How Big Was Jerry Garcia’s Influence on ‘Surrealistic Pillow’?

When Jefferson Airplane flew south to Los Angeles to make their second album, they were joined on the trip by a San Francisco compatriot: Captain Trips.

The Grateful Dead‘s Jerry Garcia was, by nearly all accounts, part of the sessions that produced Surrealistic Pillow, the Airplane’s platinum-certified breakthrough that was released Feb. 1, 1967. But as with so many things related to the Airplane, the Dead and the psychedelic rock scene in general, there are multiple versions about the contributions he made.

On the album’s back cover, Garcia is credited as “Musical and Spiritual Adviser,” and Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen described him in his memoir Been So Long: My Life and Music as “a combination arranger, musician and sage counsel.” By his own account, Garcia also played guitar on three tracks – “Today,” “Comin’ Back to Me,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover” – and on two outtakes, “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues” and “In the Morning,” which surfaced as bonus tracks on a 2003 reissue. That participation, however, was kept on the back burner because the Dead were signed to rival Warner Bros. Records (the Airplane were on RCA), which had recorded their debut album, ironically, in the same RCA studio complex.

Garcia, by many uncontested reports, also arranged “Somebody to Love,” which new singer Grace Slick brought with her from her previous band the Great Society and which became the Airplane’s breakthrough hit, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. He also gave the album its name. “When Marty Balin asked Jerry Garcia what he thought of the studio tapes, Jerry said, ‘Sounds like a surrealistic pillow,'” Slick wrote in her memoir, Somebody to Love: A Rock-and-Roll Memoir. “It’s one of those names that leaves the interpretation up to the beholder.”

Listen to Jefferson Airplane’s ‘Somebody to Love’

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Rick Jarrard, the RCA house producer who helmed Surrealistic Pillow, refuted the idea that Garcia had any involvement in the album. “Jerry Garcia was never present on any of those sessions,” Jarrard told Airplane biographer Jeff Tamarkin. “Jerry Garcia played no guitar on the album. I never met Jerry Garcia. I produced the album from start to finish, never heard from Jerry Garcia, never talked to Jerry Garcia. He was not involved creatively on that album at all. That’s really gotten to me all these years because I sweated blood on that album. If Jerry Garcia was there, he was in spirit form.”

Jarrard’s defiant denial has never been fully explained. He could have been protecting RCA because the Dead were signed to another label. He may have resented Garcia’s presence as a more trusted advisor to his Bay Area brethren. Kaukonen even noted that while he initially considered Garcia Surrealistic Pillow‘s co-producer, he came to understand that Jarrard was indeed the album’s sole producer. Garcia could have been in the studio when Jarrard wasn’t, but that seems unlikely. and the formal credit for Garcia on the album means the producer would have to be aware of his involvement at some point.

Regardless of the conflict, all concerned did the job for the Airplane. Recorded between Oct. 31 and Nov. 22, 1966, Surrealistic Pillow reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200 and launched another Top 10 hit, “White Rabbit” – another Great Society carryover – which peaked at No. 8 on the Hot 100.

With attention drawn to the Bay Area scene by news coverage for the Human Be-In the previous month, Surrealistic Pillow was also the first musical shot of the Summer of Love, preceding debut albums by the Dead, Moby Grape and Big Brother & the Holding Company, as well as the Monterey International Pop Music Festival in June, which the group co-headlined.

“We felt good about [the album],” Paul Kantner said in an interview some years later. “We felt like we could do better than the first one [1966’s Jefferson Airplane Takes Off]. When we went in to do Surrealistic Pillow we were better players, better songwriters, we knew more about the studio, we had Grace and [drummer] Skip [Spence]. … We had a lot more going for us, and I think it showed.”

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