Before San Francisco was the land of shark-eyed tech CEOs and Google buses, it was the land of hippies, flower power and tie-dyes — a California paradise where bold talk of revolution mingled with the dank smell of marijuana floating on the breeze. And though one band — the Grateful Dead — may symbolize the Summer of Love in the minds of many, there was another arguably more vital: Jefferson Airplane.
“In 1967, the greatest rock and roll city in America was San Francisco,” Rolling Stone wunderkind Jann Wenner wrote in 2005. ” And the most exciting and successful rock and roll band in San Francisco and the country was Jefferson Airplane. … [They] were both architects and messengers of the psychedelic age, a liberation of mind and body that profoundly changed American art, politics and spirituality. It was a renaissance that could only have been born in San Francisco, and the Airplane, more than any other band in town, spread the good news nationwide.”
Now, one of those who spread that good news is gone. Paul Kantner, guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and one of its founding members, is dead at 74. The cause was multiple organ failure and septic shock, as SF Gate reported.
“Paul was the catalyst that brought the whole thing together,” Jorma Kaukonen, Jefferson Airplane’s lead guitarist, told the New York Times. “He had the transcendental vision and he hung onto it like a bulldog. The band would not have been what it was without him.”
Kantner was born in San Francisco in 1941. His early life — a mother who died young, an emotionally distant father, time in a Catholic boarding school — blazed a trail right to rebellion and rock ‘n roll.
“I was an abandoned little child,” he later said, as Jeff Tamarkin recounted in “Got a Revolution!: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.” “… Nuns and guns. As a result, I now fear nothing.”
After flirting with college as the 1950s became the 1960s, he decided to enroll in San Francisco’s folk scene instead, knocking around in bands. In a free-verse introduction to Tamarkin’s book, Kantner traced the roots of his aesthetic, a path from rockabilly to acid: specifically, from Elvis Presley and Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to “the advent and escape of LSD into the culture.”
“For me, it was the Kennedy aftermath that really shut the door on that world that had existed before,” he wrote. “There was no further reason to hold hope in those people, those values, that plan. An entire alternate quantum was necessary. And all the rules died. And into this world was born Jefferson Airplane thank god.”
The band formed in 1965, soon finding its stride with the inimitable vocals of Grace Slick — an alto whose gritty delivery and trippy lyrics soon turned Jefferson Airplane into stars. What came to be known as the classic sextet was lush with something the musically adventurous, hairy Grateful Dead sometimes seemed a bit short on: hooks and looks.
“She was everybody’s dream for one good summer — in fact, for a good many summers after that,” Kantner later said of Slick.
“Surrealistic Pillow,” Jefferson Airplane’s sophomore effort released in 1967, saw them reach their commercial — and, arguably, creative — peak. Songs like “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” became classic rock staples; the record sold more than 1 million copies. Kantner was credited with handling the band’s sometimes intricate vocal arrangements, and contributed the song “D.C.B.A.-25.”
“It’s basically an LSD-inspired romp through consciousness,” he later said of the track. “I can’t even remember the words at this point.”
Meaningless or not, America’s youth were into it. The band went on to play Monterey, Woodstock — at 7:30 a.m. — and the doomed Altamont festival. There, Kantner confronted a Hells Angel onstage after the biker beat up a band member. Jefferson Airplane seemed to be part of every big 1960s cultural moment.
“Surrealistic Pillow was a groundbreaking piece of folk-rock-based psychedelia, and it hit like a shot heard round the world,” AllMusic wrote. “Where the later efforts from bands like the Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and especially, the Charlatans, were initially not too much more than cult successes, Surrealistic Pillow rode the pop charts for most of 1967, soaring into that rarefied Top Five region occupied by the likes of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones. … The group never made a better album, and few artists from the era ever did.”
This was high praise — but, alas, for an album now almost 50 years ago. Jefferson Airplane had many decades to go, and not all of them were kind to the band or its members.
Kantner and Slick became a couple and, more or less, took control of the group — which, in the 1970s, splintered as side projects, solo albums and personal vendettas took priority. Kantner released “Blows Against the Empire,” a sci-fi themed concept album credited to “Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship”; Jefferson Airplane eventually became Jefferson Starship as members came and went.
While an arena-rock mainstay, Jefferson Starship drifted from its psychedelic roots, leading to a rift. Kantner, who resisted playing pop hits, left in 1984. After his departure and as a result of a lawsuit he filed, Jefferson Starship became plain old Starship — the band loved and loathed for the song “We Built This City,” for which Kantner cannot take credit or blame.
“Usually I’m the last one at the party, but everyone else wanted to go in that more commercial direction,” he said in 2007. “That’s when I said, ‘If you want to play that, I’m gone.’ I really didn’t listen to it, because I was busy putting together a new band. But it was definitely cringe-worthy.”
Indeed, Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship/Starship soon became known as much for the litigiousness of its members as for its music or legacy. Even when different versions of the band reunited, somebody seemed to be suing somebody.
“Right now she’s suing me for some unknown reason, but generally we get along really well,” Kantner said of Slick, with whom he eventually split. “Twenty years ago, feeling tired of the music business, she signed over her interest in Jefferson Starship to me, and now she’s suing me for using the name. I actually had to go and dig up the piece of paper she signed, and I showed it to her, and she said, ‘I don’t remember that.'”
Unbowed, Kantner kept at it. Decades went by — he was still there, playing for the faithful, even as their numbers dwindled.
“The performance by singer-songwriter Paul Kantner at the Bayou Wednesday was more than a little dispiriting,” Mike Joyce wrote in The Washington Post in 1991. “For starters, there was the scant turnout – fewer than 100 people showed up to hear the Jefferson Airplane-Starship veteran perform in a trio setting. And worse, some of those who did show up weren’t all that interested n hearing Kantner read poetry by Central American revolutionaries. … Happily, the response to his music was far more positive.”
Indeed, Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. Members of the Grateful Dead welcomed them into that sacred circle.
“The Jefferson Airplane when in flight, would soar far and wide, and indeed were the best in the world on many a night,” Dead drummer Mickey Hart said.
By the end, Kantner was the only member of Jefferson Airplane still living in San Francisco — which he had indeed built on rock and roll.
“Somebody once said, if you want to go crazy go to San Francisco,” he said. “Nobody will notice.”