Flying Trans-Love Airways
Copyright 2011, Sally Mann Dryden, All Rights Reserved
In 1970, not long after my electric marriage ceremony to Spencer Dryden, the wildly innovative and bat-shit crazy drummer of Jefferson Airplane, I was enjoying the nanosecond of media attention that had come my way after I was featured in a Rolling Stone article on "Groupies and Other Women in Rock" and some other far more questionable publications (obviously, I considered myself a charter member of the "Other Women in Rock" coven), when I was interviewed by a reporter for Gentlemen’s Quarterly (GQ) about the Airplane and my relationship with Spencer. One of the first questions he asked was how we had met. "Well," I said, as though it were the way every modern damsel with any degree of snap went about finding a prospective suitor, "I sold him a gram of killer coke after Paul Kantner suggested he might be a steady customer." The reporter paused for a beat and then quite reasonably replied, "We can’t print that." And that just about sums up most of the really interesting stuff I have to say about the Airplane.
Even so, with the benefit of an expired statute of limitations and an especially egregious "Behind the Music" out of the way, I’m determined to credit these exceptional people who changed everything about my life forever, before I lose the ability to string words into vague semblances of sentences. Like so many other musicians whose intellects have been consistently underestimated (often with mortifying consequences for said underestimators and side-splitting hilarity for all others fortunate enough to find themselves in the underestimating environs), the members of the seminal Jefferson Airplane—Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Marty Balin, Paul Kantner, Grace Slick, and Spencer Dryden—are six of the most fiercely intelligent and fiendishly funny people who ever consumed oxygen (or nitrous for that matter, but that’s a whole other chapter). None of them, at least the ones still living, suffer fools gladly—or really, at all—and for that reason alone, their continuing friendship after forty-five years means more to me than almost anything else that I treasure, including shoes.
I happily ascended into the Airplane stratosphere in 1967 or so after Paul took a shine to me when I was trolling the Whiskey in L.A. for suitably deranged musicians to marry. As it turned out, Paul wasn’t one of them, but he did introduce me to the absolute necessity of renovating each and every hotel room within three minutes of check-in by draping groovy paisley scarves over all the lampshades in the room. (Next on the Extreme Makeover Hotel Edition To-Do List: Stash the weed behind the metal Kleenex holder in the bathroom. Kudos to David Crosby for this excellent advice—it worked like a charm in New Orleans.) But I digress.
While the details are somewhat murky (I feel fairly certain that more transfers of illicit substances were involved), my Whiskey-trysts with Paul led me to the Court of the Finnish Overlord of All Stringed and Fretted Things, more commonly known as Jorma Kaukonen, and his lovely consort, Margareta, and on to Jack, whose day job seemed to consist entirely of giving me unremitting rafts of shit. (Thanks, Jack—you unwittingly prepared me for battling the barracuda that muck up the waters of the State Bar of Texas from time to mother-loving time.) Much to Margareta’s eternal credit—probably predicated on innate Swedish sang-froid coupled with an abject disinterest in anything happening outside the Hieronymus Bosch Memorial Art Parlor-cum-Viper Den that served as her bedroom with Jorma, she did not throw me out on my ass when I trundled up to San Francisco from Los Angeles with Pandora, arriving unannounced on her doorstep and looking for her husband. Too bad I didn’t pay closer attention—I could have used some of that nonchalance several years later when the trollops began traipsing across the countryside to poach on Spencer. But, again, I digress.
Whatever the flight pattern, I finally landed at 2400 Fulton Street in a fine circle of mayhem, maddening conflict, and mad psycho-love with Spencer, Grace, and Paul (among other regulars on the carnival circuit), where I immediately established permanent residency status. I did, indeed, telephone Spencer and ask if he wanted to buy some kick-ass coke, he immediately said "yes," and that was fucking that—as they say in the better romance novels. Except not exactly. First, I had to attend to the rather daunting challenge of sweeping up the embers left behind in Spencer’s heart by my predecessor, the formidable Grace Slick—a task made appreciably easier by Grace’s waning interest in Spencer and growing attraction to Paul, along with the fact that I had moved into the third floor of 2400 and was thus able to conduct my relentless campaign for Spencer’s undying affection on his home turf, while Grace had to drive all the way in from Sausalito to suit up for the nightly love-fest and consumption orgy. (Spencer’s former home with Grace, below Jorma and Margareta’s place, had sadly burned to the ground–NOT due to the negligence of Spencer’s "groupies" as has been incorrectly reported elsewhere—but to the dozy inattention of the late-60s version of Beavis and Butthead who were "watching" the place mid-toke while the band was on the road.)
The path to the Dryden-Mann nuptials might have been made a tad less tortuous by the rapidly-developing Kantner-Slick dynamic, but it sure wasn’t simple—many nights at 2400 were complicated by dueling excitable egos and exceedingly restless natives—all fueled and fortified by Jack Daniels, various other refreshments, and whatever Kantner had asked me to cook for him that day. (I may have neglected to mention that, by this time, I had also been tapped to serve as the Airplane House cook. A typical weekday request from Paul: chateaubriand with béarnaise sauce—I kid you the fuck not.) And being a Texas girl, I am definitely not gifted with an over-abundance of Swedish sang-froid vis-à-vis my romantic rivals, no matter what the state of their entanglements may be, so there were more than a few angst-ridden nights, ramped up and amped up by sporadic drop-in appearances by Jorma, Jack, Marty, or whichever migrating musicians were in from out of town who wanted to sit in on a good freak show. (Fortunately, all of these people did not typically show up at the same time—even the hardiest nervous system can handle only so much over-stimulation.) No matter who was on set at any given time, we were all predictably egged on by Spin Master Spencer’s newest and most happy acquisition: a video camera that captured all of our antics for posterity before the tapes were either lost or, more likely, destroyed by the act of a merciful God. In the interest of the stellar reputations of the parties involved, suffice it to say that I fought for my man-iac right up until the moment the indelible ink was dry on the vintage wedding certificate I had purchased months beforehand as a "hint" to Spencer. (I also may have neglected to mention that subtlety is not my strong suit. I don’t know what my strong suit is exactly, but we have definitely crossed subtlety off the list.)
Amazingly, Grace and I managed to work out the kinks (HAH!) of our respective relationships with Paul and Spencer over time without any fatalities that I can recall, and in January 1970, Spencer and I were married by the sonorous Tom Donahue at the Airplane House (née Tiffany Mansion), with Paul serving as Spencer’s (shirtless and barefoot) Best Man, and Grace as my (shirted and shod) Maid/Matron/Goddess of Honor. In 1971, Spencer and I had a son, Jesse James, who fortunately looks just like his dad and is apparently determined to give him a run for his money in the wack department. (The jury is still out on this one–carting around Lather’s DNA is not the easiest row to hoe, and I shudder to think what neurotoxins might be lurking in my own double helix.)
Despite Paul’s innate ability to ace out all comers in the Misanthrope of the Millennium Pageant, he and Grace have done more selfless acts of kindness for me over the years than I could possibly recount—at least not without sodium pentothal—literally saving my life on several occasions with a generosity of spirit and tolerance for fuck-ups that is unsurpassed (and unsurpassable) in my experience. I cannot give Paul a bigger compliment than to say that he is simply the best and most consummate asshole I have ever known—a database that encompasses a broad spectrum of proctology. (When Paul turned 70 recently, his jersey was retired—the runner-up didn’t even bother to show for the ceremony.) I love him with an entrenched resoluteness that I don’t care to question or quantify.
Jorma looms so large in my rear-view mirror that he eclipses anyone else who ever picked up a guitar in my presence. (Author’s note: Insert wildly witty quote here re "discretion something something valor" . . . oh, to hell with it—you get my drift.) What Jorma, Jack, Paul, and Spencer accomplished musically and rhythmically will likely never be matched for creativity, innovation, individual virtuosity, and sheer jump-off-the-cliff fearlessness in the operation of dangerous instrumentalities while under the influence of powerful performance-enhancing or –adulterating, substances—depending on your point of view about such things. (Caution: Professional musicians on a closed course. Do not attempt at home.) Best of all, they each were endowed with boatloads of that sine qua non of sex appeal: They were (and are) profoundly freaking hilarious—and you can’t copy that no matter how long you practice your finger-picking.
And no one needs any testimony from me about Marty Balin’s songwriting abilities and transcendental voice, but I will just echo the party line by pointing out that I love this man’s music so much that I had his song "Coming Back to Me" performed at my second wedding to a NON-Airplane musician. (What can I say? The musician thing is apparently hardwired in the aforementioned DNA.)
Grace, being ate up with a trifecta of broad-spectrum talent, irritating overabundance of cool blue-eyed beauty, and freakishly prescient adaptability, continues to confound and astound me with the gift of her enduring friendship, loyalty, tolerance. Grace is, quite simply, ALL THAT. And if she and I can just hold on for a few more years, we will outlive the remaining three folks who claim to have actually witnessed our more unflatteringly profane stunts. If not, hey—that’s rock and roll—get over it.
In a memo just issued by the Band Director in Rock and Roll Heaven, I was instructed to close this little ditty by mentioning that my wonderful and much-missed ex-husband could coax more astounding music out of his tiny jazz kit than most drummers can manage with a freaking dump truck full of percussion equipment—and look criminally handsome while doing it. (Okay, he didn’t really say that last part, but it’s true, and I consider myself something of an expert on good-looking musicians—dead or alive. I don’t think you want to challenge me on this one.)
Thanks so much, guys, for the boarding pass and for flying first class all the way (well, most of the way, anyway. There was that unfortunate incident when . . . um . . . never mind.). I don’t plan on coming down for a landing any time soon, or ever. And a special, special thanks to Herbie for his exquisite photographs of my friends, lovers, brothers, flight instructors, fellow passengers, combatants, comrades-in-arms, and, of course, my very own sweet-and-sour soul sister. I love you all more than the sky.