Monday, February 01, 2016
The beautiful symmetry of it all complements that of David Bowie's recent death, but that's not where the parallels end. Kantner, like Bowie, was rock music's original science fiction buff. A long-time buff of writers like Heinlein, Sturgeon and John Wyndham, Kantner saw the burgeoning otherness of his generation in the 1960s as akin to the rise of the Midwich Cuckoos in Wyndham's novel of that same name, better known by the title of the films based on it, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED. Kantner had been audacious on record from the get-go, with a few of his compositions and co-compositions for the first album, JEFFERSON AIRPLANE TAKES OFF, being singled out for RCA label censorship. "Let Me In" was a tense monologue directed to a tease who ultimately offered to open up in exchange for money, while "Run Around" painted a somewhat psychedelic picture of public fornication in a park. Both songs had to be rerecorded when the original pressing was temporarily pulled off the market. There was not too much to argue about with the second album, SURREALISTIC PILLOW, which introduced The Great Society's Grace Slick as the Airplane's new female singer; they willingly edited the line "but in bed, baby, I'm afraid you don't know where it is" to "but inside your head, I'm afraid you don't know where it is" to engage with the Top 40 - and continued to sing the line as written in live performance whenever the mood struck. It was with the third album, the joyously experimental AFTER BATHING AT BAXTERS, that Kantner seemed to take directional charge of the band - as he told his record label, who were uncertain of a new album with so little Grace Slick on it, "We've had our hits, and now our audience will take whatever we give them." He knew then what it took Hollywood film directors another 20-30 years to find out, that it's precisely in the shadow of a huge success that one should experiment, when an audience is guaranteed.
BAXTERS opens with a sustained barrage of psychedelic feedback that represents a kind of bomb going off, triggering mutations - as indeed had happened, figuratively, as folk and rock became folk-rock. Kantner conceived of a mutant character named Pooneil, composed of equal parts his childhood hero Winnie the Pooh and his adult hero Fred Neil, and wove an extended song around both their influences, freely quoting from A.A. Milne in "the folk tradition" put forth by folk artists like Neil. The album ended with a surprising anthem for what Kantner estimated to be "about two weeks in time when things were perfect", which Madison Avenue extended into an entire "Summer of Love." "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon" was, much like the opening "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil", a mind-boggling suite of shifting time-signatures that achieved a seemingly effortless balance, and the lyrics were largely taken - again, in "the folk tradition" - from an account of the first San Francisco Be-In written for THE SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE by their resident critic (and an early champion of Jefferson Airplane), Ralph J. Gleason.
I could go on in this vein, but this is just history and what I feel on the occasion of Paul Kantner's passing is powerfully personal. We probably all can admit to at least one, but Jefferson Airplane is the band, the band idea, the band alchemy that has most obsessed me, since I first discovered them in 1969. It was the experience of hearing VOLUNTEERS, at the age of 13, the first album I ever heard with six-minute songs, in a stereo image as deep and complex as it was wide, that weaned me permanently away from a Top 40 orientation - and when I first saw the Airplane in action, on a television special called GO RIDE THE MUSIC, the extreme difference of the studio version of "We Can Be Together" (primarily acoustic, with prominent guest piano by Nicky Hopkins) to the special's live-in-the-studio version (with Kantner playing his 12-string Rickenbacker electric with what I can only describe as courtly majesty) was so striking that I became a lifelong devotee of what were then called bootleg tapes. Over the decades, I've collected close to a couple hundred hours of live Airplane shows alone, and I am here to tell you that the original lineup - with Jorma Kaukonen on lead, Jack Casady on bass, and their brilliantly spontaneous jazz-forged drummer Spencer Dryden - never played a song the same way twice. As a live unit, they were highly unpredictable, explosive, galvanizing, sometimes coming very close to flying off in too many directions, and I have always found that aspect of their chemistry spellbinding. What underscores Paul Kantner's particular value to them is that, when you hear a Grace Slick composition on record, the band basically accompany her - and I would say the same is true of a Marty Balin or Jorma Kaukonen song. But Paul Kantner's songs somehow belong to all of the members; he understood their three-part harmonies, the particular dynamics of their instrumental interplay, and he composed songs that allowed them to shine as a single personality. My favorite example of this is "Alexander the Medium" from 1972's LONG JOHN SILVER album, a song that often brings tears of appreciation to my eyes; another is a song appropriate to this occasion, "Your Mind Has Left Your Body" from the Kantner/Slick/Freiberg album BARON VON TOLLBOOTH AND THE CHROME NUN - which captures the entire Airplane lineup as it then existed and adds some truly celestial Jerry Garcia steel guitar to the mix.
He was a utopian dystopian, an anarchistic organizer, a curmudgeonly open heart, unwilling to take anybody's shit and a day early in dishing it out - and all these contradictions held court behind a strumming arm that played riffs as rallying as any in rock. I owe him a great debt, not only for a stack of albums that have guided me through a lifetime, but for helping to shape the person I've become - artistically, spiritually, and politically. And therein lies the power and the value of song.