Friday, February 24, 2012

A Surrealistic Album

Forty–five years ago, preparation for the so–called "Summer of Love" was in its nascent stages.

In the evolution of California's identification as the Ground Zero of the counterculture movement of the 1960s, the "Summer of Love" was a seminal moment — or, at least, it was a seminal concept.

I'm not sure you could say that the "Summer of Love" really lived up to its hype. There were race riots in major cities, causing death and destruction and leading the season to be informally dubbed "The Long, Hot Summer."

There was a lot of disillusionment in the summer of '67. At times, there didn't seem to be that much love — even of the manufactured variety.

I was in elementary school at the time, and I was blissfully unaware of the subtle nuances of the words that were used by the adults, but I do remember how the counterculture was generally portrayed in popular media. "Hippie" was a synonym for dirty, in both the sanitary sense and as an allusion to the counterculture's negative influence on social standards.

There was a popular notion, for example, that young men who wore their hair long were unclean, that they didn't bathe regularly — that they might be homosexual.

I grew up on a college campus; my father was a religion and philosophy professor. And I knew, from my observations of his students, that the popular stereotypes were wrong — or, at least, that they did not apply to everyone.

The students I saw might have had long hair, but it was clean, and so were their clothes. And most, if not all, seemed to enjoy the company of girls.

Many of my father's students were genuinely concerned about the injustices and inequities of their time, and, in their searches for their own identities and the roles they were to play in this new and frequently frightening world, they often chose to show their solidarity with their alienated brothers and sisters through their language, their hair and their clothes.

And their music.

In January of 1967, I guess, the idea of a "Summer of Love" was born at an event called the Human Be–In in San Francisco. It was, perhaps, an inevitable reflection of the perfect storm of protest that existed at the time — the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam merging with the social movements for racial and sexual advancement.

At this so–called "gathering of the tribes," the music of the emerging "psychedelic" movement was provided by several area bands, among them a group called Jefferson Airplane.

Jefferson Airplane was a pioneer of the psychedelic (or acid rock) genre, along with groups like the Grateful Dead, the Doors, Cream, the Moody Blues and others. The band had formed a couple of years earlier, but most people outside San Francisco probably never heard of Jefferson Airplane before 1967. That changed, and the Be–In almost certainly played a role in the enhanced exposure.

So, too, did the album Jefferson Airplane released in February — "Surrealistic Pillow" — which featured the two songs for which Jefferson Airplane still is best known — "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit."

Both songs were written by Grace Slick when she was with a different group, and they were packaged in the first Airplane album on which Slick performed.

When Rolling Stone released its list of the Top 500 songs of all time, those were the only Jefferson Airplane songs on the list — and both were featured prominently in the pre–Summer of Love press.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that, with the possible exception of Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco," no other popular song summed up the mood of the young of that time quite as well as either of those Jefferson Airplane tunes.

There was an odd kind of dynamic involved in having those songs on the same album.

"Somebody to Love" was the group's greatest commercial success, and its title had an obvious link to the theme of the Summer of Love.

Both songs featured Slick's powerful vocals. "Somebody to Love" was probably the more conventional of the two, but "White Rabbit," with its allusions to psychedelic drugs, did the better job of capturing the spirit of the times.

Every era has its anthems that express the essence of that era, and "White Rabbit" was such a song for that time — but it went even farther. It had a life and a personality all its own, and it still exerts its influence nearly half a century later.

Styles have changed dramatically since the 1960s. But people still want somebody to love, and some people (the more adventurous ones) still chase rabbits.

"Surrealistic Pillow" reaches out across the decades, conjuring images of a unique and long–ago time and its people.