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*6.11-LAST WALL OF THE CASTLE (Jefferson Airplane)

Jefferson Airplane

LISTEN

Gone swirling tears came,
She went today.
Down fallen years go by,
No place in learning how to cry;
I went astray.

     Understanding is a virtue hard to come by.
     You can teach me how to love if you’ll only try.
     So please! Don't give up so soon.

Sorry that I hurt her;
I went astray.
Hurt her mind and broke her heart
But there's no stopping once you start;
She went away.

     [Chorus]

[Break]

I never knew you
The way you are.
The blinded bird is not sincere,
His flying's done from only fear;
He's lost his star.

     [Chorus]

[Coda]


After Bathing At Baxter'sAfter Bathing at Baxter’s, released for the Christmas 1967 market, shared with its contemporary Their Satanic Majesties Request (Rolling Stones) the general disapproval of rock critics at the time of its appearance. Like the Stones album, the group had produced the record themselves, in part to keep away the influences of market trends. (Al Schmidt is only nominally the producer of Baxter’s, while the same could be said of the album’s engineer, Richie Schmidt.) The Airplane had prided themselves (in an aesthetic made popular by Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention) in making a non-commercial record. But for the most part, music critics either blamed the lack of supervision or the drugs these two groups were taking for both albums’ lack of ear worms. The aesthetics were changing, and the Stones and Airplane were made to seem self-indulgent rather than explorers of brave new worlds. These judgments were made at a time when psychedelic music's grip on fashion was slipping. After all, Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys had been produced and for the most part engineered by Brian Wilson, a member of the group, and the album had been praised for its art, a cut above the marketplace, only eighteen months earlier. The tracks on Pet Sounds had not been branded as self-indulgent or the product of debilitated consciousness.

What had happened since Pet Sounds to make such freedom in the studio suspect? Many factors, not the least of which was the growing knowledge that psychedelic drugs could be harmful, that hippies might not only be spiritually enlightened by the drugs they took, but could be made stupid and squalid by them. Another factor was that such acts as Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream were opening up a bigger, louder, harder dimension of psychedelic sound that was aimed at live performance. And yet another factor was the longing for simplicity that would soon be answered in post-Christmas 1967 by Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding. It was the decidedly un-psychedelic sound of John Wesley Harding that critics would press as the new rock standard for music in the following year. The competitiveness of the invention and innovation between major psychedelic music groups during Christmas season 1967 was so intense that I suspect the artists themselves were becoming exhausted by it. With very rare exceptions (I’m thinking of Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix Experience and Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks, but there are a few others) psychedelic music would not undergo such risk-taking again.

With After Bathing at Baxter’s, the Jefferson Airplane shed most of the folk trappings that the group had previously shared with such acts as the Mama & the Papas and Lovin’ Spoonful, and became a louder and more aggressive group, with Jorma Kaukonen’s electric guitar pushed much more frequently in the foreground. If the Rolling Stones’ vision of the future was computerized and isolated, with only dreams of anachronistic romance to sweeten the loneliness, the Jefferson Airplane were far more optimistic (at the time) about a cultural revolution that would change the world for the better. Grace Slick seems to carry the banner of freedom in much the same manner as that expressed in Delacroix’ 1830 painting Liberty Leading the People, but this time in sound.

This was a time when the titles of psychedelic albums were meant to leave one wondering about their meaning. Censorship may have been a factor (see Peter Paul & Mary's I Dig Rock and Roll Music). Of course the mere name of the group Jefferson Airplane made one wonder where one was being taken on the “Trans Love Airways”, but After Bathing at Baxter’s seems particularly resistant to interpretation. I imagine the title alludes to a time in Haight Ashbury when communes of urban kids were “squatting” in abandoned San Francisco properties that had no electricity or plumbing. Therefore, kind “Baxter” had allowed certain hippies to use his facilities in order to clean up. (However, I’ve recently found a quite plausible theory that the title is a scrambling of After Taking LSD.) It was also time when a great deal of attention was being spent on album covers. The Jefferson Airplane hired Ron Cobb, a cartoonist of an underground Los Angeles paper called the The Free Press (established in 1964), to create an original cover for the album. He turned a house with typical Haight Ashbury bay windows (marijuana leaves sticking out of the basement) into an airplane, thus emphasizing the group’s connection with the countercultural revolution.

As the beginning song for a suite called “Hymn to an Older Generation”, the title Last Wall of the Castle suggests that a bastion of the old order has been attacked and is about to fall. I think of the biblical story of the walls of Jericho tumbling down through the use of loud noise (Joshua 6). And the song is certainly noisy. Steve Smith, on his website Hooks, remarked of the break in the song that “a really great jolt is the ungodly distorted guitars...unprecedented and unmotivated, a gash in the track, a rupture in consciousness.” I imagine that this “rupture” is another effort, mimicking the Beatle’s A Day in the Life, to give the listener a sense of the rush that comes when LSD hits the brain. All this would make sense in delineating the gap between the consciousness of the hippies and the older generation. But the lyrics, jumble that they are, aren’t about this at all—rather, they speak of a love affair that the singer has corrupted, while pleading for patience. In the context of the “Older Generation”, the lyrics would suggest a plea for forgiveness, a plea for understanding. The words would express humility, an admission of blindness and flight through fear. The words and music don’t match up, and yet, Kaukonen’s torrent of electric energy and Spencer Dryden’s drumming force are impressive enough to believe the walls (whatever they protect) will never withstand the onslaught. Matthew Greenwald wrote in the website allmusic: “The words are sung in an almost too-fast-to-decipher flow, but the overt illustration of a generation changing at an alarming rate is apparent.”

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