Archive for June, 2012

“The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” by the 13th Floor Elevators (1966)

Take a look at the singer in this video from Germany in 2010.

Sure, it looks as if he’s had some ups and downs over the years. But all in all, he seems to be in pretty good shape.

In 2005, filmmaker Keven McAlester released his documentary about the singer, Roger Kynard “Roky” Erickson. Judging by the movie, you’d never guess that Roky ever would be able to function in society again, let alone return to performing music.

But he continues to do his thing on stage, including shows this coming weekend in New Jersey, if you’re out that direction.

That’s good news for fans who have followed Roky – pronounced “Rocky” – since his days as frontman for the ’60s-era band the 13th Floor Elevators, and who have cheered him on during his peaks and valleys in the decades since.

In the rock ‘n’ roll canon, Roger Kynard Erickson usually is mentioned in the same breath as another Roger, “Syd” Barrett of Pink Floyd, and Canadian multi-instrumentalist Alexander “Skip” Spence, of Moby Grape and Jefferson Airplane.

Those musicians often are cited as primary casualties of the era’s drug culture, men whose predilections for substances led to debilitating mental illness.

Roky isn’t the only one of them who’s still making music. He’s the only one who’s still alive.

His story begins in Austin, Texas, in 1965, when he came to local prominence with a band called the Spades. Barely 18 at the time, he wrote two songs that became audience favorites, “We Sell Soul” and “You’re Gonna Miss Me.”

Late in the year, Roky decided to team up with members of a band called the Lingsmen for a new aggregation. Erickson, guitarist Stacy Sutherland, bass player Benny Thurman and drummer John Ike Walton opted for the name 13th Floor Elevators, as a nod to the number that doesn’t exist in hotels (and possibly signifying the 13th letter of the alphabet, which also is the first letter of the word “marijuana”).

If the band name was thoroughly unusual for mid-’60s Texas, the addition of a fifth member was downright unique. To quote Mark Deming on allmusic.com: “nobody played electric jug quite like Tommy Hall … actually, nobody played it at all besides him.”

That’s right. He’d picked up a jug, put a microphone next to it and make noises that somewhat resemble what you’d hear on a submarine’s sonar. As you might imagine, he had to be in a certain frame of mind to operate thusly.

“With the Elevators, Hall made it a rule to drop acid every time someone picked up an instrument,” Jennifer Maerz of the Houston Press wrote in “Ex-13th Floor Elevator Tommy Hall Is Still Psychedelic.

Speaking of psychedelic, we can attribute the coining of the word to British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond, who came up with the term for the hallucinogenic drugs he prescribed to author Aldous Huxley. (He’s the guy who wrote “The Doors of Perception,” from which Jim Morrison and company took their band’s name.) At the start of 1966, the word wasn’t widely known, except to folks like Dr. Timothy Leary. But that soon would change.

The 13th Floor Elevators started the year by going into the studio to record two songs for the band’s first 45, working with a producer named Gordon Bynum for a label called Contact Records. The B-side was called “Tried to Hide,” while the main track turned out to be an updated version of “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” If you’ve seen the movie “High Fidelity,” that’s the song that’s playing on vinyl during the opening.

The single made a national impact, peaking at No. 55 on the Billboard charts and No. 50 on Cash Box. The song’s most notable feature, even more than Hall’s jug, is Erickson’s frantic vocal delivery, in marked contrast to what other popular singers were doing in early 1966.

The success of “You’re Gonna Miss Me” resulted in the 13th Floor Elevators being offered gigs far away from Texas, most notably San Francisco, where acts like Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and the Grateful Dead were starting to make names for themselves. After taking in some Elevators shows, the Bay Area bands started to veer away from folk and blues toward uncharted territory.

Returning to Austin, the Elevators went to work on recording an album, which also ended up being unlike anything anyone had heard before. Or since.

“The Psychedelic Sounds of the 13th Floor Elevators” not only used Osmond’s contribution to the language prominently, but it also came with an album cover goes a long way toward summing up what psychedelic music was, is and will be.

John Cleveland, an Austin artist, ably executed the theme of bright colors surrounding an eye with a pyramid and smaller eye within the pupil. As band collaborator Powell St. John recalled in an interview decades later, “It was one of those arcane symbols of which Tommy was so fond and so vague in explaining. Maybe it had something to do with Scientology. Tommy was very big on Scientology. ”

The album was recorded for International Artists, a small Houston record company with a staff producer named Lelan Rogers, whose brother, Kenny, would score a hit with a band called the First Edition and a song called “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” (I heard he’s recorded some other stuff, too. And been in some movies. And lent his name to a chain of chicken restaurants.)

Lelan produced nine new songs to go with the pair of tunes originally recorded for Contact. The result is sonically primitive – adding to the technological limitations is the apparent loss of the original master tapes – but fascinating, a document of the raw tools that paved the way for a style of music that’s still revered in many quarters today.

“You’re Gonna Miss Me,” naturally, is the opening track, kicking off with a riff reminiscent of The Who’s “I Can’t Explain” but quickly veering off the beaten path with the introduction of Hall’s jug noises. Roky breaks in with an otherwordly “Oh, yeah!” before warning his girlfriend of an imminent departure. The key switches from E major to E minor for a the bridge before returning to the main theme, punctuated by blasts from Erickson’s harmonica. The net result is two-and-a-half minutes of pure adrenaline.

The pace slows with “Roller Coaster,” which begins with a Walton drum roll leading in to a menacing guitar figure, with Sunderland using reverb and echo to great effect for the time. Roky starts intoning the Hall-penned lyrics: “Once, somewhere, some time ago, his eyes were clear to see/He put his thoughts into my mind, and gave myself to be.” He and Sutherland trade guitar licks with Hall’s jug bubbling up prominently, until Roky redoubles his vocal effort: “Well, it starts like a roller coaster ride, so real it takes your breath away/It slides you through your point of view, you look back to where you thought you’d stayed.” Perhaps listeners in 1966 weren’t exactly hip to what Hall was writing about, but seeing the words in print makes the subject matter quite a bit clearer!

Tommy’s wife at the time, Clementine, co-wrote the next track, “Splash 1,” with Roky. Compared with the freakout that was “Roller Coaster,” “Splash 1” comes across as a relatively straightforward, sparely arranged love song … until you’re confronted with lyrics like “The neon from your eyes is splashing into mine/It’s so familiar, in a way I can’t define.” Perhaps it’s a coincidence that a preferred method of taking LSD at the time was to use an eye dropper, straight into the ol’ cornea?

“Reverberation (Doubt)” opens with a burst of feedback, flowing into a riff that sounds like a speeded-up “Roller Coaster.” The lyrics, again by Tommy Hall, reflect pure paranoia: “Well, you finally find your helpless mind is trapped inside your skin/You want to leave, but you believe you won’t get back again. … It holds your thought, your mind is caught, you’re fixed with fascination/You think you’ll die, it’s just a lie, it’s backward elevation!” This ode to a bad trip, was the follow-up single to “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and actually made it to No. 129 on Billboard’s Bubbling Under, shortly after the album’s release.

“Don’t Fall Down” features a call-and-response vocal arrangement, with Tommy’s lyrics sticking to a more conventional (for him) love-song script: “Every time you need her, she is there, to ease the pain that fogs you/And when you don’t need her, from her stare, she says she’s needing you.”

The frenzy factor is upped again with “Fire Engine,” with suitable sound effects roaring through the song’s start, punctuating Sutherland’s reverb-drenched chords. His playing is particularly prominent during this composition, showing him to be an inventive guitar player whose style seems to have made many fans among West Coast players who developed similar chops.

“Thru the Rhythm” is built on one of those great ’60s-era riffs that seem as if they’d be right at home as the theme music for a period spy movie. Unfortunately, Hall’s lyrics serve as an unnerving foreshadowing of what would come to pass in Roky’s life: “You gobble all the blessings they taught you to digest/They may be hard to swallow, but they keep your tongue depressed/Your scattered whims were born depressed, so when something slams into your chest/You flutter about your sleep distressed, and then you stop to ease your breast/A scattered rim leaves you obsessed, but solid thoughts are soon suppressed/Where are you?”

Keep those words in mind for later reference.

St. John’s “You Don’t Know” is the song on the album that uses Hall’s jug to best effect, as his noises punctuate a relatively spare arrangement. Although the key line is “You don’t know how young you are,” other lyrics register high on the lysergic scale: “Your eyes are filled with liquid snakes and liquid plastic castles.” Another eye-dropper reference, perhaps.

While “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Roller Coaster” are the best-known tracks on “Psychedelic Sounds,” the tune that most lives up to the album title is “Kingdom of Heaven.” Sutherland’s minor-key, languidly paced guitar riffs lay the foundation for an entire rock genre, as do St. John’s set-the-scene lyrics:

Here you are at my place within your glistening eyes
I´m watching your reactions as the thing within you cries
And I´m bringing you this message ´cause I think it´s time you knew
That the kingdom of heaven is within you

The incense and the candles and the colors on the wall
Your image stands reflected as a princess come to call
Your suspicions I´m confirming as you find them all quite true
And the kingdom of heaven is within you

Through the stained glass windows moonlight flashes on the choir
And splashes on the altar in glows of liquid fire
Then it bathes you with its glory and you begin life anew
And the kingdom of heaven is within you

Another St. John song, “Monkey Island,” either alludes to the “monkey on the back” of addiction or the recurring theme of nonconformism that runs through his and Hall’s material: “Well, here I am on Monkey Island, hiding behind a rock/I’m all dressed up with my monkey suit, pretending to be something I’m not.” Maybe a combination of the two.

The Elevators’ debut wraps up with “Tried to Hide,” which co-composer Sutherland actually builds atop major chords. Hall blows on the jug frenetically as his lyrics – yes, they’re about alienation again – are sung by Erickson: “You think you´re strong when you´re all restraining/You think you have when you´re only claiming/When I got near all I saw was fear/And I know that you tried to hide and you cried ´cause you lied about it.”

So … for anyone who had equated “Incense and Peppermints” or “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” with psychedelic rock, the guys who invented it obviously had a lot more depth, and a much darker side. Adjust your (doors of) perceptions accordingly.

I’d like to report that the 13th Floor Elevators went on to triumphs and successes in accord with their groundbreaking performance on their first LP. Actually, the sophomore effort, “Easter Everywhere,” is regarded in some circles as the band’s crowning achievement, and it actually charted nationally, peaking at No. 122.

Sessions for a third record, eventually released as “Bull in the Woods,” had just gotten started when the forces that be caught up with the 13th Floor Elevators.

If Austin, Texas, doesn’t seem as if it would be the most enlightened of cities well into the 21st century, think about what it must have been like in the mid-’60s. Here was a group of long-haired musicians playing strange music, obviously (except for non-user Walton) hopped up on something, and just as obviously serving as a menace to the young people of the Lone Star state. As those on the scene have stated in interviews over the decades, John Law was out to get the boys in the band, especially that singer.

Arrested for possession of a single marijuana cigarette, Roky pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to avoid a potential 10-year prison sentence. The claim had plenty of merit, as he’d already been diagnosed with schizophrenia and spent some time in a mental hospital. This time around, though, he wound up in Rusk State Hospital for the Criminally Insane, where he was surrounded by inmates who did a whole lot more than smoke pot. As the movie “You’re Gonna Miss Me” chillingly explains, Roky played guitar in a Rusk pickup band that also included a couple of murderers, one of whom molested a boy and stuffed his body into a refrigerator.

Erickson, to no one’s surprise, emerged from his experience a changed man. He returned to performing, but took the paranoid attitude of the Elevators’ lyrics to new levels. With a band called Bleib Alien – the first word is an anagram for the Bible – he started singing about monsters and horror films, eventually recording a whole (tremendous!) album on the subject.

Eventually he dropped out of music and lived in an apartment near his mother’s house, clipping coupons and answering sweepstakes mailings, as documented in “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” With the intervention of his brother, a classically trained tuba player who lives in Pittsburgh, Roky finally overcame his issues enough to restart his career.

Walton’s reminiscences served McAlester well in his documentary, providing a good bit of insight to the rise and fall of the 13th Floor Elevators. Clementine Hall also provided some commentary, but Tommy was nowhere to be found.

Stacy Sutherland may have been one hell of a guitar player, but he fought his own demons, serving time in prison on drug charges after the demise of the Elevators. On Aug. 24, 1978, he was fatally shot by his wife, Bunny.

The website www.lysergia.com contains excerpts from an interview an unnamed person conducted with Sutherland a year before his death. In it, the late guitarist talks derisively of the San Francisco scene, the supposed epicenter of psychedelia in the late ’60s:

Their culture had definitely been into drugs more so, I think at the time, and it was more advanced in senses … but it didn’t have a freshness like Texas had to it, it was more washed out. One of the things I found when I first got out there was a walk I took down to Haight Street which was supposed to be where all the “beautiful people” were at the time, but I didn’t see anything but derelicts and dope fiends running around in the streets freaked out … shot up and whatever, begging money off people, it wasn’t anything that I was looking forward to seeing, it didn’t have the freshness Texas did at the time.

The Texas scene burned out quickly, though, leaving shattered lives in its wake. Fortunately, Roky Erickson has lived to tell about it. And even better, he’s still making music, including material from the album that started it all.

“In a Silent Way” by Miles Davis (1969)

The Miles Quintet of the mid-1960s ranks among jazz’s most heralded aggregations, along with John Coltrane’s Impulse!-era quartet, the Modern Jazz Quartet and Davis’ own five-piece from a decade before.

Miles, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and the late Tony Williams jelled together playing primarily standards and hard bop, as captured on the quintet’s Plugged Nickel recordings from late 1965. But in a manner similar to other musicians of the period, Davis began to shift the emphasis toward harder-edged arrangements, integrating elements that shared structure with rock music.

The release of “Filles de Kilimanjaro” in 1968 showed Davis leaning squarely in that direction, with the compositions “Frelon Brun” and “Mademoiselle Mabry” among the early example of what later would be coined jazz-rock fusion.

As the sessions for “Filles de Kilimanjaro” gave way to those for a follow-up album, Davis began playing with some of jazz’s top names, who would go on to become fusion legends: guitarist John McLaughlin, bassist Dave Holland and keyboard players Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. McLaughlin had moved from his native England to play in Williams’ group, Lifetime, and Miles was so impressed on hearing the guitarist that he immediately invited him to record.

The results hardly pleased jazz purists, who probably had hoped Davis would stick with bop instead of progressing toward other musical forms, like Coltrane and others had done with “New Thing” free jazz. Miles’ music certainly wasn’t as atonal as the New Thing, but it hardly sounded like what he had done in the ’50s.

The “In a Silent Way” LP features one two-part composition on each side, “Shhh/Peaceful” and “In a Silent Way/It’s About That Time,” with Zawinul sharing songwriting credits with Davis on the latter. Going into the finished product was a great deal of editing by producer Teo Macero, as By Paul Tingen wrote in “The Making of In A Silent Way & Bitches Brew”:

“His influence in Miles’s music can be likened to that of George Martin with The Beatles. Macero was the one who tied the many disparate musical segments together, and edited them into a new whole, in some cases virtually recomposing the music. In A Silent Way, for instance, contained less than 27 minutes of musical material in its pre-edited form, and was cleverly looped by Macero to extend the music to 38 minutes.”

The result is a steadily paced, fascinating flow of music, opening with Zawinul’s electric piano, Corea’s organ and McLaughlin’s guitar setting an easy tone. After a few minutes, Davis plays the main theme of “Shhh,” carefully phrasing the melody on his trumpet as the other musicians continuing in a modal style, with no chord changes.

McLaughlin takes a relatively low-key solo, compared with much of his later work, starting at about the six-minute mark. As Zawinul noted in Tingen’s article: “He (Davis) told John McLaughlin to play as if he didn’t know how to play the guitar. As a result John’s playing was among the best of his career.”

Shorter then takes his turn, overlaying a continuous descending piano pattern, as Williams and Holland maintain the rhythm in an earnest but relaxed manner. McLaughlin returns for some more tasteful guitar before the main theme comes back into play.

The second composition begins with McLaughlin playing an ethereal theme backed by a sprinkling of keyboards and Holland’s droning bass. Davis joins in, playing the same somber style, until the 4:11 mark, when the full band backs a relatively fluid trumpet solo.

The dual composition, and perhaps the entire album, coalesce around 12 minutes in, when Miles blows freely over full-volume accompaniment, demonstration the vast potential for fusion. The piece ends with a reprise of the dulcet tones of the opening, with Davis fully setting the tone with his empathetic work on the horn.

“In a Silent Way” lays the groundwork for a series of Miles Davis recordings that push the envelope, eventually transcending jazz, rock, funk or whatever label you might want to place on his music. By the time he “retired” in 1975, Miles and his band were playing fully improvised shows at blaring volume, with the band leader turning his back on the audience to concentrate on creating new revelations with each performance.

Jazz, in its basic form, is supposed to be all about capturing the moment. And Miles Davis certainly answered the bell in that regard.

“The Band” by The Band (1969)


From left: Manuel, Helm, Danko, Hudson, Robertson

The cover of the Jan. 12, 1970, issue of Time magazine features an illustration of five somewhat menacing-looking men, with the heading: “The New Sound of Country Rock.”

The quintet had released its second album four months earlier, to impressive sales – it reached No. 9 on the Billboard 200 – and tremendous critical reception.

The Band’s “The Band” represented a departure from rock music to that point. The album contains a series of tuneful vignettes seemingly taken from the annals of American history. Ironically, 80 percent of The Band was Canadian, including chief composer Jamie (Robbie) Robertson.

“For the rest of the year, the press treated us like gods,” recently deceased singer and multi-instrumentalist Levon Helm recalled in his autobiography, “This Wheel’s On Fire.”

Certainly, The Band is legendary in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll, but all the attention and accolades might seem like an anomaly in retrospect.

That’s probably because the band couldn’t live up to the bar set by “The Band.” The follow-up, 1970’s “Stage Fright,” drew a good bit of praise; the next album, “Cahoots,” didn’t. Then there was veritable silence, with just a live LP and a collection of cover songs during the next four years. Then came a decent studio effort before a star-studded concert that was made into a movie brought proceedings to a halt.

Certainly, The Band’s debut, “Music from Big Pink,” still holds esteemed status 44 years after its release. But it’s the sophomore effort that stands as the crowning achievement for Robertson, Helm, the late Rick Danko, Garth Hudson and the late Richard Manuel.

The album opens with sparse musical accompaniment to Danko’s plaintive voice, the intro to “Across the Great Divide,” in which Robertson writes about an individual embarking on the great American journey toward Manifest Destiny. As the song develops into a jaunty, melodic number, the protagonist displays the type of initiative that is bound to make his countrymen proud: “I had a goal in my younger days, I nearly wrote my will/But i changed my mind for the better, I’m at the still, had my fill and I’m fit to kill.”

“Rag Mama Rag,” the song to which Time may have been referring with the “country rock” claim, takes a fun-filled approach to the eternal issue of male-female disconnect, with Helm’s assertive lead vocal a stellar match for Robertson’s lyrics: “I ask about your turtle, and you ask about the weather/Well, I can’t jump the hurdle, and you can’t get together.”

Helm summons the lamentations of a century past in his native Arkansas – he was The Band’s token American – with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Robertson actually researched the subject matter before penning a tune that could easily be mistaken for a Reconstruction period piece. As he tells it in Martin Scorcese’s “The Last Waltz”:

“When I first went down South, I remember that a quite common expression would be, ‘Well don’t worry, the South’s gonna rise again.’ At one point when I heard it I thought it was kind of a funny statement, and then I heard it another time and I was really touched by it. I thought, ‘God, because I keep hearing this, there’s pain here, there is a sadness here.’ In Americana land, it’s a kind of a beautiful sadness.”

Manuel teamed up with Robertson to write “When You Awake,” a bittersweet childhood reminiscence mixed with the travails that life eventually presents: “The snow’s gonna come and the frost gonna bite, my old car froze up last night/Ain’t no reason to hang my head, I could wake up in the morning dead.”

If you’re disturbed by reading that line and knowing that Manuel committed suicide in 1986 by hanging himself, you’re not alone.

Cheer up by listening to “Up On Cripple Creek,” in which Helm boasts of his affair with Little Bessie before returning to his “big mama” after getting tired of “living on the road.” One of the best-known songs in The Band’s repertoire, it also represents the group’s pinnacle of success in the singles market, rising to No. 25.

“Whispering Pines,” another Manuel-Robertson composition, sees Richard returning to the high-pitched, pained style of singing that became his staple with “I Shall Be Released” on “Music from Big Pink.” It also features unsettling lyrics, in the context of his life and death: “If you find me in a gloom or catch me in a dream/Inside my lonely room there is no in between.”

The tone turns upbeat again with “Jemima Surrender,” with helm hitting heavily on the title character: “I hand you my rod and you hand me that line/That’s what you do, now, we ain’t doing much fishin’ or drinkin’ any wine.”

The spare arrangement for “Rockin’ Chair” suits the subject matter, of a 73-year-old sailor who muses about sitting at home in Virginia with his friend Willie instead of dying aboard his ship.

“Look Out Cleveland” captures the mood surrounding an impending apocalyptic storm, while “Jawbone,” the final Manuel-Robertson song on the album, is the most upbeat musically of the lot. The lyrics still are on the depressing side, about a petty criminal who says he likes what he’s doing but keeps winding up in jail.

Robertson again evokes the 19th-century South in “The Unfaithful Servant,” in which the song’s narrator compares his situation involving a woman to an Antebellum affair involving a slave: “Makes no difference if we face away/It’s just as it was, it’s much too cold for me to stay.”

Closing “The Band” is another concert staple, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come),” in which a farm worker hopes for the best despite such potential obstacles as drought, fire and a union strike.

Not a bad snapshot of life in the American heartland for (mostly) a bunch of Canadians.

“Volunteers” by Jefferson Airplane (1969)

What seems relatively tame today was pushing the envelope 40-some years ago.

Such was the case with Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers,” which raised a small series of controversies with its release at the tail end of the ’60s.

The Airplane had put San Francisco on the musical map with its 1967 hit singles, “Somebody to Love” and the landmark “White Rabbit.” The latter, with its lyrics alluding to the fanciful imagery of Lewis Carroll and its connection to modern-day drug use, eventually drawing specific condemnation from Vice President Spiro T. Agnew for its supposedly detrimental influence on the youth of America. (Agnew, of course, later pleaded no contest to tax evasion and resigned, paving the way for Gerald Ford to become president without actually being elected to anything having to do with the Executive Branch.)

With “Volunteers,” the Airplane seemed to aim for being a detrimental influence, at least with regard to people of Agnew’s ilk.

First, there’s the album cover, which features the band dressed in outlandish costumes against the backdrop of a U.S. flag. Remember, that was long before the Stars and Stripes became wardrobe fare, and the image of a decidedly strange-looking rock ‘n’ roll band coupled with the Stars and Stripes tended to rub the average American the wrong way.

The back cover is highly irreverent, as well, and it’s fun to study: a sendup of a newspaper page from the fictional Paz, S.D., complete with a Question of the Day, “What Is Your Favorite Stripe on the Flag?” Again, that’s hallowed ground, but responses include Grace Slick’s “Point that thing somewhere else,” Marty Balin’s “What flag?” and Paul Kanter’s “Michoucan.”

There there are the songs, themselves. Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” is nothing short of a call to arms: “We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we, are we are/And we are very proud of ourselves,” which leads into the epic line “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” the first time that particular word appeared on record. Slick’s “Eskimo Blue Day” violates another taboo with “Doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”

The Airplane’s record company, not surprisingly, wasn’t overjoyed.

“RCA felt that some retail chains might boycott the album for any of the above reasons, to which the Airplane responded that record stores like that sucked anyway, so who cares?” Jeff Tamarkin wrote in “Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.”

Whatever the case, the album sold briskly after its November 1969 release, staying on the Billboard chart for 44 weeks. Record buyers seemed to agree with reviewer Ed Leimbacher, who wrote for Ramparts: “In terms of sheer music, ‘Volunteers’ is the greatest Airplane album yet; they may have taken off four years ago, but they didn’t reach the stratosphere till now.”

The theme set by the album cover and the opening track, “We Can Be Together,” seems to peg “Volunteers” as some kind of countercultural rant. But the songs display a remarkable amount of diversity, touching on the band’s folk roots (“Good Shepherd,” “Turn My Life Down” and “Wooden Ships”), country-rock (“The Farm” and “A Song for All Seasons”) and even proto-metal (“Eskimo Blue Day” and Hey Fredrick”).

Kantner built “We Can Be Together” and the song “Volunteers” on the same banjo-derived riff, which works particularly well with the latter. Balin had his only co-composer credits of the album on “Volunteers,” and RCA released it as a single. It peaked at only No. 65 but remained a favorite focal point for late-’60s nostalgia, even making it to the soundtrack for the Academy Award-winning “Forrest Gump.”

“Good Shepherd” has its roots in a 19th-century hymn and later was transformed into a Southern spiritual, as recorded by ethnomusicologists John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s. Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen learned the basic tune as “Blood-Stained Banders,” and his arrangement for “Volunteers” combines his finger-style acoustic guitar with the fuzztone of his electric Epiphone for “a psychedelic folk-rock song,” as Jorma has described it. The tune has remained a staple of his work with Hot Tuna ever since, as well as a highlight of the 1999 album “Love Will See You Through” by Phil Lesh and Friends, featuring Kaukonen dueling with virtuoso guitarist Steve Kimock on a lengthy rendition.

“The Farm” might be Kantner’s answer to Canned Heat’s cover of Henry Thomas’ “Bull Doze Blues” that the band rewrote as “Goin’ Up the Country.” At any rate, it reflects the sentiment of plenty of San Francisco musicians who moved to rural Marin County after city life became more than a bit tense. Jerry Garcia’s lively pedal-steel guitar contributes greatly to the motif.

Slick had been writing purposefully obtuse lyrics since “White Rabbit,” and “Hey Fredrick” fits right into that category: “There you sit, mouth wide open, animals living by your side/On wire wheels, the four-stroke man opens wide.” As she explains in her autobiography (with Andrea Cagan), “Somebody to Love?”:

“My inability to successfully mainstream anything hasn’t bothered me much, but had I achieved mega-mainstream success it would have been an interesting test of the distorted pride I seem to take in my idiosyncratic behavior.”

What sets “Fredrick” – named for the band’s code word for intercourse – apart from other Slick compositions is the heavy jam into which it develops. Kaukonen, bass player Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and guest pianist Nicky Hopkins take over following Slick’s last words around the 3:20 mark and deliver nearly six minutes of what was as close to heavy metal as anyone was getting in 1969.

The tone lightens up quite a bit for Kaukonen’s “Turn My Life Down,” which Balin sings. The arrangement guest stars Steven Stills on Hammond organ and the vocal group Ace of Cups – Mary Gannon, Marilyn Hunt, Diane Hursh and Denise Jewkes – providing pleasant background.

Having called his generation to revolution, Kantner ponders the aftermath in “Wooden Ships,” which he wrote with Stills and David Crosby. Those who know the song best from Crosby, Stills and Nash’s debut album, and its inclusion by that band in a prominent place in Michael Wadleigh’s “Woodstock,” might notice that Kantner isn’t part of that version’s credits; apparently, it wasn’t cool to have an RCA artist’s name appear on an Atlantic Records album.

At any rate, “Wooden Ships” describes a world possibly following World War III, in which the few survivors poignantly ask, “Can you tell me, please, who won?” It doesn’t much matter, as the scenario starts to echo Stanley Kramer’s “On the Beach”: “Horror grips us as we watch you die/All we can do is echo your anguished cries.”

Studio rehearsals for “Wooden Ships” had the Airplane segueing into “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues,” a song that the late Alexander “Skip” Spence wrote when he was the band’s drummer, before moving on to help found Moby Grape. Jefferson Airplane had recorded a version of the song in 1966, but it went unreleased until the 1974 odds-and-ends compilation “Early Flight.”

Slick addresses the plight of humanity on a more roundabout way on “Eskimo Blue Day,” with her ultimate assessment expressed with the previously mentioned scatological flourish. The instrumentation again features Kaukonen, Casady, Hopkins and Dryden turning it up near 11, with Grace adding touches of recorder in strategic places.

Prior to “A Song for All Seasons,” Dryden’s Airplane compositions had been Zappaesque sound collages, including the unreleased-for-decades “Saga of Sydney Spacehog.” His “A Song for All Seasons” sounds kind of like what the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers were playing at the time, a jaunty, country-flavored romp about the travails of a rock band: “I heard your manager skipped town with all your pay/And your lead singer’s bulge turns the sensors gray.”

A brief, somewhat bizarre rendition of the Soviet Army theme “Meadowlands” leads into “Volunteers,” which closes the ’60s with the key line: “One generation got old/One generation got soul/This generation’s got no destination to hold.” While those lyrics seem to be inextricably tied to the sentiments expressed on “We Can Be Together,” they certainly are applicable to the teens and twentysomethings of 2012.

“Volunteers” not only closes the ’60s, it closes Jefferson Airplane’s so-called “classic” era. “A Song for All Seasons” kind of hinted at the state of the band at the time, as subsequent events revealed.

Dryden and Slick had been a couple through early 1969, when she switched her affections to Kantner. Meanwhile, Kaukonen and Casady, who had played music together off and on for more than a decade, had started concentrating more fully on their side project, Hot Tuna.

As for Balin, who co-founded the band in 1965 with Kantner, his compositions hadn’t been central to an Airplane album since its second effort, “Surrealistic Pillow,” which was recorded all the way back in ’66.

Inner struggles combined with external forces just weeks after the release of “Volunteers.” On Dec. 6, 1969, “more than 300,000 souls found their way to one of the most desolate, depressing locations in the state of California to witness one of rock’s darkest moments,” Tamarkin wrote.

The occasion came to be known to the world as Altamont, during which a black concert attendee, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death in front of the stage by Hell’s Angels as the Rolling Stones played “Under My Thumb.”

Jefferson Airplane was one of the bands that opened for the Stones at their notoriously ill-planned free concert in the California desert. As Dryden recalled:

“It was just a horrible, pink-sky Hieronymus Bosch dustbin, not a tree in sight, just a hellhole. It was the beginning of the end. No, not the beginning. It was the end.”

Dryden had a great seat for “the end.” He was drumming during the Airplane’s obligatory cover of Fred Neil’s “The Other Side of This Life” when:

“The band stopped playing momentarily,” Tamarkin wrote, “shaken by the brutality. Spencer, Jorma and Jack returned to riffing absentmindedly, one eye on the chaos offstage and another on their fellow musicians. Paul stood at the lip of the stage, his guitar dangling as he surveyed the weirdness.

“Then a scream came from below. Marty, standing a second ago at center stage peering at the melee intently, leaped from his perch, disappearing into the thick of the crowd. More movement followed, but there was still no sign of Marty. He had been knocked out cold.”

The scene was captured for posterity in the film “Gimme Shelter” by David and Albert Maysles, and Charlotte Zwerin, culminating with Slick imploring the crowd in a shaky voice, “Let’s not keep fucking up!”

Dryden didn’t play too many more shows with Jefferson Airplane, departing in January 1970. Balin hung around until October, when he decided not to perform at a concert following the death of his friend Janis Joplin.

The band struggled through two more studio albums and a decent live set documenting its final days. Then came Jefferson Starship, then Starship, a story as convoluted as it is depressing.

Those later aggregations may have tarnished the reputation of the “classic” Airplane. A listen to “Volunteers,” though, shows it to be not a relic of its era, but an examination of topics that continue to hold relevance more than four decades later.