Revolution Sold Separately


Sometimes the Gods of Sync arrange things so deeper, more subtle truths can make themselves known. It takes time and patience to sort through what these truths may be. Maybe we aren't meant to know these truths on a literal level, but then again the Gods of Sync never seem to lose any sleep worrying about trifles like literalism.




Friday seemed to be one of those days when those gods arrange things in such a fashion as to unveil deeper mysteries. 

Aside from the ongoing trainwreck in the nation's capital-- in which the festering sores of the 1960s continued to metastasize into melanomas that will soon destroy this country-- Friday also bore witness to the passing of Marty Balin, lead singer of Jefferson Airplane and founder of the San Francisco acid rock scene, as well as the long awaited release of a box set of solo material from Clash lead singer Joe Strummer, who passed away shortly before Christmas in 2002.

All three seem intimately connected to me in an important way. The Clash in many ways seemed to me not to be the reincarnation of the Rolling Stones as many fans and critics claimed but the bastard stepchildren of Jefferson Airplane. 

Both epitomized the scenes they emerged from, both mindlessly and hypocritically preached radical politics and both were manned to the absolute brim with scions of the National Security State.




And appropriately (if not inevitably), one of Marty Balin's greatest compositions for Jefferson Airplane was featured in the first Stranger Things series (ie,. the one that doesn't suck), which as pure chance would have it also uses a Clash song as a central plot device. 

Go figure.

And as the Gods of Sync would dictate, The Clash lifted the pounding intro of "She Has Funny Cars" literally note-for-note (they were nothing if not inveterate thieves) in their live reworkings of "The Guns of Brixton" for their 1982 tour. 

This recording was made of "Brixton" in the same time period so many people in Washington have been so fixated on these past few weeks.



Marty Balin the driving force in the Jefferson Airplane and the band's first two albums are largely centered on his songs and vocals. This is especially true for Surrealistic Pillow, for my money the definitive album from the late 60s San Francisco scene. 

It features the group's only hit singles--albeit sung by then-new vocalist Grace Slick, formerly known as high society debutante Grace Barnet Wing. But one of those was written by her soon-to-be ex-husband and the other is essentially "Bolero" with lyrics taken from Carroll. But the best songs on the album are Marty's showcases.

It also seems Marty Balin also single-handedly earns the credit and/or blame for the San Francisco music scene when he opened The Matrix night club with borrowed seed money. 

The story goes that Marty was inspired by Dylan going electric to mix folk with rock but none of the local clubs would book rock music. So he created his own space and nearly every major psychedelic band played there.

The Jefferson Airplane came about through a partnership between Balin and Paul Kantner, a military brat who'd attended an elite military academy for high school. They were later joined by Jorma Kaukonen, whose family had traveled the world when he was young because his father had worked for the State Department. 

Bassist Jack Casady was originally from Washington but I'm not sure what his family were involved with on account of not having my copy of Weird Scenes Inside the Canyon handy at the moment.




Whatever role Balin may had played in both the establishment of Jefferson Airplane and a club for them to play in didn't do him much good after the success of Surrealistic Pillow, however. Balin wisely sat the sessions when the band recorded After Bathing at Baxter's, an acid-fueled mess that's essentially unplayable now.

But the band was already splintering into factions. Kantner and Kaukonen were wresting control of the Airplane from its founder and moving the band towards a darker, heavier and more explicitly political direction. Balin's melodicism was on the shit-list (particularly with Kaukonen) and band members refused to work on his songs. He eventually became a background singer in his own band.

A great example of this process in action is the album Volunteers; Balin's only songwriting composition is on the two minute title track which closes out the album. The song uses the riff from Kantner's typically clunky, typically pedantic opener, "We Can Be Together," but is in an entirely separate galaxy. 

And so, after two sides of charming but staggeringly inept pseudo-songs, "Volunteers" cuts through the entire record like a laser cannon. 

Neither Kantner nor Kaukonen could ever hold a tune in a bucket and Slick's shrill harpy routine had already gone stale, so it's left to Balin to demonstrate what a real singer can do with real songs in this band.




But Balin seemed to suffer for the sins of the San Francisco psychedelic scene. 

He'd been sidelined in his own band, Bill Graham had taken control of the club circuit (and the Airplane itself, until Slick demanded he be fired), and to make matters worse, he got knocked unconscious on camera at the Altamount Speedway when he tried to stop Hell's Angels pledges from beating on his fans with billiard cues.

The Airplane preached revolution in a way uncannily similar to today's hyper-privileged Fauxcialists and Fauxmmunists. However, they were not only largely born and bred in the belly of the Imperial beast, they also became a pack of greedy, narcissistic, hypocritical, coke-head assholes working for what was then the largest record corporation in America. Which is exactly why Balin said he quit the band in 1970.


They'd also take votes every night on who got to fuck Grace Slick until she hooked up with drummer Spencer Dryden then Kantner, with whom she would form Jefferson Starship. So I guess you call them polyamory pioneers.




Jefferson Starship failed to trouble the singles charts until Balin joined as a full-time member for Red Octopus in 1975. With Kaukonen and Casady playing in blues rock also-rans Hot Tuna, Balin served up a string of hits with Jefferson Starship, three of which made the Top 10 and all of which have become standards in the 70s rock canon. 

Balin would later express his frustration when one of hits was played on the radio and the DJ said something to the effect of "there's Grace Slick and Jefferson Starship." But Slick had become a raging alcoholic by this point and drove Balin to quit again in 1978 after Slick had a meltdown during a concert aired on German television. 

Worse, Balin's last (and IMO, best) single with the Starship, the epic "Light the Sky on Fire" failed to hit the Top 40, probably due to its association with the surrealistically terrible Star Wars Holiday Special.




And we all know what happened next. 

Balin was replaced by session vocalist Mickey Thomas and Jefferson Starship morphed into a generic arena rock band before morphing again into the loathsome Starship after Paul Kantner bailed out. We built this shitty and all the rest of it.

Funny story: I was working for the real-life Tony Soprano (long story) in this restaurant when that song was premiered by Scott Muni on WNEW-FM. I couldn't believe how insanely awful it was and I was certain it would die the death post-haste.

I was younger then and had so much to learn.

Jefferson Airplane would briefly reform in the late 80s and make a terrible album before splitting again. Kantner would later reform Jefferson Starship and both it and Mickey Thomas' Starship would tour at each other for the next several years, causing fans to wonder which version of Starship they didn't want to go see vs. which version of Starship they really didn't want to go see.

Jefferson Starship is still out there, believe it or not, with only octogenarian David Freiberg left from any version of the original bands. But damn if that little old guy can't still belt it out. I mean, holy shit already.


JUST GIMME THAT OLD-TIME ROCK 'N' ROLL




With the nation's attention riveted on the summer of 1982 of late, it's worth noting that The Clash's best-selling album, the staggeringly-unlistenable Combat Rock, was combat-rockin' the nations airwaves at that very same time. 

Combat Rock was made while the original lineup was running on fumes, largely due to drummer Topper Headon's crippling heroin habit and the ongoing war over musical direction between Joe Strummer and bassist Paul Simonon (who wanted to move the sound towards a rowdy mix of rockabilly and dub reggae) and Mick Jones (who'd become obsessed with the nascent Hip Hop scene). 

Unfortunately, decent songs seemed to be the collateral damage of this internecine war, with a couple notable exceptions. But even those sounded like someone had drugged the band with twilight sleep during the recording sessions. 

It was astonishing to hear how much The Clash had devolved in just five years, going from paint-stripping punk howlers to feeble two-chord flonks that had all the rock 'n' roll firepower of a cheese fart.

I can't think of another band who so quickly subverted everything they claimed to stand for so quickly or sounded so radically different on record than they did on stage. If you can, let me know in the comments.



The Clash had made their bones as a more cathartic alternative to The Sex Pistols, as well as a band steeped in radical left-wing politics. Of course, that was a complete farce because you couldn't fill a condom with what this band actually knew about left wing politics. Strummer actually did some reading but by and large the band's primary immersion in politics came via the Marx for Beginners comic book their manager made them read.

And like Jefferson Airplane, The Clash seemed hellbent on practicing the violently-extreme opposite of what they were preaching. 

I won't bore you with the details but they may have single-handedly redefined the art of hypocrisy. I mean, you could fill a commuter train with all over the people they gleefully screwed over. 

OK, maybe a Greyhound bus. But still, anyone who tells you different hasn't a clue what they're talking about.

Still, The Clash's early look and sound set the template for the hardcore punk scene that arose in their wake. So depending on where you stand on the issue, you can credit or blame them for that too.



Like the Pistols, The Clash arose in reaction not so much against prog (which was already in retreat by then) but the dreary nostalgia of the pub rock scene and the 50s revivalism of the Teddy Boys, who were tough working-class greasers obsessed with old time rock 'n roll. Of course, Joe Strummer had originally been in a well-regarded pub rock band and his heart belonged to the same era as the Teds, but who's counting, right? 

The moral of the story is that as soon their second album tanked on the US charts, The Clash started looking and dressing like Sha Na Na and made what is probably the definitive pub-rock album, London Calling (1980).

All revolutions inevitably become what they set out to depose.

SPIES LIKE US




Like the Airplane, The Clash burst - literally - from the womb of the National Security State. 

Joe Strummer was born in Ankara and lived all over the world as a boy until he was sent to a private boarding school. Why? Well, contrary to "Bankrobber" Joe Strummer's father was a bonafide spy on Her Majesty's Secret Service. 

Mick Jones' father worked for Special Branch, which is a euphemism for saying he was an intelligence officer. Paul Simonon's father went from the military straight into running a Communist bookstore and going on mysterious business trips without telling his family where he was off to. Do the math.

Ironically, Jones was very much a Marty Balin analog for The Clash and was fired from the band in 1983. The ordinarily-amiable Jones has had a lot of musicians decide they couldn't work with him over the years, but this particular ejection ultimately came down to his unwillingness to continue touring Combat Rock, which not only cost the band momentum but also hundreds of thousands- if not millions- of dollars/pounds.

Note: When bands break up, fire members or members leave, more often than not the motivation is/was financial. Junkies are a hassle anyway but they're especially a hassle when you want to tour overseas. Sting quit The Police because someone figured he could make the same money without having to split it with two other guys. As soon as the solo income dried up, The Police were back in business.

Jones' last gig with the band was at the 1983 Us Festival in which The Clash made a huge stink about the promoters (including Apple Computer cofounder Steve Wozniak) failing to contribute proceeds to charity. 

Which prompted a number of journalists to ask why The Clash weren't contributing any proceeds of the $500,000 they were paid for a 70-minute set to charity themselves.

Do as we say, not as we do every minute of every day-- the eternal battlecry of the armchair radical.

BIPOLAR BEAR

Joe Strummer was also bipolar or manic-depressive or what you choose to classify him as nowadays. His brother apparently was as well and committed suicide in public when he was 19. 

When I saw them with the "new" Clash, I didn't realize at the time that he was in the midst of a furious manic phase. And I certainly didn't realize he'd soon crash into a very long and very painful depression. (But still, fucking astonishing performances. Best he's ever given IMO. Maybe the best I've ever seen anyone give).



Again, I won't bore you with the details but his post-Clash work seemed to mirror this and he didn't seem to emerge from the pit until the late 90s when he formed The Mescaleros, which I still swear he modeled on The Grateful Dead. It's a long story.





This video is very dear to my heart-- it was played only because I'd heard it earlier in this week-long run of shows in Brooklyn and yelled for it the entire concert until he reluctantly played it. It captures the force of his shamanic powers just months before his death. And his crack band sound more like The Wailers here anyone has since the actual Wailers.

Bonus factoid: That video was shot the day Layne Staley died. Talk about your omens already.

Other bonus factoid: Those lyrics are almost entirely improvised.


BOOMER X

Strummer was never a punk, never actually believed in Punk. He was an old-school Hippie hellraiser, born smack dab in the middle of the Baby Boom. 

Punk and its entrails were really the property of what I call the Boomer X, or the X-Boomers. I just coined the term earlier today so I haven't decided what works best.

Boomer X is that cohort that was born in the late 50s and early 60s and really began to tear away from what call Boomer Prime (well, I call them that now- I just coined that phrase too). Boomer X were the generation who came of age in the miserable mid-70s, when it was painfully clear that the party was over and the bills were overdue. 


Punk and it's appendages wouldn't really take flight until Generation X came into its own, but the Boomer X subclade were the ones who started furrowing the fields. 


Joe Strummer was a lot older than most of the other bands and scenesters of British Punk. He was 23 when he joined The Clash, an age which no less a luminary than Sex Pistol Glen Matlock thought was not only suspect but possibly counterrevolutionary. It's part of his tragedy. His eclecticism seems less to me like creative adventurism than a basic uncertainty of who he was and what he actually did best. 


EPILOGUE: THIS EVIL, EVIL WORLD

Strummer himself died in late 2002 because of what was reported as a faulty heart valve. 

But it turns out that that valve probably went as a result of a lifetime of serious drug and alcohol abuse, as well as some very hard years due to the depression. But Joe went out on a high note, having enjoyed moderate success with the Mescaleros and also having enjoyed the high echelon of the rock establishment welcome him back into the fold.

Marty Balin?
The lead singer of Jefferson Airplane lost half his tongue and his thumb and suffered a paralyzed vocal chord when doctors at a Manhattan hospital botched his heart-surgery recovery, he charges in a lawsuit. 
Marty Balin, who co-founded the pioneering 1960s psychedelic rock band and wrote such songs as �Comin� Back to Me� and �Plastic Fantastic Lover,� was in New York City to promote his new solo album, �The Greatest Love,� with a performance at The Cutting Room in Midtown on March 12, 2016. 
But a day before the show, the rocker, then 74, was rushed into the emergency room at Mount Sinai Beth Israel with chest pains, according to his lawsuit filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court.  
Doctors at the First Avenue hospital performed open-heart surgery, a triple bypass and a valve replacement. Balin came out fine but required recovery in the intensive-care unit.

Susan Balin repeatedly complained to hospital staff about the singer�s care, including that his thumb was turning blue from an intravenous line that was improperly placed and not monitored, Jaroslawicz said. 
Necrosis set in, resulting in Balin losing his thumb.

The suit said Balin, who also suffered from bedsores and kidney damage, now can�t eat or speak properly. He requires dialysis and can no longer �care for his special-needs daughter� who has spina bifida.

There is no justice in this world. I hate you, Demiurge.


POSTSCRIPT: Balin's Airplane cofounders Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson died on the exact same day.


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