Secret Histories of America
I was a true child of the 80s. I have very few memories that go back before 1980. In fact, one of my earlier memories can be definitively dated to the summer of 1980, as it is of vacationing with some family friends — true East-coast liberal elites — and overhearing them talking with my parents about how they couldn’t believe that Americans would possibly elect a know-nothing actor with retrograde right-wing views, but were kind of worried because the Democratic candidate was weak.
The popular music of the 80s was made exclusively by people who used too much product on their hair and too much electronic processing on their instruments. One the one hand, Top 40 hits were all made with synthesizers and drum machines, and on the other hand you had heavy metal guys whose guitars looked like lightning bolts and went through a battery of effects pedals: distortion, delay, compression, EQ.
The first concert I went to was when I was twelve, and I convinced my father to take me to Kemper Arena in Kansas City to see Nightranger, on a double-bill with Starship. I was pretty indifferent to Starship, but one of my father’s co-workers, who was a few years younger than him, heard that he was going to see Starship and insisted on lending him a bunch of old Jefferson Airplane records.
This blew my 12-year-old mind.
These were the classic Jefferson Airplane records, Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter’s, Volunteers. The guitars were raw, distorted from overloading vacuum tubes, not digital processing. Lots of the songs didn’t have identifiable verses and choruses. There were soft, haunting folk songs with just acoustic guitars and recorders, and weird aggressive sound collages. The drums were uneven and the voices were wails and shrieks as much as they were singing.
And the lyrics — “Up against the wall, motherfucker!”
It was weird, it was defiant, and it made me want to grow my hair long and take up the electric guitar (both of which I did, years later).
I wanted to know more but this was, of course, before the Internet, so I couldn’t look up the band on wikipedia. And because this was before the Internet, I didn’t have the protective coat of irony and snark that would have reminded me that these were just a bunch of dirty, smelly hippies.
There was no wikipedia, but there were liner notes. The fourth record my dad’s friend loaned us was a double-LP compilation called “Flight Log,” and it included, as its liner notes, a detailed history of the band, written by Rolling Stone writer Patrick Snyder. And of course any history of the Jefferson Airplane is also a history of the counterculture in San Francisco, and therefore really a history of the 60s. And this, to a kid growing up in the conformist 80s, was what really gave the music its power — that it was not just wild, it was utopian, it was revolutionary.
The rock critic Greil Marcus, in his book Lipstick Traces, writes about a “secret history” of utopian impulses, one that he traces from the Brethren of the Free Spirit in medieval Europe through the Ranters of the English revolution, the dadaists and the situationists and punk rock and the Berkeley Free Speech Movement.
For me, although I now have a more nuanced view of their artistic achievements, the Jefferson Airplane will always be my first, and most intense, connection to a secret history of America, to a voice that says yes, you can demand everything, you can demand liberation, we can be together, we can tear down the walls.