TAKE ME TO A CIRCUS TENT:
Reviewed by Joy
It was forty years ago, and it was yesterday. Jefferson Airplane was singing songs that questioned the way most Westerners lived, and doing it with electronic harmonies that dared to express new dreams and new ideals. Today the ideals haven’t died, they’ve just been buried for a while. For those of us who were there, listening today to the songs of Jefferson Airplane brings back that call for freedom, love, and invention – still a vision of a better future.
TAKE ME TO A CIRCUS TENT is the closest thing I have ever seen to an encyclopedia of a rock ‘n’ roll group. The question asked in just about every comment I’ve seen about this book comes down to, “How could anybody know so much about a rock group?” Over a period of decades, author Craig Fenton has collected every Jefferson Airplane item he came across with omnivorous intensity. The result is a book the size of a magazine and an inch thick. Set lists, previously unpublished photographs, half the book full of interviews, this is a treasure trove for the obsessed and page after page of discoveries for the rest of us.
Craig Fenton made the choice to leave out of his book everything but the music. Personalities, peccadilloes, and nosy-parkering, he considers, distract us from what is important. We don’t get to know the people until the second half of the book, where all the interviews are. The first half is lists: lists of songs performed, how long they were included in the shows, what was unique about a particular performance, who played in the band and when. Dominating most of the first half of the book is the most complete Jefferson Airplane set listing ever compiled. Did you see an Airplane concert somewhere during a certain time period? Memory a little fuzzy on what they played? Here it is, for almost every date.
The second half of the book is interviews with people from Marty Balin and Paul Kantner to a short-term guitar player. We hear from a broad range of people connected with the band about how they created their sound, what their record companies had to say about it, what temporary members brought to the band, and what happened to them later. The interviews are so many and interesting that you have to be looking for them to notice that Grace Slick and Jorma Kaukonen haven’t contributed. There is a sweet, moving interview with Signe Anderson, whose decision to raise a family left the empty space filled by Grace Slick. There is a long, far-ranging interview with Marty Balin, the Airplane’s founder. Grace’s first husband Jerry Slick and Jorma’s brother Peter Kaukonen both talked with Fenton. Some interviewees air their hurt feelings, others their admiration for each other. We learn how much a musician can be willing to give up to give his life to his music.
Once I got a look at the size of TAKE ME TO A CIRCUS TENT, I thought I would page through it, see what it contained and how it could be used, and give you a map. I found myself reading the entire book: lists with commentary, schedules, with events deliberately depersonalized. Why? I loved the concerts that played in my head as I read the old titles.
You may have gotten the idea by now that TAKE ME TO A CIRCUS TENT is for nostalgic fans and music historians. I would agree. When I first opened the package and saw that oh-so-familiar picture on the front, I picked it up and hugged it. A music historian’s reaction would probably be less dramatic – it would probably be a salute to a group of talented musicians who stretched their limits and therefore ours.
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