“After Bathing at Baxter’s” by Jefferson Airplane (1967)
Following the success of its breakthrough single, “Somebody to Love,” Jefferson Airplane entered the studio in May 1967 to record its third album.
After “White Rabbit” hit the Top 10, too, RCA Victor was eager to cash in on further Airplane success. So the company pretty much gave the band carte blanche for the next batch of what the executives hoped would be hits.
The first single from the resulting album, “The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil,” didn’t even make the Top 40. Even to listeners who were feeding their heads, so to speak, the song must have sounded as weird as its title. Starting with a blast of feedback, “Pooneil” launches into fuzztone-driven, primordial hard rock and ponderous lyrics: “If you were a bird and you lived very high/You’d lean on the wind when the breeze came by/Say to the wind as it took you away/That’s where I wanted to go today.”
RCA would have preferred to release a Grace Slick-sung track, following her elevation to superstar status with the year’s previous hits. But her “Two Heads” wound up as the B-side to “Pooneil,” as Slick’s composition is even more arcane: A Middle East-flavored melody frames lyrics like “Wearing your comb like an ax in your head, listening for signs of life/Children are sucking on stone and lead, and chasing their hoops with a knife.”
No matter the era in which that was written, it’s just plain bizarre.
As is most of “After Bathing With Baxter’s,” which was released in November 1967 after the Airplane blew through about $80,000 of RCA’s money in studio time. That was 10 times as much as the cost of its predecessor, “Surrealistic Pillow.”
“Baxter’s” is presented as a series of suites, which isn’t an entirely accurate portrayal, as unrelated songs merely segue into one another other. The opener, “Pooneil,” careens into a short sound collage concocted by the band’s drummer, the late Spencer Dryden, called “A Small Package of Value Will Come to You, Shortly” and inspired by some of Frank Zappa’s more avant-garde material.
“Value” wraps up with the words of wisdom “No man is an island … He’s a peninsula!” as the opening of “Young Girl Sunday Blues” bubbles up for Marty Balin’s only lead vocal on the album.
Balin, the band’s featured singer in its early days, had been pushed into the background by mid-1967, with the Airplane’s co-founder, Paul Kantner, dominating the songwriting. Along with “Pooneil,” Kantner contributed “Wild Tyme (H), a paean to the anything-goes San Francisco scene with the key line, “I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet”; “Martha,” inspired by a girl who hung out with fellow Bay Area band Quicksilver Messenger Service; “Watch Her Ride,” relatively atonal love song that nonetheless was released as the album’s second single; and the closing “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon,” with its reference to “acid, incense and balloons.”
Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen contributes “The Last Wall of the Castle” as his first Airplane songwriting effort; he eschews his blues roots to keep up with the absurdities being perpetuated by Kantner.
Speaking of whom, Grace drew on another literary figure for her other “Baxter’s” composition. Following Lewis Carroll for “White Rabbit,” she chose James Joyce for “rejoyce,” a song that’s every bit as strange as you’d expect from something based on the tale of Bloom in “Ulysses.”
“Baxter’s” contains one more track: nearly 10 minutes’ worth of a late-night jam by Kaukonen, Dryden and bass player Jack Casady. The instrumental was dubbed “Spare Chaynge,” based more or less on the constant mantra of many a youngster wandering around San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District during the alleged Summer of Love.
Jefferson Airplane reined in the insanity a bit for its subsequent releases, leaving “After Bathing at Baxter’s” as a lasting document of major experimentation by a major rock band at an appropriate time and place.
It’s a challenging listen, but an honest one. As Casady is quoted as saying in Jeff Tamarkin’s “Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Fight of Jefferson Airplane”:
“To us, (‘Baxter’s’) was a performance and artistic success because, as spoiled little brats, we got to do whatever we wanted to do. But I say ‘spoiled little brats’ with a certain amount of fondness.”