Song of the day: JEFFERSON AIRPLANE – Lather (1968)

On the face of it, “Lather” is a three minute acoustic ballad with a good tune. In reality, though, it was the dark heart of Crown Of Creation, the Jefferson Airplane’s most under-rated album. Of all the Bay Area groups that emerged during 1966, the Airplane were the most commercially successful, and yet they are consistently overlooked. They don’t have the same kudos as the Doors, the Byrds, Love or the Grateful Dead these days. Yet their sixties output was of a far more consistent standard than any of their contemporaries. Perhaps they were never forgiven for morphing into the AOR monster that was Jefferson Starship.

“Lather” is one of those songs that has had interpretations by the score. Is it a simple song of a disturbed young man, a paean to lost childhood, a tale of drug damage? Perhaps there are elements of all three. The cheery optimism of 1967 was fading fast by the time Crown Of Creation was released. 1968 was a year of turmoil, of massive escalation in Vietnam, of Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague, near revolution in the streets of Paris, and serious riots in London and Chicago. Peace and love had given way to the Black Panthers, the Yippies and Maoist students. LSD was giving way to heroin. Perhaps “Lather” yearns for the ideals that had been fleetingly ascendant, but quickly lost.

Lather was thirty years old today,
They took away all of his toys.
His mother sent newspaper clippings to him,
About his old friends who’d stopped being boys.
There was Harwitz E. Green, just turned thirty-three,
His leather chair waits at the bank.
And Sergeant Dow Jones, twenty-seven years old,
Commanding his very own tank.
But Lather still finds it a nice thing to do,
To lie about nude in the sand,
Drawing pictures of mountains that look like bumps,
And thrashing the air with his hands.

But wait, oh Lather’s productive you know,
He produces the finest of sound,
Putting drumsticks on either side of his nose,
Snorting the best licks in town,
But that’s all over…

Lather was thirty years old today,
And Lather came foam from his tongue.
He looked at me eyes wide and plainly said,
”Is it true that I’m no longer young?”
And the children call him famous,
What the old men call insane,
And sometimes he’s so nameless,
That he hardly knows which game to play…
Which words to say…
And I should have told him, “No, you’re not old.”
And I should have let him go on…smiling…being wise.

The song is full of snatches of sound effects – from the tap-tapping of Harwitz E Green’s typewriter to Dow Jones’ tank shells exploding. The one that makes me shudder follows the line “he hardly knows which game to play”, where a disembodied voice gives the options of backgammon, hari-kiri…

“Lather” remains one of my favourite songs ever. Grace Slick sings it beautifully, in a strangely dispassionate tone. It still gives me the creeps a little, like there is much of the title character in me.

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One response to “Song of the day: JEFFERSON AIRPLANE – Lather (1968)

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