Albums Worth Listening To: Jefferson Airplane, Crown of Creation

2 Feb

Jefferson Airplane is an interesting band that tells a little morality story to every hipster band that has existed since them.  They warrant a close look because their trajectory from hip outsider band, to hip insider band, to mainstream band, to corporate band followed not only the trajectory for most musical artists out there, but for baby boomers in general.

When Crown of Creation came out, Jefferson Airplane was dealing with success.  They were extremely stylish, being considered the first wave of the San Francisco Sound, and even had a couple of top 40 hits under their belt.  They brought in the hippie style, and their music exemplified a sort of idealism mixed with a lack of barriers.  However, from the beginning they also were extremely commercial, there’s no doubt that their albums were designed to make money, and they became more known as a pop culture phenomenon than musicians towards the end of this stage, doing outrageous TV spots and generally calling attention to themselves.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think that they weren’t artistically credible, but it does make their eventual evolution into Starship less surprising in the end.

So we get the cover, which is the band split into doubles standing in the middle of a nuclear blast.  Surprisingly there’s little being said about the world in this album and much more said about their world.  So we open with Lather, a song about a man who drops out and gets left behind (actually the song makes him seem infantile).   Grace Slick’s intonations are creepy, as are the voice clips of this man-child calling for mommy in the background.  In the end, dropping out did not make him free, but left him completely alone.

Then we get “In time” a very pretty ballad, but coming after Lather, it’s the same sort of, let’s get away from everything philosophy that causes a sort of emotional stunting.   The tune is also melancholy, like a wish for leaving it all behind even though it’s impossible.

“Triad” a David Crosby penned song, is about a three-way relationship, which of course is on its way out.  Grace Slick asks “why can’t we go on as three” but of course the answer is evident, with all the jealousy and such that goes along with that sort of situation.  Partially this song is here just to push the envelope, but also continues the failed social experiment theme  of this album.

“Star Track” is a bluesy tune about a man whose emotions have all gone out of him, leaving him in a numb state.  He talks about knowing the difference between moving fast and going somewhere.  It’s incredibly nihlistic, expressing how everything is gone in the end no matter what you do.  It includes a prescient line that I think is a prophesy of Jefferson Airplane’s future “You’ll wander round from place to place/disappear without a trace/and someone else will take your place/in line.”

Chushingura is a one minute dollop of electronic experimentalism that ends the first side in an electric feedback of creepiness.   At the end of this first side, it’s so interesting that Jefferson Airplane is casting a critical eye at the very subculture that brought them about in the first place, while also acknowledging that it’s an artificial subculture that young America had bought into at that time.  Whatever their intentions were, the reason their albums were pushed and they were on the top 40 was to get Americans to buy things.    There’s a definite sense of this commercialism, as well as the drugs and the scene, being destructive forces that simply make people disappear in their wake.

We start the next side with “If You Feel” which has a good tune but the words sound ok on a casual listen end up making no sense whatever at a closer listen.  “If you feel like china breaking if you feel like laughing, break china laughing.”  I suppose the song is a vague expression of do what you feel and express yourself, but it doesn’t sound positive with the tune it’s with.  And the weirdest part, after all these Yoko Onoish word games where if you feel like A and you feel like B do AB seems to be the rule, we end the song with the singer saying he got down, and he got up to go, like he tired of this game.

“Crown of Creation” brings to mind the nuclear explosion of the cover, partially because it looks like a crown.  The song sounds apocalyptic, and the lyrics come from an us vs. them point of view, we are changing, they are fossils, but their voices sound like a robotic chorus.  If you look only at the lyrics it sounds like a young vs. old generation gap rant, but in the singing, there’s a strong sense of irony as the band has already acknowledged that they are taking their first steps into turning into “them” at the very beginning of this album.    It’s like this band was a robot where the idealism of youth and the reality of aging cannot compute so it’s starting to go on the fritz.  No wonder the two faced pictures on the cover.

“Ice Cream Phoenix”  I honestly have no idea what the title refers to, other than heat and cold.  The lyrics seem to combine all the themes that we’ve gotten through to this point.  The end of the world and life, retreating into happy memories, having all past and no future.  The big question it asks “tell me why, if you think you know why, do people love if there’s no tomorrow, and still not cry when it’s time to go.”

“Greasy Heart”  is Grace Slick unleashing scorn on the other type of monster that came out of the hippie thing, the image-seeking scenesters.  Everything about the couple is fake, with tans that wash off in the bath, long hair wigs, drug addiction, art-selling, paper dresses that catch on fire.  The greasy heart is feelings sold out like hamburgers in a restaurant designed and engineered as a hip posture.  However much Grace Slick rants, she’s ironically ranting at herself as well (after all, a Slick heart isn’t that much different than a Greasy heart.)

“House at Pooneil Corners” is the apocalypse at the end of this album.   Some don’t like this song, it’s over the top for sure, and the lyrics are stream-of-conciousness-silly, but it’s the end that is referenced in every song up through now, and the ambulance sounds and gloomy atmosphere certainly feels like the end of the world.  However, they’re really talking about the end of their world, their idealism, their youth.  After this album the band would turn away from personal expression and towards political statements (Volunteers), art attempts (Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome nun) and shameless commercialism (Jefferson Starship on forward.)  Where I find Crown of Creation fascinating is there’s a definite consciousness about the whole thing, like they’re deliberately assassinating their real selves to the public and replacing them all with public images (which is why all the robot images), and also acknowledging that whatever music they may make, they ultimately will not change the world.    Part of one thing that makes it interesting now is how dated it sounds, and how that datedness plays into it because anything trendy will be the most dated in years gone by.

The funny thing is that the whole hippie thing in the late sixties started a corporate cycle that continues to this day, where underground bands and trends get picked up by the mainstream by attaching them to a specific image, which fades quickly.  Rather than making people happier, what ends up happening is companies make more money in this cycle through all the things people buy because of it.  Of course as soon as they have the whole “lifestyle collection” people are expected to begin a new collection because the old one no longer says anything.

And FYI, I’m not against people buying and selling things–that’s certainly better than other ways of dealing, where it gets me nervous is how people’s identities get caught up in what they buy and sell, the line between “I own this thing” and “I am this thing” gets very fuzzy, partially because I think people feel insecure about their undefined personalities.   That is why Crown of Creation is special, I think it’s honest about commercial music.


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