One of the stock interview questions authors, actors, film makers, and artists of other ilk get asked when they are interviewed about their creations is: What were your early influences? What captured your imagination in your formative years? In a way, it’s like asking someone who’s made a particularly delectable item of food, “What ingredients did you use in this dish?” It’s one of the many variations on one of the most important of human questions, “How did you do that?”
I couldn’t tell you any more how I ended up thinking about influences just now, because I’ve breathed since then, but I can tell you that it set off one of those free association things in my head that can be such fun. One thought pinballing off into my head and I get to see what bumpers light up and go ding! (I’ve ended up in some pretty interesting headspaces (2) that way.)
Anyway, one of the dings of this particular instance (or dongs, I forget which) was an album by Jefferson Airplane called, “After Bathing at Baxter’s.” The cover art was by visual artist Ron Cobb who has a very distinctive style. I’d already chiseled The Beatles‘ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band into the bedrock of my memory by the time I encountered it.
Somewhat later, when I had more in the way of discretionary funds*, I ran across the Airplane’s first album “Surrealistic Pillow” with the iconic Grace Slick singing the iconic “White Rabbit” and had liked it. I didn’t get to Baxter’s until a year or two after it came out because before I could get to it, I was blindsided by Crosby, Stills and Nash‘s first album and its positively orgasmic vocal harmonies (Sorry. I don’t care what anybody says, Young was a mistake. His voice doesn’t work with the fitted-together-like-Inca-stonework triad of voices that was David Crosby, Steven Stills and Graham Nash in their prime. Not sorry.). If you want vocal harmony that is to die for, that album gets it in one. Ironically, my favorite song on the whole album, the horse dance song, would still be my favorite if you stripped out the vocal tracks. The guitar work on that song is just perfect. (It led me to a magical place where the horses dance and the blue fish sing. It was a peaceful, gentle place. I haven’t been there in quite a while. One day I might answer a Mag Challenge and take you there. . .) (One more time, three great voices so tight, so right. Sigh.)
But back to Baxter’s. It’s kind of one of those you had to have been there. There is a fair amount of acid-trippy signal noise on the album, — it came out of 1969 San Francisco, after all. But The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil with some of its lyrics borrowed from the poetry** of A. A. Milne (I was turned on to Winnie the Pooh, not by having it read to me or by Disney, but by Jefferson Airplane — try that one on your head.) and the gentle “Martha” stand out. But, again, because this album, and the band, came out of 1969 San Francisco, you’ve got Slick crooning quotes from James Joyce‘s Ulysses (ReJoyce), and the aural hash that is “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You Shortly” which ends with somebody yelling “No man is an island! No man is an island! He’s a peninsula.” and a giggle. (I must have listened to that giggle a bazillion times, and it still makes me smile. It’s a truly great giggle — right up there with Anderson Cooper’s.) And some of it is just plain weird. One of life’s many little opportunities to sift through the dross and discover the pearls.
There was a period in my life when I used to doodle (a lot) a tulip shaped bulb with convoluted roots and a daisy like flower blooming straight out of the bulb’s point, and on the bulb, in psychedelic lettering, was the phrase “Understanding is a virtue hard to come by.” Which is a lyric from “Last Wall of the Castle” from Baxter’s. If I had a dollar for every time I doodled that doodle, I could buy quite a nice armload of books . . .
Also out of that time came a song, “Wooden Ships” which was written aboard David Crosby’s schooner Maya by him, Stephen Stills and Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. It was recorded by CSN on their first album (mentioned above) and by Jefferson Airplane. Somewhere between the poles of the two versions of this song was, once upon a time, a small, strange burrowing bird living in the flatlands, learning to fly. . .
*discretionary funds -- "extra" money, that can be spent on what I like to call "targets of opportunity." **If you were a bird, and lived on high, You'd lean on the wind when the wind came by, You'd say to the wind when it took you away: "That's where I wanted to go today!" From "Spring Morning" in When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne. ***This picture has no relation to anything in the post. I just like looking at it.
One thought on “Influences”
If you gave me a piece of paper and a set of colored pencil, I could replicate the cover of Surrealistic Pillow. It wouldn’t be good, but the colors would be perfect, and the layout recognizable. That recording of “White Rabbit” is good, but Slick’s performance at Woodstock is the measure of all things rabbitish. I see that’s the performance you linked to. Perfect.