Spencer Dryden -- Jefferson Airplane drummer
Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic
Thursday, January 13, 2005
Spencer Dryden, the drummer for the Jefferson Airplane who once appeared with his group on the cover of Life magazine but had fallen on hard times, died Tuesday from cancer. He was 66 years old.
Mr. Dryden, who had health problems in recent years, retired from performing music 10 years ago, although he hadn't been working much long before that. "I'm gone," he told The Chronicle in May 2004. "I'm out of it. I've left the building."
A benefit last year at Slim's starring Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and Warren Haynes of Gov't Mule raised some $36,000 for Mr. Dryden, who was in the middle of two hip replacement surgeries and was facing heart surgery at the time. His Petaluma home and all his possessions had been destroyed in a fire in September 2003. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer later last year.
Mr. Dryden was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 for his work with the Jefferson Airplane during the band's glory years -- from the breakthrough 1967 "Surrealistic Pillow" album through historic rock festivals such as Woodstock and Altamont. He sat out the band's performance at the Waldorf Astoria that night, watching from the table. "He was always fragile," said Airplane vocalist Marty Balin.
Born in New York City, Mr. Dryden moved with his parents when he was an infant to Los Angeles, where his father went to work as an assistant director for Mr. Dryden's uncle, movie star Charlie Chaplin. One Chaplin biographer described a scene of idyllic domesticity at a family Christmas party in 1943 when 5-year-old Spencer Dryden read "The Night Before Christmas."
After attending Glendale High School, he graduated from the Army and Navy Academy in Carlsbad (San Diego County) in 1955. He played in some early rock 'n' roll bands but soon drifted toward jazz and was working as a drummer at the Hollywood strip club the Pink Pussycat when session drummer Earl Palmer recommended him to the Airplane's manager.
He replaced Skip Spence, who went on to start another Fillmore-era San Francisco rock group, Moby Grape. Mr. Dryden conducted an affair with the band's female vocalist, Grace Slick, and his marriage to the former Sally Mann was covered extensively in Rolling Stone magazine. He recorded on a number of the Airplane's most famous albums, "Surrealistic Pillow," "After Bathing At Baxter's," "Bless Its Pointed Little Head," "Crown Of Creation" and "Volunteers," before leaving the band in 1970.
He replaced Mickey Hart in the Grateful Dead sideline country-rock band, New Riders of the Purple Sage, in February 1971 and stayed with that group until 1978, recording a number of albums including the 1973 gold album "The Adventures of Panama Red."
In the '80s, he joined a group of psychedelic rock veterans called the Dinosaurs that played informally around Bay Area clubs along with former members of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe and the Fish. When the other band members reunited for a 1989 Jefferson Airplane reunion album and tour, Mr. Dryden was not invited to participate.
"Spencer had a flow," said Mickey Hart of the Dead, "a way of going, an impulse power that was irresistible and unique. He was capable of creating a churning, loving rhythm machine for ecstatic dancing."
"He was just the greatest guy," said ex-wife Sally Mann Romano of Houston. "He was so quirky, and he never intentionally hurt anyone."
He last appeared in public in November, after he was already being treated for cancer, signing autographs and shaking hands at a release party for the recent DVD of Jefferson Airplane video clips at the Great American Music Hall.
He died at his Petaluma home, little more than a shack really, that he rented on the back end of somebody else's property outside of Penngrove.
He was married three times and is survived by three sons; Jeffrey, Jes and Jackson Dryden. Plans for a memorial concert are pending.
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