Obituary: Paul Kantner
Leader of Jefferson Airplane whose psychedelic harmonies accompanied the counter-culture of the 1960s
Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30
Paul Kantner, who has died at the age of 74, was a musician and songwriter who, as the co-founder and leader of Jefferson Airplane, was one of the principal architects of the psychedelic music scene that flourished in San Francisco in the late 1960s.
Formed in 1965, the Airplane, as they were known, became central to the burgeoning counter-culture scene around the city's Haight-Ashbury district.
Drawing on influences from folk and rock, they forged a sound characterised by the ragged harmonies of Kantner and his bandmates Grace Slick and Marty Balin, shape-shifting melodies and an early embrace of electronic recording effects.
In 1967 their hits Somebody to Love and White Rabbit, written by Slick and which elided references to Lewis Carroll's Alice with intimations of the LSD experience, became anthems of the Summer of Love. Airplane, moreover, were the only group to have appeared at the three great gatherings of the hippie tribes at the tail end of the 1960s - the Monterey Festival, Woodstock and Altamont.
Paul Kantner was born in San Francisco on March 17, 1941, the son of Paul Schell Kantner, a travelling salesman, and Cora Lee (nee Fortier), who died when he was eight. He would later recall that his father forbade him from attending her funeral, instead arranging for him to go to the circus.
Paul was educated at a boarding school by the Christian Brothers who, he claimed, would broaden his education by quietly slipping him books from the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. He went on to study at Santa Clara University and San Jose State College before dropping out to pursue music.
In 1965, performing in a San Francisco folk club, the Drinking Gourd, he met Balin, and together they assembled a folk-rock band with fellow musicians Jorma Kaukonen, Skip Spence and Jack Casady and a female vocalist named Signe Toly Anderson. Anderson would leave the group the following year, to be replaced by Grace Slick, forming the core of the band that would rise to fame over the next two years.
Besotted with Robert Heinlein's utopian science-fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, Kantner originally wanted to call the group The Nest, but the suggestion was over-ruled; in a joke on the fashion for bands to choose outlandish names, a friend suggested Blind Lemon Thomas Jefferson Airplane, which was truncated to Jefferson Airplane.
In September 1965, the San Francisco Chronicle ran an article on "A New Paradise for Beatniks" about Haight-Ashbury, which was fast becoming the bohemian epicentre for students, musicians, artists and drug aficionados, a gathering the paper christened "Hippies", derived from the term "hipsters". It was the first time the term had appeared in print. Kantner claimed to have first taken LSD in 1963 and became a fervent apostle of the psychedelic movement unfolding around the Haight.
"The centre of the universe!" he would enthuse to the British journalist Ed Vulliamy some 50 years later. "Everything was exploding ... there was this window between the invention of the contraceptive pill - God bless it - and contagious diseases ... People call it hedonism, but it wasn't. It was 'We will break your laws at our leisure'."
Living in a communal house close to Golden Gate Park, in November 1965 the Airplane became the first of the new San Francisco bands to sign with a major record label, RCA, releasing their debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, in September 1966.
The following January, with the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service, they headlined the "Human Be-In" in Golden Gate Park, an all-day happening at which Allen Ginsberg chanted Hindu mantras and Timothy Leary urged the audience to "Turn on, tune in and drop out", and which acted as the curtain raiser to the Summer of Love.
Surrealistic Pillow was released later in 1967, rising to number three in the American charts and selling more than a million copies.
While other San Francisco groups remained apolitical, the Airplane assumed an outspoken revolutionary stance. Their 1969 album, Volunteers, gave voice to the rising tide of protest against the Vietnam war, not least in the anthemic We Can Be Together, with its declaration that "we are forces of chaos and anarchy", and its clarion chorus, "up against the wall, motherf*****s...", which caused consternation in the boardroom at RCA, obliging the group to tone down the lyrics for television.
By now, Kantner was embroiled in a relationship with Grace Slick, leading Rolling Stone to dub them "the psychedelic John and Yoko", and which resulted in the birth of a daughter, China, in 1971. But drug use and constant bickering among the band, not least because of Kantner's notoriously prickly and disputative nature, and Slick's descent into alcoholism, led to an endless cycle of personnel changes.
During this period, Kantner had been working on his first solo album, a science fiction-themed project recorded with members of the Airplane and friends including Jerry Garcia, David Crosby and Graham Nash. Released in October 1970 under the title Blows Against the Empire and credited to "Paul Kantner/Jefferson Starship", it was the first rock album to be nominated for the Hugo science-fiction award.
At the same time, Kantner founded his own record label, Grunt, which served as a vehicle for group and solo projects as well as recordings by a disparate collection of local musicians and eccentrics including Jack Bonus and a group known simply as 1, led by the exotically named Reality D Blipcrotch, whose demands to have a marijuana leaf pop out of the record and for it to self-destruct after it had been played tested even Kantner's proselytising zeal and were duly ignored.
Having discarded the "Airplane" appellation, Kantner, Slick and a constantly shifting aggregation of musicians continued to record as Jeffer- son Starship, developing a stadium-friendly sound far removed from the haunting psychedelic chamber music of Surrealistic Pillow.
In 1984, disillusioned with the group's increasingly commercial sound, Kantner abandoned ship altogether, prompting a lengthy lawsuit culminating in his accepting an $80,000 settlement in exchange for a promise not to use the names "Jefferson" or "Airplane" without Slick's consent. In that same year, Starship had their biggest hit ever with We Built This City. Readers of Rolling Stone would later vote it the worst record of the 1980s.
Legal constraints notwithstanding, Kantner contin- ued to perform intermittently using the name Jefferson Starship. In 2008, returning to his folk music roots, he released his final album under the name of Jeffer- son Starship, Jefferson's Tree of Liberty, a largely acous- tic record including songs by Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan among others.
In 1988, Kantner published a book, Nicaragua Diary: How I Spent My Summer Vacation, or, I Was a Commie Dupe for the Sandinistas, an account of a trip to Nicaragua in 1987 for the eighth anniversary celebrations of the revolutionary government's victory over the Somoza dictatorship, when Kantner gave an impromptu performance of songs from Volunteers on Sandanista Television. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
Over the years, Kantner had several brushes with death. In the early 1960s, riding a motorbike, he hit a tree, resulting in a metal plate being put in his skull. In 1980, he almost died after a cerebral haemorrhage. Last March, he suffered a heart attack, followed by another one recently.
Kantner, who died on January 28, is survived by two sons and a daughter.