1969

We Can Be Together

Recorded by The Jefferson Airplane

Written by Paul Kantner

Before we consider this particular recording, we should note that it comes from an album named Volunteers, whose cover depicts the band in various forms of odd and partial dress, in front of an American flag. The album’s title and cover relate to the closing track of the original album, in which the singers state that “we are volunteers of America.” Musically and thematically, this closing song is very much a companion piece to “We Can Be Together,” which opens the album.

Now, let’s take a quick look at the lyrics of this opening song.

We can be together.
Ahhh, you and me.
We should be together.

We are all outlaws in the eyes of America.
In order to survive, we steal,
Cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide and deal.
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent… and young.

We should be together
Come on all you people standing ‘round.
Our life’s too fine to let it die.
We should be together.

All your private property
Is target for your enemy,
And your enemy…
is we.

We are forces of chaos and anarchy.
Everything they say we are, we are…
And we are very
Proud of ourselves.

Up against the wall.
Up against the wall, motherfucker.
Tear down the walls.
Tear down the walls.

Come on now, together…
Get it on together…
Everybody together.

We should be together.
We should be together, my friends.
We can be together,
We will be.

We must begin, here and now,
A new continent of earth and fire.

Tear down the walls.
Tear down the walls (Come on now, getting higher and higher…)
Tear down the walls,
Won’t you try.

The words, on their own, don’t seem terribly substantial. In fact, they seem to neither tell a story nor paint a complete picture: instead, they appear to be almost a collage, a set of clippings that have been collected from a variety of sources and pasted together to form interesting juxtapositions.

The music, though, adds another whole dimension to the song, giving it depth and bringing it alive.

The track begins with a stirring, almost martial, rhythm, with drums, bass, guitar and piano all in sync, almost physically lifting the listener and propelling them into movement. Kaukonen’s lead guitar enters on a strident, keening note, a seeming call to action.

The song then breaks into a softer, more lyrical rhythm and melody, resolving all conflicts into a sweet, transcendent unity.

The rest of the song alternates between these two moods, with both words and music, creating a powerful tension between feelings and action, togetherness and conflict, unity and discord. It is as if the band first paints a picture of the promised land, of togetherness and unity, but then says, “Ah… if you want this, you’ll have to fight for it.”

Once we understand this underlying dynamic of the song, and feel the power of the music relentlessly pushing and pulling us from one pole to the other, we realize the true genius of the lyrics, for their power lies in their simplicity and transparency. Almost like advertising slogans, the lyrics paint simple pictures that generate predictable emotional and cognitive responses that would be entirely trite if not for their juxtaposition. But the powerful theme of the song lies entirely in this juxtaposition, in its ability to alternately sing the siren song of love and communal togetherness, attracting us, making us feel warm and soft, lulling us to let down our defenses, then sounding the call to action, stirring us to take to the streets and take arms against our oppressors. What ties these two extremes together is this very idea of being together, for the togetherness that the band is advocating starts with simple physical togetherness, but then expands to include a unity of action, and ultimately a togetherness of opposites, the lion lying down with the lamb, the oppressed first freeing themselves, then freeing their former oppressors from the burden of their oppression.

Let’s look in sequential detail at how this interplay between music and lyrics plays out, starting over at the beginning of the song.

We can be together.
Ahhh, you and me.
We should be together.

Notice that the music here is relaxed and warm, and that these opening words could be about nothing more than a traditional romance between man and woman. The interplay of male and female voices lends credence to this interpretation. At this point, the song is all soft, warm invitation: nothing threatening so far.

The music next switches to its call-to-arms motif, and we hear the following lyrics on top of the stirring music.

We are all outlaws in the eyes of America.
In order to survive, we steal,
Cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide and deal.
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent… and young.

The words also switch gears here, of course, painting a picture of generational conflict, reminding the listeners, before they got too comfortable, that they are all “outlaws in the eyes of America.” While this may sound extreme — and some of the words here are meant to paint as extreme a picture as possible, for emotional impact — remember that, at this point in time, if you protested against the war in Viet Nam, if you were a male with long hair, if you smoked a joint from time to time, if you engaged in premarital sex — and certainly if you listened to a band like the Jefferson Airplane — you were probably breaking one or more laws, and had legitimate reason to fear governmental oversight, censure and punishment.

The music now switches back to the loving unity motif, and we hear the following words. Note that these are much like the first verse we heard, but now the togetherness being sought is expanded. We are now clearly talking, not about a single man and woman coming together, but about a group of people sharing a life together and — based on the “and young” at the end of the last verse — an entire generation, by implication.

We should be together
Come on all you people standing ‘round.
Our life’s too fine to let it die.
We should be together.

The music switches again, back to the call-to-arms motif, and we hear the following.

All your private property
Is target for your enemy,
And your enemy…
is we.

The music switches again, on the last line, back to the loving unity sound, but now, instead of more words about togetherness, we hear a demonstration of it, with the band all playing softly behind the vocalists, who emit gentle, pastoral warblings.

Back to the call-to-arms sound for the next verse, with Jorma’s wicked guitar sounds giving voice to the “forces of chaos and anarchy.”

We are forces of chaos and anarchy.
Everything they say we are, we are…
And we are very
Proud of ourselves.

These words serve to draw the line of demarcation even more clearly, leaving no room for indecision or fence-sitting. This is a fundamental conflict, they seem to be saying, not some mere misunderstanding. We’re not about to change, and “they” — the older generation, the government, the powers in charge — are not about to forgive us for it.

The music now switches gears again, back to the loving unity sound. But now, instead of words about togetherness, we get a very different message.

Up against the wall.
Up against the wall, motherfucker.
Tear down the walls.
Tear down the walls.

The most beautiful four syllables in the entire song are the ones that end the second line of the verse above. There are all sorts of ways one could sing that word. Many would be tempted to spit it out, to make it an act of violence. But Grace Slick clearly enunciates each syllable, somehow imbuing the term with power and grace and purpose and even love.

But note how far we’ve come. We started with togetherness between as few as two people. Then we expanded the song’s sense of togetherness to include an entire generation of youth. Now we’ve expanded it again, suggesting that it is only by confronting an abuse of power that we can tear down the walls between us and finally end the conflict and achieve the ultimate state of togetherness.

Now it’s back to the call to arms, with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen spitting out some of his most apocalyptic lines, suggesting that the conflict has been brought to the very gates of the castle. The song now transitions to the following lyrics, singing explicitly about togetherness again, but for the first time doing this to the background of the call-to-arms sound.

Come on now, together…
Get it on together…
Everybody together.

Now back to the loving unity sound, and the following words, confidently ending by saying, for the first time, that we will be together.

We should be together.
We should be together, my friends.
We can be together,
We will be.

Finally, with a new sound, Kantner sings briefly of the promised land, looking beyond the conflict, to “a new continent of earth and fire.” Then back to the exhortation to tear down the walls, heightening the tension by saying that they are getting higher as we speak, then finally ending with the plea, “won’t you try.”

We must begin, here and now,
A new continent of earth and fire.
Tear down the walls.
Tear down the walls (Come on now, getting higher and higher…)
Tear down the walls,
Won’t you try.

Throughout all of this, there is another musical drama going on, giving further meaning to the words. From first to last, most of the band (including the incomparable Nicky Hopkins on piano) plays together harmoniously, occasionally bringing one member or another to the forefront, but in general painting a perfect picture of musical togetherness. Against this backdrop, though, we have Jorma Kaukonen’s often strident electric guitar, with tones and rhythms modified by a wah-wah pedal. His instrument serves two complementary functions: first, it is his playing that most accurately reflects the mood of the words being sung — indeed, one could almost hear the entire drama through his instrument, without benefit of the words — and second, his is the most dissonant voice that challenges us to stretch our understanding of togetherness to include this sort of individualism. If it were not for Jorma’s guitar, the sound of the song would merely be expressing some trite form of togetherness based on conformity. But the electric guitar adds another, human dimension, suggesting that our very diversity is what lends strength and power to our coming together.

(It’s interesting, by the way, to compare this track with Jimi Hendrix’ recording of Bob Dylan’s song, “All Along the Watchtower.” Both songs talk about confronting existing power structures, but while Dylan’s approach is almost Biblical, placing the conflict in the context of a timeless parable, Kantner’s approach is more that of today’s morning news, making the words much more direct and confrontational.)

While the Airplane canon is filled with many great recordings, it is hard to think of one that better captures the central spirit of this band, or any recording by any band that better exemplifies what the rock aesthetic was all about. An effect produced equally by words and music, with neither able to stand effectively on their own; a communal, collaborative approach to artistic creation, including multiple genders, vocalists, instrumentalists, and guests from the broader rock community; a loose, non-traditional song structure that frees the band from narrow traditions and allows them full, flexible expression; electric instruments whose sonic message has little to do with the notes being played, and everything to do with the sounds being produced; a track whose power lies in the unique way that it was recorded, and not merely in the song itself (which was never recorded in any other version by the Airplane or any other band that I’m aware of); and a message of liberation, appealing equally to body, mind, heart and spirit.

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