In the early ’60s, while most of the country was still living in a 1950s mindset, San Francisco was emerging as a mecca for radically new viewpoints, unusual lifestyles, and strident protests against government overreach. The Free Speech Movement at UC-Berkeley epitomized the “Question Authority” way of thinking that had taken hold and found a sympathetic, nurturing atmosphere in the Bay Area.
Coming of age at about that time was a feisty young man named Paul Kantner, born and raised in San Francisco, who considered himself a “devil’s advocate,” as he had been branded in the Catholic schools and military schools he’d been expelled from as a teenager. He had a passion for science fiction literary works and the protest folk songs of Pete Seeger and The Weavers, and by 1965, he was looking to form a band and write songs that reflected the new liberating attitude of the times.
Kantner met singer Marty Balin, and Jefferson Airplane was born.
Now, here it is, 51 years later, and Kantner is dead from complications following a heart attack at age 74. Yet another fallen hero of the counterculture. I’ve lost count how many we’ve lost since 2016 began. Kantner’s name is not as well known to the masses as David Bowie and Glenn Frey and Natalie Cole, but his impact was huge, his legacy rather remarkable, and well worth discussing.
The Airplane was among the most successful and well known of a cornucopia of San Francisco-based groups that made a name for themselves in the 1965-1972 period: The Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, The Charlatans, Moby Grape, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Sons of Champlin, Steve Miller Band, It’s a Beautiful Day, Sly and the Family Stone, Blue Cheer, Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks.
The band had many strengths. Balin’s forte was folk-based love songs and an engaging tenor voice. Guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bass player Jack Cassady were accomplished players who added serious heft and depth to the band’s sound. The visual focal point was the fiery Grace Slick, who replaced original singer Signe Anderson in late 1966 after the Airplane’s modest debut album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off,” and soon became the symbolic epicenter of the San Francisco sound. Her soaring vocals were featured on two spectacular songs she brought to the party: “Somebody to Love,” the #5 hit single that put the Airplane on the national map in mid-1967, and the subversive, Lewis Carroll-inspired “White Rabbit,” with its not-so-hidden drug references that proved controversial in many American markets.
Underpinning all of this was Kantner, the steady center who provided rhythm guitar, a third harmony to Balin and Slick, and some of the more provocative songs in the group’s catalog. His compositions explored fantasy, science fiction, acid-laced dreams and revolutionary politics, from otherworldly fare like “Have You Seen the Saucers” to heavier tracks such as “Crown of Creation,” from light pieces like “Let Me In” to the supercharged “We Can Be Together.”
The latter tune, from 1969’s “Volunteers,” was banned or bleeped on most radio stations because of Kantner’s notorious line, “Up against the wall, mother f–ker,” not to mention its defiant endorsement of everything established society hated: “We are all outlaws in the eyes of America, in order to survive, we steal cheat lie forge f–k hide and deal, we are obscene lawless hideous dangerous dirty violent and young…We are forces of chaos and anarchy, everything they say we are, we are, and we are very proud of ourselves…”
Balin admits he grew weary of Kantner’s songwriting style: “In the beginning, Paul wrote some beautiful love songs, but as he went on, his songs became these strident epics. It’s one of the reasons the Airplane broke apart. Some of us grew tired of just doing what Paul wanted to do. He was like an American David Bowie with these mad, epic ideas.” Kaukonen was more forgiving of Kantner’s topical lyrics. “Paul was a zealot who never lost that dream” of a utopian community invigorated by rock and roll, he said.
In a 2001 interview, Kantner discussed his philosophy and how it fit the time and place of 1960s San Francisco. “We were utopian…or at least I was,” he said. “We were creating our own alternate universe. Rather than fighting City Hall, we had the ability to create our own City Hall. To this day, I don’t know how or why we got away with it — probably because it was all wrapped in music. If I’d been born anywhere else in the country other than San Francisco, I probably would’ve been executed.”
He continued, “Those who were fighting the good fight, the ACLU and others, got a little resentful of us, calling us irresponsible hedonists. But we did a lot of benefits and helped a lot of people because we were in the position to do so. It was so easy for a rock band to raise large amounts of money for a serious cause, which most people can’t do, and all we had to do was play our songs. Not to do it almost became a sin. A sin of omission.”
Kantner also co-wrote the post-apocalyptic anthem “Wooden Ships” with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, which was featured on both the “Crosby Stills and Nash” debut LP as well as on the Airplane’s “Volunteers” album, and both bands performed it at the original Woodstock festival in 1969. Crosby, a longtime friend, said upon Kantner’s death last month: “Paul was a lot like me — opinionated, confident, and not very afraid of anything. He thought that leading by example was the best thing. He was a believer in music as a lifting force. It lifts humanity up and makes it better.”
By the end of the Sixties, the group was beginning to splinter off in different directions. While Kaukonen and Cassady formed their critically acclaimed blues outfit, Hot Tuna, Kantner indulged his passion for science fiction by writing most of the songs for a futuristic concept album called “Blows Against the Empire,” which involved the fantastical notion of a band of visionary hippies hijacking the government’s first starship and heading off into space to establish a new world among the stars. Slick, who was by this time pregnant with Kantner’s child, participated in Kantner’s hugely overlooked album, which also included the talents of Cassady, Crosby, Graham Nash and the Dead’s Jerry Garcia and and Bill Kreutzmann. (Note to readers: If you like the Airplane, be sure to discover this amazing record. Incredible.)
The Airplane, with a few lineup changes, released two more albums (1971’s “Bark” and 1972’s “Long John Silver”) before calling it a day, and a few other unremarkable solo ventures filled the gap in the early ’70s. Then, in 1974, Kantner and Slick, with a guest appearance from Balin on one track, joined forces with a strong set of supporting players (David Freiberg and Pete Sears, who alternated on bass and keyboards, fiddler Papa John Creach and young guitar maestro Craig Chaquico) to form Jefferson Starship, debuting with a strong LP, “Dragonfly,” that autumn. It had no hit singles, but the LP reached #11 and included Kantner’s powerful anthem of racial diversity, “Ride the Tiger,” and the Balin/Kantner seven-minute ballad “Caroline.”
Within months, the band returned to the studio and churned out ten more tracks that comprised the huge #1 best-selling LP “Red Octopus,” which, thanks to Balin’s lengthy #3 hit ballad “Miracles,” went multi-platinum, far outselling any Airplane record. Jefferson Airplane fans who loved the somewhat ragged production on some of their best recordings found the Starship’s sound too slick and pristine, its lyrics too bland and unappealing, but the mid-’70s album-buying public ate it up. Two more commercially successful LPs followed: 1976’s “Spitfire” (#3) and 1978’s “Earth” (#5), chock full of more hit singles like “With Your Love” (#12), “Count on Me” (#8) and Runaway” (#12). Kantner continued to play the same key role — rhythm guitar, middle harmony and (less political) songwriting, including “There Will Be Love,” “St. Charles” and “All Nite Long,” all arguably better tracks than the hit singles.
By 1979, Slick had slipped into alcoholism and was replaced temporarily by Mickey Thomas, who sang lead vocals on the #14 hit “Jane” from the LP “Freedom at Point Zero” (#10). Slick soon returned and shared lead vocal duties with Thomas on three more albums that had their moments but didn’t chart nearly as high: “Modern Times,” “Winds of Change” and “Nuclear Furniture.”
Kantner’s desire to run the show and steer the group’s direction in a somewhat dictatorial fashion ran counter to the prevailing mood among the rest of the band, so they parted ways, with co-founding member Kantner winning the right to prevent the others from using the term “Jefferson” or “Airplane” in their name. The Kantner-less lineup, now known as simply Starship, forged ahead with an even more commercial approach, charting three power-pop #1 singles in the 1985-1987 period — “We Built This City,” “Sara” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” which made millions but earned the scorn of critics everywhere.
The original lineup of Kantner, Balin, Slick, Cassady and Kaukonen reunited in 1989 for a tour (which was well attended) and an album (which stiffed). The Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, and a revolving lineup of the Jefferson Starship, led by Kantner and Balin, toured off and on from the mid-’90s until the present. Kantner fell ill last year, then suffered a fatal second heart attack in January.
He was far more articulate and intellectual than one might expect from a drug-loving rock star from the late ’60s, and although he had his detractors and self-indulgent moments, he deserves credit for soldiering on, holding the Jefferson Whatever dream alive for several decades through many configurations and numerous ups and downs.
So here’s to Paul Kantner and his bands’ impressive musical legacy. San Francisco, and the rock music world, misses him deeply.