Remembering Paul Kantner, Jefferson Airplane Founder With ‘Mad, Epic Ideas’
At the height of San Francisco’s mid-Sixties psychedelic renaissance, Jefferson Airplane, the scene’s reigning band, often played free shows for the faithful — on flatbed trucks in the Panhandle and at be-ins in Golden Gate Park. That is where bassist Jack Casady saw his bandmate, singer-guitarist Paul Kantner, “at his best. He’d take his 12-string Rickenbacker,” Casady says, “and raise it above his head in a great, revolutionary stance. He loved that phenomenon of a huge number of people coming together with music as the foundation and the catalyst.”
Kantner — who died at 74 on January 28th in San Francisco of multiple organ failure following a heart attack earlier in the week — pursued that ideal for more than 50 years: first with the Airplane, which he co-founded with singer Marty Balin in 1965; then, after that group broke up, in the spinoff Kantner dubbed Jefferson Starship and led through multiple lineups until his passing. “Paul was a zealot,” says Airplane lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, who “never lost that dream” of a community charged by rock & roll, bonded by joyous rebellion and destined for a utopian future. Kantner put it this way in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview: “We seek to eradicate that audience-performer relationship as much as possible. That’s not really valid anymore.”
With his martial-folk style of rhythm guitar, urgent, grainy singing and complex, stridently topical songwriting, Kantner was “the Pete Seeger of the band,” Kaukonen claims. “The social distress of the time was the perfect storm for Paul’s kind of writing.” Kantner’s Airplane classics — including “Crown of Creation,” “We Can Be Together” and “Wooden Ships,” the last co-written with David Crosby and Stephen Stills — were turbulent, melodically eccentric anthems propelled with lysergic-blues force by Kaukonen, Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden, and fired skyward by Kantner’s empathic vocal ballet with Balin and acid-rock siren Grace Slick.
Kantner’s missionary fervor was a major reason why the Airplane splintered at the end of the Sixties into side projects like Casady and Kaukonen’s blues duo, Hot Tuna, and Kantner’s own 1970 science-fiction concept album, Blows Against the Empire. “Paul couldn’t do anybody else’s music,” claims Balin, who quit Jefferson Airplane in 1971 but frequently reunited with Kantner for records and tours over the next several decades. “In the beginning, Paul wrote some beautiful love songs,” like the plaintive, jangly “Let Me In,” on the 1966 debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. “But as he went on, his songs became these epics. That became our style. That’s why the Airplane broke apart. We had to get away from just doing what Paul could do.”
“Paul was a lot like me — opinionated, confident and not very afraid of anything,” confirms Crosby, a lifelong friend. “But Paul wasn’t trying to convince you that you had to do it his way. He did think that leading by example was the right thing.” And Kantner led best, Crosby says, through music. “He was a believer in music as a lifting force. It lifts humanity up, makes it better.”