Paul Kantner, who piloted the Jefferson Airplane through its peak years and beyond, has died. He was 74.
Kantner had been in poor health in recent years. He suffered a heart attack a year ago and again in recent days. The cause of his Jan. 28 death was given as organ failure.
The singer-guitarist’s classic Jefferson Airplane songs include “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” “Martha,” “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon,” “Crown of Creation,” “We Can Be Together” and the music for “Eskimo Blue Day.” He co-wrote many Airplane songs with singer Marty Balin.
Within one year aboard the Airplane, Kantner experienced the highs of rock stardom — the band’s unleashing of “morning maniac music” at Woodstock — and the lows — the stabbing of an audience member at the Altamont music festival.
His passing came on the same day as the death of Signe Anderson, the Airplane’s first female singer.
The band’s classic albums include “Surrealistic Pillow,” “After Bathing at Baxter’s,” “Volunteers” and “Crown of Creation.”
1967’s “Surrealistic Pillow” brought the band to international fame, a work closely identified with the psychedelic music emerging from San Francisco. It was, however, in many ways a folk rock album made with the help of the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. The album was the first featuring vocalist Grace Slick, a former model who became the band’s most visible member after she sang the drug-friendly hit “White Rabbit.”
“After Bathing at Baxter’s” (1967) had a decided psychedelic edge, while the antiwar “Volunteers” (1969) brought the band its greatest fame.
The band was closely allied with Bill Graham, frequently playing his Fillmore auditoriums.
Kantner wrote none of the hits, but the former folkie’s love of protest music kept the band at the forefront of radical chic as the Vietnam War roiled the country. He wrote in “We Can Be Together”:
We are forces of chaos and anarchy
Everything they say we are, we are
And we are very
Proud of ourselves
With “Eskimo Blue Day,” Slick and Kantner embraced another social revolution: the nascent ecology movement.
Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen wrote on his blog after the rhythm guitarist’s death: “Paul was the catalyst that made the (band’s) alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious … he could be loving and kind … his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable.”
In 1970, Kantner released the solo album “Blows Against the Empire,” which reflected his longtime interest in science fiction. (It was recorded with friends and allies, and credited to Jefferson Starship, not a band at the time.) The album was nominated for a Hugo award.
The Airplane, long suffering from inner turmoil, released two albums in the early 1970s, to mixed reviews. Both featured the violinist Papa John Creach. Singer Balin had exited the band, bringing to an end its classic era. Lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady teamed up for Hot Tuna, and did not continue with Kantner after these albums.
Kantner had a child with Airplane singer Slick, and they continued a musical partnership through the 1970s.
Kantner and Slick created the hitmaking Jefferson Starship in 1974 with Balin also on vocals. Kantner eventually quit over the band’s commercial direction, but returned to continue the Airplane/Starship brand into the new century.
Slick retired from music, but not before years of litigation over the Airplane and Starship names.
In 2008, Kantner released under the Jefferson Starship name an album of classic protest songs (“Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty”). Among the musicians was his son Alexander.
Kantner toured in recent decades with a band using variations on the Airplane/Starship name. Veterans of the Airplane and the San Francisco psychedelic music scene often sat in or joined for tours. Cathy Richardson sang the parts of Grace Slick.
The Jefferson Starship was on tour in the Midwest on the day Kantner died.
The Jefferson Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. The band reunited briefly in the late 1980s, and played together at the Rock Hall induction (without Slick, who was ill). Jefferson Airplane is receiving a lifetime Grammy award next month.
Balin wrote after Kantner’s death: “He was one of the greats, one of the most interesting people I ever associated with. He left a good body of work. If people just listen to his music, they’ll see how great he was.”
Kantner continued to live in San Francisco, where he was born. “Living here, I was able to follow my own path and values and was able to get away with an amazing amount of shit,” Kantner told Goldmine in 2010.
He is survived by three children, Gareth, Alexander and China.