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Five For The Record: Paul Kantner.

A recurring feature in which I look at something I enjoy but have never thought deeply about, and force myself to clearly state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: Rhythm guitarist, songwriter and singer with Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship. Born 1941, San Francisco. Middle name: Lorin.

And here’s why I like him:

1. The voice. Kantner has a voice I could easily imagine Tom Paine having — dry, leathery, undaunted. If rock n’ roll had never come along, he might well have put it to use hectoring people on San Francisco street corners.

(Instead, he put it to use hectoring people on vinyl. But at least there were tunes involved.)

2. He may well be immortal. In the early 1960s, Kantner survived a motorcycle accident that damaged his skull. Then, in 1980, he survived a cerebral hemorrhage with no lasting damage — apparently because a hole left by the motorcycle accident eased the pressure inside his skull.

People talk about Keith Richards as the great rock n’ roll survivor … but Kantner may have him beat, having survived run-ins with both physical frailties and high-speed machinery.

Either the guy will die from slipping on a banana peel, or he’ll outlive the oceans.

3. He got out while the getting was good. Kantner quit Jefferson Starship in 1984, saying the band had grown too commercial.

Yeah, I know 1984 was kind of a late date to figure that out. Still, his departure meant that the unmitigated awfulness that was Starship did not take place on his watch, and he wouldn’t have to answer for “We Built This City,” “Sara” or “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”

Timing is everything.

4. The revolutionary diaper-changer. Kantner’s first solo album, 1970’s “Blows Against the Empire,” was recorded while the guitarist was (1) calling for the overthrow of America’s government; and (2) expecting a child by Grace Slick.

Both of those preoccupations inform the songs on “Blows.”

The hippie stuff sounds like mush today, as you’d imagine. (It’s often been noted that “Blows” was the first record to be nominated for a science-fiction Hugo Award. It’s also worth remembering that it lost out to “No Award.”)

But it’s charming to hear the references to children and imagine that most unlikely of creatures — the revolutionary rock n’ roll counterculture father-to-be, thinking, perhaps for the first time, about things like generations and legacies and providing for the future.

In the midst of the fist-waving rhetoric on Side 1, Kantner tosses in a deadpan solo cover of Rosalie Sorrels’ “The Baby Tree,” as if he’s practicing at singing his child-to-be to sleep.

It’s about 6:40 in on the following video:

5. He thinks. (It ain’t illegal yet.) Kantner has always enjoyed something of the air of a rock n’ roll intellectual, mainly because he’s well-spoken and known to be a big science-fiction fan.

At the same time, he doesn’t usually come across as being full of himself — not in the interviews I’ve read, at least. Instead, he comes across as thoughtful without being pompous, well-read without being stuffy, and irreverent without toppling over into dopey.

He is, in short, just about everything you’d want in an elder statesman of rock n’ roll; and if he hadn’t spent all those years wearing leather trousers and playing “Jane” alongside Craig Chaquico, he might be more highly regarded as such.

“People distrust intellectuals as a rule and I like to be on the distrusted side of life rather than the trusted, normal, get-along side of life.”

“I like things that are a little out of control. Like my favorite women are bipolar, alcoholic, smoking sluts. At least the ones I’ve fallen in love with. And the same in music. I just like that out-of-control elements in things where you don’t quite know how it’s going to work out.”

“…We explored new areas of things to do. God knows why, but we got away with it. We all probably should have been thrown in jail for twenty years. But we got away with exploring. So science fiction is just another mode of exploring for me, and I love to explore the unknown.”

“You can’t plan for the future, because some guy’s going to land in a spaceship with three heads and a big beak and take over everything.”

(Sourced from this interview, and this one, and this one.)


5 responses »

  1. Those three interviews were great; so is your piece. I love his reflection on Altamont in the ’86 interview. It makes me want to know more about it. It sounds like he’s had a really rich life and all the legal mess didn’t keep him from enjoying his past and future musical career. Sometimes that seems to happen – where people can’t play their songs anymore or can’t even remember the good things in the past because of legal battles. In the second interview, he mentions the difference in Berkeley and San Francisco, how they (in S.F.) really did something beautiful and positive, rather than take the other approach of standing on a soapbox. You might imagine that I really liked that attitude. I’m going to try to find his version of “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. I used to perform that as a song and folktale. You remember that video I showed you of the storyteller playing the berimbau (it was kinda hypnotic)? Gourd was one of the songs/stories we’d perform.

    • Kantner has had his moments of acting like a spoiled rock star, and God knows the Starplane has never been short on interpersonal drama.
      But by and large, he’s fairly grounded and seems to have a good perspective on things.
      Supposedly he was working on a memoir at one point; I’d read it if he ever got it done.

      I do remember the video. I haven’t heard Kantner’s version of the song, though it may well be on YouTube.

      • I couldn’t find any books written by him, memoir or sci-fi. Do you know if he uses a pen name or something? I found what was described as the definitive book on starship but it was written by someone else.

  2. I don’t think he’s finished writing anything … I’ve heard he’s worked on books but I don’t think he’s ever completed one.


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