In the fall of 1965, when the music scene in the Haight Ashbury was heating up and the campus of the University of California was boiling over with rebellion, I had the privilege of reviewing the Jefferson Airplane’s first concert on campus for the Daily Cal, UC Berkeley’s student newspaper. I was 18 years old, a veteran of the Free Speech Movement and, like so many of my contemporaries, convinced that our activism and its soundtrack were going to change the world.
Backstage, I met Paul Kantner, who proudly showed me his red Rickenbacker 12-string guitar, which produced such a wonderfully jangly sound, and he explained how he and the band, following Bob Dylan’s example, had made the transition from coffeehouse folk music to what in those days we called rock ‘n’ roll — not rock. Ralph J. Gleason, the jazz critic for The San Francisco Chronicle, was there, and he whispered a facetious aside about some gossip that had recently circulated about Dylan, making me feel like I was part of a world I had only witnessed from a distance before, growing up in Palo Alto and religiously reading Gleason’s columns every week.
For those of us who had come up playing in bands on the San Francisco Peninsula, mostly for Stanford fraternity parties — the drummer in one of those groups was Billy Kreutzmann, who would go on to play for the Grateful Dead — part of the excitement about the Airplane was that their musicianship was so advanced. Jack Casady, the group’s bassist, plucked the strings of his electric bass guitar with his fingers, not his thumb, clearly showing he had a jazz background. And lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen obviously had listened to guitar players other than Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore.
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But for randy young college boys, it was Toly who riveted our attention. She had that winsome, earnest folk female presence that drew us in like moths to a flame — Maria Muldaur, with the Jim Kweskin Jug Band, had a similar, if earthier allure — and when she sang Miriam Makeba’s “Love Tastes Like Strawberries,” or chimed in on “Tobacco Road,” the Airplane’s first live concert hit, we melted.
So when Signe decided to leave the band the following year in favor of being a mom — she had married one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, Jerry Anderson — and was replaced by the potty-mouthed but more commercially appealing Grace Slick … well, you can only imagine the kinds of fights that broke out. Signe was the soul of the Airplane! She was “authentic,” “real” and “pure.” How could she leave? Why would she? You know the tone. If there had been an Internet in those days, the trolls and haters would have come out in full force, bashing Slick — and each other — relentlessly.
Back in those days, the term “rip-off” had not yet been invented (if memory serves me well, it was “Hair” that prompted its birth, with its original meaning of cultural appropriation, not just theft). But that conversation was going on all the time. Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish talked at Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley about how the band would not be tempted to sell out to the record company vultures who were descending on the cultural ferment brewing in the Haight. Culture was local, they argued, culture was communal, culture belonged to the people. Screw the corporations. We gleefully cheered them on.
If all this sounds painfully familiar to those who lived through the grunge era in Seattle — or who are witness to the current flowering of hip-hop, for that matter — it should. The lines that were drawn between fans of Nirvana and fans of Pearl Jam….well, that territory had been tread before.
But the point is not “’twas ever thus,” but rather to extol the innocence and youth that drives such passions, and also to mourn the loss of both. We are all young once and, if we are lucky, we get to be old, too. It seems to me that Paul Kantner and Signe Toly did not live long enough. They were both 74. But what they gave us in those and subsequent days can never be taken away.