PAUL LORIN KANTNER – who died yesterday (January 28, 2016) aged 74 – was the bespectacled beatnik heartbeat of Jefferson Airplane and, later, Jefferson Starship. Already a veteran of the San Francisco folk scene when he teamed with singers Marty Balin and Grace Slick and lured his folk buddy guitarist Jorma Kaukonen into the embryonic Airplane, he would become one of the key figures of the Haight-Ashbury counterculture axis, with his band, along with the Grateful Dead and the Quicksilver Messenger Service, headlining December 1966’s landmark Human Be-In in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, the precursor to what would become known as 1967’s Summer Of Love.
Arguably, they were the most eclectic and unpredictable of the SF groups, maintaining the volatile Balin-Slick vocal attack and a mindblowing weave of jazz, folk, rock and political strands. But for all their disparate influences and competing impulses they were indubitably powerful, and in Slick they boasted one of rock’s most fearsome instruments. Critic Leonard Feather may not have meant to be flattering when he described their Monterey Jazz Festival performance of 1966 as having “all the delicacy and finesse of a mule knocking down a picket fence” but advertisements for exciting rock’n’roll don’t much more succinct.
After the pioneering freaky folk-rock of debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966) and follow-up Surrealistic Pillow (1967), Kantner drove the group in a heavier direction, manifested on After Bathing At Baxter's (1967), Crown Of Creation (1968) and Volunteers (1969), the swansong of the classic Airplane line-up, after which Balin bailed.
Kantner was fond of saying that Jefferson Airplane albums were not without their faults but it was worth the missteps for the ambition and the reach. Both were much evidence on his daring first post-Airplane project, the Blows Against The Empire album, a harmony-drenched sci-fi song cycle about 7,000 freaks who decide to quit the Earth to find a new home in space. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, CSN&Y’s Crosby and Nash, Bill Kreutzmann, Slick and others hitched a ride.
“I’m an idealistic socialist,” Kantner told MOJO’s Mark Paytress when the Blows... album was featured as a Buried Treasure in our February 2006 issue. “Idealism is adolescent, impractical and unrealistic. But pointing a way to the star and not getting there does not decimate its value.”
Kantner and Slick’s Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra released two follow-up albums: Sunfighter, (1971) and 1973's Baron Von Tollbooth & The Chrome Nun, named after after the nicknames David Crosby had given the pair. Then, from 1974, they began trading as Jefferson Starship, with Balin back in harness. Kantner left in 1984, to undertake a selection of Airplane-related reunion projects. The classic Jefferson Airplane line-up were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996.
As a musician and as a man, he will be missed.