Posts Tagged ‘Jefferson Airplane’

‘If You Smile At Me . . .’

May 15, 2022

Originally posted August 18, 2009

While driving across town on an errand last week, I heard the oldies station play “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s first, self-titled album. As I listened, I realized that I hadn’t heard the song for a while. After a few moments, I realized as well that it had been even longer – much longer – since I’d listened to the entire album. I’ve written here before about forgetting about albums as meaningful collections of songs because I so often run the RealPlayer on random, and thus get only one piece of an album at a time. And I wondered to myself how well Crosby, Stills & Nash holds up as an album.

So that evening, I listened to Crosby, Stills & Nash from beginning to end, just to see how it sounds as a united piece of work these days. It still ranks pretty high on my all-time list, but I was chagrined to realize that I’d forgotten the running order of the album. As David Crosby’s “Guinnevere” faded away, I couldn’t recall what came next, and hearing “You Don’t Have To Cry” startled me; it sounded somehow wrong. The surprise pointed out to me how much my listening has shifted away from albums to random single tracks over the past ten years.

As I have for years, I found the album’s most interesting song to be “Wooden Ships.”  It’s not the best song on the album; I’d have to give that nod to either “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” or “Long Time Gone.” But it’s always fascinated me with its post-apocalyptic vision of survivors fleeing in the wooden ships on the water.

Beyond the recording itself, there are a couple of interesting things about “Wooden Ships.” The writing credit on the CSN album lists Crosby and Stills, but there was a third writer. Crosby himself tells the tale, as All-Music Guide relates:

“According to Crosby’s liner notes in the four-disc career retrospective Crosby, Stills & Nash [Box Set] (1991), the song was ‘written in the main cabin of my boat, the Mayan. I had the music already [and] Paul Kanter [sic] wrote two verses, Stephen wrote one and I added the bits at both ends.’ He also explains the cryptic lyrics such as ‘silver people on the shoreline’ – which are those left behind in their nuclear radiation suits. Crosby concludes that the authors ‘imagined ourselves as the few survivors, escaping on a boat to create a new civilization.’”

I’m not sure who’s responsible for the spelling error in that paragraph, but the third writer was Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane. And “Wooden Ships” was included on the Airplane’s 1969 release Volunteers. (The writing credit there is “Crosby-Kantner-Stills.”)

Wikipedia helps clarify things: “Kantner could not be credited as one of the joint authors-composers on the original release of Crosby, Stills & Nash due to legal issues, but he is thus credited on the 2006 re-release. The song was also released by Jefferson Airplane the same year on the album Volunteers. Both versions are considered to be original versions of the song, although they differ slightly in wording and melody.”

(Wikipedia also notes that co-writer Stills’ interpretation of the song differs from Crosby’s, saying “Stills has stated at music festivals that the song is in fact about the Holocaust in Europe during World War II. Though the obscure lyrics do not refer specifically to the events of the war, the story of the song can be interpreted as the meeting of two deserters or non-Jewish individuals who are fleeing Europe to avoid starvation or participation in anti-Semitic violence. In this context, the ‘silver people on the shoreline’ may refer to Nazi soldiers. The lyrics ‘Horror grips us as we watch you die / All we can do is echo your anguished cries, / Stare as all human feelings die’ could indicate that the characters in the song are observing a horrific slaughter yet can do nothing to prevent it.”)

Anyway, if both versions are considered original, then neither is a cover? Well, okay. But one of them was released first. Which one was it?

Crosby, Stills & Nash was released on May 29, 1969, according to AMG. Finding a release date for Volunteers is a bit murkier. The album’s page at AMG has a release date of November 1969, but the AMG page about the song “Wooden Ships” says the two albums were “issued within months of each other in the spring of ’69.” I’d lean toward a November release for Volunteers, as the Billboard Book of Top 40 Albums has the album hitting the chart in late November. (The album spent thirteen weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 13. Crosby, Stills & Nash reached the album chart in the first week of July 1969 and spent forty weeks in the Top 40, peaking at No. 6.)

[Note from 2022: Wikipedia has a U.S. release date of November 2, 1969, for Volunteers.]

There aren’t a lot of covers of the song; AMG lists a total of ninety-three CDs that contain a version of the song, and the vast majority of those are by CSN or Jefferson Airplane or combinations of members of those groups. Others listed as having recorded the song are: Animal Bag, The Browne Sisters & George Cavanaugh, Matthew Cook, the De Capo Players, the Future Sound of London, Andy Guzie, Chris Harwood, Lana Lane, Jennifer Matthews, the Rochford Jazz Ensemble, Son of Adam, II Big and Zion I.

Of all the covers of “Wooden Ships,” only two of them are listed from the years before 2000: Animal Bag’s cover, which was on a 1994 release titled Offering and about which I otherwise know nothing, and Chris Harwood’s version, which was on her 1970 album, Nice to Meet Miss Christine. Reviews of Harwood’s album – and of her version of “Wooden Ships” – are spotty. But it’s always interesting to hear another singer’s take on a song. (My thanks to Lizardson at Time Has Told Me.)

[Note from 2022: The website Second Hand Songs lists seventeen covers of “Wooden Ships,” though few of the artists listed in the preceding paragraph are mentioned there. Seven of those covers are dated before the year 2000. Artists mentioned at SHS include Christine Harwood, Lana Lane and the Ides of March. Notes added May 15, 2022.]

So here are the two original versions of “Wooden Ships” (that still sounds odd to me) along with Harwood’s cover from 1970 and, as a bonus, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s performance of the song at Woodstock in the early morning hours forty years ago today.

“Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills & Nash from Crosby, Stills & Nash, 1969

“Wooden Ships” by Jefferson Airplane from Volunteers, 1969

“Wooden Ships” by Chris Harwood from Nice to Meet Miss Christine, 1970

“Wooden Ships” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at Woodstock, August 18, 1969

The Great Covers List
There was quite a nice response to my post a week ago when I asked which recordings would wind up in a list of best cover versions of all time. We got a couple of fifteen-song lists and a few other comments; the resulting collection of songs would make up a couple of very good CDs. And I’m going to add five recordings to the list as my nominees:

Buffy Sainte-Marie’s “Helpless” from She Used To Wanna Be A Ballerina, 1971
Johnny Winters’ “Highway 61” from Second Winter, 1969.
Ike & Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” Liberty 56216, 1971
Joe Cocker’s “Cry Me A River” from Mad Dogs & Englishmen, 1970
The Band’s “When I Paint My Masterpiece” from Cahoots, 1971

What cover versions grab you? Leave a note, and in a few weeks, I’ll likely start digging into them.

Learning To Drive

May 6, 2022

Originally posted July 6, 2009

I’ve written a bit about cars here: the 1961 Falcon I called Farley, the first car I owned part of and the one that took Rick, Gary and me to Winnipeg in 1972; my dad’s 1952 Ford, and a few others. (I have yet to tell the tale of Toby the Toyota; someday, perhaps.)

Something this weekend reminded me, however, not so much of cars but of driver’s education, that horrible process required before I could sit behind the wheel of any car on my own. I took the course forty years ago this summer, in 1969.

I was not a good driving student. I got flustered easily. That made my behind-the-wheel training – driving around St. Cloud in an auto owned by the school district and very clearly marked “Student Driver” – a less-than-pleasant experience (for me and, I assume, for my instructor as well). Every Wednesday evening, for five or so weeks, two other students and I would take turns driving around the city, turning, merging, driving down ramps and trying to master parallel parking. I was expert at none of those things.

I did get practice between those weekly sessions. On weekends and during other evenings, my dad would get in the passenger seat beside me in our 1964 Ford, and we’d head out across the railroad tracks to a triangular course he’d determined a few years earlier when my sister was learning to drive. I’d drive along the roads, practicing accelerating and braking – I can still hear Dad holler “brake-brake-brake-brake-brake!” – and turning. After a few times around the triangle, he’d have me turn into a driveway and back out the other way, so I could practice left turns instead of right turns.

It’s funny: I hadn’t thought for years of the triangle route we drove during those evenings. But the lot on which we now live borders two of those three streets. I can see one of them from my study window. And I marvel, forty years later, at my dad’s ability to ride along as I slowly learned to drive and to be comfortable doing so. His patience was, I now know, remarkable. Around the triangle we went, time and time again, and he may have been as frustrated as I was, but he was always willing.

I passed the driver’s education course that summer, the summer before I turned sixteen. Shortly after my birthday, I went downtown, not far from the courthouse, and took my driver’s test. I passed the written test but failed the road test – mostly, I think, because I was nervous. I finally passed on the fifth try, just after I turned seventeen. And a little more than a year later, my long procession of cars began with Farley, that 1961 Falcon.

A Six-Pack of Cars

“Back Seat of My Car” by Percy Thrillington from Thrillington [1977]
“Stolen Car” by Bruce Springsteen from The River [1980]
“Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” by Billy Ocean, Jive 9678 [1988]
“Car On A Hill” by Joni Mitchell from Court and Spark [1974]
“She Has Funny Cars” by Jefferson Airplane from Surrealistic Pillow [1967]
“Strangers In A Car” by Marc Cohn from Marc Cohn [1991]

Some folks who stop by here will recognize the name of Percy Thrillington. I think his self-titled 1977 album was the only one he released under that name. It’s an instrumental version of Ram, the 1971 album by Paul and Linda McCartney. Now, why the world needed an instrumental version of Ram is an open question. The answer resides in mind of Mr. Thrillington, who is far better known around the world as Paul McCartney himself. Released with little note six years after it was recorded, the album is quite valuable in the collector’s market; the CD, released and then deleted shortly afterward, is also a collector’s item.

“Stolen Car” is another one of Springsteen’s tales of regular folks caught in lives gone off-track. I wonder sometimes if all those tales in song – “Hungry Heart” comes to mind soonest, but there are many of them in Springsteen’s catalog – are metaphors for a culture that lost its way some years ago and continues to wander astray, or are they just story songs. I’m sure Springsteen’s been asked, and I don’t know what his answer has been or would be. I’d say they’re both metaphor and story, but that’s just me.

I still like the Billy Ocean single, but not nearly as much as I did twenty years ago. Its production sounds dated and over-bearing. But it’s still catchy, with a still-great hook. The record was the last of Ocean’s six Top Ten hits, spending two weeks at No. 1.

“Car On A Hill” is one of those songscapes that Joni Mitchell has put together so expertly during her career, but especially during the early 1970s. With a swooping and slightly cluttered instrumental break, the song sets a mood more than tells a story. As I listened to it again this morning, the words “watercolor landscape” kept coming back to me, and that’s as good a description as any today. The only other thing I can say is that this morning, “Car On A Hill” sounds like 1974 felt.

The drumbeats and then the guitar figure that open Jefferson Airplane’s “She Has Funny Cars” put me squarely in the basement rec room in the house I grew up in. Surrealistic Pillow was one of the few albums my sister owned during those years, and I have no idea how often she played it. I played the record a lot, however, and it became one of my favorites. I’m a little amused by how mellow the entire album seems now; at the time, it seemed like a sonic explosion.

“Strangers In A Car” has one of the more disconcerting opening verses I can remember. I know the song is a commentary on isolation, but this morning, at least, I was unable to pay much attention to the rest of the song after listening closely to the first verse:

There’s a stranger in a car
Driving down your street,
Acts like he knows who you are.
Slaps his hand on the empty seat and says,
“Are you gonna get in
Or are you gonna stay out?”
Just a stranger in a car.
Might be the one they told you about.

It had been a while since I’d thought much about it, and it left me shaking my head. Are the times that different? Or would the song have been that disconcerting in 1991? I don’t know.

The Airplane Gets Groovy

June 29, 2011

Originally posted May 22, 2008

From a surplus of options at YouTube last week to slender pickings today. I found a few things that related to the last few days’ posts but nothing I really liked. (In the case of the Indigo Girls, nothing that I could post here; embedding had been disabled on a couple of very nice clips.)

So I wandered back to last Saturday and the Jefferson Airplane and found a clip of the group from the Smothers Brothers television show in 1967. The Airplane lip-synchs both of its hits – “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” – in a couple of utterly psychedelic videos. (There’s an audio glitch in “Somebody to Love” that’s mildly annoying, but the video is worth watching anyway.)

Saturday Single No. 72

June 28, 2011

Originally posted May 17, 2008

I spend a fair amount of time at a music forum called Groovy Fab. When I post stuff here, I leave a note there. I wander, of course, through other folks’ music posts (and find lots of stuff, some of which ends up being posted here). And, as is the case with most such forums, there are questions, surveys and discussions.*

In December 2006, a forum member called rocketboy started a discussion by asking members to list the Top Ten albums from the years 1950-76. Not a list of favorite albums, but an objective list of the best ten albums from those years. There was one rule: No more than two albums from any one artist.

For a year and a half, I’ve wandered through the forum without answering the question. Sometimes I was short on time. Other times, I thought to myself that I hadn’t really thought the matter through and was certain to leave a response that I’d want to change almost immediately. Yesterday, though, I took a deep breath and worked on my list of the best ten albums from 1950-1976. I first made a list of favorites, and then culled out the choices that were personal quirks. I’d once made a similar list here, noting in June last year my thirteen favorite albums (with only one from any one artist). That list was:

Bob Dylan: Blood on the Tracks
Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street
The Band: The Band
Beatles: Abbey Road
Boz Scaggs: Silk Degrees
Johnny Rivers: Realization
Bruce Springsteen: Tunnel of Love
Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
Moody Blues: Question of Balance
Carole King: Tapestry
Danko, Fjeld, Andersen: Ridin’ On The Blinds
Bonnie Raitt: Nick of Time
Delaney & Bonnie & Friends: Motel Shot

This time, the bottom five of those didn’t make the list. Ridin’ On The Blinds and Nick of Time were released after 1976, and the other three, well, I simply overlooked them (although they wouldn’t have ended up in the Top Ten anyway, as it turned out). And then I strayed: I added two selections based on personal taste, not long-term merit, to get to my Top Ten: Glenn Yarbrough’s To Emily Whenever I May Find Her and J. J. Cale’s Naturally.

I reminded myself that the list was supposed to be based on long-term merit, not personal taste. I sighed, removed the Yarbrough and the Cale. I looked for a long time at the Boz Scaggs, decided that, as good an album as it is, it’s probably more Top Thirty than Top Ten and pulled it off.

Another sigh, and I changed the Springsteen from Tunnel of Love – an admittedly quirky selection – to Born to Run. And I added three albums, struggled with the order for a while, and came up with this:

1. Abbey Road, the Beatles, 1969

2. The Band, The Band, 1969

3. Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan, 1975

4. Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen, 1975

5. Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones, 1972

6. Surrealistic Pillow, Jefferson Airplane, 1967

7. Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd, 1973

8. Déjà Vu, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970

9. Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East, Allman Brothers Band, 1971

10. Realization, Johnny Rivers, 1968

No Little Richard, no Elvis, no Chuck Berry. But they – and many more – I consider more as singles artists than album artists. If you want a list of the ten most important artists/acts from 1950 to 1976, all three of them would be there, and probably others that went unmentioned here.

I think it’s a reasonably good Top Ten. I imagine some folks would quibble with the Johnny Rivers album. I know it’s an album that doesn’t often show up on these types of lists, but – having thought hard about it – I think it belongs.

I was surprised to find out how well I regarded Surrealistic Pillow, which I’ve mentioned only in passing three times on this blog without ever posting anything from it. Its two best-known songs, of course, are the hits: “Somebody to Love” went to No. 5, and “White Rabbit” reached No. 8, both in 1967. But it’s an album full of gems, recorded at the moment when folk rock was going psychedelic, an album that’s much more mellow than that description might make one expect. My favorite track from the record is straight folk rock, however, without a hint of psychedelia, a quiet song that closed Side One of the record in its vinyl configuration.

Written by Marty Balin, “Comin’ Back To Me” is this week’s Saturday Single.

Jefferson Airplane – “Comin’ Back To Me” [1967]

*Since this post was originally published, the Groovy Fab forum was closed and then reopened and has since been closed. There are signs that it may come back again. Note added June 28, 2011.