Sunday, January 31, 2016

Adios Paul Kantner

1) "For fuck's sake! Are you going to write one of these every time one of these people passes?"

"Listen: For those of us of A Certain Age, 2016 has been the year when the passing of the generation of musos we grew up listening to becomes impossible to ignore, and with it, our own mortality. At this point, I have to say that the idea that my consciousness will one day be extinguished isn't as hard to wrap my head around as the slightly different idea that one day, the memory of everything I've experienced in this life will be gone."

"So that's why you do...all of this?"

"You might say."

2) When the news came through about Paul -- it took a couple of days until we found out that Signe Anderson, whom Grace Slick replaced in the lineup, had left the planet on the same day -- the first thing I wanted to hear was "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon," a song about the Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park, January 1967, that concluded After Bathing At Baxter's, my pick for the best Jefferson Airplane album, which was released at the end of that year. On Baxter's, you can hear the music changing in more ways than one. The jangly folk-rock group from Takes Off is long gone, and the psychedelic tendencies that de facto (although uncredited) producer Jerry Garcia teased out on Surrealistic Pillow are in full flower. Kantner has assumed leadership from founder Marty Balin on the strength of his songwriting. Besides the climactic track I couldn't wait to hear, Kantner's songs like "The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil," "Wild Tyme," and "Watch Her Ride" overflow with the "complexity" and "kinetics" that Paul Williams marveled at in Crawdaddy! (anthologized in his Outlaw Blues in a chapter that taught me how to listen to music actively and contextually). The sweetness in their music turned bitter fast, like the bite of strychnine in bad street acid. Even when the singers' voices are soaring, there's a dark undertow, and not just from Jack Casady's bass.

3) Last night I watched Fly Jefferson Airplane, a documentary recommended by a drummer I play with occasionally, who met Kantner in Portland in the early '90s. It's a useful summation, although their early history -- surely one of the best origin stories in rock: Jorma's blues name was "Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane;" Marty hired non-drummer Skip Spence to play drums because "he looked like a drummer;" etc. -- gets short shrift (the story begins with Signe's departure to be a mom). There are good interviews with all the band members and manager Bill Thompson. I could have done with less "music-video" type footage from TV shows (fellow travelers the Smothers Brothers; Perry Como, who must have wondered what on Earth RCA was forcing on him), but the performance stuff -- a couple of songs from Monterey and a couple from PBS shows (Go Ride the Music and A Night at the Family Dog) I remember seeing broadcast when they were new -- is fine. (Nothing from Woodstock, though, or Ceiling Cat forbid, Altamont, where Marty Balin was, like the medevac pilot who blew the whistle on the My Lai massacre, the only man who did his job that day.) The main impression I had at the end was what a wonderful thing it must have been to be a young person in Haight-Ashbury in the summer of '66 (not '67).

4) While thinking about the casual sexism of the '60s freak scene that also cropped up in the Airplane's music (all those "younger girl" songs: not just "Young Girl Sunday Blues" and "Martha," but also Marty's "Come Up the Years" from Takes Off and, hell, even the Lovin' Spoonful's "Younger Girl" -- I could go on), I also flashed that when I was 13, part of what I dug about the Airplane was the fact that Kantner, the bespectacled sci-fi nerd, was romantically linked with Ice Princess Slick, the sardonic siren who took lyrical cues from Lewis Carroll and Joyce.

5) Back then I dug Volunteers, even though the Airplane's "revolutionary" stance was as suspect as the MC5's. Where the Five's seemed opportunistic, the Airplane always came across as privileged kids, like the draft-deferred college crowd. "We Can Be Together" kind of embodies the best and worst traits of that milieu. I'd like to see Bernie Sanders use that as a jingle: "We must begin, here and now / A new continent of earth and fire / Tear down the walls..." And Kantner's post-apocalyptic song "Wooden Ships," his royalties from which he donated to his friend David Crosby, who'd just been fired from the Byrds, still hits me the same way Cormac McCarthy's The Road does.

6) I suppose Blows Against the Empire is Kantner's masterpiece (using ideas cribbed from Robert E. Heinlein, with the sci-fi author's blessing). Only an idealist or a fool could see having a baby as a revolutionary act. And that's kind of where I lost the thread (although Jefferson Starship was inescapable on New York FM radio in the '70s).

7) "Here's my 'Jefferson Starship' story: In the summer of, I think it was '76, my buddy and I were walking through the Port Authority bus terminal in Manhattan with our guitar cases. A kid walked up to me and asked, 'Hey, aren't you Craig Chaquico from Jefferson Starship?' -- for back then, my hair was long and still black, and I had a shitty teenage mustache. I told him, 'Yep. We're playing for free at three o'clock this afternoon in Central Park. Go tell all your friends.'"


"I dunno, I thought it was funny."


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