Paul Kantner was not the leader of Jefferson Airplane, the sixties band that came to epitomize the counterculture. Leadership rotated, original leader Marty Balin once joked, to whichever member was currently involved with Grace Slick. Neither was Kantner Jefferson Airplane or 70s Jefferson Starship’s lead vocalist, being only one of four singers, his warm, understated vocals often eclipsed by Slick and Balin’s more attention-grabbing turns. Nor was Kantner his bands’ primary songwriter – one of the Airplane’s four primary songwriters, he was just one hand on the Jefferson Starship overcrowded deck. All this is not however to bury Kantner – that occurred, literally, in January 2016, at age 74 – it is absolutely to praise him. Indeed to praise him in the most comradely fashion: as a key component in a countercultural collective, the very antithesis of the individualist diva.
Because Kantner pursued his whole musical life as a member of essentially the same band. Actually pretty much his life, given that the Airplane put into practice that Help!/Monkees band-commune fantasy (at 2400 Fulton Street from 1968). Even Kantner’s “solo” albums were collaborations with Slick, Balin, or other Jeffersons, with maybe a Crosby or Garcia along for the magic carpet ride. We might argue that Kantner was the band’s backbone, as rhythm guitarists should be, one foot in the rhythm, the other in the harmony. We might argue that he was the band’s hippy heart or its countercultural brain – especially compared to bombastic balladeer Balin. But Kantner was a musical communard, a melder with the melee, tucked coolly but unobtrusively behind his glasses and his big Gretsch guitar, letting Jorma Kaukonen or Craig Chaquico perform the guitar pyrotechnics, Balin or Slick hog the vocal spotlight. Take Paul Kantner out of that mix, however, and you don’t have Jefferson anything.
Just take those vocals: at the Airplane’s peak from 1967-70, the eerie power of Slick’s voice and the drama of Balin’s combined with the warmth of Kantner’s to unheimlich effect: odd, ethereally beautiful but also abrasive, challenging. The Airplane’s harmonies weren’t soothing like CSN’s, not wistful like the Dead’s. The Airplanes harmonies on, say the title track of 1968’s Crown of Creation, blend but stay separate, Slick on a trip of her own, bouncing off Balin; Kantner steering a steady course through the middle. This wasn’t a vocal mush, like The Byrds, it was a writhing, struggling meld – togetherness in all its diversity, complexity and problematics. A typical leftwing aggregation, you might say: cantankerous, prone to factions, and caucuses, but committed, nevertheless, to the challenge of communality.
On “Crown of Creation”, Kantner’s lyric perfectly matches the vocal performance, a countercultural gauntlet thrown down to society:
In loyalty to their kind
They cannot tolerate our minds.
In loyalty to our kind
We cannot tolerate their obstruction!
The Airplane were there at the birth of the counterculture, pretty much creating the magnetic pole of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury scene. They were at Monterey Pop, at Woodstock, at Altamont. You’d say they were present at the death, except the Airplane were always the counterculture’s more ornery comrades the Airplane’s gigs saw regular confrontations with management, security or police, Kantner and Slick always in the thick of it. Thus, relatively unfazed by Altamont, they flew their fraying freak flag long after others had drifted into spirituality, confessional songwriting or cozy campfire nostalgia. If Slick wrote the band’s most psychedelic numbers, Kantner wrote most directly about the counterculture. On Airplane’s 1966 first album, Takes Off, that manifests in sly jokes about “fantastic trips” (causing record company cardiacs): Kantner claimed to have first taken acid in 1963. With leftist folkie Pete Seeger inspiring Kantner to pick up a guitar before anyone had heard of Bob Dylan, the Airplane’s debut was still emerging from the folk-rock chrysalis. 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow created a psychedelic superstructure on this folk-rock base – and via Slick’s “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” made them stars – with a manifesto emerging. On “D.C.B.A.–25” Kantner sings, “we come and go as we please/that's how it must be/[…] too many days I’ve left unstoned”. On the same year’s acid-soaked After Bathing at Baxter’s, “Wild Thyme” is Kantner as vanguard of the avant-garde: “I’m doing things that haven’t got a name yet” he bays. On “Saturday Afternoon” he’s hymning San Fran’s beatific Human Be-In, which the Airplane played alongside the Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. However dippy Kantner’s lyrics – “Yellow clouds rising in the noon/Acid incense and balloons […] It's a time for growing, and a time for knowing” – they match the increasingly hazy, off-center music perfectly. Casady’s eruptive bass actually sounds like a revolution.
But as suggested by the cover’s nuclear explosion, 1968’s Crown of Creation, began to puncture those balloons and wave away the incense. The music, in the era of Hendrix and Cream, had a harder core, an innovative electronic edge, and the lyrics were more directly challenging, the counterculture versus the Great Society. “We are forces of chaos and anarchy,” proclaims Kantner: “everything you say we are we are/and we are very proud of ourselves”. Sure, these pampered rock stars risked sanctimony with lines like these, but there was an adrenalin rush to hearing such inclusive and incendiary sentiments then, for a kid in the 80s – me! – and indeed now. These sentiments had become explicitly political by 1969’s Volunteers, as the hippie dream darkened, indeed, on the title cut, revolutionary (“gotta revolution/got to revolution”). The title refrain of Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” is a pretty, harmony-laced exemplification of hand-holding peaceability. But the song contains another refrain, derived from the Black Panthers, “up against the wall motherfuckers”. This was “When the flower children started growing thorns,” as Kantner later put it. The lyrics continue: “All your private property is/target for your enemy/and your enemy is we”. Privacy versus communality – aka socialism. Such conclusion must surely have been nurtured by the Airplane’s direct experience of capitalism’s evils, via mercenary manager Matthew Katz, and litigation that took decades to settle. But it’s that communal, ornery, “we” that is so striking: “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”.
Step back from the sentiment briefly and reflect on the form there: those are some pretty unsingable lyrics. Rhyme, scansion, sentence structure are thrown out with the (Great) society rule-book: the avant-garde in action, form marries content. Volunteers’ “Wooden Ships”, saw counterculture heroes, Kantner, Crosby and Stills, with Balin and Slick crewing, leading the flower children away from the wrecked world altogether: “we are leaving, you don’t need us”. “We had this naïve hope that we were champions of the poor and dispossessed,” said Kantner. Naïve or challenging, the song opened a new chapter in Kantner’s songwriting, an urban utopianism, hippie escapism with a hard sci-fi edge; non-realist aesthetics put to political purpose. “Paul mainly was more political than everybody else,” Slick says on the Fly Jefferson Airplane documentary, “but he’d couch it in sort of a ‘let’s all go on a spaceship and get away from here kind of thing”. 1970’s “Have you Seen the Saucers” could be written by one of the anarchist geeks in the X-Files, asking the “Child of the Woodstock nation”: “The government tells you another missile is flying/Have you any idea why they're lying to you?” Small surprise that the more commercially minded Balin was pushed aside by now.
Kantner’s 1970’s “solo” album, Blows Against the Empire devotes an entire album to the spaceship concept--derived from author, Robert Heinlen, now recognized as part of the radical utopianism of modern sci fi. The proto-punk “Mau Mau (Amerikon)” gets kudos for the first rock reference to Reagan: "You unleash the dogs of a grade-B movie star Governor's war [...] so drop your fuckin' bombs, burn your demon babies, I will live again!" Nixon also gets a – literal – shout-out: “Hey Dick [Nixon]/Whatever you think of us is totally irrelevant”. Yes, that is quite as unsingable as it reads. Melody is for straights. Amidst the electronics, space jams and charmingly chaotic chorales, the stunning “A Child is Coming” finds Crosby taking Balin’s role in the three-vocal-chord trick, defying Uncle Sam getting his hands on a new generation (Slick was pregnant) amidst a fusillade of howling feedback. The communal vibes, led directly to Crosby’s first solo album. Slick and Kantner’s 1971 Sunfighter belongs with this communal era, lousy with Deads and CSNs: the lovely “Diana” is about the Weathermen’s Diana Oughton, the title track is an eco anthem, complete with the Edwin Hawkins Singers (“the people makin' such a mess of the land and the sea all around me/Got to learn to leave the planet be”). Finale, “Holding Together”, declares, “I see the Empire is breakin' down/From the inside/And the underground/Ain't no place for hidin’ now.”
These “long 1960s” opuses were ridiculed at the time: now they sound like the revolution deferred, an alternative route for the 70s. Sure, the approach had its pitfalls – what avant or revolutionary strategy doesn’t? – meaning Kantner’s songs on the Airplane’s contemporaneous, cokey, messy final albums, Bark (1971) and Long John Silver (1972) are mildly migrainous: rock’n’roll recitatives about hippies at war with government (“War Movie”) or Hannibal battling the Romans (“When The Earth Moves Again” pictures Hannibal against the Romans), or anti-religious rants (“Son of Jesus” reflecting motherless kid Kantner’s experiences at the hands of the Jesuits). Thankfully Slick had stopped yelling so much by her, Kantner and Frieberg (Quicksilver)’s Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (1973) – a more hummable take on those communal opuses, with “White Boy” a haunting excoriation of Western imperialism (“you spread your peculiar form of death from Mexico to Moscow”).
But with commercial returns receding with each release, the return of Balin were probably inevitable, as was Jefferson Starship's career trajectory, echoing the circular argument at the heart of their biggest (Balin-penned) hit, “if only you believed like I believe in miracles, so would I”. I.e. the counterculture isn’t commercial so we need to commercialize to sell the counterculture. So Jefferson Starship’s depressing slough through saccharine 70s soft rock (Dragon Fly; Red Octopus), lumbering arena rock (Spitfire, featuring the anti-prison "Dance with the Dragon"; Earth), ungainly new wave (Freedom at Point Zero; Modern Times) and bombastic 80s pop (Winds of Change; Nuclear Furniture) essentially smothers vague oppositional sentiments in the “please like us” mire. When those sentiments did leap out, as on Kantner’s preempting Rage Against the Machine, yelling “fuck you, we do what we want!” on 1981’s “Stairway to Cleveland” turns out to be defiance of the media rather than the government. So though Kantner left the band – taking the “Jefferson” with him – before the full corporate horror of “We Built This City”, he undoubtedly helped lay the fugly foundations.
After all the fallouts, lawsuits and counter-suits however, it was sweet the way Kantner couldn’t kick the Jefferson habit, whether it was his 1983 Planet Earth Rock’n’Roll Orchestra, the 1986 KBC Band with Balin and Cassady, or the 1989 Airplane reunion. Again that Starship problem though: Kantner singing about his years in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas and shouting about “revolution” to booming 80s drums is a surreal, contradictory – and not entirely pleasant - experience. There’s sneaking the avant into the mainstream (the Airplane’s entire career) and there’s mismatch. But still an improvement on Balin’s “Summer of Love”, which sounds like Balin missed both it and the point. Kantner’s final musical act was to reclaim the Jefferson Starship name for Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty (2008), Balin, Slick and Freiberg in tow, taking the whole communal shebang back where the story started, in the folkie, leftist coffee bars of the early 1960s (with a nod to “We Can Be Together”).
Of course the main effect is to send you back to the actual beginning, to that peak period from 1966 to 1973, the Long 1960s when the Airplane and Kantner helped make it seem like anything was possible, that the revolution was around the corner, that Empires would fall, and that music would be at the heart of social change. Paul Kantner is dead then: long live the Kantnerculture.
Toby Manning has written about music since the 1990s (but the current moment is, by the way, is the golden age). He teaches English Lit at University of Birmingham and City Lit adult education college. He lives, variously, in North Wales, London, Oxford or Birmingham.