Paul Kantner Is Dead, Redux

Written by Dan Schwartz

[Following the recent death of Jefferson Airplane lead singer Marty Balin, it seemed appropriate to revisit Dan’s meditation on the passing of another Airplane band member—Ed.]

He died on Thursday, January 28th, 2016.  The news hit me hard, and I was surprised at that. Not quite like Lennon, or Garcia for that matter –– I was so much younger then. But after the week’s reflection, on reading endless online eulogies to him, the music, the times, I see it now.

After the Beatles — the reason I and countless others got into music — the Airplane was the biggest thing that happened to me when I was 13. My aunt gave me Jefferson Airplane Takes Off and Crown of Creation for my birthday. I bought a bass soon after, and immediately fell under the spell of Jack Casady, a spell that lasts until today (when I can say, cursorily at least, that Jack and I are friends).

The appearance of Casady was such an outsize event in my life, and in the life of many fledgling (and veteran) bass players that one really can’t say enough about him, so much so that the event obscured others. The Airplane’s singers of course, of which Kantner was one, were truly powerful, celebratory, frightening and impressive –– one of the great vocal trios of the time. And Jorma on lead guitar, well, he was all over the place, you couldn’t not hear him. Spencer on drums was his phenomenal self, pushing and pulling and coloring like mad.

You see where this is going: Paul Kantner (on rhythm guitar — mostly 12-string) went sort of unnoticed in the fury that whirled dervish-like all around him. Even on stage, he was unprepossessing, seeming to be the least among equals visually.

But now I’m listening to the Mobile Fidelity gold CD of Crown, and hearing for what seems like the first time how utterly essential he is to the whole. He’s the center, the body, the thing that everyone can fly off of. He actually plays the songs; all else is color. And it turns out, he was also the principal writer. How could I have not noticed how utterly essential he was? It wouldn’t be unfair to say he WAS Jefferson Airplane; as Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead has observed, he was “the backbone” of the band.

And he’s gone.

When I heard the news, it was like hearing of the death of close friend. Even though the Airplane are many, many years gone, they’re still alive for me musically –– or at least were until last week. I know this makes his death ultra-dramatic — it’s not quite as severe as it sounds. But there’s something essential to knowing that one’s early influences and heroes are still here, still walking around and sipping coffee at Caffé Trieste in San Francisco; a city he was from, where he lived his entire life (and not incidentally, where I intended to live but for circumstance).

When Lennon was murdered, it was personal. Even though I hadn’t listened to the Fabs in quite a few years, I grieved as if a family member had been killed. When Garcia died, it wasn’t a surprise — I knew he was in questionable shape. And I had seen him the year before.

But Paul Kantner’s death took me by surprise because I hadn’t been paying attention. And that was my error. I suppose we can’t pay attention to everyone everywhere all the time, and we had just had a beloved pet die — in my hands — a week before. But the next day it came out that their original singer, Signe Ettlin (before Grace Slick), died on the same day as Kantner.

Last fall, a friend who writes for Bernie Sanders’ website and I had the idea of trying to do some songs for his rallies. This brought us into contact with Kantner and the band, some of whom were very enthusiastic about Sanders using the song Volunteers. I discovered that Kantner had chosen to split all the royalties from the song with the whole band, way back when. He put his money where his mouth was.

With all that as preamble, I want to suggest a few songs to listen to, to hear what was so great about him. (None of these are audiophile records). I’m long past being objective about any of this, but, subjectively, what would I recommend? Try these:

“In Time” from Crown of Creation; Kantner at his most meditative and quietly psychedelic. The way the band handles the easy tension, as the song snakes to its conclusion is still, 46 years later, inspiring. In much of his writing from this period, you can feel the, um, “enhanced” perception that would develop from that altered view.

Lean close put your lips next to my face
Look further on past the surface
Orange, blue, red and green
Are the colors of what I feel
And my mind you know it starts to reel in time

“Fat Angel” from Bless its Pointed Little Head; a grey and foggy cover of the song Donovan wrote about the band.

Fly Trans-Love Airways
Gets you there on time.

“We Can Be Together” from Volunteers; this is the man at his most expansive and seemingly political –– while remaining outsiders in Nixon’s America. Definitive. In fact, in reissue liner notes, he says the song isn’t not overtly political, not a call-to-arms, but rather a call to attention.

We should be together, my friends…
We can be together
We will be

“Wooden Ships”, Volunteers; co-written with David Crosby and Stephen Stills. I play this version for people to make a stark contrast with the CSN version, which to my ears is too tidy and much less fraught with emotional danger. Live tracked, with their trademarked vocal approach, and sounding like it’s about to fall apart (which, at least while the faders are up, it doesn’t do).

Blows Against the Empire. You’ve got to hear all of it, at least the first time. Then you can pick your songs — which will no doubt include “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?”. Here he brought together everyone in the Bay to make a Hugo-winning science-fiction album. Some of it is sloppy and strident, some of it sublime, and all of it constitutes an extraordinary narrative.

There have been dozens of articles about Kantner since he died and most of those cite his writing on the albums Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s. Of those, I particularly like this:

As I write this, February 6th,2016, it’s just been announced that Dan Hicks (of the Hot Licks, and the early SF psych band the Charlatans) has died as well, of cancer. Another hero. It’s too much. I mean, I didn’t like Glenn Frey at all, but still — they’re falling fast now.

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