“We Built This City” MTV Music Video from the 1985. “Knee Deep in the Hoopla” album. Starship. R.C.A. B.M.G.
Recorded at “The Record Plant” in Sausalito, California, & “The Music Grinder” in Los Angeles, California.
This is the last “Starship” album I would do. I left the band just before the next one was started. Peter Wolf (not to be confused with the singer) had become the bands producer for this album and he set up a sequencer computer (synclavier) in the control booth.
He slowly built up all the songs from a drum machine base…overdubbing vocals, real guitars and some percussion. He even sampled my bass (I had stopped playing keyboards after David Freiberg left the band, it was no fun for me anymore) then quantized it after I played it into the computer on a bass keyboard.
The band would only consider possible hit AM Radio material at this point. I remember Peter Wolf and Mickey searching through a stack of cassettes from outside songwriters looking for hits. All lyrics had to be about love and other things…nothing wrong with that, but only singing about love wasn’t what “Jefferson Starship” had stood for up to that point. It had always been a band where (for better or worse) individual writers could express themselves through their music without worrying about it being commercial enough.
Jeannette and I were heavily into trying to spread awareness of the civil wars raging in Central America (the US were backing right wing dictatorships, many of whom were committing genocide on their own people, specifically Guatemala and El Salvador).
Jeannette and I were also helping refugees from the war hiding out in the San Francisco Bay Area. We did a radio drive to raise food and clothing for them. I was impressed by the willingness of Bay Area Rock radio to help, and we ended up with a tremendous response from the public as well as toy and clothing companies.
During the making of “Knee Deep In The Hoopla” Jeannette and I wrote a human rights song called “One More Innocent” (every time you close your eyes, one more innocent dies), but Mickey and the producer (the record label had given them all the power, and Grace had been pushed into a back-up singer role…they wanted to make us sound like “Journey”, an impossible task) wanted us to change the lyric to “One More Innocent Lie”…a protest song about genocide to a sappy love song? No way…I told them I’d rather not have it on the album.
They once tried to fire my close friend Bill Laudner because he wouldn’t drive them around to parties or golf courses and such. Bill had been a Merry Prankster, and was the Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship road manager for many years and all they wanted was some sort of go-for person. Definitely not in Bill’s job description or personality…I spoke up for him at a meeting and called them all (except Grace who liked Bill) spoilt. He wasn’t fired.
I was increasingly at odds with them, so it was just a matter of time before I was out of there.
“We Built This City” became a big hit, as was “Sara” written by Peter and Ina Wolf…a very skillfully crafted song. Peter Wolf was a skillful keyboard player also…but he and the band were trying too hard to move with the times. Everything began to sound contrived. I guess I was too old school…whatever that is.
We did a stupid MTV video for a horrible movie called “Mannequin” which used our song “Nothings Gonna Stop Us Now”…which became a sort of hit. The only good thing I got out of shooting the video was meeting the famous cinematographer Dave Myers (he shot Woodstock)…we had a profound conversation over the food table and became close friends until his death (he was much older than I). Jeannette and I still visit his wife Barbara Myers who lives in Mill Valley and is a wonderful artist.
You are a part of a band or organization and sometimes it changes so gradually and imperceptibly that you can’t see the forest for the trees. The “Starship” I left in 1987 was unrecognizable from the “Jefferson Starship” I joined in 1974.
The major break of course was the riot in Germany in 1978 when Grace left the band for one album and we found a new singer, Mickey Thomas. With Larry Cox no longer at the helm, different producers would do their best to make us into something we were not…a slick pop band…which we were just no good at.
I was happy to be out of there…although I had to go into therapy for about a year afterwards. My main therapy though was plunging back into the blues with people like Nick Gravenites…playing clubs like the “Saloon”, and the “Sweetwater”.
I almost got a band together with Frank Marino of “Mahogany Rush” and Aynsley Dunbar…but we couldn’t find a singer we liked…I have a fantastic instrumental recording we did in my studio though. We had a record company interested.
My income level dropped drastically, and my brother in law (who I was very close with) got busted for smuggling Hash and sentenced to ten years in Terminal Island under Reagan’s new Minimum Mandatory Sentencing laws.
Jerry gave me a big cardboard box full of live Grateful Dead cassette tapes so I could try out for the keyboard slot left by the tragic death of Brent Mydland.
I had played keyboards a lot with Jerry, Bobby and Mickey, but my role had never been as a vocalist since my start as a professional musician in 1964.
Jerry and Bobby came over to my house in Mill Valley with their acoustic guitars and I jammed with them upstairs on my grand piano for a bit…then Jerry said, well that works. We then went down to my studio where I had my synthesizers set up…I did this because I’d been told by what I thought was a reliable source that they weren’t really looking to replace Brent on piano and B3, but wanted more of a synth player (which I hated at the time). I tried to sing as best I could, but it just didn’t feel right. After that meeting everyone at the office and sound company were actually telling me they’d heard I had the job…but I’d say “no, it just doesn’t feel right”.
I was called down to Front Street to audition with the band…I stupidly set-up my synth gear (which I hated and didn’t have much of anyway) instead of just playing what they already had set up.
I had told myself earlier that I never wanted to play a synth again after the “Starship” fiasco…I just wanted to play piano and B3. The irony of it.
Anyway, when we got to the parallel high lead vocal bit on “Playin In The Band” I knew I wasn’t the right guy for the job. As I left the building, Vince was sitting there waiting to play…I knew already he was the right man because of his strong vocal chops, and he was a great player as well of course. Tragic what happened to him. Bob Hunter and I sat outside and he helped me process things for a bit…then I got in my car and drove home feeling a bit shell shocked. I knew I hadn’t done that well…I told myself I should have just gone in and jammed with them…do what I do.
After a while I got the call from Dennis McNally who told me they had decided to go with Vince.
Jerry also called and told me I was voted number two, and Joel Selvin of the Chronicle said he’d heard the same from a reliable source. (That’s probably what they told all the guys 🙂 I have since heard from two people who were extremely close to Jerry that he had voted for me…who knows?
It was probably for the best anyway.
I took some singing lessons for a while after that…it at least gave me some confidence on the mike.
Jerry once put me and David Nelson together and said we ought to get a band together…he arranged for David to come over my house. We hit it off…I liked him a lot. The problem was Dave had been experimenting with sequencers and synthesizers programming this amazing Bach music…I was doing everything possible to get away from that stuff (sequencers…not the Bach) and just play piano and B3. Anyway it wasn’t the right time for us…but I now play with David when we get the David Nelson Band together a couple of times a year for fun. David is the real deal…he was very close with jerry, and the “New Riders”, his main gig sound great. My old Hot Tuna band-mate Michael Falzarano also plays with them. I love David’s rootsy writing…and he and Hunter have been working together a lot.
Soon after all that we lost our house in Mill Valley and moved to Woodacre. I did the “Earth Day” show at Crissy Field in San Francisco with my buddy Nick Gravenites.
In 1988 I produced the music and procured the musicians for the “Soviet American Peacwalk” at the Band Shell in Golden Gate Park which drew 20,000 people thanks to my friend’s Jerry Garcia, and Grace Slick etc.
Jeannette and I got into producing a non-profit human rights video about the Genocide of the Mayan people in Guatemala that was funded by Jerry Garcia. Made an album with a saving the earth theme, where Jeannette’s lyrics reflected our concerns over human rights, the disappearing rainforests and other environmental issues. It was called “Watchfire” and Mickey Hart, Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, Mimi Farina, Baba Olatunji and other friends joined me on the album which was put out by Holly Near’s “Redwood Records” and later by “Grateful Dead Records” at Jerry’s urging. It was a very non-commercial album…recorded live in the studio with many weird instruments and giant choirs etc.