Viewing: in memoriam - View all posts

Real Chords #5: Jefferson Airplane, "Today" 

It's with a heavy heart that I present this one, having learned of the passing of Jefferson Airplane founder and singer Marty Balin last night. I'll have more to say about Marty in a moment, but to pay tribute I've worked up this gem from Surrealistic Pillow that I'll debut during my upcoming micro-tour. According to Ultimate Classic Rock, "'Today' stands as one of the most beautiful love songs ever written," and I can't disagree. Haunting and ethereal, it's a timeless ballad revolving around a simple but effective chord sequence.

Before I get to those chords, a few words on Marty Balin and his legacy. Without him, there would be no Jefferson Airplane, period. The band was his idea and vision, and after recruiting its members one by one he created a venue, The Matrix, in which they could hone their craft. It's not an overstatement to suggest, as former band manager Bill Thompson did, that “Marty was the one who started the San Francisco scene."

The first two Airplane albums were largely a product of that vision—love-fuelled folk/rock about to bust out into the wilder frontiers of psychedelia—and Marty's sweet-as-honey tenor led the charge. But by the third album, After Bathing at Baxter's, Marty had retreated somewhat (as a songwriter and lead vocalist; his harmonies permeate all their best work, Baxter's included). Jefferson Airplane was a group of strong, disparate personalities, each beginning to assert themselves, and in the chaotic ferment of the late 1960s no singular vision could dominate for long.

As the '60s careened into the '70s, drugs, egos and musical differences led Marty to leave the band he founded. And tellingly, the Airplane crashed without him. Marty's romantic, soulful musings, often the source of his bandmates' ridicule, were a necessary balance to Paul Kantner's sci-fi polemics, Grace Slick's icy sarcasm, and Jorma Kaukonen's blues-based excursions. And indeed, that corrective is what enabled spinoff band Jefferson Starship to scale the heights it did in the '70s. Red Octopus, their 1975 release, once again saw Marty at the helm; his "Miracles" topped the charts that summer. Simply put, he had a radio-friendly touch that for the most part eluded his compatriots. In Paul Kantner's words, "Marty has the ability to express really simple emotions that most people might be embarrassed expressing. He's able to get away with singing 'Ooh, baby,' and meaning 'Ooh, baby.'"

Here's an excerpt from Jorma's moving tribute: "I always felt that he was somewhat guarded … the quiet one. His commitment to his visions never flagged. Times come and go but his passion for his music and his art was never diminished. He was the most consummate of artists in a most renaissance way. I always felt that he perceived that each day was a blank canvas waiting to be filled."

Rest in piece, Marty Balin, and thank you for your life, your music and your vision. And with that, here are the real chords to Jefferson Airplane's "Today," written by Marty Balin and Paul Kantner:

  • Intro: D5 C (grace notes: BCD) A5
  • Verse*: D5 Am7 C D5
  • Chorus: (Cmaj7 F Em C D C D) x2
  • End: Dm Am Bb Am Dm Am Bb Gm7 (grace notes: EFEC) D

The online tabs for the song had, well, some of it right, but missed two key chords which were dead obvious to my ears: the Cmaj7 in the chorus and Gm7 at the very end. Nobody heard the Am7 in the verse, either, which I admit is more implied than played on the recording. Tip: for a lovely variation, substitute an A7sus chord in the intro in place of the A5. That's not how they play it, but I quite like it. The fingering for A7sus, low to high, is x02030.

* Note: On the live version from Monterey Pop, the band plays a slightly different arrangement. Grace plays the rhythm on harpsichord, and her verse chords are F Am C D5. I'm sticking with the studio version for my transcription, but either will work.

    Yes, Sir, Let's Admire That One 

    If you follow baseball in Canada at all, you know who I'm talking about. The title alone gives it away. That's how deeply and ubiquitously the voice of Jerry Howarth permeated baseball culture in this country. With last week's retirement announcement, the baseball world has lost one of its golden voices.

    Stephen Brunt's warm, insightful tribute, which I urge you to read, says it best: "What will summer sound like now?" For legions of Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians, myself included, Jerry was the Voice of Summer for 36 years, especially after assuming the Jays' lead announcer role when his long-time partner Tom Cheek died in 2005.

    Baseball and radio are made for each other, and as a primarily auditory person, I'm wired to lap it up. The best broadcasters keep the listener informed,  entertained and when necessary, amused. Beyond that, the cream of the crop—and Jerry is certainly one—are gifted storytellers, taking on the persona of a wise, kindly uncle who slips in a life lesson or two amidst the grand slams, gold gloves and chin music. Sometimes I think the reason I've spent so many summers with Jerry, all 162 games' worth, is more about palling around with the uncle I never had than the race for the pennant.

    As we sit on the cusp of spring training and a new season of Blue Jays baseball, we don't yet know who will take the reins as lead radio voice. But we do know who we'll miss. To the man who opened every broadcast with a warm "Hello, friends," I say farewell, friend, God bless, and enjoy your well-earned retirement.

    On a related note, Leo Cahill, legendary '60s and '70s coach of the Toronto Argonauts, passed away earlier this week. Flamboyant, outspoken and quick-witted, Leo was a larger-than-life personality on Argonaut teams that had more than their share of outrageous characters. I can't recall any coach or GM, save perhaps the Leafs' Harold Ballard, who so thoroughly dominated the local sports scene. Cahill's brilliance as a coach was often overlooked, and as a recruiter he had no peers. Among his many accomplishments, Leo lured Joe Theismann away from the Miami Dolphins to lead the 1971 Argonauts to the Grey Cup, a game which left quite an impression on a certain 10-year-old.

    Cahill never won a Grey Cup, but as a CBC colour commentator he got to call the second half of the Argos' 1983 victory, the one that broke Toronto's 31-year championship drought. And it's somehow fitting that the Boatmen won the last Grey Cup game played during his lifetime, last November's 27-24 victory over the Calgary Stampeders, the very team that beat Leo's squad in '71. Ironically, the heavily favoured Stampeders blew the 2017 game in a manner eerily reminiscent of the 1971 Argos.

    Goodbye, Leo, God bless, and thank you. We won't see your like again anytime soon, and whenever I don my Mike Eben jersey—which arrived in the mail the day you died—I'll remember you, double blue forever.

    Sign in Stranger 

    Was shocked and shaken this morning to hear of the passing of Walter Becker, bassist/guitarist and co-founder of Steely Dan. Apparently he'd been ill for some time with an unspecified ailment. I didn't know that either, but that's not surprising; the man was an artist, not a celebrity.

    If you came of age during the '70s, the Dan were the soundtrack to your wayward youth, literate misanthropes in soft-rock clothes whose obscurantist musings somehow crept into the Top 40. When some hipster tells me '70s music was dreck until The Ramones, Sex Pistols et. al. righted the ship, I point them toward Steely Dan. In the words of songstress Rickie Lee Jones, they're "the beginning of college rock."

    As a kid, I bought the singles: "Do It Again," "Reelin' in the Years," "Rikki Don't Lose That Number." These slivers of wax sounded like nothing I'd ever heard, and listening to them now, they still do. Becker and collaborator Donald Fagen were originals. Jazz-rock was in vogue then, yet Steely Dan steered well clear of the pack, whether on the rock (Chicago, BS&T) or jazz side (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report). I can tell you what they weren't, but I'd need a musicology degree to tell you what they were. As I understand it their influences are mostly jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, with dashes of R&B—yet without exception, their oeuvre consists of pop songs, albeit with a jazzy sophistication underpinning those great hooks.

    I've long envied their songwriting, but their style is hard to emulate without serious chops and a knowledge of jazz harmony, both of which I lack. Why, for a few seconds today I entertained the thought of working up a Steely Dan song in tribute to Becker and quietly nixed the idea. In the past I've tried three or four of their "easier" numbers (the ones with fewer tricky jazz modulations), and they simply don't come off with one guy and an acoustic guitar, at least not this guy. The Steely Dan influence has, however, shown up once in my music—fittingly in an obscure way that only a pedant would appreciate. "After You," one of the songs on my forthcoming album, features a pedal steel part in the bridge—actually a sample that I plied, twisted and manipulated in a week-long bout of studio obsessiveness that would make Walter Becker proud—that I think gets the official Steely Dan Award for Best Use of Pedal Steel in a Non-Country Song. (Check out Jeff Baxter's gorgeous steel work on Can't Buy a Thrill or Countdown to Ecstasy, their first two albums, to hear what I mean.)

    In any case, you will be missed, Mr. B. May the afterlife treat you well. Won't you sign in, stranger?

    Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
    Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
    Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
    All pages and contents © 2017-2018 Vern Nicholson.