Jefferson Airplane: “Today” (Surrealistic Pillow, 1967)

This morning, I listened to Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow all the way through for the first time in years. Nothing in particular led me to do it; it had just been a while, and I was looking at the tracklist and trying to remember what “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds” and “D.C.B.A.-25” sounded like (turns out they’re both pretty great songs).

Back when I first bought the album, in 1999, the songs that really jumped out to me were the Grace Slick-led acid rock ravers, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” They were what I bought the album for in the first place—those and “Embryonic Journey,” Jorma Kaukonen’s crystalline acoustic guitar piece, which is still as gorgeous as ever. Aside from “Embryonic Journey,” though, the song that stood out to most this morning was this one, “Today.” 

Probably because he was in a band whose biggest hits featured Slick’s powerful vocals, Marty Balin is something of an overlooked vocalist. I think he had a really great voice, though, particularly for this kind of low-key, folky material. He’s front-and-center in the mix here, the only thing in the whole song not recorded to sound as though it’s a mile and a half away. Even Slick’s backing vocal is set well off in the distance, leaving Balin alone and lonely in the foreground.

It’s a really nice use of production to emphasize the content of the song; it also has the effect of making a song called “Today” feel like a journey into the past.

Speaking of which, I actually remember the exact circumstance under which I bought this album. I was home for summer after my first year at college. During college, my wife and I lived several states apart year-round, and we’d alternate months flying to see each other. She had visited me in Connecticut for a long weekend, and I had just dropped her off at Bradley International Airport. It possible to take the freeway most of the way from my parents’ house to the airport, but I always preferred the backroad route that took me along 140 through Ellington and East Windsor.

East Windsor’s western edge is the Connecticut River, and the place where Route 140 crosses the river is located in the village of Warehouse Point, named for a shipping warehouse built in 1636 by the founder of Springfield, Massachusetts, William Pynchon. This spot is located just below the last natural falls in the river; from there south, it’s a clear shot for an ocean-going vessel to the open sea. 

Warehouse Point has a grocery store (still the locally-owned Geissler’s, the last time I drove through), a few places to eat, the Connecticut Fire Museum, a Trolley Museum my brother and I loved as kids, a couple banks, and plenty of house—it’s a true village. Back in 1999, it also had a record store. I may be misremembering this, but I think it was called The Disc. I’m positive that its small storefront shared a building with an ice cream place. It was across the street from what’s currently a karate academy.

I only ever went in there once, on that drive home from the airport, and the only thing I bought was a used copy of Surrealistic Pillow, for $8.99. It was the original CD issue, which had horrible sound and no liner notes. Actually, in place of notes it had an advertisement in the inner fold for other CD releases on RCA, including albums and greatest hits collections for Dolly Parton, Alabama, John Denver, Eurythmics, and Taco.

The front cover also includes an incredibly ugly RCA CD emblem in the lower left corner—when record companies first started issuing their old catalogs on CD, they rarely expended much effort on giving the buyer any extra value. Perhaps they thought the novelty of a new format was enough. They certainly thought that the new format was worth bragging about. 

This kind of thing is one of the reasons I still love having a physical music collection (and I should note that the mp3 above is from a much later remaster of this album, which I have digitally). I can go through my shelves and find “Nice Price” stickers I never removed, occasional prices tags, advertisements for other releases, and notes from previous owners (this is especially true of my vinyl collection).

At one point, I had a drawer full of those inserts that record companies used to put in CD cases inviting you to order their catalog or send away to the band for more information—an oddly large number of British bands directed these messages to addresses in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire. I assume there was a company there that handled these things for numerous artists or record companies. 

I guess I might open the properties of an mp3 and find a note in the comments reminding me which blog originally posted the song for me to take it, but it’s not quite the same as a faded price tag building an association with and actual place where you once spent time. The Disc, or whatever it was called, is long gone. I don’t know what took its place. But I do remember the hand-made bins they kept their used CDs in, the tattered name cards that aided searchers, and the pull the store’s sign had on me every time I drove by all those years ago.