Monday 15 September 2014

Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg "Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun" (1973)

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Paul Kantner, Grace Slick and David Freiberg "Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun" (1973)

Ballad Of The Chrome Nun/Fat/Flowers Of The Night/Walkin'/Your Mind Has Left Your Body//Across The Board/Harp Tree Lament/White Boy (Transcaucausian Airmachine Blues)/Fishman/Sketches Of China

'Oh the baron and the nun and the gardener should be friends. Oh the baron and the nun and the gardener should be friends. One likes to act militarily, one likes to pray with me, the other likes to plant a tree, and all of them believe that's the way to be free, so there's no reason why we can't all be friends.'

Not for the first or last time on this site, you can blame David Crosby. All anybody ever seems to want to know about this third spin-off joint project from the Jefferson Airplane/Starship members made in-between bands is how it got its name. Crosby liked giving his friends nicknames (Stills was 'Captain Manyhands' and Nash 'Willie', while Young was called lots of things, not many of them to his face) and Paul and Grace were two of his closest and dearest friends. So let's get this out the way first: Paul is 'Baron Von Tollbooth', Crosby jovially mocking his alleged 'German' ancestry and regimented, occasionally uptight smile (in a previous life where hippies didn't exist Kantner might have made a fine military leader, albeit only if he believed in the right of the cause - which given the stupid reasons most of our wars have been fought in historical memory means he probably wouldn't). While Grace is the 'Chrome Nun' - streamlined, focussed, dedicated (in a previous life where belief was the norm Grace would have made a fine Christian figure, though probably something less chaste than a nun - think Boadicea on acid). As for poor David Freiberg, the third named-member of the party, he's such a new boy he doesn't even get a nickname, which is a great shame and rather sets the tone for the way the fine singer/bassist/keyboardist from Quicksilver Messenger Service will be treated throughout his bumpy thirteen year ride with the Jeffersons. He deserves a nickname of his own, though, so how about 'Mr Topiary' (a reference not just to his impressively thick crop of hair - which he still has to this day - but to the fact that both of his 'contributions' to this album concern gardening). So here we have the nun, the baron and the gardener - what could these three possibly have in common? (And what could possibly go wrong?!)

'Lots' is the answer (to both questions). There are songs here about nurturing and growing, songs about keeping the faith that something will work out for the best and an awful lot of people put in front of the firing range. Like many of the Jefferson family albums, this album's overall theme is of searching for peace everywhere - and finding that ultimately peace might only come the hard way. The final part of  the Jefferson mid-trilogy (for Paul and Grace anyway) is in fact, much as you'd expect: a continuation of 'Blows Against The Empire's daring science-fiction epic assault on the powers that be and 'Sunfighter's worry about what kind of world the present is to bring up a baby (some think of these albums as a quartet rather than a trilogy, with Grace's Paul -and-David produced solo album 'Manhole' coming last). Both albums ought to be diametrically opposed (one is fiction and one is fact, after all) but as we've seen already on this site the pair of them fit together pretty neatly as both are really tied up in the present: where America is going, where it went wrong at the end of the 1960s and how the flame for peace and quality needs to be carried (yet again, by force if necessary). In some ways 'Tollbooth' is the 'past' to Blows' 'future' and Sunfighter's 'present', concerned less with what the world might be like in the future or the cross-roads of all the different ways it might follows than in the 'seeds' that can be grown now into something great in the future - and those that were already planted in the past.

However there is something very definite 'missing' from this album: the confidence that one day in the future all will be well, if only we can survive the present. By 1973 holding a world together was looking a bit dodgy seeing as Jefferson Airplane couldn't even make an album together anymore (although both Jack and Jorma both bring their characteristic 'rumble' to 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body') and for all the band's many and vocal followers (and those of bands like them) they weren't numbering enough to vote Nixon out of office, stop the Vietnam war or turn the world into one glorious hippiefest. And while we cover many other AAA bands who had the same dream, the Jeffersons were the ones who sang, rallied and spoke about this movement the most. By 1973 a dream that was looking increasingly desperate album by album is officially no more (Nixon's re-election in 1972 was a sign for many that the 'dream' was well and truly over). Peace, love and particularly flowers are key themes across this record still, but there's no rallying cries of 'gotta revolution!', no songs about uniting together and certainly no utopian futures. Despite what the uniquely OTT cover art that depicts Grace, Paul and David as near Gods presiding over a tiny Earth might tell you (Jefferson covers tend to be either quirky, personal or muted - this self-aggrandising one by artist Drew Sturzan - better known for his film poster work, including the first Star Wars film - comes way out of left field) this album is actual quite small and constrained, with the topics that once covered the whole universe and more restricted largely to what the songwriters see around them (even 'China', a song about a country in the future, was written due to naming their child 'Chynna'). David's contributions are a little different for now, but Paul and Grace aren't trying to change the world here - they're simply trying to save themselves.

While both previous albums had melancholy twinges, they are both largely upbeat albums, where the hippies hijack a starship and find a peaceful utopia or where the pair's newborn baby at least has the chance of growing up without the oppression her parents faced in the 1940s and 1950s. By comparison 'Tollbooth' seems rather more mournful, a 'goodbye' rather than a 'hello', with several sad slow ballads that become increasingly desperate to make the 'hippie dream' of peace and quality a reality. The overall 'sound' of this album is one long drawn out wailing unchanging note: ironically the same sound that used to signify excitement and newness (in Kantner's wonderfully inventive Airplane song 'The Ballad Of You And Me And Pooneil') now represents a stark, never-changing 'empire' that will never change. It recurs again and again across this album, usually on guitar (Paul) but sometimes by piano (Grace), Organ (David) or pedal steel (a guesting Jerry Garcia), occasionally via sound effect/backwards guitar loop (probably Paul again). This gives the album the feeling of running in slow motion, of a slowly unfolding text that's set in motion so firmly it cannot be changed (only the two Grace Slick songs that open each side back in the days of vinyl are anywhere near 'loud' or 'rock' and even the second of these contains a single organ note more or less throughout).Notably the album ends not with another song about 'holding together' or peace and love but with a fatalistic piece about the strength about another culture altogether ('Sketches Of China'...'Somebody's bound to lead you, sooner or later you're bound to go'). A less narrow-minded and two-faced world power than America had been recently, sure, but far from the utopia of previous Jefferson compositions. Paul and Grace (and David to a lesser extent) aren't quite as sure in the 'dream' anymore but aren't yet as 'unsure' as on the more prog rocky early 'Starship' years (which become increasingly more about myths and legends that concrete changes until Marty and Grace leave and they re-invent themselves as a punk band asking the same questions of society in 1979). That makes for an interesting comparison with the next Jefferson album (passing over 'Manhole' for the moment) 'Dragonfly'. The most upbeat, determined and 'see? We told you so' album of the Jefferson's entire career the main difference between the two is the date: in 1973 Nixon was a re-elected hero of the conservative elders; by 1974 and Watergate he's a disgraced crook that even his biggest supporters feel betrayed by. What a difference a year makes, eh?

Grace is having a particular strong 1973 - so much so that she'll have another album (a solo- well so the credits say, 'Manhole' is really just another Grace/Paul/David record on which her Slickness doesn't even appear on the final track!) out just eight months later. The birth of China and motherhood has really inspired her (just as the pregnancy seemed to inspire Paul) and far from soften her she turns in some of her most direct, angry songs across this album (for pretty much the last time - her songs will gradually get gentler during the Starship years). All of her favourite targets are here: Christianity ('The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun'), sex ('Across The Board'), people who have to be the same ('Fishman') and the rich and powerful who abuse that power in the name of greed ('Fat'). All that's missing from that little list is 'drugs' (and that's been covered quite nicely by Paul on 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body'). Like 'Sunfighter' though, these targets sound 'real' and heartfelt, rather than detached philosophical debates (as per 'Long John Silver') and 'Across The Board' in particular is one of her best songs, a sequel of sorts to 'Silver Spoon' in which she turns taunting into an art form. Paul has less to do and his three solo songs for the album come at a similarly languid, slow motion pace - always a favourite writing style of his but particularly notable here without any 'Mau Mau (Amerikon)'s or 'Sunfighter's to break up the tempo). None of them are among Paul's best (he seems to be going through a bit of writer's block across 1972-75), but all are quite beautiful and 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' in particular is often hailed as one of the key songs of the San Franciscan songwriter era (after all it has hallucinatory lyrics, feedback, pedal steel and harmonies: what's not to love?) As for David, his lovely but less immediate songs get a little overshadowed but he deserves his co-billing, acting as a supportive 'number two' throughout. The shame is that instead of a 'stepping stone' to a greater role in the Jefferson family in Starship this is one of only two real albums where he gets a chance to shine (the other is 'Dragonfly'). David's songs on that album are better, but all of them suggest an overlooked talent.

This final part of the trilogy is a little more 'normal' compared to the other two (well, normal in the sense that we only leave our bodies and go to China on this album, rather than a million miles and a million years into the future as per 'Blows' or back on board the 'Titanic' watching disaster after disaster unfold as on the latter). It's more what a 'normal' Jefferson Airplane or Starship album would have sounded like with half the group missing rather than a 'themed' album as per the others. For the same reasons many would say it's not as good - and it's true that there aren't quite as many un-missable songs as per the earlier two albums. 'Baron Von Tollbooth' and his partners always seem to get short shrift from fans for some reason, perhaps because its surrounded by the final days of the Airplane on the one hand (the very final record, a live one - 'Thirty Seconds To Winterland'  - came out pretty much simultaneously with this record and also features Freiberg as special guest) and overshadowed y 'Dragonfly', the Starship's first, on the other. Many reviewers dismiss it as featuring merely the leftovers from this 'interim' period that weren't good enough to be used on a 'band' record. However that would do this fine, comparatively understated record a huge disservice: the band may be dancing slower, with slightly less fire and rage, but in doing so we can see them dance so much better.

I use the term 'dancing' because that and the idea of being in and out of step with the world around us is the closest this album comes to a 'theme'. 'Fishman' has the passionate chorus that 'we both dance laying down' (Grace admits in her autobiography 'Someone To Love?' that she and Paul were both awkward on their feet but discovered by 'chance' that they're actually pretty good when they're not having to support the top half of their bodies; of course this being a Grace Slick song its probably also about sex). Throughout this album people are trying to get 'in synch' with either other people or their planet, desperately trying to get in step only to find that the others (or maybe a goal they wanted) is now out of reach. 'Chrome Nun' is the latest Grace song to attack the Christian church (following on from her barbs on the Airplane's 'Long John Silver') for being ever more out of touch with the real world, mainly because people aren't taught what to think anymore. 'Fat' is about people who go too far down on route in life, getting 'fat' from too much of something (although Grace was always careful to point out that she didn't just mean food). The singers' latest Jack Traylor cover (an old friend from their early days) 'Flowers Of The Night' tells a historical tale of a down-trodden mass of peasants rising against their cruel ruler against all the odds - clearly someone else out of synch with the mood of his people. 'Walkin' is about a slower form of dancing, saluting all the lovely people met 'on the road to glory' - the one song on this album where everything seems to be working. 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' is a meditation-with-feedback about trying to get mind and body back together once again, with Kantner's spirit floating somewhere 'over the polar ice cap' without getting cold. 'Across The Board' contains that great opening line 'Someone aimed you when you were young - but no one ever fired', with a song about taking the wrong turning literally having the person in the song in the wrong place (although, again, Grace is also singing about sex). 'Harp Tree Lament' is a rare collaboration between Freiberg and Jerry Garcia's usual writing partner Bob Hunter and is about small acorns from the past growing to big trees in the present. 'White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmahcine Blues') wonders where the white man came from and why traditionally he became so aggressive to others from different races (is it because he had no home of his own? Or is he just 'out of step' with everyone else?) Finally 'Sketches Of China' is a vision of a future based on the past repeating itself (very like The Who on 'Rael' on 'The Who Sellout'),  exploring Paul and Grace's fascination with the country that in 1973 seemed to be the one best placed to take over America's crown as the world's leader (they named their daughter 'Chynna' in part in case the United States were ever 'taken over' in the future 'and they'd assume she was one of theirs'). Why do certain countries rule in different eras? (The Greeks, The Romans, the British Empire, etc). Is it just that it was meant to be or that one particular place is suited to answering the needs of the world most at that point in time?

A quick word now about the guest stars. 'Tollbooth' has less than Empire, certainly, but a lot more than 'Sunfighter'. David Crosby didn't just come up with the title but sings harmonies on the first and last tracks during what was, by CSN standards, rather a 'nothing' year. Jerry Garcia appears too, often and variedly, playing 'normal' guitar, banjo and pedal steel. His fellow Dead member Mickey Hart plays 'gong' on 'Sketches Of China' and 'water phones' on 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body'. This time there's no other Dead musicians and no Graham Nash, but in many ways this is the last hurrah for the 'Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra' (the ad hoc collection of players from the Jefferson, CSNY and Dead families who play on each other's albums repeatedly between 1970 and 1973). From hereon in each band will go their separate ways - to the detriment of all of them, quite honestly. There's also some bass work from Chris Etheridge, at the time a member of Byrds spin-off 'The Flying Burrito Brothers'. As well as the 'past' though this album also features the 'future', with a fourth future member of Jefferson Starship - Craig Chaquico - now all of 17 years old after his first appearance on 'Sunfighter' and playing some of the solos of his life on 'Chrome Nun' 'Flowers' and especially 'Fishman'. There's also drummer Johnny Barbata (who joined in the dying days of the Airplane and will go on to cruise in the Starship until 1976) and violinist Papa John Creach (actually a member of Airplane spin-off band Hot Tuna first but a 'full' member for their last two albums and a 'Starshipper' until 1975). The only members of Starship not here yet are singer Marty Balin (still on his sabbatical from the Jefferson family) and bassist/keyboardist Pete Sears. Both will be in place by the time of the Starship's big launch the following year on 'Dragonfly'.

In all, then, 'Tollbooth' isn't a 'great' album in the same way that both 'Blows' and 'Sunfighter' and for that matter 'Dragonfly' is. The overall 'message' we've come to expect from the Jeffersons isn't as fully formed and there's a lot of filler alongside the major album highlights ('Walkin' is cute but it's hardly a prime cut; 'Fishman' is a one-note in-joke with good production skills; 'White Boy' is Kantner on auto-pilot; 'Harp Tree Lament' is lovely but deeply out of touch with the Jefferson sound). In short, you can see why this album got 'forgotten' compared to those around it and it's comparatively poor chart performance (#120) for an era when the band were relatively hot suggests that utopian San Franciscan solo releases were - to hark back to what we were saying earlier - out of synch. Because of all the above I really didn't expect much from this album when I came to it fairly late on in my record collecting journey by Airplane and Starship - and yet I was pleasantly surprised. 'Chrome Nun' and 'Fat' have a lyrical barb that only Grace can pull off, 'Flowers Of The Night' continues the strand of fine Jack Traylor ecological protest covers, 'Harp Tree Lament' might sound odd but Bob Hunter's poetry and David Frieberg's folk lilt melody makes for a fine match and 'Sketches Of China'  has more interesting ideas packed into it than most whole albums from the same era. Best of all, both 'Across The Board' and 'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' are prime Slick and Kantner respectively, as taut as a whip or as relaxed as a beach holiday; both of them masterpieces that are the equal of anything the writers had done or will gone to do. There is much to love about 'Tollbooth' and even if ultimately it isn't quite up to the A* standard of the other albums around it, the record still scores a very creditable A- with a highly pleasing mix of nurturing, faith and discipline. The Baron, The Nun and the Gardener should all feel very proud.

'The Ballad Of The Chrome Nun' is a one-off collaboration between Grace (lyrics) and David (music) and it's a shame they didn't write more songs together because they clearly have a 'feel' for each other's week. Grace's lyrics mocking religion are as strident and merciless as any on Airplane album 'Long John Silver', but David's more upbeat music softens the blow without taking out any of the bite away. Grace's latest character is being made to feel guilty, seeing the devil when they look in the mirror and Grace's 'now hold it!' interruption (that you are indeed odd looking but not as 'odd' as the 'God' whose making you feel guilty) is hilarious for anyone who doesn't necessarily believe in every word in the Christian church. Grace's latest sentiment is that religion doesn't need to exist anymore: that she feels the same 'community' service once restricted to church every time she laughs with her friends and associates and ends with her character 'falling flat on her face' as she tries to fall to her knees and prey. While religion is kind of easy pickings now in song, it was still a relatively rare subject to tackle in 1973 and anyone (me included) whose been through the brainwashing Christian education system will be cheering 'right on!' somewhere around the chorus. Grace's take has always been that people's responsibility have only ever been to themselves and others, not powerful institutions and by concentrating on the individual rather than the system (as she did on her earlier 'Easter') she comes up with easily the most successful of her series of songs attacking religion. While few church-goers probably agree with the lightly blasphemous  line 'cross my forehead, cross my knees' this song's message of each person being responsible for their own actions would probably find even a church-goers nodding their heads anyway. David Freiberg's restless, urgent melody is a good one too keeping the song bouncy and light on its feet and inspiring some lovely 'ba ba be dah's from a guesting David Crosby, turning this song into more of a celebration of the character's 'release' from the guilt of the Christian church rather than a song about its oppressive tentacles.

Grace's 'Fat' is a much quieter, reflective song that will become the template for much of her 'Starship' songs to come: a mid-paced piano ballad mixed strangely so that we rather strain to hear what she's singing. That's a shame because it's the lyrics rather than the tune on this one that stick in the memory, apparently a song about a character so fat they can't fit through doors anymore and who keeps rolling out of bed. Grace has always been keen to point out that this song is about so much more than just 'body fat' however: it's really a song about excess in all forms, of people who have had so much of the things they love in life that it's beginning to interfere with their daily life. You wonder what inspired Grace to write this song, which is noticeably much kinder that most of her songs (Grace, of course, who so often writes about herself is stick thin even now). Perhaps she's actually talking about the fading 'hippie dream' and the fact that six years on from the summer of love most hippies were caring more about feeling good than making the world feel good: that would fit with this album's general tones of shoulder-shrugging and the sudden unexpected appearance of The Pointer Sisters (fresh from releasing their first album in 1972) does make this one sound like some sort of communal song. Alas while most of Grace's songs are so crystal clear you can understand every sentence, this one is a bit vague and the melody tends to gently twitch a bit from time to time instead of being beautiful or rounded.

Band friend Jack Traylor sings lead on his own song 'Flowers Of The Night' , a sequel of sorts to 'Earth Mother' from 'Sunfighter'. Like a lot of this album this follow-up isn't quite as special or well thought out but it's still a good song and very Jeffersony, reflecting on how change may seem slow but will come and that 'seeds' planted by one generation often don't sporut till the next (Paul and Grace may have been thinking of now-toddler Chynna when they picked this song). 'After all, it's happened before' is the message of this song, with references to 'Paine' (Presumably Thomas Paine, a key writer in the early days of the American Revolution), 'Pierce' (possibly the Governor of Oregon who in 1925 fought a decision to force compulsory religion on every child at school in his state, oblivious of background), 'Robespierre' (definitely the French Revolution figure who gave an often illiterate mob a 'voice'), 'Juarez' (the former president of Mexico who booted out the French), 'Danton' (another key French Revolutionary who pushed to overthrow an outdated monarchy), Luther King (civil rights leader and legend, assassinated in 1968) and most interestingly of all, Patrick 'Lumumba', the first democratically elected leader of the Congo who was executed in 1961). The rest of the lyric then goes onto jumble up time and see all revolutions as one and the same, overthrowing pockets of the same strict authoritarians who don't have the lives of their people at heart, arguing that even if the rebels were put down heavily in full view there's still no stopping truth and right: that 'plants that cannot bloom by day must flower in the night'. A fittingly turbulent and angular melody makes this song seems like a struggle, punctuated by moments of pure magic and hope (Paul and Grace's often wordless harmonies simply rise up to the sun at the end of every verse). The musical backing is interesting too, with an exotic mellotron part unusual for the Jeffersons fleetingly passing through the song like the 'winds of change' flying in the face of the rather bass-heavy backing track and an exquisite guitar solo from young Craig Chaquico that's one of his best and positively electrifying. Only the lack of a chorus drops this song a couple of points compared to Traylor's 'Earth Mother', but it's still a fine song wonderfully performed.

'Walkin' is a bit ordinary, though, by Jefferson standards with Slick's lyrics and Kantner's music surprisingly awkward bedfellows. The pair have gone off for a 'walk' through their neighbourhood, which serves as a metaphor for the 'long road to freedom' for the San Franciscan community. There's a slightly strained chorus that warns of danger ('I'm going down and if I don't come back, tie all my dope on a wire wheel track') but the overall feeling is one of happiness and joy - with the feeling that while the hippie philosophy hasn't quite haven't quite worked out as quickly as they'd planned, 'the dance' is still the best place in the world to be! Fittingly for a song about community spirit there's a real mix of friends old and new on the backing track, with Jerry Garcia making a rare appearance on banjo, Papa John Creach soaring away on his fiddle and new boy Johnny Barbata at last getting a chance to show off his laidback rock shuffle drum style. The result is fun, but lacks the depth of the other songs on this album with a 'wo-wah-a-a-oh' chorus more like something Harry Belafonte would write and seems very out of keeping with Paul and Grace's usual style.

'Your Mind Has Left Your Body' is either everything that's right or everything that's wrong about the Jefferson sound. It's slow to the point of putting you asleep, has lyrics best described as 'of their time' talking about astral projection and a backing track made up from the unique combination of feedback (Jorma), pedal steel (Jerry) and drums (Johnny). While this sound is in danger of making the rest of the album seem rather passionless, simply drifting away on a sea of production values, it works well on this track; perhaps Katner's ultimate hippie song taking in everything from the afterlife to multi-layered consciousness to mankind's creation. In the right mood this Paul Kantner epic shimmers with a real beauty, slowly unfolding through a memorable melody that in the hands of another writer would have been speeded up five-fold and turned into a top ten hit. The lyrics aren't just about going on a bit of a journey without your body too but what this ability implies: that time is a structure that works outside the way mankind experiences it, that 'if you can fasten on that moment and expand through the afterglow, you can reverse your mind in time and travel back to where the Earth was formed. Considering that this song is so slow and contains such few words it covers an awful lot of ground, with the implication that there's yet more to find 'another day, beyond you'. One of the closest musical experiences you can have to a real drug trip, 'Body' is an extraordinary track, one that defies most logical song constructions to work to an internal logic all of its own.

'Across The Board' is the album's other brilliant song, a spiky piercing Grace Slick rocker that finds the narrator haranguing some poor person (possibly Grace herself) for not doing enough and being helpless. The first two verses are all about that American dream again, that after 'pointing in the right direction' no one ever lit the fuse to let the 'gun' go off and now the movement (or at least this member of it) is getting 'old and tired'. Somewhere along the way, though, this second verse changes gears and ends up as a feminist anthem, bemoaning the old 'can't live with them, can't live without them' adage. Even by the standards of Grace's earlier risque 'Milk Train' this is pretty daring stuff for the day ('You can't cock yourself woman!...Man's only got one finger, he don't need anymore') and together with Grace's piercing full-throated war cry sounds deeply threatening. Throughout the song comes the metaphor of being 'across the board' from where the action's happening, both sexual and political, with Grace lonely on the other side trying to nag, cajole and force 'him' towards her: her scream on the words 'all the way' at the end of every verse, navigating what's really quite a difficult middle section full of twists and turns, is brilliantly exciting and Grace is rarely in better voice (although in a couple of places she stops short and messes up her words, suggesting this is a 'rehearsal' take the musicians built around, figuring it too good to waste). The song has a real swing in its step which really makes it stand out in the context of what is quite a sleepy album and keeps jumping from simple to compound time and back again, making it sound ever more dramatic and thrilling as Grace hits louder and louder notes. Reduced to the bare bones of Grace's piano, David's mellotron, Chris' bass and Johnny's drums plus a simple Jerry Garcia guitar solo near the end (Paul is absent yet again on this session) the ad hoc backing band cope very well with what sounds like a live take and  leads into a terrifically fiery jamming session at the end of the song (Etheridge rounding the song off with a fun 'comedy' riff as the song slowly falls apart). Easily the album highlight and one of Grace's greatest songs of all, 'Across The Board' was incredibly brave for 1973 and still sounds remarkable now, but has a great song behind all that shock value too.

David Freiberg and Bob Hunter's pretty 'Harp Tree Lament' is a soothing balm and while it doesn't fit in with the rest of the album it's still an enjoyable track. As any Grateful Dead fans will know, Bob Hunter's natural tendency as a lyric writer is to turn to the Bible or some older work and try to show the similarities between then and now. That should be highly fitting for an album all about the 'seeds' of an era blossoming later, but a combination of David's unorthodox lead vocals (he has a voice with a similar pitch to Paul's but quite a different 'feel') and the highly lyrical tone of the song (like many a Hunter song there's an awful lot of words, which works on albums full of songs with lots of words but not as a one-off) makes it seem rather off on its own. The general tone, that 'there is time to deliver' also seems to fly in the face of the urgency of a song like 'Across The Board', but is part of a typically clever and engaging Hunter lyric about mankind overcoming all obstacles despite the odds and would have fitted well on the Dead album of 1973 'Wake Of The Flood' ('Raise up your bottles and drink up the blood, you planted the vine here in spite of the flood'). Later verses have the land of 'Harp Trees' as a magical land halfway between life and death ('His time is not ready but he's still turning old'), watching the 'seeds' planted earlier springing up from a distance. The song ends by paraphrasing nursery rhyme 'Oranges and Lemons', another song of revolution (the French this time) and the mixture of 'lights' showing the way and threats to the perpetrators of injustice: 'Here's one for the candle that lights you to bed, and one for the sword that hangs over your head'. Hunter's songs have such a strong internal rhythm they must be hell to set music to (I don't know how Jerry Garcia did it!) and while Freiberg's music is fitting, with a particularly nice chorus, you get the sense that this tune would be forgettable without the lyric to sing along to. Still, it's a shame the pair never wrote together again because they're certainly sympathetic to each other. Hunter seems rather proud of the song too, adding the lyric to his compendium 'Box Of Rain' and reflecting that 'this song appeared on a fine but overlooked pre-Starship album' and that 'the title is taken from a piobaireachd for Highland Pipe' (i.e. a Scottish song composed for bagpipes, not that there are any on this performance). So now you know.

'White Boy (Transcaucasian Airmachine Blues)' is a second slow-burning Kantner epic trying to trace back the journey of his white ancestors to the beginnings of time. The strange thing is, nobody really knows where the 'white' men lived: every other 'tribe' can be traced back somewhere (America, India, Africa, Australia) but Europeans just kind of appeared in the 'Caucasian mountains of Russia'. Surprisingly given Kantner's known love of sci-fi (see 'Blows') and the rise of writers like Erich Von Danikyn in the early 1970s Paul never actually comes out and says what we're all thinking (aliens who don't belong on the Earth and tried to colonise it for those reasons) which might have made for a more interesting song. Instead we get a short history lesson from then to now which, in true Kantner form, comes out in the form of a list rather than a lyric ('You made mountains for the Incas, built pyramid for Pharoah man'), but does contain a few nuggets that sum up mankind's precarious existence since tribes began to discover each other ('You build and you burn, create then destroy'). The music is excellent though, made up of more mellotron and Jack Casady's ever fat and full bass and unwinding so slowly it's as if we're hearing several millennia of human civilisation unfold in real time. The song also ends ominously with the white people finally being 'sent away' (is this where the start of 'Blows' kicks in?!) - another brave statement to make in 1973 in the context of race riots and freedom, with Kantner basically saying his own 'race' is in the wrong. Like many Jefferson songs, fans will love it and outsiders will shake their heads and wonder at how the band got away with a song that doesn't really have a melody and such controversial lyrics. We all know better though don't we?!

'Fishman' is a short and peculiar Grace Slick in-joke, based around her 'discovery' that while she and Paul felt un-cordinated and clumsy on their feet they were both pretty good at 'dancing lying down'. As for the 'Fishman', it seems as if this song is yet more wordplay based around the idea of mankind being 'in' or 'out' of synch with his surroundings: that, going back to the last song (and again referring to past history) man and water were 'at one' and the hybrid fish-man we evolved was mega-coordinated and could really shake some moves; however the further we get away from our ancestor on the evolutionary scale the more 'out of synch' with nature we become. This being Grace of the early 70s there's also yet more risque references, that 'I was making love to a fishman, swim over my body with the sea in his hands' (put something in your tea, Grace, or take a cold shower!) before the declaration 'fishman, I love you'. Whilst the backing is slightly more 'normal' than usual (drums, piano, bass, several guitars) the sheer weirdness of the lyrics still make this one of the stranger songs on the album, even if the mesh of guitars do a good job at making the second half of the song sound as if its slowly sinking under water.

The album then closes with 'Sketches Of China', a final epic Kantner song (with some lyrics from Slick) that is once again set in the dim and distant past. In keeping with the lyrics of 'White Boy' the saviour is born, not a European as is so usually the case but in China, 'carrying strife and harmony to all the people on the mainland'. He's then joined by a warlord (boo!) and a pretty lady (yay!) before the lyrics become more and more surreal (were there a few verses cut from the final version?) and everyone ends 'drunk in a beautiful garden celebration'. You wonder quite what Kantner meant by this pretty but pretty strange song: is this another song about ancient lands rising again in the present day (China was quickly catching America up as a world power in the 70s - hence, partly, baby Chynna's name)? Is this a tale of war and conquest that proves man are the same all over at all times and needs to change now? Is the mysterious 'oriental lady' who stops a war through a night of sex with a war lord proof that love can conquer war? And what of that oft-repeated chorus ('It ain't what you want, it's what you need', a kind of American reinvention of the Rolling Stones' 'You Can't Always Get What You Want'): is greed simply a substitute for love? Usually Jefferson-family songs excel by offering up questions and not answers, but like the similar 'Rael' by The Who (a rock opera about Israel in the past and future cut down to six minutes and turned intelligible along the way) this seems like a trailer for a later full album that never came rather than a song in it's own right.

Overall, then, 'Baron Von Tollbooth' and his family are hard people to get to know. Sure the album is clearly about a time now over 40 years in the past and many of the references here were made for an audience that would 'know' a lot of this stuff without having to look it up (when revolution is in the air, revolutionaries' names are often dropped  in conversation) but I'm used to putting myself back a little in the past to hear Jefferson-family albums; there's something more than that going on with this album, which seems like a concept album about the past turning into the future and building on the seeds of before that keeps getting 'distracted' with songs about sex, religion and greed. I've played this album many times down the years and yet I've never felt like I've ever really got to 'know' it the same way I did with predecessors 'Blows' and 'Sunfighter'. However, that doesn't mean you shouldn't spend time with the baron, the nun and the gardener: even by the Jefferson's high standards in this era this is a fine LP, full of nuances, big questions and some great ensemble performance pieces that make it one of the most undeservedly overlooked albums in their canon. And to some extent much of its promise came true: it's fitting, somehow, that an album about seeds today becoming trees tomorrow should be the album that seems to be the 'birth' of Jefferson Starship (with only Chris Etheridge going back to his old band in favour of Pete Sears), a band which - at first anyway - build on the best of this album and go even further, with debut record 'Dragonfly' featuring all the grace and beauty of this album but with the knowledge that Starship are once again 'in synch' with their audience and country. Even out of step, however, 'Tollbooth' and friends and mighty fine company. 

Other Jefferson family reviews from this website you might be interested in reading:


'Takes Off!' (1966)

'Surrealistic Pillow' (1967)

'After Bathing At Baxters' (1967)

'Crown Of Creation' (1968)

'Volunteers' (1969)

'Bark' (1971)

'Blows Against The Empire' (Kantner)  (1971)

‘Sunfighter’ (Kantner/Slick) (1972)

'Long John Silver' (1972)

'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun' (Kantner/Slick/Freiberg) (1973)

'Dragonfly' (1974)

'Red Octopus' (1975)

'Spitfire' (1976)

‘Earth’ (1978)

'Modern Times' (1981)

'Winds Of Change' (1982)

'The Empire Blows Back'# aka 'The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship) (1983)

'Nuclear Furniture' (1983)

'Jefferson Airplane' (1989)

Non-Album Songs 1966-1984

The Best Unreleased Recordings 1966-1974

Surviving TV Footage 1966-1989

Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part One 1966: 1978

Live/Solo/Compilation/Hot Tuna Albums Part Two 1979-2013

Essay: Why Flying In Formation Was So Special For The Jeffersons

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