"We're the oldest band in the world," says Grace Slick, the outrageous lead singer of the Jefferson Starship. Slick, who recently rejoined the band after an all-out battle with alcohol, is on the pop-age charts at around 41.
"No we're not," says 40-year-old Paul Kantner, brushing aside long blond waves of hair. "What about the Beach Boys?"
"We have four people [out of six] over 40. I don't think the Beach Boys have that many," Slick insists.
"Bet they do!"
"How much you wanna bet?"
"Twelve shekels!" Kantner suggests.
Kantner and Slick are simply dressed in jeans and T-shirts (his says "Revenge," hers is covered with a blouse) as if they were going to a sale at the shopping mall. Born as the Jefferson Airplane, Slick and company were one of the most visible and outspoken bands to emerge from San Francisco and the "bummer of love," as some now call it. Yet from being musical apostles of the sex and drug revolution, the band went through public disintegrations that resembled a soap opera with very little humor.
Reborn in 1974 as the Jefferson Starship, the band crashed and burned in Germany three years ago when Slick's illness led to a riot that saw a stadium destroyed and $1 million worth of equipment go up in smoke. The singer, once described by Rex Reed as "a free spirit with an open mouth," left the group then; they slid into hard-rock poses and eventually lost their other star and lead singer, Marty Balin.
And Kantner, the last surviving original band member, suffered a cerebral hemorrhage last year. "People were saying I might die, but that didn't scare me at all," says the perpetual adolescent with the sci-fi heart. "I thought, 'Hey, another trip!' I was ready to go. I've had a great life, lived about 18 lifetimes in the years I've had already. I live in one of the best countries in the world, have a couple of good children, a great band, great audiences -- so I was not that sad to leave it. Anticipating the possibility of the unkown is what interested me. But I missed the train, so here I am, back again."
Neither Slick nor Kantner will deny what a long, strange trip it's been. Flashbacks would start in the era of light shows and course along familiar paths: the House of Storms, as their communal castle was known; Slick crashing a new Mercedes into the Golden Gate Bridge in 1971; their psychedelic capes being stolen out of the dressing room at a Washington concert in 1968; free concerts in the park; the burnouts and the bailouts; Slick as the Gibraltar of Rock from when contemporary singers like Pat Benatar and Wendy Williams have drawn inspiration or have imitated.
And who can froget Slick's 1973 visit to the White House with Abbie Hoffman and 600 hits of acid meant for the punch bowl of Tricia Nixon, who, like Slick, attended exclusive Finch College. Apparently, the guards saw through more than Slick's flimsy blouse and didn't buy her argument that she was the First Lady of the New Nation. Anybody remember the New Nation?
Slick and Kantner, both outspoken and intelligent, joke with the ease of former lovers (which they are -- their daughter, China, nee god, is now 10) who have managed to remain friends. Slick leans forward on a dressing room couch at the Merriweather Post Pavilion, where the band has just played for 10,000 diehard fans.
"We thought that big of a deal might have changed him, so we asked our manager, who'd been the only one to see him, if that consciousness of knowing had changed Paul at all. He said, 'No, he's the same old a-----e.'"
"I thought if God was ever going to talk to me, that would have been the time," Kantner sighs. "I'm open to anything like that, but NOOOOO," he adds, shifting into Steve Martin mock-indignation. Kantner doesn't look much different from 15 years ago, talking with that laid-back drug-culture pacifism mercilessly mocked by Cheech & Chong. "I'm like the little guy in "The Tin Drum,' I stopped at 18 and I have never mantured or taken on any responsibility." Except to play guitar and write great rock songs. "You can do that when you're 18."
China, who is in a band, listens to her parents' along with Kiss and AM radio. "I don't think I would have listened to what my parents thought was good," Slick says, forgetting for a moment that what China's parents think is good is China's parents. This comes from a woman who only liked classical music until she was 24. "Everything else was stupid."
Kantner reassures her that "when China is 13, she won't like us. All children at one point have to go against their parents to establish their own thing. It seems to be a ritual of society." Slick herself came out of the Great Society (the band, not the program) to join the fledgling Airplane in San Francisco. She seemed ill-suited for the role: a former fashion model whose father was an investment broker, Slick even spent a year at Finch, which she once described as "a place to keep chicks until they got married."
Rock 'n' roll may not have saved Slick's life, but it certainly altered it.
Where Janis Joplin drank, Grace Slick dropped, earning the sobriquet Acid Queen and pursuing a program of research science on drugs -- with herself as the subject. Somehow, she remained one of the great singers in rock, until the alcohol started destroying her vocal chords. "I'm real stubborn," she says, "and I do not give up anything that I like unless I have severe mental or physical pain attached. There's no way logic is going to get through." After the German debacle, Slick started to pull herself out of the hold; in the process of recording two solo albums, she stopped drinking and lost much weight, sliding back to the figure and voice she had a decade earlier.
"I feel pretty good," she admits. Fifteen years ago, she, Kantner and company walked the edge of a razor, barefoot. The edge has been dulled by time and commercial considerations; maybe it's easier to cross the precipice in Gucci shoes. The outlaws almost became in-laws; at least there's China to show for the old times. "You feel more a part of the planet," says Kantner of parenthood. "It ties you into evolution a lot heavier. It's one of the neatest things to do on the planet."
"She teaches me by her being," says Slick. And what does the Acid Queen tell her 10-year-old daughter about drugs? "It depends on how it comes up. I know more or less about drugs, so I wouldn't go nuts. I'll deal with whatever she does when it arises . . . if it arises."
"We let her see what drugs are and do," adds Kantner."I wouldn't encourage her to even smoke grass until she's well into her own educational process and knows who she is. Anyway, candy's her drug right now." There must be something funny, though, when your parents are the people your parents warned you about.
On the Pavilion stage, Slick hardly seemed the mother figure, shooting out manic glances and spine-collapsing screams at the audience, most of whom were young enough to be her children. And in some ways they were.
"The community of rock 'n' roll extends far beyond borders or people being together," says Kantner. "It's a large group of people who think relatively the same about what's going on in our country." Adds Slick, "It's a form of family, even if that sounds like a hippie remark. For most people in this country, family life is a myth. I know these people better than I know my own parents."
Slick must have meant "some of these people," because her inglorious exit from the band led to a cautious reentry. She rejoined Starship in the studio as a backup vocalist on a song that called for a shouted obscenity ("That's my kind of song!"), moving on to a duet with new lead singer Mickey Thomas and then back into a co-featured role. "The new guys in the band were a little bit apprenhensive about the Acid Queen," she concedes.
"It"s like Russian roulette," adds Kantner. "Being in rock 'n' roll is like running the gauntlet -- drugs, sex, any drug you want, you just stick out your hand. A lot of people came out dead. I don't know how we managed to survive . . . "