and didn't get along very well with them), and they had also been dealing with a very domineering, abusive manager who tried as best he could to push them in a direction he thought they should go in. So for the third album, After Bathing at Baxter's, they literally decided to NOT go for a commercial album. They may in fact be the first rock band that deliberately chose not to try to make a hit record. We're into '67 here, Summer of Love and all that, lots of acid all over the place, etc. The Airplane decided to just go into the studio and make it up as they were along. And that's what they did. Baxter's was their most experimental album, also their most psychedelic by a long shot. It also happens to be my personal favorite, just because of that looseness and chaos and experimentation (I'm weird like that--Anthem of the Sun is my favorite Dead album, and I know the band hated it). Inaccessible? Some of it definitely is, like "A Small package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly," which is a few minutes of trippy sound collage. But some of the songs, like "Martha" and :Youn Girl Sunday Blues," I think are very accessible and rather beautiful. Baxter's is also where Grace really took off as a songwriter--her "rejoyce" is a very complex, daring work. So anyway, it worked--they didn't have as big a hit with Baxter's as they did with Pillow. After that, with Crown of Creation and Volunteers, I think there is both accessible and not so accessible music. And Bless its Pointed Little Head is nothing short of one of the greatest live albums of all time. By that period, '67-'69, they were one of the most popular bands in the country so they could pretty much get away with anything they wanted. The record biz was just starting to figure out what rock was all about and the amazing sales potential it had, so it left all these crazy hippies alone. On the Airplane's first album RCA censored or actually rejected three songs for silly reasons like using the word "trips." By Volunteers three years later, they could get away with "Up against the wall, mother----er" and RCA just sort of shrugged and went off to sell the thing (and did a good job at that).
David Gans (tnf) Fri 18 Jul 03 09:21
> (I'm weird like that--Anthem of the Sun is my favorite Dead album, and I > know the band hated it) They hated it? Where'd you read that? (The Grateful Dead had a long history of dissing their own recorded works. Sometimes they were right, e.g. "Steal Your Face," but sometimes, in my opinion, they were being disingenuous and coy. But the self-deprecation took on the aura of legend, and an awful lot of Deadheads perpetuated the received "wisdom" and badmouthed the records. A mistake, in my opinion.) > By Volunteers three years later, they could get away with "Up against the > wall, mother----er" It's okay to spell out "fuck" here, Jeff.
David Gans (tnf) Fri 18 Jul 03 09:21
Please explain the etymology and meaning of the name "Pooneil."
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Fri 18 Jul 03 14:26
>It's okay to spell out "fuck" here, Jeff.< Well, that's a relief. You can never be too sure in a John Ashcroft world! In one of RCA's many attempts to censor the Airplane they wouldn't allow them to print the word motherfucker in the lyric sheet to the Volunteers album, so the band made it "Up against the wall Fred" instead (with all due respect to any Freds among us). From then on, Fred was their substitute word for fuck. Re Anthem, I was always under the impression that the Dead (or at least some of them, maybe it was just Phil) weren't happy with the mix and the way so many sources were cobbled together. I always thought it added to the record's uniqueness and psychedelic-ness myself. I never had a problem with most of the Dead's albums, in fact, although I never play later stuff like Go To Heaven. I even think the first album is a gem. Pooneil. Paul Kantner combined two of his favorite entities, Winnie the Pooh and the folk singer Fred Neil. Someone on the Starship's web site recently asked him what the deal was with Winnie and Paul just paraphrased that bit from the Bible. He wrote, ""LEST YE REMAIN AS A LITTLE CHILD, YE SHALL NOT ENTER INTO & THRU THE WINDOWS OF HEAVEN!!!(SIC)" Neil was a very big influence on Paul's songwriting. As to why Paul chose to combine those two particular names in the titles of two songs, ya got me. That's just one of those Paul things. He does quote from Pooh in a couple of his song lyrics. Fred Neil is really great, in case anyone isn't familiar with him. He wrote "Everybody's Talkin'," the song that Harry Nilsson had a big hit with (it was the theme from Midnight Cowboy) and also "The Dolphins," which a load of people covered. In fact, Neil had an album called Tear Down The Walls, which kind of brings us full circle 'cause the Airplane borrowed that phrase as one of the key lines in "We Can Be Together," which was on Volunteers. In fact, it directly follows the "up against the wall" line.
David Gans (tnf) Fri 18 Jul 03 16:51
> Re Anthem, I was always under the impression that the Dead (or at least > some of them, maybe it was just Phil) weren't happy with the mix and the > way so many sources were cobbled together. I always thought it added to the > record's uniqueness and psychedelic-ness myself. That "cobbled together" aspect was part of the concept! It was straight outa Mills College and the modern composers Phil and TC were into. There was a place called the Tape Music Center in SF, if I recall correctly, that later moved to (or merged with ) Mills. Ramon Sender, who still haunts these hal- las as <rabar> I do believe, was part of that scene. Anyway, "Anthem of the Sun" was _performed_ to stereo tape by the band and Dan Healy. They got all those pieces together and organized their tape decks, then rolled the (recording) tape and let it fly. There's place in "Alligator" where one playback is slowing down while another is speeding up. Phil remixed "Anthem" and "Aoxomoxoa" in 19971, but in the early '80s told me he regretted it. And if the original mixes hadn't been lost, the recent reissues would have been of the original mixes. > Neil had an album called Tear Down The Walls, which kind of brings us full > circle 'cause the Airplane borrowed that phrase as one of the key lines in > "We Can Be Together," which was on Volunteers. In fact, it directly follows > the "up against the wall" line. When I first heard The Fred Neil/Vince Martin album "Tear Dwn the Wwalls" (recently reissued on CD by Collector's Choice), I thought the vocal blend was an obvious precursor to the Airplane vocal sound.
David Gans (tnf) Fri 18 Jul 03 21:31
Anyway, it's amusing to think of what power these wacko bands had over the largely uncomprehending music biz people in those days, while at the same time the suits would freak out over the use of the word "trips" in a song.
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Sun 20 Jul 03 22:35
I prefer the original mix of Anthem too--whether it was a deliberate attempt or an inspired accident. As far as the power that bands like the Airplane had, that was just another aspect of everyone making it all up as they went along. The record labels (especially RCA, which had no real rock background outside of Elvis) were largely clueless when the '60s kicked into high gear and rock bands started to take matters into their own hands and were happy to let the bands roll with their instincts as long as they kept making money for the suits. There was no formula to creating a successful rock record, so as long as those wacky kids bought the stuff that these longhaired hippies recorded, the labels quickly learned it was best to just leave them alone. Grace says something to that effect in my book and she's right. RCA would have preferred that the Airplane stick with the formula that gave them hits in "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit," but when the band came back for album number three and said we'd like to do it our way now, thank you very much, RCA had no reason to think that the band's new ideas would be any less commercially viable. The label had no experience with bands as musically progressive as the Airplane--indeed, the concept of a band evolving artistically was a new concept (ala the Beatles going from Rubber Soul to Revolver to Sgt. Pepper during the same three-year period the Airplane took to get from Takes Off to Surrealistic Pillow to After Bathing at Baxter's. What the label didn't realize was that the band had no INTEREST by 1967 in making hit singles, that the game had changed dramatically in the several months since they'd had those hits. So Baxter's, that third album, was not nearly as successful as Pillow and no hit singles came out of it, which left RCA wondering if this was such a good idea to let the band loose in the studio but left the band perfectly satisfied with the outcome. Baxter's also happens to be my personal favorite JA album--the spontaneity and chaos and daring of it perfectly represents to me the Airplane at their creative, anarchic peak. Anyway, as you said, the suits were too busy worrying over what four-letter words the band might be trying to sneak in (like "trip") to stop and think whether there was actually an audience for what they were now creating, which was a true blessing in disguise for the Airplane because the band was able to get away with making a record that was virtually unscathed by outside influences. They were assigned a new producer for that record, Al Schmitt, their third in three albums, but his entire approach was basically to give the band all the artistic leeway that it needed, and to just make sure they could realize technically what they were attempting to put down on tape. You just don't get that in today's producer-dominated record biz.
David Gans (tnf) Mon 21 Jul 03 12:07
What an amazing moment in history. I guess that sort of thing happens in every cultural revolution. How did the Airplane fare on tour after they stopped worrying about hit singles?
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Mon 21 Jul 03 17:38
Short answer: Better all the time. By that time their reputation as a live band had expanded far and wide, and for good reason: they became one of the most amazing live acts out there. Like those other San Franciscans who seem to keep popping up in this thread, JA was really a live band first, despite their success as record-makers. Their audience continued to grow until they split up--by 1972 they were playing to more people than they had during their heyday. And that audience only continued to get larger when they morphed into Jefferson Starship. Meanwhile, of course, Hot Tuna built its own audience from scratch, and were more than able to hold their own (which they still do).
David Gans (tnf) Mon 21 Jul 03 19:19
Speaking of Hot Tuna, one aching gap in your tale was the story of why Jack and Jorma split up the first time. Hot Tuna kinda went away for several years, didn't they?
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Tue 22 Jul 03 10:40
Yes, they did split in the late '70s and reunited in 1983. I didn't really address the reasons in the book because they involved personal matters. Long story short, a lot of stuff was going on with Jorma's wife's health and he needed to deal with that, and in the process he and Jack basically took a needed break from each other. There was no major rift but J&J were also having issues with each other by that point, and the time off allowed them to do other things musically and to heal their own relationship, wich has been strong ever since. I know a lot of fans weren't too pleased with some of the things J&J did during this period, i.e., Jack's SVT and Jorma's White Gland/Vital Parts, but after so many years of getting locked into playing a certain kind of music, they both felt they needed to break out and try other things. Which, incidentally, they are both currently doing as well, although they're keeping Tuna active while they explore other areas.
David Gans (tnf) Tue 22 Jul 03 11:43
What do you think of Jack's solo debut, which just came out a couple of weeks ago?
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Wed 23 Jul 03 07:25
I personally like it. It's called Dream Factor and it's on Eagle Rock Records. Jack is a song person first and foremost and for this album he didn't want to do some jam band/showoffy bass muso type album. He basically hooked up with a bunch of fine musicians and singers, including Paul Barrere or Little Feat, Ivan Neville, the guys from Box Set, Fee Waybill of the Tubes, Jorma, Warren Haynes and others, and put out a rock record that's comprised of well-crafted well-played songs. One instrumental, but no big bass solos or anything like that. I've heard a few complaints from fans that were hoping for more of a display of Jack's musicianship, but he really didn't want to do a Hot Tuna type record. I also happened to love SVT, Jack's punk band, in the late '70s, and I know a lot of Tuna/Airplane people hated to see him doing that.
David Gans (tnf) Wed 23 Jul 03 10:45
Let's talk a bit about the diversity of these musicians. Like That Other Band from the Sixties, the Airplane amalgamated a number of different in- fluences and created something that no one else could have done.
Jacques Delaguerre http://www.delaguerre.com/delaguerre/ (jax) Fri 25 Jul 03 00:00
Hi Jeff ... Loved the book ... "it was like a flashback, man ..." :-) I'm a year or two older than you and JA appeared in my listening space pretty early ... I was enthused with psychedelia but not a "band fan" type, though I saw JA a couple of times, including one obscure concert you noted in the book, Jorma jamming with the Dead at Rochester, NY (1970). So although I remember the grapevine stories about JA you cleared up a lot of puzzles for me that were left hanging decades ago! Have a few observations, including some minor nit-picking. Mind if I share? Oh, and you didn't answer my Burning Question :-) Why did Casady always wear shades? Was he just making a fashion statement, or does he have some retinal or pigment pathology with his eyes?
Life Is Easy When Considered From Another Point Of View (dam) Fri 25 Jul 03 06:17
Jeff, Did you ever write for a magazine called Record Review. It came out on newsprint. I've been with you for years, especially Relix and Goldmine. I think Goldmine is one of the best magazines ine the world along with Mojo. I just finished the book last night and you did a great job. Lots of very distructive personalities in this band. I have to run but I hope to talk more this weekend. Dan
Jeff Tamarkin (jefftamarkin) Fri 25 Jul 03 09:35
I did write for a magazine called Record Review, one of the many late, lamented music mags. As for Casady, I don't know of any eye problems. He doesn't wear the shades offstage so I'm guessing maybe he just doesn't like the lights in his eyes. David, will get to your question asap--still running around doing book promo stuff and I have to run. More soon. Thanks all for joining in this chat. Looks like it will be fun.
Life Is Easy When Considered From Another Point Of View (dam) Fri 25 Jul 03 09:54
record review was a great magazine, it was one of the first that did in depth articles on a groups output. reading the book has made me want to scope out some of the hot tuna albums. i do have first pull up then pull down on vinyl. i recall the reunion show i saw at the greek in los angeles as being just horrible shit, yet the book treats the show as being okay...the only good part i remember is the hot tuna segmenta.....although i didn't realize jorma was strung out at the time. i would love to spend a session at jorma's guitar camp. can we make this topic visible or is there a reason it is retired?
Life Is Easy When Considered From Another Point Of View (dam) Fri 25 Jul 03 09:55
when you worked at goldmine, did you have to live in wisconson? if so, i feel for you.
Mary Eisenhart (marye) Fri 25 Jul 03 12:03
Hi Jeff! Just checking in and will say more after I've caught up with the previous postings.
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