It was 1975, and I was writing, theoretically, for a music magazine that never published, Music World. Jefferson Starship had a show at the now-defunct Curtis Hixon Auditorium in Tampa. And I had a press pass. I was beyond pumped.
My relationship with Paul Kantner began when Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow exploded all over the radio, both commercial and underground, in 1967. “Somebody to Love” was the smash, of course, but the album contained 11 great songs, the most beautiful of which was “Today,” a tune penned by guitarist Kantner and lead male vocalist Marty Balin.
Kantner stepped up his song-writing for the follow-up album, After Bathing At Baxter’s, still my favorite JA album. He wrote six of the 11 songs on the album, and there was a distinctive bent to the music, including “Young Girl Sunday Blues” and “Won’t You Try / Saturday Afternoon.” Balin had ceded the pilot’s seat to Kantner and singer Grace Slick, and the album veered toward the experimental and psychedelic. Kantner’s vocals were prominent as well.
The brilliant Crown of Creation (1968) was a bit less experimental but musically muscular, and Kantner’s influence was not so pervasive. “In Time” and the title track were two superb contributions.
If there was any question about the direction Jefferson Airplane was headed, Volunteers answered them all. Two of Kantner’s most important compositions bookended the album: “We Could Be Together” and “Volunteers.” This album more than any other symbolized the end of the turbulent ‘60s. Everyone who was there (and those who weren’t) vividly remember Jefferson Airplane on the Dick Cavett Show the Monday evening after Woodstock: “Up against the wall! Up against the wall, motherfucker! Tear down the wall!” It was certainly the anthem of 1969. Kantner also co-wrote “Eskimo Blue Day” with Slick.
I was a sophomore in college in 1970, and my friend in the next room, Jim Stine, had latched on to several albums, and it was impossible not to meander over when Van Morrison’s Moondance or Sisyphus by Cold Blood was rattling the wall. But then a third album surfaced, and it was so significant and powerful that it eclipsed all others.
The album was Blows Against the Empire, by Jefferson… Starship? What was this? Kantner was a long-time sci-fi fan who had approached the genre with David Crosby and Stephen Stills on “Wooden Ships,” recorded by JA on Volunteers and by Crosby, Stills and Nash on their first album. Blows was a story (at least side two) about hippies hijacking a starship and heading off to build a better world elsewhere.
Kantner and the members of Jefferson Airplane were joined by Crosby and Nash, David Freiberg of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead, all San Francisco compatriots. Side one was a nice set of tunes, but side two got almost all the airplay, a masterful storytelling. The vision was laid out in “Hijack:” “C’mon free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music; the day is on its way, the day is ours.”
If I had tried to sleep next door, the attempt would failed the moment “XM” blew out of the speakers: the launching of the starship, courtesy of Garcia, hart and Kantner. I had never heard anything like and have heard little to compare since. And finally, “Starship:”
“What you gonna do when you feel your lady rollin’
How you gonna feel when you see your lady strollin’
On the deck of the starship
With her head hooked into Andromeda
Gotta get back and ahead to the things that matter
Amerika hates her crazies
And you gotta let go you know
gotta let go you know
gotta let go you know”
Paul Kantner was a light-year ahead of us all, but we were ready to ride with him. That album is acid-etched into my brain, and I cannot count the number of times I’ve listened as if it were brand new. The title comes from a great phrase in the accompanying booklet:
IT’S A FRESH WIND THAT BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE.
Two more excellent if underappreciated collaborations followed: 1971’s Sunfighter (with Slick’s immortal — immoral? — “Silver Spoon”) and Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun (1973), with Slick and Freiburg.
Jefferson Airplane was still recording as well, although less cohesive since Kantner’s “solo” efforts and Hot Tuna. 1971 brought Bark, featuring Papa John Creach on violin, the stunning “Pretty As You Feel” and Kantner’s “War Movie.” Long John Silver (1973) was the last studio album (unless you count the 1989 reunion effort). Meanwhile, Jefferson Starship was finally becoming a recording and touring band.
Four years after Blows Against the Empire was released, a new JS album appeared, Dragon Fly (1974). Unlike the previous collaborations, this was a focussed effort, a true rock gem, and fans were fairly pleased. The opening notes of “Ride the Tiger” told you all you needed to know, written by Kantner, Slick and Byong Yu. The album’s stunning ballad, a Kantner-Balin effort, was “Caroline.”
The excellent band featured Craig Chaquico (guitar), Pete Sears (bass and piano, now with Moon Taxi), Freiberg (keyboards, bass and guitar), C,S,N&Y alum Johnny Barbara (drums), and Creach (violin). The band released its next album early in 1975, although it had not yet made its splash when the band appeared in Tampa. It was titled Red Octopus, featuring a great rollicking Balin-Slick duet on “Play On Love,” but the album became a multimillion seller because of its ballad, “Miracles.”
The Curtis Hixon show opened with “Ride the Tiger,” Kantner strong on vocals:
“Black wants out of the streets
Yellow wants the country
Red wants the country back
And white wants out of this world
Sing – sing to the sky
I want to ride the tiger
I want to ride the tiger.”
It wasn’t until the third or fourth song that the queen strode onto the stage in a flowing white caftan. Tears were running down my face. Grace Slick! Kantner! Balin! It was magnificent. The show was spectacular, the band incredible. Setlist? HA!
After the show, we were whisked into the dressing room with the band. I was too timid to ask any question; I just tried to preserve the moment in my brain. Kantner. Slick. Balin. Freiberg handing me a joint (which I somehow refused).
The follow-up to Red Octopus was a fine album, Spitfire (1976), but it was less successful: no “Miracles.” The Balin-Kantner tune “St. Charles” absolutely rocked, and Kantner offered his space vision in “Dance with the Dragon” and “Song to the Sun: Ozymandias/Don’t Let It Rain.” The 1978 album Earth simply fell flat.
After that, exit Slick and Balin, enter Mickey Thomas. Remember “Jane?” You can discuss the relevance of Freedom at Point Zero (1979) and Modern Times (1981, with Slick returning), but this was no longer the juggernaut Kantner envisioned. By Winds of Change (1982) Kantner was all but out. He returned with several great space tunes on 1984’s Nuclear Furniture, then split altogether.
The group mostly reformed in 1999 for a decent album, Windows of Heaven, and recorded a double live album in 2001 of mostly older material that highlighted the band’s strengths (Across the Sea of Suns).
Kantner and Balin joined forces one more time for Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, with Jack Casady (bassist for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna). The album featured traditional songs and those penned by great writers such as Bob Marley, John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Richard Farina, Phil Ochs and Leadbelly.
Kantner died Thursday, January 28th, 2016, of multiple organ failure brought on by septic shock. His death came shortly after it was revealed he would receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy award.
Kantner was a giant and a true pioneer of the ‘60s rock movement that is still going strong 50 years later. In a monumental month of loss for music, Kantner and David Bowie were two of our brightest stars.
I suspect they’re both on the deck of that starship right now, comparing notes.
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