Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Book Review: Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane, by Jeff Tamarkin

Text © Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2012
Images from the Internet

Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane
By Jeff Tamarkin
Introduction by Jann Wenner
Forward by Paul Kantner
Atria Books (NY), 2003
408 pages, hardcover; USD $27.00
ISBN: 0-671-03403-0

My bad. I was given this book to review a while back by Joe V., and, well, the book ended up boxed for a while, and then it was a matter of out-of-sights came to the forefront. My apologies.

Jeff Tamarkin

I’ve been a fan of author Jeff Tamarkin for years. So, in a case of better late than never – and the fact that the book deserves to be read – here we go:

It can be argued that the Jefferson Airplane was to the San Francisco scene at the height of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in the mid-‘60s what the Ramones was to the nascent punk scene in New York in the mid-‘70s: not the only band around that deserved notice, but one that helped spearhead a new sound, and a revolutionary subculture that spread throughout the world.

But calling this book one about the Jefferson Airplane is not exactly accurate. Sure, the band is in the forefront of this story, but Tamarkin wisely doesn’t put on blinders by giving a narrow reading of the time, but rather he shows how the Jefferson Airplane (JA) not only brought the scene to the world, it was also formed and shaped by it. Nothing grows in a vacuum, the old chestnut reads, and the JA is no exception. The Kennedy Assassination, Elvis, the Beatles, Viet Nam (or Vietnam, if you prefer), and the explosion of available pharmaceuticals all played a part in what would foster bands like the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and JA, and impresarios like the querulous Bill Graham (who at one time managed JA).

Over the years, Tamarkin has had substantial access to the band, including early and later members, and he wisely uses this to plump up the story using quotes in abbreviated “oral history” style, with direct quote callouts from his own personal interviews (i.e., original material). Even though there are many books about the “Summer of Love” period of San Francisco and the music that arose from it, very few focus this much direct light on this important band. While, in history, singer Grace Slick has been the main focus of much of the media attention (thanks in part to her being a wild card, not to mention attractive), Tamarkin focuses equally on all members of the band, including founder and main vocalist Marty Balin (who is once again becoming musically active), guitarists Jorma Kaukonen and Paul Kantner, bassist Jack Casady, and all of the many living drummers who played with the JA.

But just as the JA was part of the milieu that Tamarkin investigates, this book is not only about the JA, but the various other bands that were offshoots of the original, such as Hot Tuna, Jefferson Starship, and of course, the band with eventually none of the original JA members left who built this city, Starship.

With the exception of an early manager, it seems like everyone who has either been in the band(s), managed it, worked for it, friends with the members, were scene-makers, or saw them crossing the street one day (I say this whimsically, of course), are quoted. This includes wives/girlfriends, ex-wives/girlfriends, and (now adult) kids. Did I mention that this is thorough?

And with all the personal changes in management and in the band(s), such as (also lovely) original singer Signe Toly Anderson and later singer Mickey Thomas, Tamarkin manages to keep them all straight as they weave in and out of the story, in part by giving histories of most of the members, usually going back to the grandparents! While a large and complex mix, even without a scorecard, the reader can follow along through its many pages.

I must admit, at this point, that with the exception of a few songs, I was never a big JA follower (I have their Surrealistic Pillow album, and the 2-disk 2400 Fulton Street “best of” compilation, but it’s not something that goes on my playlist often. Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna music was around, but I don’t own anything of them, and I’m sure my love affair with the then-contemporary stripped down punk sound is a solid reason for that (though I had forgotten that I liked “Miracles”), and as for Starship, well, everything I heard by them was not just boring, but a clear symbol of everything I hated about ‘80s synth rock (and I’m hardly the only one who feels that). And yet, because of the way Tamarkin describes the music, the scene, and the historical importance of the music, I went back and listened to a much of it (my two sets, and the rest online).

[Sidebar: as the author describes, bassist Casady formed a punk(ish) band named SVT, who recorded a decent single with “Heart of Stone”; I saw them play at the Bottom Line, in New York City… yes, I was on the guest list).]

The fact that Tamarkin can pique my interest to the point of my going back to relistening (and I’m not saying much of my opinion has changed), and kept me riveted throughout, say a lot to both the story, and the way he presents it.

The book has since been released in paperback form (2005), so it may be worthwhile to look into it. Meanwhile, Tamarkin is working with Howard Kaylan (Turtles, Flo & Eddie) on his autobiography, due this year, which I look forward to, as Kaylan is a keystone of the Los Angeles scene of the same period (not to mention having a very sharp tongue).

Bonus Videos:

Marginally-related video:

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