Monday, 20 February 2017
Jefferson Airplane "Long John Silver" (1972)
Jefferson Airplane "Long John Silver" (1972)
Long John Silver/Aerie (Gang Of Eagles)/Twilight Double Leader/Milk Train/The Son Of Jesus//Easter/Trial By Fire/Alexander The Medium/Eat Starch Mom!
'Gonna move out on the highway, gonna make the moment last, 'till it closes with the future, blending with the past"
Arrrr-harrr me hearties! There stands Long John Silver, deformed with a lost leg but still larger than life and winning at it, always getting one over the institutions that hated him, 'plain and pale, intelligent but smiling'. A figure in charge of a mutiny that will surely come one day, out to rob from the rich and give to his ragged band of counter-culture pirates, while dressed up to the nines in the finest clobber of the day - you can see why the pirate would appeal to the 1960s' leading counter-culture band. But this Long John Silver, both the song and the album, are not what you'd expect from the always fiery, always cross, always passionate Jefferson Airplane - a case of close, but no cigar, despite the packaging of a cigar box on the cover. Instead this is a humble, muted, understated affair in which a combination of the rise of Nixon across 1972 (with Watergate still years away), the failing relationships within the band and the murkiest production values this side of Credence Clearwater Revival add up to make the last Jefferson Airplane album for seventeen years something of a miserable, soggy affair. The band go after their usual targets - Christianity, sexual censorship and televisions - but the band that used to unite six so very different voices in one amazing partnership have lost all sense of cohesion and powerplay. This is the sound of a pirate crew when they know the game is up and they're about to arrested and clapped in irons, made an 'example' of by a society who've been trying to chase them down for the past six years and no doubt hung drawn and quartered. After so many years on the run on America's waters, the 'hippie dream' disappearing into the distance at a rate of knots, the band are fighting for survival now and seem haggard, fish-tails in their beards and ringworm in their wooden legs. The sleek streamlined and much more mainstream Jefferson Starship (or for that matter Hot Tuna) are only a couple of years away, the moment when the Airplane 'retire' to the mainland, their cutlasses stowed away.
In truth most people back in 1966 would have been surprised the Airplane had lasted this long ('miracles only go so far, you see'). They were a band built for fire and fuel and fury, not for longevity. By 1972 band members had come and gone (they're on their fourth drummer, with Johnny Barbata hired after the split of CSN one of their better decisions), controversy has followed to the band to the point where they have recently braved Nixon's wrath with a song about his incompetency over international relations (the standalone 'Mexico'- are this album's cigars a comment on Cuba?) and yet even though their targets have got bigger the Airplane are in danger of being blemished with the tagline of anachronistic hippies, out for love and peace in a world that's hungry for war. The Airplane are veterans and no longer cutting edge. Jack and Jorma are tired of the whole thing, with their side-shoot Hot Tuna offering a more earthy and 'real' way of making you point against 'the man', thanks to a combination of folk and blues and traditions (legend has it that their new hobby of speed-skating was now taking up all their other time, so the pair missed the rest of the band's frantic phone-calls about rehearsals and recording sessions). Paul and Grace are more interested in their newborn child China and their own duo albums - many reviewers assumed they were saving their better songs for outside projects like 'Blows Against The Empire' 'Sunfighter' and 'Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun', probably with some worth. Joey Covington has got bored with being the band's token novelty act and has split to go solo, recording his one and only album 'Fat Fandango'. Marty Balin is long gone and apparently in hibernation with the band commenting on how quickly he's dropped out of sight not knowing he's about to re-appear with the band 'Bodacious DF' the following year. That leaves this album's most enthusiastic members as being Johnny Barbata, the band's newly joined drummer and papa John Creach, a fifty-five-year-old fiddle player who gets more to do on this album than any Jefferson set before or after. The Airplane were a democratic outfit that once cruised at an in-formation altitude no other band could reach, instinctively following each other while everyone did their own thing - but now the band are clearly about to crash big time, recording most of these songs in pairs or duos.
As a result most fans dismiss 'Long John Silver' as a last roll of the dice that adds nothing to the band's oeuvre. This is an unhappy album where even the good bits are so horribly recorded you can't hear them (although the CD, which didn't appear for the first time until as late as 2008, does a good job at improving on the original vinyl - on the bad side you don't get the fold-out box of 'JA' cigars with which to 'celebrate' the band's demise or the inner-box shot of marijuana which drew many raised eyebrows even in the 1990s when I first bought this album aged eleven. Well, it beats the fish with the false teeth from the previous front cover I guess). It's also, I've noticed, one of those occasional albums you get that's 'unlucky', with the 'bad vibe' of the studio somehow spilling out into the world when you play it - I always seem to go through mishaps and miserable times after playing this album as a warning, so if I'm not around for a while you know the piratical curse has struck again...
However, while no classic and for all its many faults, I have a real fondness for this album. Even at their disinterested, bored peak the Airplane are too quirky a band to simply go through the motions and even if they've given up on politics for now they're still brave and daring, pushing the envelope as far as any band could in 1972 with songs about sex, masturbation and the hypocrisy of Christianity. There's a toughness and a brittleness to this album that really suits the Airplane, so different to their usual free-flowing easy-going partnership, that brings a heavy feeling of doom and gloom to particularly doomy and gloomy songs. While Grace frequently shrieks off-key, Paul even more frequently sings off-mike and Papa John's violin curls are something only a committed fan could love (especially when they appear several times in nearly every flipping song!), there are still some great performances of some great songs here. Grace and Jack's unique collaboration on the title track is a last desperate attempt to unite the two different factions of the band together that works rather well and points the way to how the Jefferson sound might have moulded into the 1970s if the 'Hot Tuna' pairing had stayed the course. Grace and Jorma's unique collaboration on last song 'Eat Starch Mom!' is an angry, surreal slanging match which raises one last pair of weary fingers up to the 'parental' generation in what seemed a whole song built on slang. Grace follows this up with the atmospheric Eagle song 'Aerie' which is as haunting as any of her best songs if not as clearly defined, throws in the jaw-dropping 'Milk Train' (the Airplane's last great ensemble performance) in which the new mother tells her husband Paul to stop masturbating because it means he has less left over for their nights of sex. Jorma excels with 'Trial By Fire', a weary goodbye to everything the band once stood for because even a musician has got tired of a decade of jibes about his long hair and unkempt figure with no real gains to show for it. Paul is on shakier form as he was on 'Bark', but 'Alexander The Medium' is a worthy hippie history tale and an earlier, more disciplined band with better production values would have nailed the funky groove waiting to be found on 'Twilight Double Leader'. While for the most part Long John Silver doesn't compare to past glories 'Pillow' or 'Baxters', lacking the innocence and purity of spirit, it's still on a par with 'Volunteers' and 'Bark' as the sound of a band maturing against their will. I love the gruffness of this album, the sound of a down-on-its-luck beggar who knows things are going wrong still proud enough to challenge for one last fight for the right causes. Even though 'Bark' was the last cover album to show it, this is the last Jefferson Airplane to properly have teeth. Far from being a disaster, this last walk down the plank finds the band still fighting hard and wonderfully well. Would that every band had ended their careers with this much fight in them.
The section of the album that doesn't quite come off is the Christianity section that's split between the two sides. Grace had always had great fun with the hypocrisy of a religion that talked about peace and tolerance and then wondered off to have a quick crusade and purge of non-believers every few years. Both Paul and Grace had been stung by the backlash of the Christian church in 1971 when they jokingly announced their newborn girl was going to be called 'god' ('With a small 'G' so she stays humble'). This was meant to ruffle a few feathers in the hospital where China had just been born after Grace took umbrage at the very Catholic care she was being given; it backfired when the nurse took the document Grace had jokingly signed and sent a copy to reporters. While not quite on the 'Beatles are bigger than Jesus' level of debate, this was used as a brick to beat the band and especially the new parents over the head with a few times. Grace, not that convinced by her own Catholic upbringing, was characteristically incensed. Unfortunately her digs on this album don't display her usual personalisation of a big issue which is her strength as a writer (she'll get it right for the title track of 'The Chrome Nun' where 'nobody need baptise me - anytime I laugh I got religion!') Instead she's feeling cheeky at Easter, painting some eggs and laughing at the Pope on the TV. It's exactly what a ticked-off teenager would write in her room after being told to go there without supper. Paul too gets in on the act and he's much more used to turning world history into epic songs but even his song 'Son Of Jesus' reads like a Dan Brown book: 'You think young Jesus never kissed a lady?' he asks (no he probably didn't, being an INFJ and all) and you can almost hear the Airplane's publicity machine revving up as he talks about Jesus' illegitimate offspring, especially his 'foxy daughter'. RCA should by now have been used to the Airplane's antics but they still took issue with many of Paul's lyrics which had to be both cut from the lyric booklet and 'mumbled' on the album (though you can still tell what they are if you pay close attention). At their best the Jeffersons were always blasphemous with no society, class, institution or tradition safe from youthful truth-loving eyes. But of all their pot-shots against all these institutions these songs against religion feel the least developed and the most desperate. It's an odd bee to develop in your bonnet on your seventh LP too, the album slowing right down in the middle.
Still the songs that bookend this LP are, by and large, more than worthy of the band name and largely deal with turning villains into heroes, the band perhaps fearing that if this was their last will and testament they ought to embrace the hippie ethos and show its longevity. Rather defensively, this album seems to portray hippies as all sorts of metaphors. 'Long John Silver' just does 'the same thing his father did' fleecing people with more money than sense and living off the land (was his father a banker or a politician one wonders? We never find out in 'Treasure Island'). All the countries he visits are 'ruled by a flag or a game' - only as a pirate can a man be truly free, Grace clearly identifying pirates with hippies living outside society with their own rules. 'Aerie' could be anyone with inner determination to live to their own rules (maybe Paul or Grace herself?), built with an inner moral compass and compulsion to break new ground compared to an eagle. Maybe it's even a whole hippie generation given the references to a 'nest' and a 'gang'. 'Twilight Double Leader' compares hippies to hermits living in the mountains, 'escaping' the cities. 'Trial By Fire' is Jorma's modern-day unflattering description of being a hippie but it's not the fellow hippies he fears but the society that still won't accept them and runs after him with a 'ten gauge shotgun at my head' for no other reason than that he believes in peace and has long hair. The title, though, harks back to past civilisations and their treatment of 'outsiders' too - this is almost like a cannibal tribe' or American Indian tribe's treatment of someone they don't understand a 'trial by fire' you're guaranteed to lose. And then there's 'Eat Starch Mom!' in which Jefferson Airplane sign off with a burst of angry hippie slang which the 'elder' generation must have guessed was being aimed at them but could never quite fathom. By 1972 Jefferson Airplane and their fans have become a 'tribe' all on their own, living to a new set of values and morals and even with their own language. No wonder the elder generations and civilisations were scared!
But were they as scared as they should have been? Jefferson Airplane were promising that they'd 'gotta revolution!' as recently as two years ago. Much of 'Long John Silver's mood is down, as if the band realise that they've 'failed' in their ultimate attempt to overthrow the greedy world governments and phony leaders. It's easily the most sombre and 'down' album in their brief discography, without the playfulness of their first three albums or the big singalongs of the next three (the closest is 'Milk Train' - and you'd have to be as brave as Grace was in 1972 to sing that song out loud!) There are no instrumentals to break up the heaviness of the album, no novelty numbers by singing drummers and no utopian moments escaping to a 'rock and roll island'. Instead being a hippie has turned into a long-term slog and an effort the band can't sustain anymore. Living in the real world with Nixon in power has defeated even a band with as much energy as Jefferson Airplane and you can tell that the band are frustrated as hell rather than dancing on their leaders' grave as they usually do. The atrocities in Vietnam are getting worse. Planned peace talks are collapsing left, right and centre. The Northern Ireland troubles begin in earnest with 'Bloody Sunday' at Easter, perhaps the real subject of Grace's song about painting eggs (though it's a tight squeeze for the album sessions in April, suggesting this was a just-cooked song). There's a big miner's strike in the UK. This is the same period John and Yoko are crafting 'Sometimes In New York City' their 'newspaper' album and when Paul Simon is getting the 'Paranoia Blues': it's no longer safe being a hippie. Jefferson Airplane, as the band who were in the front-row of demanding change, feel as if they've 'failed' somehow - desperate to save the world, at the moment they're facing implosion of the sort that makes The Beatles look like best friends and the Davies Brothers in the Kinks look like supportive, loving family members, unable to even save themselves. You wonder what might have happened if the Airplane had known about the first inklings of Watergate which broke in June that year, a month before this album's release and delayed their recording sessions a precious couple of months. Would we have seen the Airplane skip this album and take off again?
Overall, then, 'Long John Silver' is a last bumpy ride on the Airplane and at times a slog to listen to. The much criticised murky and claustrophobic production values are surely deliberate, adding a sense of weight to the band's usual sprightly dancing legs that suits these tunes of frustration and hopelessness, though of course that doesn't make it any easier to listen to. The Airplane's performances, usually so full of life and excitement, now sound like they're playing in slow motion - a band of telepathic players trying to play while keeping out of everyone else's way (and not always managing that). Most of the album's spirit comes from the vocals, but these just veer on the histrionic, wild and shrieky and raw in a way that's less likeable than the 'old' way the Airplane used to do things. A couple of the songs are clearly not up to standard either. And yet this album is so much more than a farewell album that a band didn't want to make, with much thinking going on - it's caught somewhere between the rawness of 'Let It Be' and the discipline of 'Abbey Road' as the band return to their roots and yet go further into heavy rock than they ever have before. There are some moments across this album where things really gel and you realise that no other band would ever have been good enough to do this or even halfway brave enough to try. Whether it's Grace cackling over her sexual innuendos, the Airplane cruising in majesty as they soar like a 'Gang Of Eagles', Jorma's last bite of disillusionment on 'Trial By Fire' or the funky fiery rendition of the title track, the Airplane's last great outsider character, this is an album full of moments well worth owning. Compared to the sprawling, fragmented 'Bark' there's an impressive cohesion and unity to this record too, even if for the most part that just means all the songs are equally grumpy. This isn't the worthy farewell we demanded at all - and yet neither is it a disaster. At least the Airplane die out with dignity, fighting right up until the bitter end, it's just a shame that for such a peace and love era band this end turned out to be quite as bitter as it was.
'Long John Silver' himself swaggers with a pomp and circumstance that immediately catches your ear. Jack was probably thinking more 'cool hippy about time' when he came up with the main hook, his one and only credit on a Jefferson Airplane song that wasn't a group composition. Grace, though, picked up on the song's peg-legged ambitions, the fact that it's swagger is held back by a slight waddling beat that does suggest a peg-leg walk. Even then, however, her lyrics don't quite follow through on this: only the first verse is particularly relevant to the pirate we all know and hate - the rest arguably is about a different character entirely (having lost a leg, it sounds like more than to 'scrape the knee' which is what happens here) and in 'truth' (well, in the Robert Louis Stevenson book that created him) ol' Long John is hardly the world explorer depicted in these lyrics. So, given that we're dealing with an early 1970s 'hippie' song here, is Long John an allegory for a hippie? Living outside society rules, doing noble deeds to those society no longer cares, taking money from the rich to re-distribute to the poor for, living in fear of the state with its guns and a rootless traveller of the world - that sounds more like a hippie to me than a pirate. In which case did Grace have anyone specific in mind? This is only a guess, but I think she does. When Slick joined the Airplane she had a crush on co-writer Jack - something which didn't stop her going round the band and 'bedding' everyone from the 'classic line-up' except Marty! Most of them got their own 'songs' - 'Lather' for Spencer, a zillion songs for Paul - I don't quite know what Jorma got but maybe he had one too? Jack, though, never got one, till now maybe. He often wore rings in his ear like a pirate, may well have done 'the same thing his father did' (biographies disagree as to whether Jack inherited musical genes or picked them up himself) and has there ever been a better description of his thundering bass style than 'he's like an electric clock that needs no winding?' The quietest member of a very loud band, Jack was always being overlooked and overshadowed, but may well have been the most Jefferson Airplaney of all the band members: as stubborn as a mule, as brave as a lion and as hardworking as any horse. Interestingly many of the most 'political' messages on Jefferson sleeves are from Jack, who felt perhaps more than anyone the drag of travelling round the world and seeing everyone 'ruled by a flag'. The only thing he's missing is a 'talking parrot' always on his shoulder, which could even be an in-joke to Grace herself in the band's early days. Given that the tune was his, shyly handed over to Grace to write lyrics for in a hurry, is it any wonder she might have turned to thinking about him and the band's early days, offering up a tribute to Jack for what might have been the last time? Whatever the cause this is one two last great ensemble pieces for the album, with Jack's see-sawing riff starting off jovial and turning sinister by the time Grace picks up on the part on her piano and Jorma suddenly shoots off the end of the riff to 'walk the plank', dancing amongst the crocodiles in a superb middle solo. Grace's bark also puts the fear of God into any landlubber, her voice cutting through the murky production grease as the whole band 'live' this song for nearly the last time. Enough to make you shiver, my Jefferson hearties!
'Aerie (Gang Of Eagles)' is much shorter and compact and yet much more epic. Grace sounds other-worldly as she sings 'against' the tide of the song, pulling against her own slow-building terrified angular riff picked out by Jorma on typically scintillating form. Though the chorus speaks of that old American emblem, The Eagle, the rest of the song seems less...institutionalised somehow. This song about someone with an in-born compass, always taking them away from what they're told to new exciting lands is surely another modern-day hippie; perhaps a whole group of them. It's my guess - and yes it's another guess - that Grace is bidding farewell to the Jefferson fanbase here, in the months when Jefferson Starship wasn't even a spark plug in her and Paul's heads just yet, a tribute to a fanbase that would go anywhere and do anything and risk everything. 'You can't fly, human master, you can't fly by yourself!' cackles Grace, yet somehow the Airplane did and they couldn't have soared above the earth without their audience crowd-surfing them along. What's more they won this 'revolution' through peaceful means, 'without a rifle on your shelf!' Note too the track subtitle that this is a 'gang' of Eagles - what better way of summing up a brave and no-nonsense yet supportive fanbase? Though there's less going on in this track - the tempo is very slow for all the noise, which makes every line sound as if it lasts for about half an hour - it really packs a punch, with Grace's vocal and piano plus Jacks murky bass physically fighting Jorma's guitar and Papa John's screechy fiddle as they prepare to fly and soar, as if the Airplane are appearing here with their earthly stabilisers on for the first time. Grace's vocal is a thing of beauty and one of her best, piercing and raw but magnificently in control as she 'fights' several centuries of civilisation with such determination you'd still put money on her to 'win' the fight, while 'aerie' magnificently becomes at least a twelve-syllable word. Only another murky production, which has instruments coming and going even though only some of the band play (Paul is only on backing vocals, for instance) prevents this from being a first-tier classic.
'Twilight Double Leader' is, by contrast, a bit of Kantner fluff. The song is based on a slinky and funky groove which features Jack purring on the bass and Paul slashing away on rhythm guitar and which make Jefferson Airplane sound more like Cream than their usual material. The lyrics are oddball though, even by Kantner standards, switching between sex to politics with even less cohesion than normal. 'Get down now and roll around me, get down now and be my queen!' seems as oddly outdated misogynistic thing to sing when your girlfriend is none other than Grace Slick, though she sounds quite happy shrieking along with Paul in shrill harmonies. I'm stuck as to the 'twilight double leader' of the title - it could be linked to the 'Sunfighter' cover with the sun setting, with Paul 'coming home to feed' his baby daughter. But if so what so the next verse, in which 'your brothers and your sisters are livin' in the mountains away from the city life!' Twilight is suddenly everywhere in the cities, mass populated areas dying out as hippies retreat to the country and for those 'lost' a third of the way through the working week a mysterious 'she' (Grace?) will come to save your soul and show you the way you should be living. Most of this song is, in truth, a lot of funky words that rhyme nicely without any true meaning ('charioteer - already been here!') but I do wonder too if this is an extension of 'Sunfighter' where proud daddy Paul imagines his daughter at the front of the next generation's revolution (it speaks volumes what while the rest of the hippie musician fanbase steps away from dreams of utopia as the 1970s rolls on, Paul is always there dreaming much the same dreams). Is China the one 'waling on the water' and performing miracles left right and centre? Though as a song this is sillier and dafter than most usual Kantner epics, this one gets by thanks to that fat chunky riff and a feeling of genuine excitement that makes us, too, feel we've 'got to go!' Hopefully one day this CD might be remixed to sound clearer and less muddy - if they do I have a sneaky feeling this song would sound a whole load better pared down to just the essentials.
Grace responds to Paul's slight sense of misogynysm with some feminism of her own. 'Milk Train' is another ballsy raucous rocker which, in alternating verses, talks about masturbation, oral sex and her own, erm, 'moistness' and milk-filled boobs. Nobody else would have written a song like this in 1972, never mind fronted an all-male band to sing it (even Janis Joplin would have blushed at this!) She tells her partner (presumably Paul) that she doesn't want to 'stop his milk train running' and 'just wants to ride it some of the time'. 'It'll cost you nothing!' she purrs, like a hippie prostitute. Next she urges her partner not to let her baby-orientated milk sacks go unused with what's leftover in return - 'don't leave the cow juice behind!' she pleads. She reasons that, as a couple, it's one of the perks - she has always got an open mouth on tap for oral sex while she, in turn, can choose to open her mouth to talk and offers a 'free milk tongue bath!' Next Grace looks outside her family and speaks about the male gender in general - some make her juices dry and turn her 'rigid', others create 'liquid in the mind' without her going anywhere near them physically and others seduce her and turn her 'dry'. The ones she desires most are, typically, 'so hard to find'. She wraps up by complaining at her gender feeling hemmed in by what can surely no longer be termed the stronger sex after this song - 'You got nearly all of my body - damned near all of my god-damned money!' Amazingly, despite the long-standing love-hate relationship the Airplane had with the censor, this most lurid and graphic of all their songs was for some reason overlooked, even though Grace's sultry, sumptuous shrieking vocal alone has 'X-rated film' stamped all over it. This is the last great ensemble Airplane performance, Paul and Jorma taking it in turns to reach, erm, climax while Jack and Johnny hit a terrific repetitive rock groove and Grace competes with papa John for attention, the fiddle player's greatest moment coming when he, erm, peaks at the end of the song. The whole is a glorious eye-opening noise. Paul took the same idea and a similar riff to 'ride the tiger', a spiritual metaphor, but Grace is too earthly and horny for that. My sexual awakening came from here I tell you, no magazine, website or encounter could ever compare with the sheer lust of this song which would be banned today - how the Airplane got away with it nearly fifty years ago is one of life's little mysteries!
It's surely a deliberate blasphemy that a tale about Jesus' love life comes next. 'The Son Of Jesus', amazingly, wasn't banned either though only because RCA intervened and ticked the band off for certain lines which they re-recorded under protest, 'dropping' the new lines in over on the wider left and right channels to make this obvious and leaving enterprising fans to fill in the 'real' lines (for the record these blasphemous lines are: 'God loved his bitching son!' 'So you think young Jesus Christ never fucked a lady?' changed to the ungrammatical 'smiled' and 'They had a son, they had a daughter' changed to 'raised' rather than had). Lines that weren't 'airbrushed' with overdubs include 'Jesus had such a foxy daughter!', 'Mary Magdalene smiled when she remembered how the people had been looser' and 'Public execution enhanced by levitation and fancy mutilation!' just to show that RCA didn't take away all the 'good bits'. A Kantner song all the way from its slow marching tempo to its telling a story in wide brush strokes to its sheer outrageousness, unfortunately it's almost Kantner by numbers: gasp at the blasphemy, sink into the slow tempo with no surprises and strain your brain trying to work out what the hard-to-hear lyrics actually are (RCA didn't need to insist on re-recordings at all: I've spent many an hour trying to work out what's actually sung here!) This should really have been a Grace 'n' Paul song kept for one of their joint records as it has nothing really for the band to do here and the result is the single sloppiest performance on the record, the Airplane playing at cross purposes and plodding instead of soaring. As for the lyric, it's a nice idea with Paul pointing out the hypocrisies in the Christian Church with the venom with which he normally attacks politicians, but the band try too hard to make Jesus out to be both an earthly man with earthly urges and no ability for miracles ('they go only so far you see!') and a free-minded hippie. All hippies are magical, everyone knows that! Grace's decision to do what she always does on Paul's songs, improvise over the 'boring bits', also doesn't work here because she comes up with far better lines than her partner ('2000 years of your story dancing over me, Jesus you know God loved that man, you know God got off on his foxy daughter too!')
Over on side two, Grace is feeling miserable and turns in one of her typical moody piano ballads. 'Easter?' is Grace trying to come to terms with what must have seemed like the whole of the Christian church turning on her for a 'joke' only meant to be heard by one person and trying to do what Paul always does: turn her personal sorrow and hurt into an epic number that damns a whole group of people for the mistakes of a few. It speaks volumes that Grace never again tries to sound like Paul - she's too much of a personal writer for that and has a greater grasp of sudden spurts of emotion than a similarly slowed-down melody that never really goes anywhere (it's 'Son Of Jesus' all over again in fact). Still, her lyrics come with added bite: she watched Pope John Paul II talk on television with an open mind, trying to understand his world and al she hears is hypocrisy about peace from a religion that doesn't practise it. Feeling unmoved, she goes back to painting her 'eggs' because that's all Easter means to her, memorably rhyming it with 'nails in the holy legs'. Forget 'The Beatles are bigger than Jesus' this is the real thing: she dismisses his story as a 'mess', compares his 'story' to the paper-thin wafers he hands out like sweets, asks how anyone talking in the dead language of Latin can ever hope to appeal to the young and at the end gets so furious she turns on the unthinking follower with the cry 'no brains in the stupid Christian!' It all seems strangely OTT for Grace's usual songs, which usually wrap their attack in warm humour and often points back to Grace's own faults, but makes more sense if you understand that Grace has just been attacked left right and centre in the press of the day and, as the true Scorpio she is, had to get revenge somehow. The song makes more sense, too, when you realise that Grace grew up not in the heathen hippie paradise many fans assume but a rich family of devout believers that even as a child Grace loved to wind up something rotten. For Grace - and indeed much of her generation - the idea of people asking her to believe something on 'trust' and 'faith' and then not having any of that trust and faith in their own believes smacked of the biggest hypocrisy; this is the sound of a 34-year-old Grace realising that she might be about to lose the greatest pulpit she ever had and telling her parents 'and another thing!' as well as all the people who've just done her wrong. She'll re-write the song to much better effect on the title track of 'The Chrome Nun' the next year in which she longs to gain insight into this strange mystical world but even by 'crossing her forehead and her knees' feels no divine intervention and still feels closest to 'God' when she laughs.
That song isn't even the most defensive on the album, though - that award is taken by Jorma's 'Trial By Fire'. Characteristically the guitarist remains unflustered throughout perhaps his greatest song for the band, though he tells a painful tale about the problems he's faced being a hippie musician. It's a final reminder that being i the Airplane wasn't all fun, finding the guitarist even more fed up than on 'Third Week In The Chelsea' as he 'moves out on the highway' keen to put part of his past behind him even though he's scared, 'afraid of what the future might be'. Jorma can see his future playing out and he's not happy: there'll be a policeman ready to pull him over the minute he leaves the protection of the band, with a look 'that you'd rather be seeing me dead'. To his followers he was once a God - but from now on, he's going to be just another long-haired weirdo the rest of the world who doesn't get 'it' wants to shoot. Jorma's double-tracked vocal stings of disdain and helplessness, torturing himself and his pals for not being strong enough to 'finish' the Airplane manifesto of world peace, however much fighting had to be done to get it. Never had a band sounded more fed-up than here, with Jack's plodding bass and Papa John's fiddle the only colour darting out of this bleak song which, as many reviewers have said, sounds more like the guitarist's 'Hot Tuna' work. This song has to be on this finale album though: it's the sound of a disillusioned man adding up the bill after a party and deciding the thrills just weren't worth it after all. However, Jorma's too kind to leave us with such a sour taste in our mouths so he adds in a final, sweet verse that seems to be his own take on the Jefferson fan. 'We' shared a secret together and nothing can take away how wonderful that was for us and from now on, whenever our paths meet in the future, Jorma's going to recognise us and 'smile' our way in memories of time long gone. It's a sweet moment and a reminder of the solidarity of the hippie movement, away from the police brutality, narrow-mindedness and the gradual wearing away of the hippie dream. It was a trial by fire alright and we 'lost', but only because there were more of them all meaner than we ever were, Jorma vowing to fight to the last anyway, that 'I won't leave here till I sing this song'. Easily Jorma's multi-layered composition, this is one of the real album highlights - especially his stunning guitar playing, both ringing acoustic and stinging electric and Jack's bass dancing alongside him, while interestingly new boy Johnny Barbata sounds far more at home on this track than he ever will with the 'Starship' end of the family.
'Alexander The Medium' is Kantner's farewell to the band he made his name with and it's a shame that he ends his time as an Airplaner by simply recycling the music from 'When The Earth Moves Again'. This song tries hard to be a happy hippie eulogy but it struggles under the weight of its own pomp and circumstance. Kantner, a keen historian, reminds us of a time of 'glory and power' when Alexander the Great brought in a new prosperous age for the young (he was twenty when he got the 'throne'). At least in Paul's eyes - in reality he had the biggest army of anyone and ruled more like a tyrant than a hippie, conquering lands and moving on oblivious to the hurt he caused, but then that's ancient Greece and myths and legends for you. In Paul's eyes he's a hero who made everything possible: there was a unity back then and an understanding of nature that man has since lost and the tale portrayed here is one of Paul's earliest utopian tall tales, all the more unusual in that it comes from our 'past' not a possible 'future'. The hint is that Alexander was just the 'medium' by which people could experience change, perhaps the 'Beatles' of his generation' allowing the young to do things their way. Paul dreams that this time will come again: that as we're all products of 'fame fortune and liberty' anyone of us could take the reins and make the world a better place so we shouldn't give up believing in the hippie dream ourselves. Paul remained attached to his vision for much of his life, even naming his second child Alexander after the ruler and song. However for many fans it's the hardest slog on the Airplane's hardest slog of an album. The song lasts for 6:39 and never breaks away from its Greek parable feel for anything throughout - no chorus, no middle eight, no guitar solo, nothing. 'I don't even know your na,e' sighs Paul, 'but I thought I'd tell you all about it just the same!' like a pub bore who won't shut up! It doesn't help that both his double-tracked vocal and Grace's shrieking lead are all three wildly off-key, making this song sound as if we're being shouted at rather than told a story. Perhaps the album's weakest track.
At least Long John puts his Long Johns back on for the fiesty, fiery finale, even if it's a song that also happens to make less sense than perhaps any previous Jefferson lyric in their history, 'Eat Starch Mom!' is one last kick in the teeth for the parental generation, Grace setting a lyric full of gibberish slang to Jorma's angry and wild guitar riff. In many ways it's a sequel to Marty's 'Plastic Fantastic Lover', a much loved Jefferson song despite being similar gibberish as Grace also sings a love song to a TV, her 'man made mechanical mover' which we're clearly supposed to think is some sort of love toy following on from 'Milk Train'. 'When was the last time a television set gave you any shit about who you met last night?' Grace adds though, wrong-footing us again, as she praises the only 'lover' with the stamina to stay awake with her all through the night. The song then moves on to an oddball attack on someone who swears by only natural produce -a vegan you might say today. 'Preservatives might just be preserving you!' Grace snarls 'but I think you might have missed it!' For Grace life has to be full of raw meat and excitement and energy or what's the point of living at all? So she offers a last bit of advice to her fanbase, telling the women to stay 'warm and wet' for his 'machine' and add a little starch to spice things up. Jorma then has what sounds like a nervous breakdown on the guitar, with a wilder ride even than 'Milk Train', as he tries to buck Grace off his bronco. She's firmly in charge as always, though and is having great fun cackling her way through her daft lyric. Though not up to the band's best, deepest or greatest and a poor man's 'Plastic Fantastic Lover' (which was a lot funnier and made a lot more sense), it's a fun riff and another great performance, even if Paul seems to be missing once again. The last words on a Jefferson Airplane album? The highly unlikely 'Vegetable lover!' screamed at full pelt.
Overall, then, 'Long John Silver' is the sound of a fighter still giving it all even though the clock is ticking and he can't get up off the floor and knows he has to give in. Compared to the Airplane of old, none of the songs here dance as Grace-fully as they used to and there are no 'escapes', no little nuggets of collages or novelty songs to break up the flow, which combined with the all-on attack of every last song (even the ballads!) makes 'Long John' a very exhausting album to listen to. However, it's also great to hear the Airplane giving their all throughout and offering up nine songs that could never ev-uh have even possibly have appeared on an album by any other bands/. There's a cohesion and sense of righteous indignation missing from 'Volunteers' and 'Bark' and even if the execution isn't always the best, two-thirds of the material is amongst as worthy as any in the Airplane's illustrious history. It's an end of an era, with the band going out all-guns blazing, which was the only way they ever truly could have done and on that level is a success, even if at times it feels like the band wish they'd never 'taken off' at all and want to get everything over and done by - the cigars on the cover being perhaps an ironic gesture that the end is a 'celebration'. You miss the clarity of 'Surrealistic Pillow', sense of adventure of 'Baxters' and daring of 'Crown Of Creation', but that's not to say that 'Long John Silver' is in any way's a poorer relative. Rockier than any previous album and a lot angrier with it, this record is more of a wild animal than the other tamer beasts out there but this one too has a lot of heart, a lot of head and a lot of courage the old Jefferson way, if not the blissful harmonies and romantic ballads. 'Long John Silver' is a last bumpy ride for Jefferson Airplane before they go all luxurious and cruise-class with the Jefferson Starship albums, a by-the-seat-of-your-pants experience that will make you air-sick more often than show you the great sights, but which of us doesn't want our Jeffersons at least a tiny bit ramshackle and 'real'? 'Silver' is the real-lest 'Airplane out there by some margin and worth your pieces of eight for its bravery and courage even if it sometimes loses out on pure musicality and magic.
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