At the heart of the San Francisco psychedelic music movement of the late 1960s, at least the part that grabbed the attention of the rest of an unknowing nation, sat Paul Kantner. As the founder and perhaps most politically and socially outspoken member of Jefferson Starship, he fanned the flames of a generation beset by the Vietnam War and the draft, a following caught in a cultural shift of attitudes towards drugs, police, parental obedience and simple personal identity.
Curiously, his onstage role with the Airplane, and its more commercial ‘70s and ‘80s permutation, Jefferson Starship, was regularly overshadowed by the presence of the group’s towering vocalists, Grace Slick and Marty Balin. But Kantner was unquestionably at the controls during the band’s heyday – so much so that when its tenure with singer Mickey Thomas turned overtly commercial in the mid ‘80s, Kantner quit and effectively pulled the plug on his mates by taking the rights to the band’s name with him, hence the formation of the more generically pop-driven group known simply as Starship.
“I felt like the last guy at the party,” Kantner told me in 1993 of his final days with the original Jefferson Starship. “There just wasn’t anything worth staying around for. Everyone else wanted to go and be pop stars.”
But Kantner’s glory days unquestionably fell within the golden age of Jefferson Airplane. The four studio albums the band cut quickly between 1967 and 1969 – Surrealistic Pillow, After Bathing at Baxter’s, Crown of Creation and Volunteers – drew on the strengths of multiple musical personas with Kantner’s socio-psychedelia and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen’s electric blues resolve being the most prominent.
Surrealistic Pillow was the hit, mostly because it made a star out of Slick. But I’ll place After Bathing at Baxter’s, an indulgent but panoramic blast of psychedelic invention, at the top of the list. “It wasn’t always successful,” Kantner said in our 1993 interview, “but it took giant steps, dangerous steps musically and sometimes got away with them.”
It should also be noted that when Balin bolted in 1970 and the blissed out West Coast fantasy of the ‘60s eroded into the dark, sobering reality of the early ‘70s, the Airplane followed suit with two underrated and often unsettling coda albums (Bark and Long John Silver). Both were preceded by Kantner’s first and finest quasi-solo record, 1971’s Blows Against the Empire, a fascinating last gasp of West Coast psychedelia with a science fiction slant.
Kantner’s only Lexington performance seems to have been Jefferson Starship’s performance at Rupp Arena in 1978. But in the hour I spent with him prior to a 1993 concert at Bogart’s in Cincinnati and was amazed to find how little of the political idealism and restlessness that drove him during the ‘60s had settled. The music Kantner made from the ‘90s onward didn’t match the cunning and stylistic breadth of his earlier work – proof that the magic of Jefferson Airplane was rooted far more in band chemistry than the advances of one member. But from its first flight in 1965 to when it was grounded in 1972, there was no mistaking who pilot of this plane was.
“It’s all about good songs,” he said of any enduring artistic legacy, “Some songs are so bad that you just want to throw your radio across the room when you hear them. Others are so good that it sometimes doesn’t matter how or when you sing them.”