Pop & Hiss

How Paul Kantner and Jefferson Airplane delivered LSD music to the masses

Those looking to understand the roots of San Francisco psychedelic rock need only read one observation from Paul Kantner, who died Thursday at age 74, to connect the microdots. 

"Jefferson Airplane had the fortune or misfortune of discovering Fender Twin Reverb amps and LSD in the same week while in college. That’s a great step forward," Kantner told writer Harvey Kubernik.

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That this great journey occurred in mid-1960s San Francisco shouldn't be surprising. Hipsters, pranksters and chemists had converged on the city for its beauty, vibe, and electricity as folk music and hallucinogens fomented a movement. Within a few years of first taking acid and plugging in, Jefferson Airplane and fellow scenesters the Grateful Dead, Blue Cheer, Santana, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Moby Grape and others were part of the national music conversation. 

What is surprising is how Kantner, co-founder Marty Balin, singer Grace Slick and the band needled their way into American minds. Their appearance, for example, on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" in 1967 captured the stark contrast between the button-up charm of Clark and the freaks onstage.

Kantner wore a black hood and sunglasses as he wended through that mesmerizing Rickenbacker guitar line of "White Rabbit" as Slick sang of pills that tripped you out. She stood in front of a San Francisco-style streetscape, singing with little emotion, dressed to suggest a nun. As she lyrically chased rabbits and ate mushrooms, the camera zoomed in on a lava lamp, its blob morphing while the music echoed. The camera turned upside down, an unexpected inversion.

The song ends, and Clark mutters, "Oh, my, my." He then declares, "This has got to be one of the most unique and unusual recordings ever because it appeals to all different kinds of people. People of all different age groups."

Kantner acknowledged as much when he contrasted Jefferson Airplane's first and second tours. "On our first U.S. tour, we were in cities where all the kids came in prom gowns and tuxedos," Kantner told Kubernik. "Then we came back to Iowa a year later, and they were having nude mud love-ins and everybody had their faces painted.”

That same year, the band hit the prime-time circuit for a set on "The Smothers Brothers" variety show. The clean-cut comedic team was hardly conservative and served as a platform for a wild variety of guests and philosophies. 

"An airplane is made out of wood, metal and canvas and held together by welding and rivets," said Tommy Smothers, introducing the band. "But Jefferson Airplane is a new concept in airplane. It's made out of people, hair, guitars and held together by words and music." 

Jefferson Airplane was making its way into the most conservative corners of America — while still tacitly celebrating getting high on LSD. During a 1968 performance on, of all places, a Perry Como special, the band went full-bore with visuals.

At the same time, the bible of the hippy movement, Rolling Stone, was praising Jefferson Airplane at every opportunity. Even the magazine's founder and publisher, Jann Wenner, jumped onto the page to chime in.

Writing of "After Bathing at Baxter's," the band's acid-fueled 1967 album, Wenner declared it "probably the best, considering all the criteria and exceptions, rock and roll album so far produced by an American group."

An overstatement, yes, but his declaration made sense when he published it in 1968. After all, much of America at the time was screaming along to a Jefferson Airplane refrain: "Remember what the dormouse said. Feed your head."

Trippy times, indeed.

randall.roberts@latimes.com

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