Long before Star Wars there was Blows Against The Empire.
“Have you seen the stars?” asked Paul Kantner unassumingly and invitingly in his first solo album and epic. “Have you looked at all the galaxy of stars?”
“Have You Seen The Stars” might have seemed an unassuming song title. But it was the opening to an outer worldliness and travel to another dimension, the brainchild of Paul Kantner the otherwise anarchist guitarist who imagined another time and space looking above and beyond Jefferson Airplane’s backyard of Golden Gate Park.
In Blows, Kantner detailed and the oppressions of “Uncle Samuel” and plans to steal a “Starship” from orbit and find a utopia. But the Airplane was falling apart and he credited Blows Against The Empire to Paul Kantner Jefferson Starship, a pet name for the people who worked on it including David Crosby, Graham Nash, Grace Slick, Jerry Garcia, and Quicksilver Messenger Service’s David Freiberg.
Kantner would later find amusement in hearing a quoted from one writer who called him both the band’s conscience and a space cadet. When forty years later Kantner released Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, a collection of traditional folk songs, he was still immersed in time and space. In the liner notes about the Weavers’ song “Santy Anno,” he described it as a “sailing song…….trans substantiated into a bit of science fiction escapist space ‘sailing’ halfway through on our way to the stars.”
He owed originally hearing it to the Weavers, upon which his foundational folk principles were formed. It was the Weavers, Kantner wrote in the liner notes, who formed the template of what was “to become Jefferson Airplane and all the Jeffersons beyond.”
Kantner stated that The Weavers were the reason he wanted to sing with a woman in the first place. “It normally only takes only one strong woman to balance the collection of 5, 6 or 7 men,” he reflected.
“You’re always the guy pushing things behind the scenes,” someone suggested backstage at a show in New York on the night of his 72nd birthday, “but it’s always a strong woman up-front.”
“Yes,” Kantner conceded, “that’s one of my secrets. I learned it from the Weavers….I learned it from Ronnie Gilbert the woman in the Weavers who was extraordinary.”
“My Only Office Is The Park”
Paul Kantner passed away earlier this year on January 28, 2016. He was 74 and died the same day as Signe Anderson, the original lead singer in Jefferson Airplane.
In the weeks after his passing, an event from my past was triggered. It was a phone call I made to Kantner in the summer of 1977 while I was working on a cover story about Jefferson Starship for the music publication Good Times. It suddenly came back into focus like it happened yesterday.
Kanter took the call in the offices of Grunt Records in the famed “Airplane mansion,” a stone’s throw from Golden Gate Park where the first “human be in” had occurred a decade earlier. “We’ll ball in your parks, insane with the flesh of living…..Sign me up as a diplomat. My only office is the Park.” Kantner declared in “Mau Mau (Amerikon)” as a manifesto of a counter cultural revolution. Where Mick Jagger questioned his place and feigned distance from “marching charging people” in “Street Fighting Man,” Paul Kantner was leading the charge on American soil. Kantner’s volunteers of America were like an all-out assault brigade.
For all of the rebellion espoused by Kantner and his cohorts, his new lifestyle seemed rather businesslike. The Airplane mansion was less of a party house of legend and home to a record label which was spewing out gold hit records. The vestiges of time passing had made the past seem like a different era if not lifetime. Today, Kantner was excited about a piece of piano music brought by the British keyboardist Pete Sears that had a Keith Jarrett feel to it. They might call it “Superman.”
“You know, up up and away?” he asked.
Most immediate on his mind was a four hour rehearsal that was about to begin that afternoon.The band was days away from going back into the studio to record the follow up to their second consecutive number one record Spitfire. It would be called Earth. But you had to wonder what Kantner thought about the motley cast of characters. The fiddler Papa John Creach looked more ancient than his fifty-something years. One of the four holdovers from the old Airplane could dazzle with his distinctive accents or take it up a notch to scorchingly score the abrasive sound of the band’s paranoia — all the while fighting arthritis. The younger whiz kid guitarist Craig Chaquico had to make a decision whether he loved skateboarding or playing lead guitar for Jefferson Starship. Playing lead guitar won out but Chaquico could still be seen barreling down a mountain sans protective helmet, with his long hair flying in the wind.
Kantner’s connection to space and time had been somewhat preserved when the song “Hyperdrive” was played a year before at a science fiction convention in Kansas City. But you were more likely to hear the melodic and gorgeous “Miracles” on the radio, the first of a string of pop ballads sung by Marty Balin.
“It’s a different band,” Kantner said of the Starship in comparison to the prior Airplane. “There’s a lot of the same vocal hangover but there’s different musicians involved. There’s a little more lyrical musicality and a little less of a hard edge. There’s some softer prettier edges. There’s some weird edges.”
Perhaps the vantage of time and experience had given Kantner perspective. When to comment on what percentage there were of old versus new fans, Kantner pointed out the reality that many of the band’s old fans weren’t anymore.
And then there was drummer John Barbata a studio veteran from the Turtles who was forthright in volunteering the number of studio albums he’s appeared on: seventy-three. He complained that the Airplane played too loud and likes the professionalism of the current Starship. “I just want to make hits,” he volunteered.
Kantner seemed taken aback when I floated the idea that he had emerged as the leader of the band.
“Me? No,” he demurred.
Did he see himself as a father figure?
“I wouldn’t go that far either.”
Kantner talked about the working model of the Starship enterprise. It sounded like Jeffersonian democracy at work.
“Somebody will take more interest in seeing what show we’re going to play at,” he explained. “Somebody else will take an interest in seeing that a certain song gets done a certain way. For that particular point, he’s the leader of the band. Or she’s the leader of the band. There’s no leader whom everybody goes to for the answer. It’s thought out. Certain people have ideas.”
Three years earlier, Kantner rechristened the name Starship crediting the album Dragon Fly to himself, the lead singer Grace Slick (and mother of their child China) and Jefferson Starship. Dragon Fly was the blueprint for the formation of the current band, largely due to the return of lead singer Marty Balin who came in to record the mesmerizing and still haunting “Caroline.” Kantner’s personal affection for Dragon Fly owed itself to being the first “heavy group effort.”
He met Balin more than a decade earlier at the Drinking Gourd folk club during a hootenanny in 1965. That night, Balin put, his name on a list to sing a song or two. Kantner caught Balin’s eye when he walked in with two guitar cases. The doorman tried to turn Kantner away but Balin, who was into twelve-string guitars, said he could take his spot. Years later Balin would say how he’s always felt things and goes with it. When Kantner got to the mic, he stopped somewhere into the song and said he couldn’t continue. Then and there, Balin realized “That’s the guy I want to work with.” Flash forward four years, he was to Kantner’s left onstage at Altamont, when one of the Hells Angel punched Balin and forever immortalized him on film.
When asked to describe Slick and Balin, Kantner used short clipped language.
“Volatile. Real good singers.”
I tried to probe further. How do you deal with personalities? Kantner’s response was even shorter than before. This time he had two words (”you don’t”) but offered a longer explanation why.
“There’s nothing to deal with. They’re there. Like the songs are there and form what some people call a concept. The people are there and form what some people call a band. You accept them or you don’t. Some people may be prone to wanting to deal with them and change the things they don’t like. But I feel you accept what’s there. Like the world. You can go on and on about how there should be peace and love and beauty and that’s how the world should be. It’s great to say that and do things under that but at the same time if you don’t accept the fact there are certain people in the world who do kill and shoot and burn and destroy you’re gonna go crazy or be a totally assexual robot.”
When I asked Kantner to try and summarize the different eras of his life, he became elusive. “That’s for someone else to do,” he replied dismissively. I got off the phone not sure what hat I head learned.
“That’s just Paul,” RCA publicist Stu Ginsburg said later to me. “You can never pin him down.”
“Let Me Take You To Another Place, Another Time”
“Somebody’s gotta sleep with the madness if you want to make the sky sing,” Kantner said randomly before one of the songs he re-interpreted as part of a later (and next century) version of Jefferson Starship. He referred to the new iteration as “Next Generation.”
By the time he conceptualized Blows, Kantner had already tackled the effects of a post-nuclear holocaust in “Wooden Ships,” a song that he co-wrote with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. The song was played by Jefferson Airplane and Crosby Stills and Nash at Woodstock and appeared on both bands’ albums respectively.
As he played the song in later years, Kantner would remind that in the future the word “ships” would be in spaceships and that we’d look back on a brief time in history when we sailed the oceans in ships made of wood and steel. The subtle and nuanced “Wooden Ships” was epic but not proportionate to the scale of Kantner’s oratory which reached a pinnacle in “War Movie,” the closing track of Jefferson Airplane’s Bark. Kantner’s declaratory and cinematic take on transformation was detailed in a futuristic space-age apocalypse set to a pop operatic duet between Kantner and Slick. It was as if the star wars of the future were to be fought on acid.
Call high to the constellation headquarters
Call high to the most high directors
Send out the transporting systems and
Send out the sun finders
Thirteen battalion of mind raiders
Three hundred master computer killers
From great platforms in the mountains
Twenty mile lasers & great giant trackers…
The year of the “Battle of Forever Plains” was 1975, a pivotal year in the Kantner canon. On “Ride The Tiger,” the opening track to Dragon Fly, Kantner prophesied that in the summer of 1975 all the people would come alive.
And they did. That summer Jefferson Starship played in front of 100,000 people in Central Park. In contrast to Woodstock where Grace Slick announced a new dawn and woke people up to “morning maniac music,” this time she was more playful. Slick seemed mischievously amused by the people in the trees of Central Park and told everyone below to watch out from what might come above.
Kantner balanced his rock and roll persona with years spent soul-searching and sharing it with us in often beautiful prose and melodies come to life with the vocal blends of Slick and Balin.
In “Sketches of China,” he transported us back to the countryside of ancient China. Kantner, who named his first child with Slick China, said they initially got interested in acupuncture for its health benefits but it led to a path of discovery. “It was naturally looking for things that our hierarchy of society says are bad,” he reflected. “We were also told how bad China was and how communism was going to take over the world and pound us down into godless pagan yens and being a natural trouble-maker, I went to look for things because so many things they’ve said are bad have turned out to be relatively good.”
Kantner’s epics may have led to drift in the Airplane with the formation of the return to roots Hot Tuna being the most visible reaction. And other band members like Slick and Mickey Thomas expressed relief when Kantner departed the band in the early Eighties.
“Let me take you to another place, another time,” he sang in the pivotal bridge of “St. Charles,” among the Starship’s most mystical songs and beautiful melodies. And all these years later, the songs Kantner had a hand in are among the most enduring.
“Wasn’t That a Great Time?”
According to the song “Hijack,” when I spoke to Kantner it was still three years from the construction of the Starship foretold in 1980 — and it ought to be ready by 1990.
HIJACK THE STARSHIP
Carry 7000 people plast the sun
And our babes’ll wander naked thru the cities of the universe
Cmon free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music
The day is on its way
The day is ours
That afternoon it still seemed far away and into the future.
When I asked Kantner if he could see himself rocking until he was sixty, he was reticent to embrace the idea. “Not necessarily,” he responded. “I don’t know if I’d want to. But at the present moment and foreseeable future, for me it’s an enervating subject to deal with among others.”
But time has a way of sneaking up and slipping and years turn into decades.
If anything Kantner, who left Jefferson Starship in the hands of synthesizer operators, was busy in the ensuing years reclaiming the name as his own. Kantner was part of a contentious legal fight to reclaim the name “Jefferson” when the sound of synthesizers began to resemble little of its origins.
Kantner retooled the model of the original Jefferson Airplane model and reconfigured it into the Jefferson Starship. It was a cast built around melodies and three-part harmonies and Bay Area jam band principles adopted from their neighbors across the Golden Gate bridge and his original Starship compatriots. Cathy Richardson, like Darby Gould and Diana Mangano before her, was one of the singers who replicated Grace Slick’s parts in the “Next Generation” Starship and helped Kantner re-interpret songs from five decades.
Balin, who came back for a time, was a little heavier, a far cry from his bare-chested cover photo on Crawdaddy. Balin fancied himself as a balladeer and displayed what the magazine called his “machismo” as, armed with a portfolio of hit singles, he threatened to get a solo deal with Clive Davis at Arista Records. Balin could still summon the power of “Caroline” against Kantner’s authoritative baritone.
And there was Kantner, the constant through all the years and still the torchbearer, carrying the flag from the bully pulpit, a little more jovial if not still sanguine in his oratory. If “Volunteers” was permanently ingrained on film soundtracks as the de facto song to enshrine the turbulence of the Sixties, so too were the folk rooted songs he was playing that led him to walk through the doors of the Drinking Gourd over fifty years earlier.
Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, a collection of traditional folk songs, came out in 2008. It helped to provide the folk context for Kantner’s cover of Diana Sorrel’s “Baby Tree” from Blows and the underlying intro of “Volunteers” which had direct lineage to the Weavers. It also framed Kantner’s lifelong advocacy when he quoted Thomas Jefferson: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”
It included “Frenaro,” an old Appalachian song playing during the War of Independence. He re-imagined Woody Guthrie’s “Pastures of Plenty” from the days when Starship compatriot David Freiberg performed as a duo David and Michaela. The bushy curly hair of Freiberg’s youth , the original Quicksilver Messenger bandmate and Airplane survivor, had turned into white curls reminiscent of a colonial assemblyman. The album provided a historical narrative of traditional folk songs and assembled covers of Phil Ochs, Woody Guthrie, the Weavers, Bob Dylan Ian & Sylvia and Fairport Convention. Kantner would sometimes play Sandy Denny’s “I’m a Dreamer” in his latter years.
The tales of revolutions past and present connected time and history from Irish, Scottish and American struggles for independence to the present day in Central America. “Comandante Carlos Fonseca” was about the tale of the most tortured person in the world during Somoza’s rule. In “Follow The Gourd,” Kantner quoted Lee Hays of the Weavers in detailing the song of the Underground Railroad.
Kantner added additional lyrics and quote Lincoln’s inaugural address, against a backdrop of an American flag imprinted with the a miniature emblem of the Dragon Fly cover in place of the fifty stars.
There was a hopefulness espoused in the album’s dedication to the eighteen children of the “Main Ten,” the collective Starship incarnation including past and present members. Kantner also reprised “Kisses Sweeter Than Wine,” one of the most beautiful love songs he said he ever heard, the Leadbelly song made popular by the Weavers and the first song he thought of singing at his son Alexander’s wedding.
Kantner recalled on Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty how he once said to Ronnie Gilbert: “Your band all together as imperfect and ‘faulty’ as all humans are formulated one great human being, right? All of you together had the attributes of one very fine human being. It was sort of the same way with my band Jefferson Airplane …..there we were–as you–at the edge, just enjoying the hell out of ‘the ride,’ all of us deficient in our own way but combining to make up one,corporeal, ‘complete’ human being. Right?”
Kantner’s rambling remembrance was as long in words as Gilbert’s response was short.
“You got it,” she replied.
In his later years, Kantner was no longer galvanizing a revolution but neither was he a curator of a traveling museum pumping out nostalgia. Kantner was still in his familiar role, facilitating a cast of characters aboard the Starship, providing the security and bedrock of his rhythm guitar against pristine ballads and ethereal mysticism.
When on that 72nd birthday he was asked about women who have inspired him, Kantner didn’t hesitate, naming every singer he worked with since the inception of Jefferson Airplane.
“Signe, Grace, Diana, Darby, Cathy,” he said in succession of Signe Anderson, Grace Slick, Diana Mangano, Darby Gould and Cathy Richardson. And then for good measure he threw in Nora Astorga, the guerilla fighter in the Nicaraguan revolution who became the country’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Kantner’s oratory in “War Movie” had the resonance of a historian, a professor at the lectern in a recitation that was a little rougher, with a growl and edge of tone, the natural toll of age and cigarette smoking.
But he did it with a smile, someone who years earlier had taken inspiration from a bad review to subversively write “Stairway To Cleveland” with the line: “Fuck you, we do what we want.” One night when a fan heckled him, Kantner shot back that he had thirty-five pages of poetry handy and just might read them.
Something he said to me about the history of the band that day in 1977 came back to me. It might have been as true had he said it in 1997 or 2007. You might substitute some of the individual names in the Starship.
“It hasn’t lasted this long in the sense of the band we started. It’s not the same band that is here today. I mean Grace and Marty are here but Marty was gone for a while, Grace could be gone for a while, I could be gone for a while. It’s not really the same band. Grace and Marty are sort of the same. It’s just a conglomeration of people.”
Kantner lived his life without a definite plan. He told me he had no idea what he’d do post-Starship and would defer making plans until then. There was writing and photography and music and a belief it would all work out.
If there was a feeling that we all struggled for purpose in life, Kantner also took stock in the hope that we were still soul searching. “I haven’t found anybody who has the answer,” he said that afternoon. “I don’t expect to. It would be interesting to find that person but I haven’t found him. Or her.”
Kantner was a man who admitted that day that he hadn’t grown up which he found increasingly more valuable.
“I don’t know if there is an answer,” he concluded. “Perhaps the pleasure is in the search.”