David Hoppe

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:: Jefferson Airplane

loud and clear

by David Hoppe

I was digging into one of my favorite meals — a hamburger at Casey’s Bar and Grill in New Buffalo, Michigan. Casey’s is high-ceilinged, with dark wood paneling on the walls. Over the 20 or so years I’ve been coming here, not much has changed.

Classic rock was playing predictably in the background. Jimmy Buffet ruefully admitting it was his own fault; Billy Joel’s piano man making like a martyr.

Then something unexpected happened. The hard strumming of an electric guitar and a brace of voices singing out: “Look what’s happening out in the street/gotta revolution, got to revolution…”

This was Jefferson Airplane, circa 1969, letting rip with their proto-punk anthem, “Volunteers.” The Airplane played “Volunteers” at Woodstock, then released it on an album of the same name that Fall.

It’s a brief, fiery blast, designed to get you on your feet, dancing and shaking your fists. The chorus proclaims: “We are volunteers of America!”

You don’t hear Jefferson Airplane much these days. A little “White Rabbit,” a little “Somebody to Love” — that’s about it. But in ’69 the Airplane was hugely influential, a band known for adventurous albums, powerful live performances and unabashed countercultural cheerleading. As belted out in “Volunteers,” this amounted to, “one generation got old, one generation got soul.”

It was a (very) brief and heady time. There was a war on in Vietnam, riots in cities here at home. Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were murdered; Richard Nixon was elected president. The Black Panthers took up arms and Timothy Leary told white kids to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

It was a moment when the personal and political were ground together and the Airplane was in the thick of it all, sending six-string dispatches.

Hearing them again at Casey’s, they sounded relevant as ever.

Even if the generations being sung about in “Volunteers” have shifted, and the ones who once fancied themselves “marching to the sea,” are now the ones who got old, the song still packs a wallop.

When the Airplane recorded “Volunteers,” people didn’t talk about an American “homeland” or use a belief in national “exceptionalism” as a kind of litmus test for public office. There weren’t nearly as many gadgets available for mediating one’s contact with the outside world in the name of being “connected.”

No one talked about “income inequality.” The Airplane’s version of revolution was mounted on a platform created by a robust middle class with a firstrate system of public education. Looking back, it’s hard not to conclude that what some people hated about the ‘60s was that it made too many of us too prosperous and too thoughtful.

Jefferson Airplane’s generation got old, alright. But this hasn’t dampened the urgency of what they sang about. That story began long before the ‘60s, on plantations and in sweatshops. Now we find it costumed as climate change, drone attacks and corporate globalization.

“Look what’s happenin’ out in the streets…” The chords rang out at Casey’s Bar and Grill. America still needs its volunteers.