January 28, 2016 – Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane founding guitarist) was born on March 17, 1941, in San Francisco, California. Kantner had a half-brother and a half-sister by his father’s first marriage, both much older than he. His father was of German descent, and his mother was of French and German ancestry. His mother died when he was eight years old, and Kantner remembered that he was not allowed to attend her funeral. His father sent him to the circus instead. After his mother’s death, his father, who was a traveling salesman, sent young Kantner to Catholic military boarding school. At age eight or nine, in the school’s library, he read his first science fiction book, finding an escape by immersing himself in science fiction and music from then on. As a teenager he went into total revolt against all forms of authority, and he decided to become a protest folk singer in the manner of his musical hero, Pete Seeger. He attended Saint Mary’s College High School, Santa Clara University and San Jose State College, completing a total of three years of college before he dropped out to enter the music scene.
During the summer of 1965, singer Marty Balin saw Kantner perform at the Drinking Gourd, a San Francisco folk club, and invited him to co-found a new band, Jefferson Airplane. When the group needed a lead guitarist, Kantner recommended Jorma Kaukonen, whom he knew from his San Jose days. As rhythm guitarist and one of the band’s singers, Kantner was the only musician to appear on all albums recorded by Jefferson Airplane as well as Jefferson Starship. Kantner’s songwriting often featured whimsical or political lyrics with a science-fiction or fantasy theme, usually set to music that had a hard rock, almost martial sound. Kantner wrote many of the Airplane’s early songs, including the chart hits “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil”, “Watch Her Ride”, “Crown of Creation”, and the controversial “We Can Be Together”; and, with Balin, co-wrote “Today” and “Volunteers”. He also wrote, with David Crosby and Stephen Stills, the song “Wooden Ships”, (one of my absolutely favorite songs ever!) though for contractual reasons he was not credited initially.
With Jefferson Airplane, Kantner was among the performers at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1966 and the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Recalling Woodstock 40 years later, Kantner stated: “We were due to be on stage at 10pm on the Saturday night but we didn’t actually get on until 7.30am the following day.” Later in 1969, the group also played at Altamont, where Marty Balin was knocked unconscious during their set by a Hells Angels member originally hired as security for the concert. Kantner appears in the documentary film about the Altamont concert, Gimme Shelter, in a tense on-stage confrontation with a Hell’s Angel regarding the altercation.
Despite its commercial success, the Airplane was plagued by intra-group fighting, causing the band to begin splintering at the height of its success. Part of the problem was manager Bill Graham, who wanted the group to do more touring and more recording. During the transitional period of the early 1970s, as the Airplane started to come apart, Kantner recorded Blows Against The Empire, a concept album featuring an ad hoc group of musicians whom he dubbed Jefferson Starship.
This earliest edition of Jefferson Starship included members of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (David Crosby and Graham Nash), members of the Grateful Dead, (Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann and Mickey Hart), as well as some of the other members of Jefferson Airplane (Grace Slick, Joey Covington and Jack Casady).
In Blows Against the Empire, Kantner and Slick sang about a group of people escaping Earth in a hijacked starship. The album was nominated in 1971 for the Hugo Award, the premiere award voted by science fiction fandom. A sequel, The Empire Blows Back, was released in 1983 and included most of the same musicians, performing this time under the name The Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra.
Kantner had been in love with Grace Slick for some time, but she was involved in a relationship with the band’s drummer, Spencer Dryden. After their two-year affair ended, he finally had a chance with Grace. In 1969, Kantner and Grace Slick began living together publicly as a couple. Rolling Stone magazine called them “the psychedelic John and Yoko.” Slick became pregnant, and a song about their child’s impending birth, “A Child Is Coming,” appeared on Blows Against the Empire. Kantner and Slick’s daughter China Wing Kantner was born in 1971.
Kantner and Slick released two follow-up albums. Sunfighter was an environmentalism-tinged album released in 1971 to celebrate China’s birth. China appears on the album cover, and the track list includes “China,” a song written and sung by Slick about her new baby. Kantner and Slick made news again in 1972, when they were accused of assaulting a policeman after their Akron, Ohio concert. 1973’s Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun was named after the nicknames David Crosby had given to the couple. Through a songwriter friend Kantner discovered teen-aged guitarist Craig Chaquico during this time, who first appeared on Sunfighter and went on to play with all of the incarnations of the Starship name through 1991. Slick left Kantner in the 1970s to marry Skip Johnson, a Jefferson Starship roadie. Despite the split, Slick remained with the band through 1978.
After Kaukonen and Casady left the Airplane in 1973 to devote their full attention to Hot Tuna, the musicians on Baron von Tollbooth formed the core of a new Airplane lineup that was formally reborn as “Jefferson Starship” for a tour in 1974. Kantner, Slick, and David Freiberg were charter members along with late-Airplane holdovers – drummer John Barbata and fiddler Papa John Creach – plus Chaquico and Pete Sears, who played bass and keyboards. Marty Balin also joined Jefferson Starship while their first album, Dragonfly, was still in the works, co-writing with Kantner the album’s biggest hit “Caroline.”
After the 1978 release of the album Earth – to which Kantner contributed just one song – Jefferson Starship saw major personnel changes. Slick took a leave of absence, and Balin quit the group to pursue a solo career. No attempt was made to replace Slick, but Balin was replaced by Mickey Thomas, who had previously achieved success as a member of the Elvin Bishop Group. Freedom at Point Zero, an album dominated by Kantner compositions, was released to commercial success. Grace Slick returned for the follow-up album, Modern Times, which also featured Kantner’s science fiction themes.
In October 1980, Kantner was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in serious condition from a cerebral hemorrhage. Kantner had been working in Los Angeles on an album when he became ill. He was 39 years old at the time and beat considerable odds with a full recovery without surgery.
A year later, Kantner talked about the experience, saying, “If there was a Big Guy up there willing to talk to me, I was willing to listen. But nothing happened. It was all just like a small vacation.” It was his second brush with serious illness or injury, having suffered a serious motorcycle accident in the early 1960s: “I hit a tree at 40 miles an hour head first and nearly shattered my skull. I had a plate in there for a while.” The injury from the motorcycle accident was credited with saving Kantner from serious complications from the cerebral hemorrhage; the hole left by the accident relieved the accompanying cranial pressure.
In 1984, Kantner (the last founding member of Jefferson Airplane remaining) left Jefferson Starship, complaining that the band had become too commercial and strayed too far from its counterculture roots. Kantner made his decision to leave in the middle of a tour. Upon quitting Kantner took legal action against his former bandmates over the Jefferson name (the rest of the band wanted to continue as Jefferson Starship). Kantner won his suit, and the group name was reduced to simply “Starship.” Under the terms of the settlement, no group can call itself Jefferson Starship without Paul Kantner as a member, and no group can call itself Jefferson Airplane unless Grace Slick is on board. The legal battle had personal repercussions as well, permanently damaging Kantner’s friendships with Mickey Thomas and Craig Chaquiço.
In 1985, following his departure from Jefferson Starship, Paul Kantner rejoined with Balin and Jack Casady to form the KBC Band, releasing their only album, KBC Band (which included Kantner’s hit, “America”), in 1987 on Arista Records. There was a video made for “America” as well as a national KBC tour. In 1986, Kantner headed for court with Slick and her then husband, Skip Johnson, over the taping of some telephone conversations.
With Kantner reunited with Balin and Casady, the KBC Band opened the door to a full-blown Jefferson Airplane reunion. In 1988, during a San Francisco Hot Tuna gig where Kantner was performing, they found themselves joined by Grace Slick. This led to a formal reunion of the original Jefferson Airplane (featuring nearly all the main members, including founder Marty Balin, but without Spencer Dryden, who left in 1970). A self-titled album was released by Columbia Records. The accompanying tour was a success, but their revival was short-lived, although the band never formally disbanded.
According to Grace Slick, the reunion began as a joke: “We hadn’t even talked for a year, and we were battling legally – in fact, there are still some standing lawsuits between me and Paul, something to do with the Airplane. Anyway, the idea was that I’d just sneak in, stand at the side of the stage and come out and sing ‘White Rabbit’ and see what Paul did. Paul never got the joke, but he liked it, the audience liked it, and that’s how it started.”
Kantner and his Jefferson Airplane bandmates were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The performance at the induction ceremony was the first time original members Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, Spencer Dryden and Kantner had played together since 1970. Grace Slick had to miss the ceremonies because of a serious leg infection, but sent a message which was delivered by Kantner, “Grace sends her love.”
In 1991 Kantner and Balin reformed Jefferson Starship and Kantner continued to tour and record with the band through 2013. Jefferson Starship was primarily a Paul Kantner solo band, with various former Airplane and Starship members dropping in for tours or specific shows. With their latest female vocalist Cathy Richardson and Kantner’s son Alexander Kantner on bass, Jefferson Starship released their first studio album in a decade, titled Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty in September 2008. The album was a return to Kantner’s musical roots featuring covers of 1950s and 1960s protest songs.
In late 2010 Kantner started to compile collections of “sonic art” performed by him and various artists, including a mix of cover songs, sound effects, and spoken word, releasing multiple volumes under the title “Paul Kantner Windowpane Collective”.
On March 25, 2015, it was reported that Kantner had suffered a heart-attack.“Paul’s health took a bad turn this week,” the members of Jefferson Starship said via a Facebook post. “He’s in the hospital, stable and undergoing tests to find out exactly what’s going on, but doctors suspect he had a heart attack. He is in the best possible care and we are sending him all of our best wishes, good thoughts and healing vibes.”
The band also stated that they’re “continuing the tour without him, as most of the shows are sold out or close to it and we have to honor our contracts and our fans who bought tickets and put on the best show possible,” the band said in its official statement. “We will dedicate every show to Paul until he is well enough to rejoin us onstage.” Kantner returned to the group later on in the year, in time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jefferson Airplane with special shows that also featured Grateful Dead tribute group Jazz is Dead.
Kantner died in San Francisco at the age of 74 on January 28, 2016 from multiple organ failure and septic shock after he suffered a heart attack days earlier. Shortly after Kantner’s passing, Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart reflected, “He was kind of the backbone of that band. It was always about Grace and Jack and Jorma (Kaukonen), I don’t think he got the credit he deserved.” Coincidentally he died on the same day as Jefferson Airplane co-founder Signe Toly Anderson, who left the band to be replaced by Grace Slick.