Paul Kantner‘s legacy is a lysergic one. As a co-founder and driving force behind Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, as well as a solo artist, the late singer-guitarist was a pioneer of acid rock in the Sixties. But even well into the Nineties and beyond, he was still making music that resonated with strange visions, metaphysical insights and magnificent weirdness. From hippie daydreams to transcendental sci-fi speculation, Kantner’s lyrics have never been anything less than otherworldly. Here are 10 choice examples.
Kantner hit the ground tripping with his only composition on Jefferson Airplane's breakout album, Surrealistic Pillow. The title couldn't telegraph the song's intent more plainly: D, C, B, and A are the chords, and 25 refers to LSD-25. But it's the lyrics to "D.C.B.A.-25" that best showcase Kantner's nascent knack for psychotropic bliss: "Here in crystal chandelier I'm home/Too many days I've left unstoned."
Written as an homage to both Winnie the Pooh author A. A. Milne and folk-rocker Fred Neil, "The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil" is one of Jefferson Airplane's first mini-epics. Along with sensuous lines like "The colors blind my eyes and my mind to all but you," what makes the song's lyrics so remarkable is the fact that the trippiest phrase here is borrowed directly from Milne's poem "Spring Morning": "Doesn't the sky look green today?" Even more remarkable, the poem was written in 1924, 19 years before LSD pioneer Dr. Albert Hofmann took his history-changing bicycle ride.
At first, Jefferson Airplane's "The Farm" seems like yet another hippie tribute to rural life. Then it gets kooky. Amid its loving homage to the rustic charms of "growing lettuce, milking cows and honey," the song — co-written by the band's art director Gary Blackman — veers into the kind of Alice in Wonderland territory that Grace Slick explored two years earlier in "White Rabbit." A neighbor of the song's narrator, it turns out, rides a toad instead of a horse: "The toad's name is Lightning/He's 10 hands at the shoulder/And if you give him sugar/You know he'll whinny like a boulder."
Before Jefferson Airplane transformed into Jefferson Starship, Kantner released a solo album titled Blows Against the Empire — with help from some of his bandmates — that first put the Jefferson Starship name into circulation. The spaceship imagery wasn't random. Blows is a science-fiction concept album that kicks off with "Mau Mau (Amerikon)," which imagines an apocalyptic near future where the hippies get ready to leave Earth and its "gothic mask of duty" entirely, but not before "calling for acid, cocaine, and grass." In fact, Blows was so steeped in sci-fi, it was nominated for one of the genre's highest accolades, a Hugo Award.
By the time Jefferson Airplane's 1971 album, Bark, came out, the Summer of Love that the band epitomized was a fading dream. Escapism was the order of the day, and Kantner in particular decided that his beloved science fiction was his way out. "Feel us singing electric in your body," go his lyrics, seemingly a nod to both Walt Whitman's poem and Ray Bradbury's short story. But Kantner gets truly cosmic as he begins to detail "the time seas" and "firesign magnetics," building toward a futuristically psychedelic flow of outer-space fantasy: "Sonar, laser, quasar, pulsar/Bombarded with argon/Open your hands and build a park/Clear your mind and touch the dark."
In 1973, with Jefferson Airplane broken up but Jefferson Starship yet to form, Kantner teamed up with former/future bandmates Grace Slick and David Freiberg to record an album with the eye-popping title Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun. With a name like that, the songs had better be far out — and Kantner doesn't disappoint. On "Your Mind Has Left Your Body," a session of rainbow-riding astral projection leads "under the polar ice cap in a place we call home" all the way to "the nearest sun." Near the song's end, the narrator travels back to the birth of the universe. All in under six minutes.
While Blows Against the Empire was a concept album, Kantner had a harder time smuggling his sci-fi flights of fancy into Jefferson Starship as the Seventies progressed and the band morphed into a more conventional hard-rock act. But on 1979's Freedom at Point Zero, he ushered out the decade by introducing a character, Lightning Rose, who would reappear in several more of his songs throughout the years. Again, Kantner leans on science fiction. Rose lives in a fusion-fueled, post-apocalyptic world as filtered through the back-to-nature idealism of the late Sixties, where she's told to "Build up the watchfires, turn down the sun/I been too long in the green fields of rapture." It's as though, at the end of the Seventies, the Sixties were finally fading to a close for Kantner.
“Somebody’s got to sleep with the machines/If you want to make the sky be home.” What are the machines? What does it mean to sleep with them? In what way should the sky be home? On “The Mountain Song” from Kantner’s ambitious 1983 solo album, Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra, he and his songwriting partner Jerry Garcia hold their cards close. Cryptic and wistful, the song pines — as so many of Kantner’s do — for retreat, escape and inner peace, a vivid and dreamlike “land of the imagination.”
A year before Kantner's former bandmates in Starship topped the charts with the shiny, happy "We Built This City," Kantner was diving deeper into his own imagination and mythology. The character of Lightning Rose that he'd introduced in 1979 reappears on Jefferson Starship's doom-laden Nuclear Furniture album, though this time, his sci-fi creation triumphs over her surrealistically apocalyptic surroundings: "I am the one/I am the only one/In the aftermath of atomic fire/I'll be your champion."
Kantner reformed Jefferson Starship in 1992 after an eight-year hiatus, but it took until 1998 for the band to release its next studio album, Windows of Heaven. As the LP's title implies, Kantner once more found himself gazing both inward and upward at the wonders of the psyche and the cosmos. Granted, he doesn't always discover much of a difference. On "The Light (Ginger & Metaphysics)," he ponders big questions like "Where was the light before it came here?" and "Who held the power to begin the spin?" with the same hallucinatory fervor he spearheaded in the psychedelic Sixties. "Go out and stuff the universe into your eyes," he implores. Throughout his career, Paul Kantner practiced what he preached.