Conversation With Jeff Tamarkin, Author of Got a Revolution!
Q. Why a book about Jefferson Airplane?
A. Like Sir Edmund Hillary said after becoming the first person
to climb Mt. Everest, the answer's simply, "Because they
were there." Jefferson Airplane was one of the great rock
bands of all time, hugely successful and influential, highly creative,
beloved by millions-truly one of the major bands during rock's
classic era. And yet their story has never really been told. There
are hundreds of books on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob
Dylan, the Grateful Dead, etc., but none on the Airplane. So I
elected myself to tell their tale. Also, of course, because I
love their music.
Q. What's so special about this band as opposed to
other '60s bands? Are they still relevant?
A. Jefferson Airplane is still extremely relevant. They flourished
in a very volatile political and social climate, and they not
only reflected that era but actually contributed to the history.
The Airplane was truly on the front lines of the '60s; they were
groundbreakers, challenging authority at every turn and, by example,
encouraging their fans to do the same. We're going through a chaotic,
worrisome, highly charged period now as well, and the Airplane's
music still says something to people. It gets them thinking, something
that not a lot of pop music does anymore. One of the last stories
in the book is about how a high school in Missouri banned its
marching band from playing a Jefferson Airplane song-this was
in 1998, a full 25 years after the band broke up! For some of
the kids it was the first time they had ever heard of Jefferson
Airplane, and they began buying up the songs to see why the school
officials were so nervous.
Q. But this is really more than just a book about
A. Absolutely. It's about an era when young people were coming
into their own as a social, political and economic force. The
Airplane, to me, is almost a metaphor for the '60s and the ups
and downs of the Baby Boom generation. This is also a story of
a very unique place and time, San Francisco in the '60s. It's
also about business deals gone bad, clueless corporations trying
to make sense of this youth revolution, and these young children
of the middle-class forging ahead and really making up the counterculture
as they went along. Of course, there is also a whole lot of sex,
drugs and rock and roll! But there's much more than that going
Q. Where does the book's title come from? What revolution
are you referring to?
A. The title is from the lyric of the title track of the Airplane's
Volunteers album. They sing, "Look what's happening out in
the streets/Got a revolution/Got to revolution." Do I feel
there was a revolution? In a way, yes. Not the kind of violent
revolution where a government was overthrown, but one of ideas.
I think young people in the '60s, led by groups such as the Airplane,
the Beatles, etc., were in large part responsible for ending the
Vietnam War, for changing the way people looked at racism, sexism,
the environment, etc. A lot of the ideas that came to the surface
in those years-gay rights, the anti-nuclear movement, Greenpeace-are
still with us today. The Airplane was not an underground group:
they appeared on the cover of Life magazine, on the Ed Sullivan
Show. They were very high profile and young people paid attention
to what they said and did. They also revolutionized the music
itself. By bringing a jazz-like improvisational freedom to rock,
they took the music to the next level. They basically said that
pop songs don't have to be played the same way every time, they
can evolve, and that it was okay to explore new dimensions musically,
to take risks, even if those risks sometimes resulted in failure.
Q. How long did it take you to write this book and how much was
A. The project itself took five years. But I began researching
Jefferson Airplane and interviewing band members back in the late
1970s. I've been working with them for more than 10 years on CD
liner notes so they trusted me to tell the story accurately and
fairly. I had unprecedented access to the musicians, their friends
and families, business associates, etc. I conducted hundreds of
hours of interviews and spent the first few years gathering and
sorting out information and trying to make sense of it all. It's
a very labyrinthine tale.
Q. These people didn't always get along, did they?
A. (Laughing) No, they sure didn't. And there are still lingering
hostilities to this day. In a way it's a classic love-hate relationship.
They all know that they went through something special together
and appreciate the role that they as a group played, and the role
that each individual played within that group. But they were very
different from each other then and they are very different now.
One of the roadblocks I hadn't envisioned was that they would
each recall certain events differently though. In some cases I'd
ask the same question of six band members and get six different
answers. So part of my job was to try to discern which version,
if any, was accurate. One of them would say, with absolute certainty,
that something happened this way. The next person would say, "He
doesn't know what he's talking about-it happened this way."
Then a third person would say they're both wrong. These are all
very strong personalities and so the events of those years are
filtered through their outlook and philosophies and experiences,
and of course, after more than three decades, memories are distorted.
I had to rely on a lot of documentation from the era to get at
the real story.
Q. Can you tell us some of the more famous stories?
A. There are so many sudden surprises and weird twists and turns.
There was the time that Grace Slick appeared inexplicably in blackface
makeup on the Smothers Brothers Show. Another time she wore a
Hitler mustache onstage at the Fillmore East, which was owned
by Holocaust escapee Bill Graham. There was the time that Jack
and Jorma took up speed skating, which actually contributed to
the group's demise. Partying with everyone from Jimi Hendrix and
Jim Morrison to the Kennedys. Grace and Jorma drag racing through
San Francisco, resulting in a near-fatal car accident for Grace.
Weird characters appearing uninvited in the Airplane's headquarters
naked or claiming to be the father of Grace's child. There are
also many well-known tales, like Grace going to the White House
with Abbie Hoffman as her escort, hoping to slip LSD into President
Nixon's drink; the band's appearances at the Monterey, Woodstock
and Altamont concerts. The book also delves into the years after
the Airplane split into Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna, and some
of the best stories take place then. In 1978, for example, fans
in Germany rioted because Grace didn't show up at a Starship gig,
burning their equipment and the stage to the ground. The musicians
all give a very harrowing account.
Q. Would you say that Grace Slick personified the
A. Not really-she wasn't really the personification of anything
other than Grace Slick. She was a lot tougher than most '60s women.
More free-spirited. She didn't subscribe to the accepted roles
for women at the time but, despite her public image, she wasn't
a hippie or a feminist either. For example, she liked makeup and
nice clothes and abhorred the idea of communal living. She was
very much her own woman. She had her personal problems, for sure,
and they caught up with her, but she was truly an individual.
Very intelligent, witty, outspoken, very often outrageous and
abusive-her observations and quips throughout the book are classic.
Q. Got a Revolution! almost doubles as a history book. It takes
us through the famed Summer of Love, it touches on the effect
of the Vietnam War on the country's youth, it goes to the big
rock festivals, etc. We also see how the '60s gave way to the
more complacent '70s, when so much changed, for the main characters
in the book as well as their peers.
A. That was my intention. The story of Jefferson Airplane cannot
be separated from the time in which they made their art. Their
music, and their way of life, was thoroughly intertwined with
events of the day. After the '60s, things cooled down, young people
became more reflective. After the former Airplane members went
their separate ways they continued to create excellent music but
they became as much a product of the overindulgent, hedonistic
post-'60s as they had been a product of the '60s. Some of the
most fascinating stuff in the book takes place after Jefferson
Airplane itself has disbanded. What began as the Airplane ended
up as faceless corporate rock 25 years later.
Q. Is it true that Grace Slick slept with all of the
male band members?
A. Well, not all. She slept with every one of the key members
except Marty Balin, the band's other lead singer. One of the underlying
sagas within the book is the constant sexual tension between Grace
and Marty-that dynamic contributed greatly to their onstage charisma
as well. But she did indeed bed all of the others and had relationships
with Spencer Dryden, the drummer, and Paul Kantner, the rhythm
guitarist. Grace and Paul had a daughter, China Kantner, who later
became an MTV personality. Don't forget, the Airplane was going
strong at the peak of the sexual revolution-fidelity was not a
big issue to them.
Q. What are the Airplane members all doing now?
A. Grace retired from music in 1989 after the Airplane did a
reunion album and tour. She now paints. Paul continues to lead
a version of Jefferson Starship-the only other original Airplane
member in the band (though not always) is Marty, who also paints.
Jorma Kaukonen plays solo and with Hot Tuna, the band he founded
while still in the Airplane-he also runs a guitar camp. He was
nominated for a Grammy in 2003. Jack Casady, the bassist, still
plays with Jorma in Hot Tuna and released his first solo album.
Spencer has passed away. Almost all of the other ex-Airplane,
Starship and Tuna members continue to make music.
Q: So does someone have to be a Jefferson Airplane
fan to appreciate the book?
A: Oh, absolutely not. Anyone who's curious about late 20th century
social history or the music business in general or even how cities
like San Francisco and Los Angeles have evolved would be intrigued.
The story takes place on several levels, with the Airplane at
Q. And what's next on the horizon for you?
A. I have a lot of different ideas for non-fiction books, some
about music and some not, and may develop a novel I started a
while back. I am associate editor of JazzTimes magazine
and do a lot of freelance writing. And I like to spend a lot of
time with my wife, the novelist Caroline Leavitt, and our son,