Last month, Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson, two founding members of the Jefferson Airplane, passed away on the same day (January 28th). Anderson was the group’s original female singer, appearing on only the Airplane’s debut album before being replaced by Grace Slick in 1966. Kantner, who sang and played rhythm guitar, was a mainstay, taking on an increasingly prominent role in the group as their sound grew from the folkish psychedelic pop of Surrealistic Pillow to the abrasive, politically-charged intensity of Volunteers. Kantner and Slick would later co-found the successful spinoff band Jefferson Starship, with whom Kantner played until his death.
It seems as good a time as any to share a favored piece of footage of the Jefferson Airplane in action. There is plenty of terrific footage of the band in their heyday, perhaps most notably their sets at the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, and Altamont. Not as well-known is the Airplane’s brief but striking performance on the roof of Manhattan’s Schuyler Hotel on December 7, 1968. In the middle of the workday, the band, without legal permission, set up their equipment on the roof of the building and launched into a wonderful, aggressive, and very loud performance of “House at Pooneil Corners.”
Interestingly, the idea for the Airplane’s roof performance was suggested by the politically-inclined French-Swiss filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, who was making a film about youth counterculture in America and felt the band particularly embodied the defiant spirit of the younger generation. Godard himself filmed the performance from inside a building across the street, focusing his camera not just on the band but also on the reactions of the bewildered onlookers below.
The Airplane’s performance came just a month before the Beatles’ famous rooftop concert atop Apple’s headquarters in London. (It would hardly be unreasonable to suspect the Beatles got the idea for their rooftop gig from the Jefferson Airplane, though they never publicly acknowledged the Airplane’s performance as a source of inspiration.) Whereas the Beatles’ concert has the feeling of a benevolent and welcome shenanigan—the London police let them play for 42 minutes before shutting them down—the Airplane’s performance is rough, almost hostile, an admixture of a publicity stunt and a gesture of protest. They were able to complete just one song before the police shut down the gig, threatening arrest due to the noise violations.
This video is a special document – here is a force new, young, and iconoclastic thrust into the faces (and eardrums) of those not expecting it. It’s lovely to observe the faces of the Manhattan pedestrians as they gaze up in awe, some evidently pleased by the spectacle, some perturbed, some seemingly unsure of their own feelings. It’s interesting to observe the band in this public context; though it’s a short clip, the footage richly conveys the role this music had in the national consciousness at this time, and what a group like the Jefferson Airplane meant in America in 1968.
Rest in peace, Signe and Paul – thanks for the music.