Most of my memories come associated with a strong sense of place. So it is with the day I bought Surrealistic Pillow. It was my freshman year of college, fall 1988, attending NYU, and one of my pleasures was cruising a circuit of various record stores in the Village. Browsing at St. Mark’s Sounds, I found a used CD of this album along the right-hand wall, for about 6 bucks, and snatched it. I’d owned the band’s greatest hits in high school, and I’d always heard about this album. With “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” on there, it’s gotta be pretty good, right?
Not quite. It’s amazing. That album set me on a Jefferson Airplane binge, or at least as much of one as my poor college self could afford. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, Crown Of Creation, Volunteers… they’re all great, but none compare to Pillow. Some of the songs on this album are, for me, transcendently beautiful.
But how do you write about something like that? I don’t think I’m capable of capturing a purely aesthetic experience in words. Maybe language isn’t capable of it. I really believe that some of this music affects me right down to the molecular level, with a feeling of divine elevation that is way beyond language, or perhaps deep underneath it.
So instead, I’ll just talk about when it happens. It happens when I hear the harmonies in “My Best Friend”, notes and voices blending in ways that are both unexpected and perfect. It happens in “Today” when all the voices come in (around 1:50), like a stage chorus, lifting the lonesome motif into the heavens — “Today, everything you want, I swear, it all will come true.”
It happens during the instrumental intro of “Comin’ Back To Me,” a quiet flute floating like dust motes in sunlit guitar picking. And it happens like crazy all throughout the incredible “Embryonic Journey,” quite possibly my favorite rock instrumental ever, especially in the powerful strums, like the ones around 0:32. Joe Jackson talks about music as “a cure for gravity”, and that’s what this feels like to me — the spirit borne aloft.
Chills of a different kind come from the quiet snare at the beginning of “White Rabbit.” That’s not so much elevation, but a spooky tingle, knowing what’s to come. All this talk of aesthetic transport and I haven’t even mentioned Grace Slick yet. Her voice has an otherworldly quality in “White Rabbit”, perfect for the distorted perception and unreality of the lyrics. “Somebody To Love,” her other lead vocal, projects not so much eeriness but icy authority. For all the hippie trappings surrounding this album, this song hardly feels like a flower child anthem — when she says “You better find somebody to love,” it’s a command, not a gentle suggestion. Then again, with so many people her age being drafted into Vietnam, maybe Slick’s imperative to love, compared to the government’s imperative to kill, is as counterculture as it gets.
Alongside this beauty and mystery is a strong strain of rock and roll. “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”, “She Has Funny Cars”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover” are all energizing, lively rock tunes that exude freedom, and “Somebody To Love” itself is hard-charging and uncompromising. Come to think of it, this is the very mix of qualities that I came to love in Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac — loveliness from Christine, spookiness from Stevie, and rock from Lindsey, with all of them mixing into each other on various songs. I didn’t realize it on that fall day in 1988, but by seeking out Surrealistic Pillow, I was digging deeper into the San Francisco roots of a sound I already loved.