Paul Kantner, R.I.P.

Radical and science-fictional Jefferson Airplane musician made the sixties the sixties--and kept growing.


Paul Kantner, co-founder, singer, and rhythm guitarist for psychedelic and post-psychedelic rock bands Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, died today at age 74. An obituary from his home town San Francisco paper.

For better or worse, Kantner's radical-commie politics were one of the vital mental shapers of the idea of the sixties as the sixties, that swirling sweaty heady wonderland of radical sex, drugs, and revolutionary advocacy where even formerly lovey-dovey pop music became a battleground for the cheering of or calling for radical street revolution (or the pretense of same).

Yes, he played Woodstock. And Altamont, straddling both sides of the era's light-dark divide, and he had the nerve to needle the Hell's Angels sarcastically from stage at the latter after they punched Airplane singer Marty Balin. His cussed streak went on a long time; on Jefferson Starship's 1981 LP Modern Times, amidst such slick rock radio hits as "Find Your Way Back" and "Stranger," he offered instead "Stairway to Cleveland" whose hook line was: "Fuck you! We do what we want!"

No sixties radical movie would feel right without some reference to a couple of Airplane tunes he co-wrote such as "Volunteers" or "We Can Be Together," with the immortal lyrics speaking for a generation of (perhaps overly self-satisfied) would-be street radicals:

We are all outlaws in the eyes of America.
In order to survive, we steal,
Cheat, lie, forge, fuck, hide and deal.
We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent… and young.

It was an interesting sign of changing times that those lyrics were in a major label LP that went top 13 in 1969. The sixties we remember was soundtracked and formed way more by Kantner and his team than their current low rep would indicate. (Not that he invented that stuff, but he was a pop conduit of it from a revolutionary cadre to a mass audience.)

While Kantner and his band's reputation have shrunk enormously from the days when they were rightly judged one of American rock's obvious royalty—likely because of how many people decided they hated the song "We Built This City," even though it was made by a later evolution of the band simply called Starship that Kantner had nothing to do with—Kantner was always working and writing really interesting material, even more interesting when he let go of the more rah-rah end of sixties pop-revolutionism.

Kantner had an unmistakably deep and sonorous and stentorian singing style, which stood out from the pack as a lead voice yet also was curiously great as a harmony voice with his singing partners Marty Balin and Grace Slick, even later as part of the blend on pop hits like Jefferson Starship's "Miracles" and "Count on Me."

Kantner's songs, with both Airplane and its later evolution Jefferson Starship and in his solo and duo (with Grace Slick) career were generally strange and twisted even if lovely, un-obvious and tangled melodically and of peculiar shape and subject matter, often science fictional in theme. He was one of the first pop songwriters to warn us the government was lying to us about the frightening and glorious truth of alien spacecraft in "Have You Seen the Saucers?" in 1970. He was also an early pop culture presager of the whole Holy Blood Holy Grail thesis of Jesus' bloodline in his 1972 song "Son of Jesus." His first solo LP, Blows Against the Empire, about a bunch of hippies taking off into space hijacked starship essentially, was the first rock album to be nominated for science fiction's Hugo Awards. (music clips below!)

He was a commie, yes, but I loved his music and to the extent one can "love" a public figure, I loved his cranky goes-his-own-way self. I wrote in praise of his solo LP Planet Earth Rock n Roll Orchestra and an Airplane LP his spirit dominated, Bark, in the book Lost in the Grooves. With me a sci-fi kid and Kantner the sci-fi rocker, I felt a special affinity for him. I got to see him perform many times in many guises, from a spring break 1987 show in Daytona Beach with the KBC Band to, just last year, a Jefferson Starship performance in Los Angeles. (In the days before all information spread instantly everywhere, I bought tickets to see Jefferson Starship in 1984, not realizing Paul had just quit the band, largely over what he saw as a too-pop direction. Boy was I annoyed my man wasn't on stage.)

Not that many people showed up, and Kantner was as gnarled and fragile an aging body I'd ever seen perform live rock music. But he was present and in good voice and an egoless curator for the wonderful body of work done under the Jefferson name. I'm glad I got to mindmeld with his music via record and in person and I'll miss his presence. He was a great spiritual advocate for space travel and techno-transcendence and should be better loved as a bard of that tradition.

One of my own bands was named after a line in his song "War Movie," "The 14th Battalion of Mind Raiders."

He should be better remembered than he is, and I have been predicting for years that his work, and that of his former musical and romantic partner Grace Slick, deserved and would have a hipster revival. His stuff was just too interesting and too good. I bet it still will happen, and a shame Paul won't be there to join the 10 bands of youngsters in some small theater in New York or Los Angeles tapping into his strange imagination.

A survey of his unique and peculiar greatness, from Jefferson Airplane's psychedelic love epic "Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil"

His bizarre sci-fi future hippie techno revolutionary war ballad, "War Movie"–"To move against you, government man/Do You understand?"

"When the Earth Moves Again," a stirring historical-science fiction epic of transcendence, with lyrics I scrawled on junior high notebooks as a space-besotten science fiction kid: "If you've only lived on Earth, then you've never seen the Sun/Or the promise of a thousand other suns that glow beyond here."

His lovely solo campfire space travel singalong, a loving vision of human transcendence, "Mountain Song"–"Someone's gonna have to sleep with the machines/If we wanna make the sky be home"