“I’m not the first rock & roll octogenarian, am I?” jokes David Freiberg, hours before he and Jefferson Starship are set to take the stage in Carson City, Nevada.
Frieberg, who turns 80 today, is right; he’s not the only pop act still performing regularly in his eightieth year. From Frankie Valli and British blues stalwart John Mayall (both 84) to R&B veteran Sam Moore (82) to folkies like Peter Yarrow and Tom Paxton (both 80), Freiberg is joining a small, prestigious club. But he’s unique in other ways. He’s likely the oldest classic-rock musician of his generation still touring regularly. And after the death of Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship founder and guitarist Paul Kantner in 2016, Freiberg is now the only member of any incarnation of the Airplane and Starship in Jefferson Starship’s current lineup.
“Toward the end of his life, Paul missed a lot of gigs, so we had to go out and play anyway,” says Freiberg. With the blessing of Kantner’s family and singer and co-founder Grace Slick, who’s retired from performing, Jefferson Starship decided to carry on after Kantner’s death. “Paul’s family said, ‘We’d like you to keep it up,’” Freiberg says. “They liked how we were handling it and how it sounded, and we said OK. We didn’t want to stop.”
Freiberg has a long, deep connection to that world that dates back to the early Sixties, when he and Kantner (and other pals like David Crosby) lived the folkie-beatnik life in California. Freiberg has lived in the same house in Novato in Marin County for about 50 years — a home that Bob Weir and Ron “Pigpen” McKernan rented before him, during the early days of the Dead. In 1965, Freiberg became a founding member of one of San Francisco’s jammiest and most respected bands, Quicksilver Messenger Service, playing bass and sharing lead vocals with guitarist Gary Duncan. Freiberg witnessed the rise — and fall — of the Summer of Love. “It was a pretty blessed thing that seemed to be happening for a few weeks in 1967,” he says. “Everything was going so right for everybody. Then came all the publicity and all the people coming into Haight-Ashbury and the Gray Line bus tours up and down the street.”
Thanks to lineup and stylistic changes, Quicksilver never quite attained the success many envisioned for it. Busted and jailed for weed in 1971 — his third time that decade — Freiberg was out of the band and, when released, wound up briefly in the last incarnation of Jefferson Airplane, filling in for departed lead singer Marty Balin. Freiberg saw the difference between the two bands immediately. “Quicksilver always was like, ‘Let’s see if we can get away with this,’” he chuckles. “The Airplane felt like they owned the world. They were obviously successful. When I joined, I went to their office and they gave me a gold Halliburton case, since everyone in the band had one. Inside the roadies had put a pound of dope: ‘You’re the man now, buddy!’”
The Airplane crumbled soon after, and Freiberg, Kantner and Slick made the oddball but charming Baron Von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun album in 1973. Soon, though, the Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship, and Freiberg, alternating on bass and keyboards, was along for what he calls the “whirlwind” of the band’s Seventies rebirth thanks to hits like “Miracles” (that’s his organ warming the track) and “Count on Me.” When Balin and Slick left the band, Freiberg was instrumental in moving them into a more commercial, harder-rock direction when he co-wrote “Jane,” the “new” Jefferson Starship’s first hit, about an old girlfriend.
During the Eighties, Jefferson Starship grew more commercial but also more generic sounding. Freiberg — then in his fifties and performing onstage with a sequencer, much to his displeasure — parted ways with the band right before it shortened its name to Starship (and soon after concocted the love-it-or-hate-it Eighties anti-classic “We Built This City”). “It completely turned away from anything organic,” Freiberg says, “and it wasn’t really what I did.”
After building a studio in Marin County and working with area musicians, Freiberg was asked to sit in with Kantner’s revamped Jefferson Starship in 2005. (By then, the post-Kantner Starship had broken up.) First, the two had to put some issues behind them: Kantner had long been angry with Freiberg for not leaving the band with him. “I apologized,” Freiberg says with a laugh. “He was absolutely right.” Freiberg has been a member of the band ever since and contributed to its 2008 album Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty.
The new Jefferson Starship — which also includes veteran Starship drummer Donny Baldwin, singer Cathy Richardson, keyboardist Chris Smith, and guitarist Jude Gold — isn’t the only offshoot on the touring circuit these days. Starship featuring Mickey Thomas, fronted by the band’s lead singer from 1979 on, is also out on the road, playing a repertoire that focuses on Eighties hits like “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “We Built This City” and “Sara” along with a smattering of songs by the Airplane (“White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love”) and Elvin Bishop’s “Fooled Around and Fell in Love,” which featured Thomas on lead vocal.
Some of those same songs, like “We Built This City,” also appear in Jefferson Starship’s repertoire, with Freiberg now singing lead. For that overlap, Freiberg blames anthologies that include songs from every one of the Airplane and Starship incarnations. “When RCA put out compilations, they combined everything — their shit and our shit — and now everyone thinks Jefferson Starship did those songs [like ‘We Built This City’]. People who come to see us are confused, so we have to give them something. I actually like a couple of Starship songs. I thought ‘Sara’ was a great song. We’ve been talking about doing ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.’”
Jefferson Starship also takes the classics route one step further than Thomas’ incarnation by transforming into a one-band history of San Francisco rock. At any given gig they may play Quicksilver’s “Fresh Air,” a Janis Joplin hit like “Me and Bobby McGee” (Richardson played Joplin in the stage production Love, Janis), and, “if the crowd’s right,” says Freiberg, an early Airplane gem like “Crown of Creation” and Balin’s “Comin’ Back to Me.”
Last year, former Starship guitarist Craig Chaquico filed suit against this current Jefferson Starship. When Kantner left in 1985, the band members at the time signed an agreement to retire the name “Jefferson Starship” for good. According to Chaquico’s lawyer, Chaquico gave his permission for Kantner to revive the name in 1992 provided it was only during Kantner’s lifetime. Chaquico’s breach-of-contract lawsuit alleges he was not approached for his permission to use the name without Kantner and demands the group no longer use it. “It’s unfortunate,” says Freiberg. “But there’s nothing I can do about that at this point. I am hoping we can resolve it amicably. But we’ll see.” (No court date has been set at press time.)
It isn’t the first time — and won’t be the last — that heritage rock bands are haggling over band-name rights, especially as veteran musicians pass away or retire. “I feel confident we’re doing the right thing,” Freiberg says. “We want to keep the spirit of the band. It feels right. And I would like to do it as long as the world will let me. I’d rather die than retire.”