Friday, March 6, 2015

I'd Love to Turn You On #124 - Paul Kantner - Blows Against The Empire

One of the more important figures in 1960’s rock and roll, Paul Kantner, the founder and idealistic heart of The Jefferson Airplane, has had his importance obscured in the shadow of ex-wife Grace Slick’s flamboyant personality. Yet, in many ways he was the architect of the Airplane’s sound and if you doubt that, listen to Blows Against The Empire, his first, magnificent solo album from 1970. The musical and spiritual twin to David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, Blows Against The Empire gathers many of the same members of The Airplane, Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Grateful Dead axis to form a super group of like-minded, stoned, science-fiction loving, anarchists in search of the lost chord. In many ways they succeed. Blows Against The Empire is a heady, ecstatic musical promise to the entire 60’s generation. Kantner, the guy who said “up against the wall motherfucker” in The Airplane, continues his adversarial stance against the older generation, this time suggesting that all those who have turned on, board a starship and leave earth. Crazy, idealistic shit right? Yup, it is totally of another era. It is from a time when a large portion of a generation felt they could transcend the mundane realities of a Nixon/Reagan war cult by taking drugs and dropping out of society. In this case, boarding a spacecraft and “Carry 7000 people past the sun/ and our babes’ll wander naked through the cities of the universe.” Wow, really? Yes, really, and he sings this stuff with a totally straight face (one imagines). And what’s more, the musicians assembled make a sublime, skronky joy out of it. The core group is Kantner, Slick, David Crosby and Jerry Garcia, all flying high on their late 60’s success as well as LSD concocted by uber-chemist and cultural lynchpin Owsley Stanley (who is thanked in the liner notes along with a bunch of authors such as Vonnegut, Heinlein and Jean Genet.)

Understanding the political and cultural subtexts of the era is important, because once immersed into this album, there is no coming up for air. One has to give himself over to Kantner’s utopian vision. In 1970, for me, this was not a stretch. I was more than excited by these ideas. I was just entering my teenage years, and already a major fan of both science-fiction and rock and roll, so the idea of all the young people boarding a spaceship to leave earth and set out for some as-yet-to-be-determined Garden Of Eden sounded to me like a great way to get out of the pain and embarrassment of adolescence . Going to mars might actually be easier than asking a girl out. The album itself flows like a suite of songs. In spite of their being many styles represented, from the pure folk of  "The Baby Tree," to the anthemic sunshine of  "A Child Is Coming," to all of side two, which flows like a psychedelic space opera, sounding somewhere between The Airplane and Hawkwind, the music soars with Garcia’s guitar sliding between Kantner, Crosby and Slick’s perfectly blending voices, Kantner’s fantastic acoustic playing and all of it anchored by the lyrical and thematic ambition of the entire project. Side one closes with the tour-de-force, "Let’s Go Together," which perfectly sums up the magic of this album. Kantner sings his desire: “Wave Goodbye To Amerika/Say Hello To The Garden” while Garcia tastefully plays hide and seek with Airplane bassist Jack Casady’s fluid runs. It is the hippie dream personified and given flesh. On the inside gatefold cover of the album there is a foil-sheened painting of a planet surface with craters, pyramids, mutiple moons, and rising over the horizon is a depiction of Paul Kantner, his hair made of marijuana leaves, and a look of steely determination in his eyes. It is the Lewis and Clark adventure for the stoned generation.

Paul Epstein

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