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.”
Paul Lorin Kantner was born in San Francisco on March 17th, 1941. His father, also named Paul, was a salesman; Kantner’s mother, Cora, died when he was eight. Kantner attended a Catholic boarding school in Berkeley — “A little more vulgar version of the Jesuits,” as he put it in Ralph J. Gleason’s 1969 book The Jefferson Airplane and the San Francisco Sound — and had dropped out of the University of Santa Clara when he met Kaukonen, a new student there, in 1962. “He still had that collegiate look to him,” Kaukonen recalls. “But Paul was definitely existing outside the pale” — living in a surfer’s shack and profoundly influenced by Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein’s 1961 novel about the spiritual journey of a human raised by Martians.
“The idealism in Heinlein infected him in the same way it infected me,” says Crosby, who met Kantner in 1963 when they were both aspiring folk singers living in a communal household in Venice, California. Something else the two men shared: “He was, as I was then, a stoner,” Crosby says, laughing. “We became good friends.”
One evening in 1965, Kantner — back in San Francisco — walked into a folk club called the Drinking Gourd, carrying a 12-string guitar and a banjo. “He had his hair down to here and an old cap,” Balin, who was there, told Gleason in that 1969 book. “I had never heard of him, but I knew he was good.” On August 13th, 1965, Balin, Kantner and their embryonic Airplane — with Kaukonen and original female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson — made their live debut as the opening attraction at Balin’s new club, the Matrix. “I had to encourage him to sing,” Balin says of Kantner now. “He was a little shy about it at first. But he got into it.”
It was at the Matrix that Kantner first heard Slick, then the electrifying singer in another San Francisco band, the Great Society. “She just tore me up,” Kantner confessed to Gleason. Slick’s arrival in the Airplane (replacing Anderson in October 1966) and her searing vocal bravado on the band’s 1967 Top 10 singles, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” turned the Airplane into a national phenomenon, a group of underground idealists with commercial clout.
By 1969, Kantner and Slick were the Airplane’s power couple, romantically involved (their daughter, China, would be born in 1971), driving the band musically and lyrically, and generating their own series of galactic-revolution albums, beginning with Kantner’s Blows Against the Empire, the first album to bear the name Jefferson Starship.
Kantner and Slick’s relationship “certainly changed things in terms of the political infrastructure” of the Airplane, Kaukonen admits. The guitarist also remembers Kantner as determined “to the point of being obnoxious in rehearsals, especially with his songs. He knew what he wanted out of them, and he would hammer us until he got it.”
In 1980, as an increasingly commercial version of Jefferson Starship was riding its own wave of success, Kantner suffered and survived a cerebral hemorrhage. He was more distressed by his eroding role in the Jefferson Starship’s direction, quitting in 1984 and legally forcing the other members of the band to cut their name to Starship. After recording a 1989 reunion album with most of the classic-lineup Airplane, Kantner relaunched Jefferson Starship according to his original science-fiction-protest vision, touring extensively and writing and releasing a 2008 album, Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, on which he covered traditional and political folk songs by Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie and others. “He was like an American David Bowie,” says Balin. “He had these mad, epic ideas.”
Kantner never stopped trying to regenerate the revolutionary nirvana of the Airplane’s golden age — and get his old bandmates back onstage and to record with him. “Over the years, Paul would always be like, ‘We gotta do this, we gotta do that,'” says Kaukonen, who runs a guitar-instruction camp in southeastern Ohio and still works with Casady in Hot Tuna. “And I’d say, ‘No, I’m doing this.'”
Last year, Balin turned down an offer to join Kantner on a tour celebrating the Airplane’s 50th anniversary. “Paul sent me a schedule that was ridiculous,” Balin says, “every country, every night. I said, ‘Paul, you gotta watch out for your health.'” Kantner, a lifelong smoker and drinker, replied, “I can do that. Nothing can hurt me. I’m as strong as a bull.”
“He did not have subtlety,” Crosby says of Kantner. “He had a very forthright approach. He didn’t do tender ballads. He liked songs where he could sing out strong, in full voice. He was always the toughest of us. You thought nothing could kill him.”
“Paul’s thing was always ‘There is music left to be made,'” Kaukonen remembers. “And he might have been right. We will never know now.”