By Blair Jackson
Even though he helped form one of San Francisco’s great pyschedelic bands, Paul Kantner was always a folkie at heart. That’s where his roots were; same with original Jefferson Airplane members Marty Balin, Jorma Kaukonen, and Signe Anderson. The Airplane’s 1966 debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, was folk-rock; the same could be said for the group’s 1967 breakthrough smash, Surrealistic Pillow, which beneath the jangling electric guitars sometimes had layers of acoustic guitar played by Kantner, Kaukonen, and even their friend Jerry Garcia. From that point on in the Airplane, however, things got more electric— in every sense of the word—though occasionally there would be nods back to the group’s folk roots.
Kantner wrote many of his songs on acoustic guitar, and truth be told, even his electric playing (he loved that Rickenbacker sound, and also played other electric axes) always seemed rooted in folk strum-and-sing. He was a tremendous admirer of Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, Pete Seeger, and other titans of the ’50s “folk scare,” because he appreciated the outward simplicity of the songs—this was truly “people’s music” almost anyone could play—and the directness of the lyrics, so many of them dealing with social and political issues, and the travails of the downtrodden. Kantner brought that sometimes radical viewpoint into the Airplane (for better or worse, some might qualify), and stirred it into the muscular psychedelic stew the band created. In doing so, he mirrored a lot of the turmoil, passion, and strangeness of the times through his songs; his own electric folk music.
His undeniable magnum opus, the 1970 album Blows Against the Empire, which featured Kantner and Grace Slick joined by a who’s who of San Francisco musicians (and others), was a sprawling, ambitious work, dominated by a stoned, sci-fi fantasy suite of songs that were propelled by Kantner’s insistent acoustic strumming, and surrounded by a dreamy universe of electric instruments drifting in and out of the songs like amorphous gaseous clouds in deep space. It was truly one of the San Francisco music scene’s finest hours.
I got to know Paul in the mid-’70s, when I started writing for a Bay Area-based music magazine called BAM. I interviewed him at length probably six or seven times, for cover stories on the Jefferson Starship, and various other pieces, and I always found him to be an incredibly articulate and forthright guy—he told you what was on his mind; he didn’t varnish his opinions with PR spin ever. He had a great sense of humor and you could tell that his sometimes outwardly cynical façade was competing with a deeply idealistic streak born of flower power-era dreams of hip utopia. The irony of his life in that era is that he lived very comfortably in a beautiful house perched over the blue Pacific in the ritzy Sea Cliff neighborhood of San Francisco, even as he wrote stirring anthems about the poor and the young rising up together in rebellion against the status quo. But I guess you could say that about a lot of songwriters (Springsteen, Jackson Browne, et al)—at least he and others use their privilege as a springboard to say important things and, in so many cases, do good deeds: Paul Kantner played hundreds of benefit shows from the earliest days of the Airplane all the way through to the end of his life. That was part of the lefty folk tradition, too, and also a big part of the early San Francisco rock scene. He was interested in everything, it seemed, was extremely well-read, and never put on rock-star airs—he remained amazingly approachable. And he was everywhere. I remember him being a fixture at punk and new wave shows in San Francisco at a time when the mohawk-and-safety-pin crowd was condemning him and his ilk as irrelevant dinosaurs. He was a man-about-town, rock royalty among “the people.”
He was truly one of the good guys, another irreplaceable character in rock’s weird tapestry.
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Watch Kantner in 2008 (playing a Guild 12-string acoustic), with Diana Mangano and David Freiberg, soar on a version of the rarely performed “Sketches of China,” from the 1973 Kantner-Freiberg-Grace Slick album Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun.