This business of writing Requiems for Rock Stars is getting depressingly familiar. Add Paul Kantner, founding member of the Jefferson Airplane/Starship, to the list of those for whom the recording tape has run out.
(That the Makers of The Music are passing should not be surprising, I guess. Those who were making rock music in the mid-1960s, and were in their early 20s at that time, are now in their 70s. The current lifespan at birth for U.K. and U.S. males is 79 and 76 years, respectively; knock a few years off those for someone born in the early 1940s, a couple more for the rock and roll lifestyle, and — well, the clock is ticking …)
Kantner died Thursday in San Francisco, Calif. — the city that birthed him, and his 50-plus-year career in rock — at the age of 74. The proximate cause was a heart attack, his second in the past 10 months or so.
Born March 17, 1941, in the City by the Bay, Kantner was one of the three original members who got the Airplane off the ground in 1965. He had already been playing folk guitar in the Bay area for several years, and was recruited — along with guitarist Jorma Kaukonen — by vocalist Marty Balin, who was trying to start a group that would blend folk and rock. What he got, eventually, was something quite different.
The rest of the band’s lineup changed several times in the next year or so, with female lead vocal Signe Anderson departing after their first album. She was replaced by Grace Slick, and that and changes in the bassist and drummer helped create the sound that would be part of quintessential San Francisco Psychedelia.
The Airplane caught my ear when “Somebody to Love,” the band’s first Hot 100 single — four previous releases had failed to chart — hit the WLS airwaves in the spring of 1967, my senior year in high school. I liked it, particularly Slick’s searing, soaring vocal.
Ditto for “White Rabbit” and “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” which followed in June and August, respectively. The former had all those wonderful “Alice in Wonderland” allusions; the latter had that head-scratching Winnie the Pooh-inspired title, more Palin than the first two, and Slick teasing out “armadillo-lo-lo.”
I saw the Airplane perform in the spring of 1969, a carload of the Janesville/Milton crew heading down I-90 (but probably not trying to trick the tollbooths, like we usually did) to Chicago’s Grant Park. We got there late, and couldn’t get that close to the stage; what sticks in my mind was “Good Shepherd,” which I had never heard.
Could have seen the Plane again a year later; they were Golden Freak Enterprise’s Plan A for the top-billing act at the April 1970 Sound Storm rock festival near Poynette, Wis. But the asking price was too high, Golden Freak president Pete Bobo knew the Grateful Dead, and the other big name SF psychedelic band cut him a deal. Or so the story goes.
The band’s fourth studio album, “Volunteers,” had come out less than six months before that, with a more political edge to it. Amazingly — I would have sworn they recorded more than seven LPS, not including two compilations — the Airplane would release only two more albums before fissioning into Jefferson Starship and Hot Tuna. Not very familiar with either “Bark” or “Long John Silver,” though.
Kantner got on board the Starship, beginning with “Blows Against the Empire,” which is sometimes considered his solo album, but is also co-credited to Jefferson Starship. That concept album suffered from a weak concept: hippies hijacking a starship — what’d they do, get the armed guards stoned?.
He continued with the Starship for about a decade, before bailing out when (he said) the band became too commercial. Songs like “Caroline” and “Miracles” were pretty slick — pardon the pun — but I always kind of liked the latter, which helped get the album “Red Octopus” to No. 1. That was the only top-charting LP for either the Airplane or Starship — so, yeah, I guess, too commercial.
Kantner re-formed Jefferson Starship 10 years or so after that, during which hiatus he and two other early Airplane members, Balin and Jack Casady, put together the KBC Band. There was also a short-lived Jefferson Airplane reunion, and one more studio album by the classic lineup.
The post-Airplane-breakup period was pretty chaotic for Kantner, and the group. He and Slick had a fling, and a child (who, fittingly, became an MTV VJ), but later became entangled instead in lawsuits. The all-too-common legal battles over ownership of band names also ensued, and eventually no group could perform as Jefferson Starship without Kantner, and no one could be the Airplane without Slick.
Other than what turned up on the adult contemporary and classic rock FM stations, I lost track of Kantner and the Airplane/Starship descendants. I didn’t own much of their music, other than the live “Bless Its Pointed Little Head” LP — which became one of my “Albums that Got Away” when a friend borrowed it and left it in the back window shelf of his XKE, putting a permanent wave into the disc.
Last year, to correct that deficiency, I ordered one of those Classic Album Series packages of five CDs — a good deal in music, I will note. This would have been a better deal if it included “Volunteers” instead of “Bless Its …,” but otherwise it’s the first four studio albums.
The day after Kantner’s passing, I listened to those early albums. The progression from “Takes Off,” the debut LP, to “Surrealistic Pillow” is striking, and much of that has to be attributed to the more-dynamic Slick replacing Anderson, and Skip Spence and Casady coming aboard.
“The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil” was released as a single first, then led off “After Bathing at Baxter’s,” the third studio album. The sound was much more polished by then, a quality that continued on “Crown of Creation.”
But “Baxter’s” also began to show the band’s rebellious and anarchistic streak — “War's good business so give your son/and I'd rather have my country die for me,” from “Rejoyce” — that would progress on “Crown” and come to fruition in “Volunteers.”
An interview clip I heard on SiriusXM’s Deep Tracks the day after Kantner died featured him saying that Balin and Slick were the creative geniuses of the band. But he wrote, or co-wrote, nearly a third of the songs on the first seven Airplane studio albums.
Kantner probably did not have quite the same impact on The Music as David Bowie, who died two and a half weeks before him and was much more creative for a longer period. He could be compared more to Glenn Frey, the Eagles co-founder who passed the week before. But there’s no question that he contributed significantly to one of the more important rock and roll bands of the 1960s and ’70s.