Wednesday, January 29, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 29):"COMIN' BACK TO ME" (1967) Jefferson Airplane

Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow (1967) is a great album. That’s a statement I wouldn’t have made any time previous to the current decade. I picked up a copy of it somewhere in the late Seventies, but didn’t listen to it much. By then, the “San Francisco Sound” had become synonymous with acid rock and the likes of the still extant Grateful Dead. I bought it for its name recognition more than anything, I suppose. Though it concludes the first side of the album, today’s song is not one I remembered from that record. Two things happened later that altered those circumstances.

In 1991, Rickie Lee Jones released a great cover of this song on her album Pop-pop. I loved the song without immediately recognizing it as a song I already should have known. When I realized it was written by Marty Balin and was indeed included on Pillow, those facts didn’t send me back to the Airplane.

Along came the beginnings of my vinyl revival with the purchase of a new turntable in 2011. And the acquiring of Surrealistic Pillow in the mono vinyl version released by Sundazed. It was something of a revelation. The return to vinyl, for me, was marked by discovering mono recordings—like the Dylan catalog released by Columbia around that time, and, another neglected (by me) great, The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (1966) [OK, OK, I admit my general Easterner's hostility toward CA.]

To a degree, the music of the period 1965-1973 was my music, the “comfort music” that I always return to—to sustain my soul, as it were (or such as it is). There are many bands for whom some part of that period was their heyday—not least Jefferson Airplane. But I never really embraced them. In fact, sometimes, off the top of my head, I can still forget who’s who in the band. I would never mistake Wyman for Richards, you understand, but I sometimes forget which is Kastner and which Casady. And for a time I thought Casady was Jorma. That sort of thing.

clockwise: Casady, Balin, Kanter, Slick, Kaukonen, Dryden
Anyway, this song is sung by Marty Balin, the founder of the band, and the one most responsible, I’d say, for the “soft” songs of the LP. The band moved away from this kind of ballad-based music in favor of jams and political posturing, but, on Pillow, they created at times a very warm sound, as on this song. The flute does a lot of the work, on that score. And I love the sound of the acoustic guitars on this record: “the shape of sleepy music and suddenly you’re hooked.” The sound makes me think of sun-drenched old townhouses in San Francisco, at the height of the Haight. I wasn’t around for that stuff, of course, so it’s just a fantasy, but one that this record lends itself to, readily.

The song itself, when I heard Jones’ version, was very moving. The Airplane’s is almost as moving and could be said to be less histrionic than hers. It’s quieter, without quite the gasp of need and longing that Jones gives it. Balin’s vocal is more subdued, and for that reason more thoughtful. In Jones’ vocal I hear the despair in “I saw you / Comin’ back to me” because it’s not going to happen. It’s just an imagined thing. In Balin’s I’m not sure. He’s not so chastened; and he’s more definite about “the shadow in the mist could have been anyone.” And I believe he means it when he says “Most of the time I just let it go by / Now I wish it hadn’t begun.”  Jones does too, but with a greater sense of the toll that statement takes.

We’re with a man who still dreams of the lover’s return, though he knows better. And the more he thinks about it, the more certain he is that it won’t happen and shouldn’t happen. “I know what it always has been.”  A fantasy, even while it was happening.  And then the great concluding line “Was it something I made up for fun?” The entire romance could be that, and certainly the vision of “you comin’ back to me.”

It, like many of my favorite songs, is a reverie song. We could say that this “genre” is going to be cropping up a lot as we go on. Balin, here, seems, as so many did in that day and age, to steal some of his shadings from Dylan (listen to how he sings “through the rain upon the trees”), and that’s as it should be, as Dylan has more than his share of reverie songs. In a way, they’re all about something “comin’ back”—the past, the feeling, the knowledge, the vision, the “transparent dream / beneath an occasional sigh.”

Tomorrow is Marty Balin’s birthday; I hope it all comes back to him.


Andrew Shields said...

I like the way you read the two different versions by contrasting the singing.

The album has "White Rabbit," "Somebody to Love," and "Embryonic Journey" on it, too, but "Comin' Back To Me" is at least as good as any of those. The two Slick songs are both a bit too full of themselves. This one isn't!

Donald Brown said...

It also has "She Has Funny Cars" and "Plastic Fantastic Lover"--I strongly recommend it on vinyl!

"White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" are great songs, but for years they overshadowed the rest of the record for me. I doubt I would know "Coming' Back to Me" if not for Rickie Lee Jones. She makes it hers, but...I really like JA's version as it fits into the album.

I may get to "White Rabbit" one of these days---maybe Lewis Carroll's birthday?