No. 15: ‘Crown of Creation’

“Is it true that I’m no longer young?” Grace Slick sang in “Lather,” the luscious and cinematic opening number of “Crown of Creation.”

Jefferson Airplane albumSlick was singing about the arrested development of her lover, the Jefferson Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden, but by extension she addressed the fast-forward aging afflicting the San Francisco scene. That sunny Summer of Love had given away to the chill winds of LBJ’s 1968.

“Crown of Creation” finds the Airplane coming of age, wary but not yet transformed into the jaded radical-chic collective that rolled out “Volunteers” a year later. The erratic and playful psychedelia of “After Bathing at Baxter’s” gives way to songwriting for adults:

“Long time since I climbed down this mountain before,” a weary-sounding Martin Balin sings on “In Time.” “Things I’ve seen here make me want to go running home.”

Slick, a painter, ponders the 1960s’ boho dance — underground art as commerce — on the album’s single, “Greasy Heart”:

He’s going off the drug thing ’cause his veins are getting big
He wants to sell his paintings but the market is slow
They’re only paying him 2 grams now
For a one-man abstract show

And has anyone ever captured the highs and lows of the hippie era better than Kanter in this lyric from the title track, boiled down to haiku: “You are the crown of creation / and you’ve got no place to go.”

The unease comes packaged beautifully. The band performs with precision and assurance, lead by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady, team players and not yet a faction. (Their work at times points to the heavy metal of the great live album to follow, “Bless Its Pointed Little Head.”)

Time is a major theme. War and the sickening events of 1968 are the undercurrents. “Crown of Creation” does no duty as a concept album, however. It is a collection of songs, some far better than others, most of them recorded on-the-run while the band met its rock-star obligations.

Jefferson Airplane psychedelic bandDespite the album’s prescience and longevity, it remains woefully underrated — here we have Jefferson Airplane at their psychedelic peak. They soon would become a rock band, angry and disenfranchised, but with one great album left in them.

“Crown of Creation” opens with a triple offering of morning maniac music.

Slick’s “Lather” employs studio effects to tell its tale of an aging man child. It was inspired by Dryden’s turning 30, and by the arrest of bassist Casady for nudity. The effects — a child’s fearful query; a blast of firepower from a tank — flirt with kitsch, but hold up well. Slick uses a conversational storyteller’s tone, lovely and knowing. “I’m singing the song quietly and softly, like a little kid,” she recalled years later. All other studio Airplane albums open with rockers; commencing with this quiet number is part of “Crown of Creation’s” confident genius.

Balin and Kantner’s “In Time” celebrates a lover, a hippie chick cast in psychedelic tones, “in the colors of what I feel.” A less obvious companion to “Baxter’s” “Martha.” “In Time” brings to mind the softer side of L.A. band Love.

David Crosby’s “Triad” completes the opening trilogy. Slick finds the humanity in Crosby’s come-on to a pair of competing lovers. It is the closest to an embrace (and reaffirmation) of the hippie ideal to be found on the album, and it remains stunning.

Things get back to Airplane(/Hot Tuna) business as usual with Kaukonen’s “Star Track,” a meditation on fame and the scarcity of time. Kaukonen works out with his wah-wah pedal — the guitar effect is your constant companion on this album — warning the listener: “Running fast you’ll go down slow in the end.”

Balin’s “Share a Little Joke” delivers a seemingly whimsical message, belied by the instrumental chaos just below the surface. “I believe in half of you,” Balin sings to his friend. The song reportedly touches on mental illness.

Drummer Dryden gets credit for the brief bit of electronic music, “Chushingura.” It’s a sort-of sequel to “Baxter’s” “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly.” Dryden has said it was inspired by the soundtrack to an old samurai film.

Side 2 opens with more generic Airplane and more wah, as Balin works out on the tambourine-shaking ode to freedom “If You Feel.”

Kantner’s classic title track marches to martial beat. The bandleader foresees the yuppie apocalypse in the pages of a science fiction novel:

Soon you’ll attain the stability you strive for
In the only way that it’s granted
In a place among the fossils of our time

(Kantner borrowed from the post-apocalyptic novel “The Chrysalids.”)

“It’s trying to make the point that science fiction is politics, and politics is science fiction,” Kantner later explained.

“Ice Cream Phoenix” has Kaukonen returning to the scarcity of time, with Slick providing a surreal vocal interlude.

The rocker “Greasy Heart” finds Slick in full badass mode, dispensing advice in a jumble of words straight out of Lewis Carrol. “Don’t ever change, people,” she warns. “Your face will hit the fan.” It’s a slap at cosmetic beauty and plastic people — a la “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” “It sounds like I’m pointing fingers, but (I was) living it,” the former model has said.

“The House on Pooneil Corners” concludes the album with a scalding dose of acid rock. The title and the familiar amp-shaking feedback that begins the song suggest it’s a mirror-image sequel to “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil” from “Baxter’s.” Kaukonen, Casady and Dryden slash and burn their way through as Slick’s Middle Eastern-influenced vocals summon the darkness.

Lyricists Balin and Kantner’s vision is distinctly apocalyptic:

Everything someday will be gone except silence
Earth will be quiet again
Seas from clouds will wash off the ashes of violence
Left as the memory of men
There will be no survivor my friend

Truth in advertising: The cover of “Crown of Creation” showed the band caught up in a mushroom-shaped cloud. The h-bomb, Kantner said, is our civilization’s technological crown — and the thermonuclear holocaust one very possible outcome seen from the badlands of 1968.


Comments

  1. Kermit miles says:

    There is no more to be said, you nailed it completely! BRAVO!!!

  2. Expertly written, Abel. It’s amazing to put the first three Airplane albums with Grace in their historical context. ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ is a pure Summer of Love soundtrack, while ‘After Bathing At Baxter’s’ finds them in full Zappa/Mothers psychedelic mode. Both of those in ’67, which overall seemed like a positive year, despite situations around the country and the world. But 1968, which began with the Tet Offensive and seemed to just go downhill from there, was an unbelievably morbid year, from the assassinations of RFK and MLK to the race riots to the escalation in Vietnam to the chaos at the Democratic National Convention. And ‘Crown Of Creation’ seemed to reflect that darkness in all its grooves. Even something as innocuous as laughter has a violent end (“you’ll laugh so hard you crack the walls,” “break China laughing”). Most of the bands were more serious with their output that year, but I think only the Airplane could’ve captured the anger and angst that permeated the fearful populous of 1968.

    The Great Society was dead (LBJ’s vision of the future and Grace’s former band).

  3. I think the Airplane peaked with Surrealistic Pillow, although Bless Its Pointed Little Head comes in a very close second for me. Lather was always one of my favorites, but it would have worked better on the album had it followed Share a little Joke, a song I think could have been much, much better had its pace not been so hurky, jerky and had Grace and Marty done some harmonizing.

    I’ve always thought the Airplane should have done more love songs in the vain of Today and High Flying Bird using Marty and Grace to create a sort of electric Nelson Eddy/Jeannette MacDonald. The band really missed the boat in not developing those two in more duets. Do I sound old fashioned? Maybe I am because Triad, the anthem to infidelity, never sounded good to me as a song or a lifestyle no matter who was singing it.

    About the only thing on this album that really, really grabs me is The House At Pooneil Corners. Check out the video of it being played live on a rooftop in New York. Personally, I think Kantner’s sci-fi/apocalyptic influence on the Airplane took it too far off into the wild blue yonder for my liking. Jorma Kaukonen’s brilliant guitar work was the saving grace on this album for me, although I wish he had let Grace do the vocals on Star Track. Even double tracking his voice doesn’t make it as strong as the vocals needed to be given his guitar volume. Jorma’s voice works fine alongside his acoustic stuff, but his electric wah-wah needs a stronger set of pipes, like Grace’s.

    Listening to this album again I’m reminded of what Bill Graham said about After Bathing at Baxters: something to the affect that there wasn’t one song on this thing that anyone would hum along to. Putting the title cut first would have been a good move too, instead of leaving it so far near the end, giving the album the feel that it was just slapped together helter skelter.

    • Fritz, it was such a chaotic year that maybe they felt it was appropriate to have the songs rather disjointed. You’re right about Grace and Marty, though. I’m not big on love songs, but it was awesome to see footage of them live when they dueted on a song. They weren’t facing the audience most times; they were turned sideways staring each other down like two singing gunfighters. It was magic to see them try to outsing each other.

    • unreceivedogma says:

      I disagree with Fritz so much about C of C that I feel he just doesn’t understand the album — and where the band was heading — at all.

      Airplane were amazingly eclectic during that run from 1966 through 1972 (as was Tim Buckley, who was so restless that his fans could not keep up with him), and each album needs to be judged on its own terms.

      If I were forced to pick one favorite, it would be Volunteers, even though it was a bit more commercial than my other two favorites, Baxters and C of C.

      • It’s not so much a matter of not understanding, it’s just a matter of taste, although I’ve been told I don’t understand opera either so maybe you’re right. To me, most operas are 3 hours of boredom in order to hear half an hour of great music and Crown, for me, was sort of the same thing, the great music being Jorma’s guitar work. Brilliant! Maybe I understand that part because I am a guitar player so, again maybe you’re right. I just don’t get it.

        I would love to hear the old Jefferson Airplane do a Wagner opera. Just imagine what Jorma and Jack could have done with Ride of the Valkre. But even with Grace and Marty singing the lead vocals it would have been a lot of boring stuff with too small a portion of powerful music, kind of like Crown. Anyone out there know of any bands that did psychedelicized versions of classical music? I always thought the works of Wagner and Strauss and Vivaldi and others could have been made into some really trippy stuff. Leslie West did a short doodle of Hall of the Mountain King on one of his solo albums that really exemplifies what could be done with the classics, especially by guys like Leslie West.

  4. “ARMADILLO”

  5. Richard Bone says:

    “Cushingura” actually is the only released track from the Airplane’s unreleased sound experiment LP “Thing”. “Cushingura” is also the most coherent track on “Thing” so you can imagine RCA’s befuddlement when the band delivered their latest creation. Needless to say, there’s not a single to be had. I believe “Thing” was produced by Dryden who was very disillusioned by its failure to see an RCA release (there is an unofficial CD of “Thing” whose tracks are beyond strange but also far, far ahead of their time).

  6. Glenn, excellent stuff, brilliant!

  7. Paul Goodwin says:

    Great write up — this is one of my faves — gonna dig it out when i get home tonight 🙂

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