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