Sunday, September 14, 2008

Jefferson Starship -- "St. Charles" (1976)

As impactful as they were, I never got much into Jefferson Airplane. Their only songs I ever ripped for my MP3 collection were "White Rabbit," "Someone to Love" and "Volunteers."

By the time I hit college in the mid-70's, they reinvented themselves by altering their name to Jefferson Starship, with two members departing to form Hot Tuna, and the addition of guitar wunderkind Craig Chaquico.

While the band's production values got more polished with each album, they still retained some of the hallmarks that propelled them through the radical 60's: the folk-influenced group singing and harmonies with Grace Slick's solo female voice standing out, sci-fi and mysticism, and acoustic guitars blending with electric.

Song quality was uneven. Their first album, Dragonfly, had the rocketing "Ride The Tiger," with Papa John Creach's fiddle piercing through the roar, going nuts at the song's final chord. The follow-up, Red Octopus, went through the roof from what I call The Marty Balin Effect." Controversially, singer/songwriter Balin contributed one or two very schlocky love songs to each album, unlike almost anything the band had ever recorded before, and those songs often became uncharacteristic huge hits. While there was quite a critical backlash about Starship adding sappy ballads to its political and social agenda, nothing could stop the never-ending playlist rotation of Balin's "Miracles."

Spitfire was the very first Starship album I ever bought, probably because I was so turned off by the overplay of "Miracles." A local FM rock station played the album in its entirety one night and I really liked what I heard. Fortunately, the Balin ballad was on side two, so I was playing side one's four songs to death on my phonograph.

Side one's final song was the amazing nearly seven minutes of "St. Charles," which really captured everything about the band's history and where it was going, minus the Balin garbage. Lots of Paul Kanter's exotic mysticism, strumming folk-like guitars, group singing during both verses and choruses, and the absolute stunning guitar work of Chaquico.

When I say "group singing," I don't mean the three-part harmonies of The Beatles or The Hollies, but something you'd hear around a campfire, an assembly of very different timbres singing the same song together. You can hear Slick, Balin, Kanter and others distinctly, but at the same time.

"St. Charles" has this otherworldly feel about it, a really perfect midtempo arrangement that builds and subsides, builds and subsides, until it just overcomes like a tidal wave you've been expecting all along. But let's talk about Chaquico, because to me, if he's remembered for anything in this band, it would be this song. You can hear his phaser-covered electric guitar throughout virtually the entire song, sometimes drifting lines with the verse's minor chords, to the big D major/suspended hook at the end of each chorus line. It's during the song's final two tumbling minutes that he totally cuts loose, stepping on the wah-wah pedal for some intense solos, and then mimicking the rustling wind across his strings when the band sings "She is the stormbringer."

Unlike Balin's silly tunes, Kanter knows how to write an epic love song without resorting to cliches. There are a lot of lyrics here, but they are an admirable accomplishment of an individual's zen-ish style and belief.

Let me tell you 'bout a dream,
You know I saw her in a dream.

Oh, St. Charles sings,
Sings about love.
St. Charles, tell me tonight,
Won't you tell me 'bout love.
You know I saw her in a dream.

There was China, in her eyes,
In a silk and velvet disguise,
She was movin' like a lady,
Lookin' like a dragon princess.
She was walkin',
walkin' by the river,
rollin' in a rhythm of love.
I never felt like this before;
I'll never stop, I just want more.

Oh, St. Charles sings,
Sings about love.
St. Charles, tell me tonight,
Won't you tell me 'bout love.
You know I saw her in a dream.

I was Shanghai-ed by her way,
Hypnotized by the things she would say,
In the moonlight on the water,
We were like lovers in another lifetime.
Woh, is it only a vision?
Ah, it feels like a prison,
Just the spell of a demon and I can't get away.

Oh, St. Charles sings,
Sings about love.
St. Charles, tell me tonight,
Won't you tell me 'bout love.
Please tell me 'bout love.
I saw her in a dream.
Please tell me 'bout love.
I know I saw her in a dream....

Let me take you,
To another place,
Another time,
Another world of people, dancin' in rhyme,
Dance in the air, six-fingered webbed,
Fair as the air.

She is the storm bringer.
The storm changer.
Tie, yourself down to the main mast.
Tie, yourself down to the main mast.
Like Ulysses in the water storm,
Winds comin' down the main line.
Tie, yourself down to the main mast,
Tie it down with love.

Please click below where it says "Download this track" to hear the song in its entirety.


capewood said...

I always considered Blows Against the Empire to be the first Jefferson Starship album but Wikipedia doesn't agree with me. Maybe its more proper to call it the last Jefferson Airplane album. And I also always considered Sunfigher (which is really a Kantner/Slick album) to be the 2nd Jefferson Starship album. I liked Dragonfly and Red Octopus but really lost interest in them after that.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful description of the song. It was one of the first oases I came to, crossing the desert of mid-70s pop radio. The sense of worlds unfolding while the melody swirled on and on was just what I needed.

Google, however, hasn't unfolded much specifically about the song. I don't suppose you have any detailed ideas about the lyrics?

The Pillager said...

Thank you for writing about one of my favourite songs of all time. You are right that it shows off Kantner and Chaquico at their best.

Broadlighter said...

I had a rather interesting experience about this song. On Easter weekend 1978, I made a trip to Santa Cruz, CA, to visit my brother who was a big Jefferson Starship fan and had Spitfire. We had tripped on mushrooms on Easter Sunday afternoon and I had to return to Los Angeles that evening. When my brother and then girlfriend dropped me off at the Greyhound station, I was greeted at the bus door by a tall guy, with long grey hair and Van Dyke beard. He was wearing musician black clothes, shades and hat and carried a guitar case. We sat together and chatted throughout the whole overnight ride. He said his name was Charles and that he had spent some time hanging out with the Jefferson Starship band members and that they named the song after him. He, indeed, talked about love, divine love, and also about a style of music called 'Waving.' New Wave music was just coming on, but what he was talking about seemed to be coming from a deeper place. It had more to do with the meditative state of the musician while playing it.
He said a lot of very trippy things, but I have no way to know if he was really the guy they sang about or he was just making stuff up to impress me.
When we arrived in L.A., early in the morning, we hung around downtown a little longer and when I needed to catch a bus back to my neighborhood, I saw two pigeon next to the curb fly away in separate directions. That's when I knew we had to part.
I still remember the guy. He seemed very mysterious, but humble and very loving. I think of him every time I hear this song.
So, my burning question is who was referred to as St. Charles in the song?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Craig ripped off the end stormbringer solo directly from the isley bro song who's that lady main guitar riff..!!!!

Torey said...

I noticed that as well!

Anonymous said...

I’m so glad you mentioned the Isley Brothers! I was trying to remember where I’d heard that riff before.