Death by Power Ballad: Jefferson Starship, “No Way Out”
Among the many crimes against rock and roll perpetrated by Jefferson AirplaneStarshipWhatevertheFuck guitarist Paul Kantner, the 1984 album Nuclear Furniture has to be in the Top Five Most Egregious. The band had been cranking out slick arena rock records with diminishing returns since 1975’s classic Red Octopus, but NukeFurn seemed covered with a sheen that could’ve been mistaken for spilled patchouli oil, only twice as smelly. Much of this was due to the synthy touch of arranger/hired keyboardist Peter Wolf (no, not the cool one who fronted J. Geils—the other one) and AOR guru/producer extraordinaire Ron Nevison, but it can also be laid at the sandaled feet of Kantner who, legend has it, absconded with the album’s master tapes, hid them in his car, and refused to give them back until Nevison mixed them more to his liking.
His hippie hissy-fit aside, Kantner should have been more concerned about the songwriting on the record, which veered from dull (singer Grace Slick’s “Magician” and “Showdown”) to unlistenable (Kantner’s own “Connection,” “Rose Goes to Yale,” and “Champion”) to mildly amusing (the almost-hit “Layin’ It on the Line,” written by other singer Mickey Thomas and future New Age sensation guitarist Craig Chaquico). And the thing is, NukeFurn still sounds slick to the point of appearing oily, just like the band’s previous four or five records, a fact that, in light of the great tape tantrum, simply must be blamed on ol’ “Baron von Tollbooth” himself.
The only thing that keeps NukeFurn from topping the list of Kantner’s sins is the fact that he was likely holding the rest of the band back from even worse suckage. To prove this, one need look no further than his departure in 1985, after which Thomas, Slick, Chaquico, and the other guys dropped the Jefferson from their name (a sop to Kantner, who sued to stop them from using it) and made Knee Deep in the Hoopla, “We Built this City,” and other perfectly manicured dollops of fecal matter before Slick quit dying her hair and retired to her painting and denim shirts.
Of course, every hard-and-fast rule includes a codicil that softens and loosens it, and in this case the rule that states “Nuclear Furniture is anunredeemable piece of garbage” has “No Way Out” as, well, its out clause. The song is a slice of power ballad goodness so powerful, it makes the helium-voiced, mustachioed Thomas seem like a stealthy Lothario, runnin’ around on his woman with impunity until, one fateful day, he tells one lie too many.
In that way, isn’t “No Way Out” the logical extension of such cheatin’ anthems as “Move It on Over,” “Dark End of the Street,” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town?” Rock, blues, and country music (especially country music) are rife with songs about somebody doin’ somebody else wrong, hidin’ the hot dog in somebody else’s bun, throwin’ one’s log in the wrong fireplace, and so forth. There’s something downright heroic about being the cad, or the cad’s longsuffering victim, in damn near all of them. Shouldn’t Mickey Thomas be given the opportunity to wax poetic about his lovin’ ways?
No, from Thomas, we expect an adulterer’s tale similar to that of the Vincent Gardenia character in Moonstruck, who plies his hussy temptress with cheap jewelry and lines like, “Birds fly to the stars, I guess,” thinking he’s getting away with it, while his faithful and knowing spouse waits for him at home (having just rejected the advances of the father from Frasier), working up the gumption to emasculate him over breakfast. Thomas obviously joined Jefferson Starship too late, having missed out on Jefferson Airplane’s free love period, during which Slick fucked everyone in and around the band, with the exception of Marty Balin (who—let’s get this straight—was too undesirable for Grace Slick to have sex with). One didn’t need to make up lies in order to engage in random coitus with the groupie/bandmate in closest proximity to oneself; one just showed up at Grace’s pad and disrobed.
No, Thomas joined just in time to take Slick’s seat on the Starship’s airplane, then give it back when she re-joined the group. And while they both missed the opportunity to star with the band on The Star Wars Christmas Special, they did get to sing on “No Way Out.” It was a small consolation, but consolation nonetheless.
A cool repeating keyboard figure starts the song off with mucho drama, kinda like Journey’s “Separate Ways.” Actually, it’s a lot like Journey’s “Separate Ways.” It’s almost as though Wolf had been smoking a bit of whatever Jon Cain had been smoking when he wrote that classic keyboard riff, and the resulting inspiration yielded a strikingly similar melody. However, whereas Journey amped things up even further on their song by cranking up the guitar and drums, the fogeys in the Starship found themselves getting a little too excited, so they pulled it back a little to introduce the first verse.
And what a first verse. Thomas, the ever-creepin’ lover-man, speaks of waking the morning after his latest conquest:
I was gone for a night
The cruel daylight
Brought me back to my senses
Got caught in here
Under false pretenses
I swear, your honor, I didn’t mean to fuck her, he seems to say. I only brought along my collection of sensual ticklin’ feathers and this case of whipped cream because her down pillow needed stuffin’ and I thought we might get hungry. It was she who brought me here under false pretenses. We’re one verse in and already we know he’s a douchebag. And you gotta wonder about the chick, too—was she seduced by his high, keening voice? Or his status as the guy singer who replaced the girl singer he’s currently singing with? Or was it the mustache?
So of course he slips Little Mickey back in his pants, packs up his travel bag, leaves the whipped cream, and heads home, only to find his old lady waiting and suspicious:
I made up the story
Thought it was clever
She didn’t ask
And I got no reply
But later that night
I heard her cry
Thinking quickly, he tells her he spent the night at the home of an expert feather cleaner, painstakingly laundering his collection. She doesn’t buy his story, of course, and we hear about it in the chorus, three times, in fact. The next day, things are still tense, though there are “no accusations whatsoever” lodged in Thomas’ direction. Still, “she’s a little bit colder” toward him—not quite “she’s made stew out of my pet rabbit, hair and all,” but nowhere near as forgiving as an arena-packin’ rock god’s woman should be under the circumstances.
Why, one can be forgiven for asking, has this lovely lass not dumped arsenic in his oatmeal, packed up her shit, and left him to die? A clue can be found in the middle eight:
She doesn’t want to lose me
So she only sees what she wants to see
She doesn’t want to lose her man—that’s why she puts up with the philandering ass-munch with the girly voice and porn star mustache. She’s become accustomed to her station in life, or she has very little self-esteem, or she just loves the asshole too damn much. She’s forgiven him and, because she only sees what she wants to see, the Mickster has the green light to do it all again. This revelation is signaled to the listener by the mighty drum fill at the climax of the song, before the final choruses, a drum fill played by Donny Baldwin, who would remain the drummer of Starship (Jefferson and non-Jefferson) until 1990, when he broke Thomas’ face in a tussle after a show.
Which is probably what the singer’s old lady should have done after he lied to her, leaving her no way out. Instead, she made him confess his sins to his doppelganger, Father Guido Sarducci: