Friday, March 25, 2016

Hippies vs. Punks: After Bathing at Baxter's (1967)

After Bathing at Baxter's, released at the end of the revolutionary psychedelic year of 1967, is Jefferson Airplane code for tripping on acid. The album, I think, provides the best example of the what the Hippies, birthed as they were in the San Francisco Bay Area, were all about.

For an accurate, succinct appraisal let's turn to "The 40 Essential Albums of 1967" by Robert Christgau and David Fricke:
Jefferson Airplane: After Bathing at Baxter's (RCA)
Singer Marty Balin was so alienated by the acid-fueled indulgence of the sessions for the Airplane's third album -- four months in Los Angeles, where the band stayed in a mansion that once housed the Beatles -- that he co-wrote only one song, "Young Girl Sunday Blues." Yet Baxter's was the Airplane at their most defiantly psychedelic, exploring outer limits of despair and song form in the dark urgency of "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil," Grace Slick's "Rejoyce" -- a protest-cabaret adaptation of James Joyce's Ulysses -- and the nine-minute instrumental improvisation, "Spare Chaynge." The raw challenge of Baxter's was also a requiem for the Day-Glo life promised a few months earlier by the Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow. In the closing medley, "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon," Paul Kantner looked back in longing at the Human Be-In of January '67, a new dawn that already seemed a lifetime ago.
Nineteen sixty-seven is the year the United States starts its slide into freak out. The year opens with the January release of the eponymous debut by The Doors, which implores people to "Break on Through (To the Other Side)" in its opening track, followed in February by Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow, before Sgt. Pepper's arrives in June. During 1967 the Beatles release not one but two psychedelic albums, Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour; as do The Doors, The Doors and Strange Days. The Jimi Hendrix Experience adds to the cerebral onslaught with two of its own, Are You Experienced?, released in August. and Axis: Bold as Love, in December. Not to be left out, The Who and the Rolling Stones get into the mix with psychedelic releases of their own: Their Satanic Majesties Request, The Rolling Stones' psychedelic one-off, and The Who's brilliant The Who Sell Out.

By the end of 1967 the U.S. body politic is roiling and primed for the "crack in time" to come in 1968. Nineteen sixty-seven began with the arrival of the counterculture as a political force. The event was the Human Be-In, the founding moment for the Hippie. Peace, love, self-exploration and rock 'n' roll were its high points. But by the time the year had run its course -- huge race riots in Newark and Detroit and the first massive march on the Pentagon to call for a halt to the Vietnam War -- the Hippies were mindful that "breaking through to the other side" was going to be a messy business.

A year or two back I did a week-long immersion in After Bathing at Baxter's, the idea being that it would be the subject of a Hippies vs. Punks post.

One winter afternoon I descended to the large file room on the first floor of the building where I worked. There, after eating an apple and CLIF Builders Protein Bar, I nestled myself in the stacks and flat on my back on the carpeted floor drifted off to a state of quasi-consciousness while listening to After Bathing at Baxter's on my iPod. The lights to the file room were set to a motion detector. So after 15 minutes they blinked off and it was as if I were in a John Lilly sensory-deprivation tank.

It must have been Paul Kantner's "Martha" that I was listening to. I heard the song's concluding lines -- "There she'll be: in green sun, on blue earth under warm running shower" -- and it all came back to me: My childhood growing up in the Bay Area in the Sixties and Seventies. The weekend family outings and nature getaways. The green space and wetlands. Cattails. An intimate up-close tactile memory of cattails. Who interacts with cattails anymore? I certainly don't. But there I was on my back in the dark file room with my face in a cattail smeared with duck down set against a background of cool blue sky.

I figured what had happened is that I had accessed a buried memory of After Bathing at Baxter's. I don't think my parents owned I copy. I think my parents' best friends, the Bruscas, did. Our family would often go over to the Brusca family manse, a restored Victorian, on Friday nights and while the kids played Monopoly and watched horror movies on television the adults would smoke dope and listen to the stereo in the living with a big fireplace. This is where I am certain I must have been exposed to After Bathing at Baxter's because I remember being mesmerized by Ron Cobb's cover art. The Bruscas were the family we went with on camping trips -- to the beach, to various area parks and trails.

When I think about the Hippies I think about the vast San Francisco Estuary. I don't think you have the Hippies without the sense of the ecology of this gigantic wetlands; that, and a platform of shared prosperity and social democracy that Pat Brown liberalism realized in Northern California.

The Hippies were weekenders retreating from the workaday world. They thought it would be a good idea to make the weekend retreat an everyday reality. I agree wholeheartedly. It is. If you want to hear what that idea feels like listen to After Bathing at Baxter's. particularly the last track, Kantner's elegy for the Human Be-In, "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon":


Apologies. I promised a hypothesis explaining our current hopelessness. Maybe next week. We'll stay on 1967. Get ready for The Monkees!

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