Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Jefferson Airplane -- "Comin' Back to Me" (1967)


A transparent dream 
Beneath an occasional sigh
Most of the time, I just let it go by
Now I wish it hadn't begun
I saw you . . .
I saw you . . .
Comin' back to me 

The Jefferson Airplane were the first of the San Francisco-area psychedelic bands to have a real impact on the musical world.  

Their second album, Surrealistic Pillow, was "a groundbreaking piece of folk-rock-based psychedelia, and it hit -- literally -- like a shot heard round the world," according to reviewer Bruce Eder of Allmusic.com.  "Every song is a perfectly cut diamond."


The only better American album from that era is the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, and both records share many of the same virtues.   The production of Surrealistic Pillow is sophisticated without being slick, and imposes discipline on the musicians -- there's none of the self-indulgent excess that mars many albums of this era.  The songs are innocent and sincere.  The result in both cases is utterly beautiful music that comes from the heart and speaks to the heart.

"Comin' Back to Me" is calm and quiet, but packs an emotional punch.  I first heard this song well over 40 years ago, but it still takes hold of me when I hear it.  The song seems to slow time down to a crawl, and you can almost forget to breathe when you listen to it.

The Jefferson Airplane was put together by 23-year-old singer Marty Balin to be the house band at The Matrix, a rock-folk-blues club he opened in San Francisco in 1965.  (When I lived in San Francisco in the early 1980s, my apartment was four blocks west and eight blocks south of where The Matrix was located, but it had closed long before.)  Steppenwolf, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Doors, and the Velvet Underground were among the groups that recorded live albums there.


So was the Great Society, an early acid-rock band that featured a lead singer named Grace Slick.  Signe Anderson was an original female singer of the Jefferson Airplane, but left the group after giving birth to a daughter.  Slick left the Great Society -- whose members included her husband and his brother -- because she felt that the Jefferson Airplane was run in a much more professional manner.  

Slick contributed two songs to Surrealistic Pillow:  "Somebody to Love" (which was written by her brother-in-law and had been recorded previously by the Great Society) and "White Rabbit."

But Surrealistic Pillow really belongs to Marty Balin.  He wrote or co-wrote five of its songs, including what I think are the four best songs on the record.  We think of Grace Slick as the Jefferson Airplane's lead vocalist because she sang on the two hit singles from Surrealistic Pillow, but Balin was the singer on the lion's share of the songs on that album.

Marty Balin
By the way, the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia played guitar on several songs on Surrealistic Pillow, including "Comin' Back to Me," which Balin said he wrote in a single setting after smoking some topnotch marijuana given to him by famed blues singer, Paul Butterfield.  (That's Grace Slick playing recorder on the song.)

Influenced by the success of "heavier" musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Cream, the group changed musical direction after Surrealistic Pillow.  Paul Kantner, who had a child with Grace Slick, became the band's primary songwriter.  (The couple eventually formed Jefferson Starship.)  Bandmembers Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, who had gotten their starts as blues musicians, launched Hot Tuna. 

Marty Balin eventually became the Airplane's odd man out.  He had been a close friend of Janis Joplin, and abstained from drugs and alcohol after her death, which further isolated him from his bandmates.  He left Jefferson Airplane in 1971.

Grace Slick
The records that the Airplane released after Surrealistic Pillow contain some very good songs, but the group sort of jumped the shark after its release.  Nothing Jefferson Airplane did later compares to that glorious album. 

That's six cities down -- Memphis, Nashville, New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, and San Francisco -- and one to go.  What do you think the seventh city will be?

Seattle?  Atlanta?  Philadelphia?  Minneapolis-St. Paul?  Boston?  Cleveland?  Chicago?  Washington, DC?

All worthy contenders, but the seventh city I've picked PONES all these cities!

Stay tuned to 2 or 3 lines . . . the answer will be revealed tomorrow.

Here's "Comin' Back to Me."  Turn off your phone, find a comfortable chair, close your eyes, and LISTEN!  It's not everyday that you get to experience musical perfection.  But thanks to your friends at 2 or 3 lines, today is one of those days.



Here's a link you can use to buy a copy of the song from Amazon:

2 comments:

  1. I bought the CD a few years ago after having the reissue "45" of "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" for 20 or 30 years. What prompted the update was that the album includes "How Do You Feel". I had seen Evie sing "How Do You Feel" on a video from a 1969 Johnny Cash TV show, and knew she had never recorded it, so I wanted "somebody's" recorded version. Evie told me that it was a Ray Charles song, so I found his original, then I bought "Surrealistic Pillow" and found that A) it was a totally different song, and B) Grace Slick plays the recorder on it. I was so captivated by the song, Ms. Slick's woodwind and the splendid guitar work that I included it on my "22 for the Road" compilation CD. It brings to mind a photo of a young woman I photographed in San Francisco while waiting for a streetcar to show up. I'm not sure if I can come up with a story to go most of your "2 or 3 lines" entries, but most of them so far have triggered memories.

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  2. I saw a video performance of this online and after it Marty Balin credited marijuana with giving him the inspiration for the song...

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