the BILL THOMPSON interview
'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' (RCA 61110), released in 1992 as a 220 minute, 51-track, three CD boxed set complete with a truly outstanding booklet of information, photographs, ephemera and memoirs, was one of the single most important releases to lovers of vintage US West Coast psychedelia, Airplane style, for going on twenty years. The sound quality, thanks largely to digital remastering, is bordering on the faultless and the presentation overall leaves little to be desired, with the minor carp that because it's on CD everything's so damned small, digitalised down to pocketbook format when truly some of the graphics on display deserve to be coffee-table sized at the very least. There's almost a hundred photographs included in the accompanying booklet, many in colour and many seen for the first time anywhere, and the interviews - with all the key members of the band - are informative, eminently readable and truly evocative of the times. Best of all however has to be the 23 unreleased recordings included in the set, which coupled with the six 'rarities' and 22 remasterings of old favourites make for a collection which is at once outstanding and mind-blowing - a salutary lesson in fact in how to really pay tribute to a band which fed the minds and scorched the ears of an entire generation.
The nearest thing to a precursor for Airplane fans was 1974's 'Early Flight' album, which similarly presented much previously unheard (except maybe by the real die-hard fans) material - although of course without the benefit of aural clarification that the CD revolution has brought about. A later collection entitled '2400 Fulton Street' fell down on several counts, not least because it was presented in such a way as to give no clue of the band's natural progression from folk-song interpreters to amplified acid space cadets. And it is here that 'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' differs from almost any similar collection that has gone before it. Not only does the set contain surprises for a self-confessed Jefferson Airplane fan such as myself; the uninitiated, or perhaps those who have owned and loved just one or two of their records down the years, gain a true appreciation of what the band really sounded like and how they evolved.
Most in-depth analyses of the set - notably that in the Bible of all Airplane fans, Bill Parry's excellent 'Holding Together' fanzine, have concentrated on the fact that the person most responsible for the way 'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' appears and was finally released is project producer Paul Williams - indeed, a lengthy interview with Paul appears in 'Holding Together' issue 16, should you want another angle - and moreover a deeper one - on the story that unfolds below. We had the chance however to talk to Bill Thompson, the Airplane's manager, chief steward, flight controller, call it what you like, throughout their heyday and a name which should be familiar to you all, not least because of the series of interviews with former Jefferson Airplane members that we've been running in the Terrascope over the last few issues. It was Bill Thompson who first got 'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' off the ground as a concept and despite the fact that he had misplaced ambitions initially to present it as a 'live' disc, a 'rarities' disc and a 'hits' disc rather as '2400 Fulton Street' had been delivered, he is to be applauded for having the drive to bump-start the project into gear and away down the runway.
It must be remembered that it is a band manager's job to ensure that his group, or his organisation as it became, makes money - and catering for the whims of a select bunch of fanatics, and I include myself in that grouping, urging for every morsel of unreleased material, good and bad, to be made available must be weighed up against producing an album which will appeal to the broader masses of the record-buying public. Bill Thompson, an expert manager and a businessman down to his shiny shoes, could not be expected to have the vision required to produce a set which so capably pleases the fans, fanatics and the masses alike which 'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' so successfully manages to do. Indeed, it's a small miracle that a major label such as RCA should be willing to throw resources into such a project - but they did, and as stated before 'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' is a bold example to all.
Bill Thompson spoke at length to Pat Thomas on our behalf shortly after the boxed set was released. He discusses the collection itself, his memories of the band and his trials in managing what were one of the most volatile, forthright and exciting groups that the Sixties produced: the Jefferson Airplane.
PT: So how did the boxed set all start?
BT: Well, I went to Joe Gallante, the president of RCA, and said it was time that a boxed set of Airplane material came out. I told him that we had a lot of tapes which had never been released - we could put together an incredible boxed set! That was a year ago last June. We put out all kinds of requests for information, asking that unreleased tapes be sent to me. Appeals appeared in Rolling Stone, Bam, Ice and a lot of other publications and I started getting a lot of tapes - things like 'Emergency' which we got from Bob Ciccone who did that special back in 1970. Then we hired a guy called Pat Ieraci who had worked for us for years and years on all the old LPs to go back into the vaults in Indianapolis and look for stuff. I gave him a lot of material which collectors had sent to me, things like 'Would You Like A Snack?' which Grace and Frank Zappa had written together. Collectors would send the rundowns of every song ever recorded, when it was recorded, who was the engineer etc... people talked about the Airplane doing the legendary Rolling Stones song 'Satisfaction' so we combed the vaults and found 30 seconds of the Airplane jamming 'Satisfaction', just fucking around one day. A couple of songs came along which I had personally forgotten about - "Don't Let Me Down" which Marty and Jorma put together and "Things are Better in the East" which I remember happening, but it just got buried. And then we found a bunch of live stuff - the Fillmore show (or shows) - it's a little hard to figure out - but they went back into the vaults and found it. We thought it might have been a Kaleidoscope show in Los Angeles, but we weren't certain. That's our best recollection, but anyway they went in there and fixed all that stuff up. Originally the idea had been to put together an album of unreleased things plus one side of live stuff and another of 'greatest hits' - it's kind of like that now, but it's all mixed in from beginning to end. So we kept working on the thing and we were trying to get it out by last Christmas, but I told Joe Gallante that I needed more time and he said OK, put it out in February/March. I was busy, they were busy and the thing went on and was going to come out in July.
How about the booklet, which is a work of art in itself?
That's right, a great booklet - I've never seen one like that for the CD format. We got Jim Marshall, who has thousands of photographs, and Herbie Greene who of course took the 'Surrealistic Pillow' cover - we got some good stuff off him. And then one of the people who wrote to me, a guy called Mike Frankel who did a Hot Tuna cover nineteen or twenty years ago, said that he had some good stuff. When I got back to New York in April he showed me these photos, which blew my mind - amazing stuff, never been seen before. The ones with the lightshow and at Woodstock are his. So basically it was a committee of guys that worked on all this. A guy from RCA called Bruce Scavuzzo plus myself and a guy called David Cohen really worked hard on the selections, Paul Williams mixed the live stuff and... anyway I'm very happy with it!
What's your involvement with any of the Jefferson Airplane members today?
We all own the catalogue together and we all have equal shares of the old material. After Marty and Spencer left there's really five of us that own that, and the publishing company - we own that as well. Marty living in Florida, I think he's doing a solo thing with his father or something. Jorma and Jack do Hot Tuna and I guess Jack plays with Paul sometimes. Grace right now hasn't performed in three years - she's been doing her animal rights thing, doing a lot of interviews on that. As for me managing them in their current careers, there's nothing like that happening.
Were you involved in the 1989 reunion?
No, not at all. I wasn't at all happy with the way the album came out - that was just crazy. You don't get the Jefferson Airplane in and then use studio musicians to make most of the record! It wasn't done at all well. There was a little bit of a problem at that particular time between the Airplane and Starship - a lot of bad feeling between them, battling and arguing over names...
In the early days, did you have any aspirations to be a manager?
Not at the beginning, I was in journalism. I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle. Marty and I lived together, we had all these grandiose ideas - he was going to start a band and I was going to get all the publicity for the band and the scene, and in a way that kind of happened. Marty started the band and also got a club, the Matrix. I got the press for that, I was the first P.R. for the club. I got Ralph Gleason to do the first review of the Airplane, and I had the Airplane and the Matrix all over the Chronicle - in the society pages, on the financial pages, all over the place. I'd have the reporters come down to the Matrix and we'd give them free beers - they all came! 'Reporter' and 'beer' go together, they're like synonyms almost. The band's first manager got the advance for the first record, Matthew Katz - a notorious figure, he took off with the money and went to the Bahamas. About $25,000 I think it was. Guys would call up and say, "Can we have the band to play in front of two thousand people and we'll give you a keg of beer" and Marty would say "OK, sure, no problem". I'd say to Marty, "Why don't you let me talk to these people - at least let's get a price for it..." I knew that much at least, I'd done some sales jobs and sold advertising. So anyway, Bill Graham wanted to book his first show at the Fillmore Auditorium on February 4th, 5th and 6th (there's a poster in the booklet) and when I booked the date I doubled the price to $2000 a night, a lot of money then. So when Matthew Katz came back I was kind of in the picture and became the road manager. Nobody would talk to Matthew, but they would talk to me. There was an opening slot with the Rolling Stones, and they talked with me about it - not Matthew.
How did Matthew Katz manage to get these bands under his wing, d'you think?
He had a golden tongue. He came on like he knew everybody, but once he got the artist he was really difficult to work with and alienated everyone. So they finally decided they were going to fire him and said to me, "Until we find a real manager we want you to speak to the people for us". I really didn't know what I was doing, I was just helping them out part-time. I took a leave of absence from the Chronicle until we got Bill Graham in to manage the band, with me as his assistant. That lasted for a year. Grace especially did not like Bill Graham, he was not her idea of a manager. He was tough, a strict guy who wanted them to work, work, work. He wanted them to tour which they really didn't want to do, so they told me and Marty to go an fire Bill Graham! That was like firing King Kong! It wasn't fun at all. Anyway, after that point people kept calling me up and I just kind of took over. It wasn't really a planned thing, it just kinda happened that I evolved into a manager.
And you remained throughout...
I carried it through Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, through all of their records at RCA and all of Jorma's records at RCA. Plus a couple of Grace's and Paul's 'Blows Against The Empire'. It was Paul, Grace and myself who started Jefferson Starship and hired all those people around 1974. Grace left in 1978 and Marty quit and we got Mickey Thomas and Aynsley Dunbar to join the band in late 1979, early '80. Grace came back in 1982, Paul left in '84 and then in '85 we had one of the biggest records ever - 'Knee Deep In The Hoopla'. The "family" of the Airplane had top ten records in the 60s, 70s and 80s - very few people had done that. Three decades! Pretty amazing, and still the Hall of Fame is not nominating us or the Grateful Dead. I think it's a shame myself, I mean how can you not nominate the Grateful Dead? They broke attendance records everywhere. I mean, Eric Clapton and Cream get in - and the Cream is like a wart on the Grateful Dead's ass. Gimme a break! They'll probably nominate the Yardbirds next because Eric Clapton was with them. Derek and the Dominoes, let's put them in. Clapton's a great guy, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame - but equally so do the Airplane and the Dead.
When did your present association with the Jefferson Starship begin?
Grace quit in 1988 and I got the Airplane back together again for five months. We made a record with the Starship, basically with Mickey Thomas and Craig Chaquiro called 'Love Amongst the Cannibals', and then we put together a greatest hits record. But it wasn't working, y'know. You kind of get a clue when people don't go to your concerts and don't buy your records - it's maybe time to hang it up...
I understand Paul sued to get the Jefferson Airplane name back?
That's not really what happened, although that's what Paul told everybody. What happened was, for a long time, even before Paul left, we had so many comparisons to the Airplane and the younger guys in the band; Craig and Mickey would say that we're a totally different band, nothing to do with the Sixties, so we talked about naming it Starship. So when we were settling, that was one of the things I brought, I said we'll give you the name Jefferson. We could have made the settlement with or without that.
You mentioned earlier that Jefferson Airplane did actually get back together for a five month period; was that pretty much everybody?
No, Spencer (Dryden) wasn't there, and Joey Covington wasn't there. To me, listening to that record, I don't know how they put it out. I mean, on some of it even Jack and Jorma didn't play! They dealt with a producer who I know is a good producer, but he wanted everything to be in time - and the San Francisco bands never knew what "in time" meant! But then neither did Muddy Waters or the Chicago musicians, they just played in their own fucking time. The live show was great, I guess they never filmed the live show because right now, with this deal we could probably do something with that as well. It was so tough to get them together the last time - and they could get together again if this boxed set is successful.
Are there any plans for a subsequent collection covering the Jefferson Starship?
I talked to RCA about three things in all - the idea was to put this one out and see how this does. One thing could be to do a two CD Hot Tuna box. There was one great thing that we can get, which is that at one point Hot Tuna was Jack, Jorma and Marty all singing the leads, plus Joey Covington. They all went to Jamaica together. Such a funny story! We were in Jamaica and were trying to find some reggae guy called Count Ossie - we never could find the guy. So we went and did two shows in a club, the only night that we played - good performances too, with Marty singing. They were going to continue to play and look for Count Ossie. Some guy Jorma knew, Rocky somebody or another, was busted with 27 kilos of grass and said he was with Hot Tuna, so we got off the island as fast as we could. We've got that live material though. We also talked about doing a Jefferson Starship/Starship related boxed set - that'd be interesting! A lot of big hits in there. What I'd really like to do at some point is to cover the whole family - a five or six CD box with Hot Tuna, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship, Grace solo, Paul solo - we'll have to see what happens.
One of my favourites is 'Quah', the LP by Jorma Kaukonen.
That's a great one - besides being the most underrated guitarist of that time, Jorma is arguably the greatest finger picker/acoustic guitar player in the world, and has been for some time. A true musician. Same thing with Jack - they love to play. One thing that happened with the Airplane is that Jack and Jorma wanted to play more. Especially when Marty was around, the songs that Paul and Grace and Marty wrote kind of forced Jorma and Jack to play something different, and that was some of the greatest music to come out of the whole thing.
Could you tell us a little more about 2400 Fulton Street?
Well, when I was the interim manager in 1968, this lady Jackie Watts and I were looking for a place to rent. Jackie worked with me for fifteen or sixteen years, she now works for Ultrasound, who do the Grateful Dead's sound - a wonderful lady. Anyway, at the time we didn't have any office space and Jackie and I went over and saw this house, 2400 Fulton Street. The guy who owned it was about 87 years old, he wanted a hundred thousand dollars for it and I negotiated with him for a while. Anyway, he had this niece or grand-daughter who really loved the Airplane so he sold it to us for seventy thousand! I think the rent was about $309 a month, for all those years we were there. It had twenty or so rooms in the place. We rehearsed in the basement. Paul lived there for a long time, Grace lived there for a while, Jorma lived there... I think Marty and I were the only ones not to live there. We had all kinds of weird stuff - we even had the first water bed! One day we came in and a couple were found screwing on the bed, nobody knew who they were and we had to throw them out. Security was a problem to an extent - there were a lot of people passing through, and we never had a high security attitude. One time a guy showed up who said that he owned the house - looked me straight in the eye and asked what I was doing in his house! He said it so intensely - I said, "Wait a minute - I own this house!" Another guy came by one day and told me that he'd been King Arthur in a previous life. We had great parties there, we did all of our business there - it was a great place. At the end it was getting a little run-down - the place had been built in 1905. The story goes that on the night of the 1906 earthquake, Caruso had slept there and then left San Francisco never to return, so the musical vibes went way back. It was the end of an era when we sold it in 1987 - sold it for $700 thousand. It was Paul Kantner's idea to name the compilation '2400 Fulton' and then we had a picture of the house put on the front of the album.
So I guess it was a trial by fire for you getting into the music business?
A lot of crazy scenes went down, of course. Grace was in her drinking days, which was always an adventure. Whether we would do a show or not depended on what condition she was in. In fact, on 'Would You Like A Snack' that I mentioned before, it sounds to me like Grace was drunk. I can't think of any polite way of putting it! Given the combination of Grace and drink and a full moon and when Grace was having her period, it was a very dangerous time. I remember once when we played Fort Wayne in Indiana, all these elements were working together at the same time and Grace started off the show by saying "OK! Which one of you guys in the audience has the biggest cock?" Well, we had trouble getting dates for a while in certain areas. If she started drinking she would go on a 36 hour run. As Grace will tell you, she didn't drink just a little - she'd drink everything she could lay her hands on!
How long did Grace's relationship with Paul last?
Well, Grace and Spencer got together in 1967 and that lasted for one and a half to two years. After they broke up we don't know exactly what happened, but I do know that I was at the Airplane house one day and I came to work and Grace came down from the third floor smiling from ear to ear... that's when they started, so probably they were together from 1969 to 1976. Six or seven years, I think. There was a whole series of adventures - she was going out with the guy who did the lightshows, she eventually married him actually, and Paul forbade him to come on the road. He was gonna blow up his house and his car. One night we were someplace in Virginia and Grace and he got into a fight. She got a black eye - it was just terrible! Paul had a gun that he carried with him, and it turned out that the lightshow guy had a gun too. I thought, this is gonna be great! There's going to be a shootout at this motel in Norfolk, Virginia! A lot of crazy things like that happened.
Do you remember a show in England with Led Zeppelin and the Airplane?
Yeah, we co-headlined at the Bath Festival. My friend Freddy Bannister put it on, he's a promoter. I remember it raining. We were way up high, about fifteen feet off the ground, so that the audience way at the back could see it. Now Peter Grant, the manager of Zeppelin, was a great big guy - about 300 lbs - and in the middle of the show a kid got up on the stage and Peter Grant picked him up, lifted him over his head and threw him over the side! Could've killed him! Not a very nice guy, but Led Zeppelin were an amazing band. A great band, but personality wise - a little strange. Led Zeppelin had been to San Francisco - they played the Winterland I think a couple of years beforehand. They'd been told that San Francisco was the hippest place in the world and that if you weren't endorsed by San Francisco you weren't going to go very far, or at least on the scale that they wanted to. They did very well in San Francisco though - they did very well everywhere. I think if they came back today, even with another drummer, they could do amazing business if they wanted to.
San Francisco was the centre of the music scene throughout the Sixties - what the hell happened?
Well one of the things that I always hoped could have happened would've been that the bands could be got together and when we first started making records - in fact we tried to get the deal together and become part of it - we could have combined our publishing and a lot of other things. Everyone wanted to do their own thing though, and a lot of people moved out of town, so it kind of dissipated. I don't know exactly what happened. Altamont in December 1969 seemed to signify the end of the Sixties, symbolically as well as literally. I'm in the film actually - you can see me on stage talking to the band. I look like Buffalo Bill with my beard and goatee. Marty thought he was some old film actor, Errol Flynn or somebody, with his sword going out there to talk to the Hell's Angels. There was this guy called 'Animal' who had some sort of animal's head on top of his head... Marty told him to get fucked and Animal knocked him out. When Marty woke up, Animal told him: "Hey man, never say 'fuck off' to an Angel" so Marty told him again to get fucked and Animal knocked him out again. Some of the guys said, "Excuse me Mr. Animal, but aren't you supposed to be protecting the bands here?" and he replied once more that nobody says "fuck off" to an Angel. So I told Marty that if he continued to do this he may not go home at all, I mean this guy doesn't give a shit whether you live or die... Marty wanted to do something but Animal weighed about 100 lbs more than him so we finished the show and got him out right away. I got out before the Meredith Hunter killing - got everyone out of there apart from Paul and Grace, they stayed on stage and watched the whole thing.
How did you come to be playing Altamont?
We were playing at the University of Florida and I got a call from Rock Scully saying the Stones wanted to do a free show and they wanted the Airplane to play in it - this was literally the day beforehand. When we got there there were thousands and thousands of people - no-one knew it was gonna be that big, they'd thrown it together so quickly. It was a guy called Sam Cutler whose idea it was to hire the Angels. It was thought that it would be cool although I never knew exactly what would happen with those guys. They would turn up at shows and were taking pills all day long... you never really knew. The thing was, they never should have been put into the position of trying to control three hundred thousand people. Angels don't like to be cops; anybody put into a situation that they're not familiar with would react crazily. Anyway that's what happened and ultimately you've got to blame the Rolling Stones. We refuse to take any money from that film, we want all the money given to the family of the guy that died - that was our deal, although I don't know if that's what's happening or not.
So what finally killed the scene, do you think?
Possibly it was greed. From my point of view though, Jefferson Starship made a lot more money than the Jefferson Airplane. Jefferson Airplane was a huge cultural influence in the things that they helped start in this city, that really influenced generations of people all over the world. A lot of people made more money, but in the 60s the Airplane was as important as just about anybody. They were the first band - they started the whole thing...
Bill Thompson was interviewed by Pat Thomas, April 1993. Produced, written and directed by Phil McMullen © Ptolemaic Terrascope, 1993.