She Has Funny Cars (1967)

Jefferson Airplane

Written by Jorma Kaukonen and Marty Balin
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The musical essence of “She Has Funny Cars” is integral to the nightclub scene of mid-1960s San Francisco’s wide open, carefree, but thoughtful, psychedelic era. The clubs that groups like The Airplane played were often large “ballrooms,” even if they were only gyms converted specifically to host Rock bands. (One legendary ballroom was Winterland on Post and Steiner Streets, made famous by Bill Graham of Filmore West/East fame.)Jefferson Airplane At winterland 1967

Jefferson Airplane live at Winterland Ballroom, SF, in spring of 1967

Blowing from “She Has Funny Car,” are some of the seeds of Punk, adeptly interspersed with Merseybeat sounds that landed stateside during the so-called British Invasion and then evidently took the long ride to San Francisco. The song is an example of fine work by what amounted to a local band writ as large as skywriting on a puffy blue day.

Sheer and utter abandon musically, twisted thoughts lyrically

She has funny posterListening to it, you can easily picture hippies, proto-hippies and late-blooming beatniks dancing as teenagers and as twenty-somethings. (Indeed the bongo-ish drum intro smacks of beatnik rhythms pounded out to accompany poetry recitations in cellar coffeehouses.) In those imagined scenes, there is something like a lost world, a world so completely vanished you might as well be envisioning sweeping waltzes in 1890 in a mirrored Viennese palace. Yet “She Has Funny Cars” succeeds in calling us back to the glorious, all-too-brief period when the Bay area counterculture vibe was ascendent.

Lyrically, the song grapples with what eventually came to be known as the “plastic” society, which roughly extrapolated means the fake, throwaway, anti-human society that was just beginning to come into focus in the decade’s philosophical vibe.

But like all good writing, “Funny Cars” focuses tightly at first before expanding out into a broader commentary:

Every day I try so hard to know your mind
And find out what’s inside you
Time goes on and I don’t know just who you are
Or how I’m going to find you

Provocatively, the words “she has funny cars” do not appear anywhere but in the title of the song. The listener is left to contemplate what a “funny car” is to begin with.

A funny car of the ’60s was a modified drag-strip stock car, usually of the current model year or close to it, that had been stripped of much of its chrome and other decorations, raked so either the front or back is tilted, and sported a motor of anywhere around 6,000 horsepower. While it is blended nicely, The Airplane’s baseline sound often carries the genes of muscle car music, especially during their live performances.

Funny cars typically burn about 15 gallons of nitromethane for the quarter-mile staging, meaning from roll up to the start line until shut down after the race is run.

You can’t find a better emblem of American conspicuous consumption than the funny car.

She has funny actual funny car

If you listen closely enough, about 2:50 into the song, there are sounds of a motor winding out at high r.p.m.s. Really. And, repeated rumor has it that at the time Airplane Drummer Spencer Dryden’s girlfriend had some sort of funny car.

That all seems to come from left field, but the lyrics are more pointed than they first seem.

You can do whatever you please
The world’s waiting to be seized
You can collect all neglect
Or all the self-respect you need, what you need

And I know… and I know… and I know

Your mind’s guaranteed
It’s all you’ll ever need
So what do you want with me?

That’s one fucking great question and one that should be asked before anyone is issued a marriage license. Or even before the third date.

Marty Balin, one of the song’s writers and band percussionist, dishes up a superb, period vocal. But what makes “She Has Funny cars” work musically are performances by a foursome of champs.

She has funny all airplaneGrace Slick sings close to and makes her voice dance around Balin’s, commandeering the vocal as her own in spots, lending a powerful emotional urgency to the questions ranging through the work.

Jorma Kaukonen’s lead guitar couldn’t be better. It is compact and has a sonic stoutness to it. It couldn’t be knocked over no matter how hard you tried.

Plus it so exemplifies the expression “psychedelic music” that you will hear riffs off Jorma’s work on “She Has Funny Cars” downright stolen whenever the director of some movie or commercial trying to use the ’60s as a sales vehicle feels compelled to drop in a tripped out guitar sound.

Let’s not give anyone short shrift.

Paul Kantner does a terrific job on rhythm guitar and Jack Casady plays a fuzztone bass so good that it essentially functions as a second lead guitar. He and Jorma have a tantalizingly brief battle of the axes during the break that closes the song. (It should be noted that Casady played bass on Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” on Electric Ladyland.)

Although other songs from Surrealistic Pillow stole the limelight from “She Has Funny Cars,” it is nevertheless an immortal song, an album-oriented hit that got some, but not much, radio airtime. It deserves better acclaim. Much, much better… for its roots in the basics of Rock-N-Roll (once again Bo Diddley can be found all over the sound) and because it is a major influence on later psyschedelicizers and on Punk and New Wave.

Some have it nice
Fat and round, flash, paradise
They’re very wise to their disguise
Trying to revolutionize tomorrow…

So what do you want with me?

 

mangoids
  • Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady would go on to form Hot Tuna, a more Blues-oriented version of The Airplane. They were initially joined by Paul Kantner and Mary Balin, also from Jefferson Airplane. The band formed while Grace Slick was recovering from throat surgery in 1969.
  • As the opening track of Surrealistic Pillow, “She Has Funny Cars” has to rank among the earliest of San Francisco psychedelic songs to be heard nationwide in the U.S.

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