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If you smile at me, you know I will understand.

It was around the same time in my life — I’m thinking late freshman year in high school; woulda been 1988 — when I bought David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust … and Flight Log, the excellent, comprehensive two-record collection of Jefferson Airplane and Starship’s first decade of work.

I found much to like about both artists; but in the years since, I’ve accumulated considerably more Starplane records than I have Bowie records.

And that’s why — despite the numbing frequency of musical RIPs lately, and the inadequacies of my personal writing — I’m moved to comment about the passing of Paul Kantner, guitarist, singer and songwriter, at 74.

I suspect many people my age or younger think of the easy hippie cliches — tie-dyes and peace signs — when they hear the name Jefferson Airplane. I never got the sense that a lot of people of my generation dug into the ‘Plane’s back catalog.

And that’s a shame, because the musical, vocal and songwriting talents evident in their best work still reward anyone willing to go beyond “White Rabbit,” “Somebody to Love,” and the dusty stigma of those Time-Life late-night oldies collections advertised with endless streams of Ed Sullivan performance clips.

The Airplane’s marvelous third album, After Bathing At Baxter’s, metaphorically represented the group as a San Francisco “painted lady” Victorian house, sprouting improbable triplane wings and soaring gleefully above a polluted plastic landscape.

As I learned what I could about the band, in those pre-Internet suburban days, it wasn’t hard to believe that image. Put on the vinyl, take a mental trip to the Airplane House, and you might find yourself:

  • Hanging out in the master bedroom with Marty Balin — somehow both the practical and romantic one — as he rapped about the hassles of the music business and trying to stay true to himself.
  • Sitting on the stairs with Kantner, the revolutionary, as he spun scenarios of uprisings and interplanetary escapes to come.
  • Stepping into the living room to hear Grace Slick deliver a feminist lecture stern enough to singe the ends of your chest hairs.
  • Heading to the basement to hang with Spencer Dryden, whose nimble, jazz-inflected drumming suggested he spent lots of time spinning John Coltrane records and rolling joints.
  • Or, stepping onto the porch to pass the jug wine and hear the good-time contingent — Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Casady, and eventually Papa John Creach — cackle and high-step their way through dirty old Delta-blues numbers until sunrise.

If I don’t make the ‘Plane sound like a tremendously unified ensemble, that’s ’cause they often weren’t.

They were strong personalities in turbulent times; and even now, you can hear them pull in different directions, like how the Volunteers album segues from Kantner’s fire-breathing, defiant “We Can Be Together” into the mellow post-folkie trudge of Kaukonen’s “Good Shepherd.”

(At their worst, as on 1971’s dismal Bark, they went in so many directions that their center no longer held. But even in the wreckage, there were things to enjoy, like Kaukonen’s lusty “Feel So Good” and Kantner’s earnest, stentorian “When The Earth Moves Again” — as pure a San Francisco song title as any in pop history.)

The Airplane’s rough edges quickly wore down in the Jefferson Starship era. By the late ’70s, the band’s work offered little of real interest — though the early Starship records like Dragon Fly and Red Octopus managed to honor the Frisco-weird soul of the Airplane while moving in more commercial directions.

(Kaukonen and Casady’s Hot Tuna also offered some worthy music, but suffered from not having a few more songwriters, singers and viewpoints in the band to complement Jorma’s limited talents. A diamond, after all, has many facets.)

Still, the classic Airplane and Starship records remain a testament to a handful of oddballs with talent, stubbornness, humor, and a determination to seize the cultural moment that had been presented them.

And the departure of another member of that quintessentially San Franciscan troupe is something to mark.

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