Back in the day (it’s been 50 years now — gawd!), I was a Jefferson Airplane fan. After Bathing at Baxter’s was the first rock LP I ever bought. I saw them at Fillmore West a couple of times.
They went through changes. In ’76 they transmogrified into Jefferson Starship. Jack and Jorma had left the band, but Grace, Paul, and Marty were still the front line. With some new players, they released an LP called Spitfire.
Today, in an LP-spinning mood, I grabbed Spitfire off the shelf and had a listen. Man, what a sad piece of shit. I’m sorry, but there’s no nicer way to say it. The songwriting and the mixing are just plain bad, and the instrumental tracks are blah. Balin’s passion, Kantner’s naive but energetic political views, and Slick’s knife-edge lyrics are nowhere in evidence.
They didn’t even print the lyrics in the album sleeve. Or maybe I just lost the insert, but I doubt it. I had to go looking online for the lyrics, because I didn’t trust my ears. Here’s Marty Balin: “Cruisin’ down the freeway is all I want to do / Let’s go cruisin’, that’s all I want to do / Cruisin’ in my automobile.” Were we to dare compare that to, let’s say, a line like, “Small things like reasons are kept in a jar,” the difference would be rather apparent.
Here’s Grace Slick: “You get what you give if you give what you get / Don’t forget it / Hot water, cold water.” Compare that to, for instance, “Woman with a greasy heart / Automatic man.” Is your head spinning yet?
And here’s Paul Kantner (probably — the songwriting credits are as confused as the rest of the liner notes): “Don’t let it rain on me tonight / Don’t let it rain.” A sad and trivial complaint. Shall we compare that to, “Tear down the walls, motherfucker”? Maybe we shouldn’t.
It’s not just the lyrics. None of the mixes have a strong solo vocal. It’s as if they were trying to hide the bad songwriting behind a cloud of bad production values. A couple of the instrumental jams get going, but David Freiberg and Pete Sears just aren’t Jack Casady, and Craig Chaquico doesn’t have the stylistic edge on lead that Jorma Kaukonen had.
If I had to guess, I’d guess that drugs had a lot to do with the failure of this effort. I could be wrong. Maybe I can find an online interview with Grace where she talks about what happened to the band. But maybe I’d rather not know.
I think there’s a lesson in this for any artist, not just for rock bands: Just because you’ve done some great work, there’s no guarantee you’ll do something great next time. It’s always a new day. You never stop having to work at it. Sometimes the magic is there and sometimes it’s not. If you’re trying to make a living at your art, when the magic isn’t happening you’re in a tough spot. I don’t have any answers. It’s kind of scary, that’s all, and it’s never scarier than when it’s artists you once admired.