I didn't actually hear any music by Jefferson Airplane until after the band had changed its name to Jefferson Starship sometime in the 1970's. As was the case with most of my music my first exposure to them came through my older brother. The first album of theirs that I bought on my own was a double album retrospective that came out in the mid to late 1970's which covered their career from their first album, Jefferson Airplane, through to Red Octopus by the Starship.
Even though there was some great stuff from Crown Of Creation in this set, it was the rough edged anthem "Volunteers" and their eerie version of "Wooden Ships" from the Volunteers album that made the biggest impression on me. Compared to what was being played on the radio at the time, these songs from some eight years earlier were a breath of fresh air. It wasn't until I heard the Clash for the first time a couple of years latter that anyone was able to match the intensity of the call to arms for social change of Volunteers.
Ironically it had been about a year earlier I had first seen the movie Woodstock in one of the second run theatres scattered around Toronto Canada. The version they were showing in the theatres those days didn't include the footage since added to the director's cuts that have been released in recent years, so I had no idea the Airplane had even played at the festival. I had listened to the triple album that had been released as a soundtrack a number of times before seeing the movie - thanks again to my brother - and they hadn't been included on it either. It wasn't until years later I found out they had been there, and it was only when I got hold of a copy of a director's cut a few years ago that I even heard any of the set they performed.
Now, forty years since the Woodstock Music and Arts Festival and the release of Volunteers, Sony's Legacy Recordings have released a series of five numbered, limited edition, re-mastered recordings featuring performer's complete sets from Woodstock and the album that they released the year of the concert. Jefferson Airplane: The Woodstock Experience contains all thirteen songs Jefferson Airplane performed that Sunday morning in August of 1969 when the sun was coming up over Yasgur's farm, and a copy of Volunteers.
Disc one of the two disc set includes the ten tracks from the studio album and the first five cuts from their Woodstock set, including Grace Slick's slightly trippy greeting to the crowd. As well as including a second disc containing the rest of the band's live set, in a throwback to the old days of albums, the package comes complete with a poster of the band on stage at the festival.
When I first heard the Airplane's set had been left out of the movie and the soundtrack album I had figured it was because the sound quality just hadn't been good enough to warrant including it. Remember technology in 1969 was primitive compared to what we're used to today and it was quite possible that because of the rain and other problems, the sound for their set had sucked. However, when I saw what had been included in the director's cut of the movie I knew that couldn't be the case for the sound was as good as anything else included in the earlier version. What makes their exclusion even odder is, as the packaging says, in 1969 Jefferson Airplane was "the" headlining act for festivals.
We might look at a line up including the Who, Jimi Hendrix, and Santana, and think one of them might have been bigger. However, Santana had just released their first album that year and the Who hadn't broken through in the States yet. It was their appearance at Woodstock that jumped started both bands' careers. According to the liner notes of this package, Jefferson Airplane had been the first group that the festival's organizers had booked for the weekend. They were included on the far less popular Woodstock Two album, along with other bands who didn't appear in the original movie or the soundtrack, but that's an odd way to treat your headliner, don't you think?
Forty years later listening to their set its as much a mystery to me now as it was when I first found out as to why they weren't included in either the original soundtrack or the movie. Sure the version of "Wooden Ships" they do is nearly thirty minutes long, and the sound is a little iffy on a couple of other cuts, but there's some great stuff among these thirteen tracks. There are six songs whose versions here have never been released before, including the epic "Wooden Ships", and two of their classic psychedelic numbers "The House At Pooneil Corners" and "The Ballad Of You & Me & Pooneil". Combined with "Whit Rabbit", Somebody To Love", "Volunteers", and the rest of the material on the two discs, this collection works as a pretty damn good greatest hits package of Jefferson Airplane.
Listening to Marty Balin's and Grace Slick's voices arc and soar over the churning guitars of Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner and the driving beat laid down by Spencer Dryden's drums and Jack Casady's bass is to experience what psychedelic rock was all about. While there were others who tried to emulate them, it was the Airplane who were pushing the boundaries and creating something otherworldly on stage with their music. They could bring the house down with their wild energy and send you deep into inner space with the spiral of their lyrics. They sang of a hopeful future where "We Can Be Together" and called for "Volunteers" to help in the fight they knew it would take to bring about the better world their songs promised.
Jefferson Airplane were the epitome of the optimism of that generation, and while it's easy for cynical ears to dismiss them as naive and unrealistic, at the time they were expressing the hopes and dreams people had for changing the world. They had already seen a revolution in the America South with the empowerment of African Americans, so why couldn't it be possible to throw off the restrictive behaviour and attitudes of previous generations? Unfortunately the dream was already dying in August of 1969 as both Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated the previous year, Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were occupying the White House in the United States, and Marty Balin would leave the Airplane by the end of the year. Although nowhere near as significant as any of the other events, his departure changed the band irrevocably, and they drifted off into dreams of escape on starships instead of trying to save the world.
Listen to Jefferson Airplane: The Woodstock Experience and you can hear the sound of what it must have been like to believe, if even for only a short while, the world could be a place where "We Can Be Together". It's wonderfully and beautifully, crazy and naive, and I can't help feel regret there aren't people out there who can help us feel like that again. Music should be able to take us places we can't go on our own, and when you flew with the Airplane, you went quite a distance.
(Originally posted August 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.