INTERVIEW- Surrealistic fellow: Kantner still rocks the Starship

Paul Kantner was inducted into the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 along with the rest of Jefferson Airplane.

Forty years after he helped provide the soundtrack for 1967's "Summer of Love," Jefferson Airplane/Starship guitarist Paul Kantner says little has changed.

"We have a lot more songs, we're a little wiser in some areas, we're a little smugger in others," he says, "but we still like to play with a certain degree of chaos."

It's that spirit of adventure that Kantner says has kept him touring and performing for more than 40 years, and also what's worth celebrating about the San Francisco scene from which his band emerged in the mid-to-late '60s. 

Now the man behind such counterculture anthems as "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" is hoping to both commemorate that time and place and keep touring with longtime partners-in-crime David Freiberg and Marty Balin in Jefferson Starship. They're all part of the "Summer of Love" tour that will play the Charlottesville Pavilion Saturday, July 7. From a hotel room in Albany, New York, he caught up with the Hook to talk sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll.

The Hook: You've been playing with some of these folks for more than 40 years. What's different about playing live now?

Paul Kantner: It's a lot less chaotic, but maybe that's a negative. I had to propel our drummer into a little more chaos last night. We've got a lot more tunes than we did back then; we can hear better than we did because we have monitors now. You know who first introduced me to monitors? Owsley [Stanley, the first mass producer of LSD]. He just grabs hold of a subject and explores everything about it, everything from the obvious to making gold jewelry. So he'd read a lot about sound engineering and convinced us to become one of the first bands to use vocal monitors. But to answer your question, I still think someone's going to tell me to get a real job. And of course, as I guess they say now, we still like "Bong Hits 4 Jesus."

The Hook: Did you have a sense in 1967 that the time and place in which you were living would go down in history the way it has?

Paul Kantner: No, not at all. We were just kids in San Francisco doing what seemed like a good thing to do. The best time was actually the summer before the "Summer of Love," before all the tourists came. I still don't know why San Francisco attracted not only all these people, but the bands, the Diggers, the clothing designers, the poster makers, and any number of other things. It's a small city, everything was available to everybody, the rent was cheap in Haight-Ashbury in particular. You could get a 10-room flat for $100 a month in these old Victorian buildings. The people who came there interacted with one another in a positive way. 

We weren't protesting things like they were in Berkeley and elsewhere. We for some reason just chose to do things like we wanted and got away with an extreme amount of stuff that we should have been arrested for. We did things rather than complain about them. Some things were good, some things weren't, but we just did as many things as we could get to, and the majority of them worked out pretty well for me. San Francisco was a gateway to the edge, if you know what I mean. 

The Hook: George Harrison later said of his visit to Haight-Ashbury in 1967, "It was just a bunch of horrible, spotty, dropout kids on drugs." What was it that he didn't understand?

Paul Kantner: I guess he didn't get laid, which was hard to do back then. It wasn't just sex, drugs, and rock 'n roll but just a marvelous exploration in a different way of living. But as with any exploration, people died. But the percentage was low compared to the normal level of survival in an exploration. Columbus lost a lot higher percentage of people than we did. How we lived the way we did, I still have no idea. Maybe God (or whoever) was protecting us; maybe it was luck of the draw. I have yet to try heroin, though. I'm saving it for my old age, but I don't like downers very much. 

I still do a little of this, a little of that, whether it's alcohol or anything else. I do like a shot of Stoli, but if I get past four or five, I get sick or I go to sleep. So there's a built-in safety valve there. Of course, our prisons are filled with people who got caught with a joint, and we're letting child molesters and murders out because our prisons are too crowded. What a bunch of silliness. It's sinful, as my former Catholic church would say.

The Hook: Why exactly did the name change from Jefferson Airplane to Jefferson Starship?

Paul Kantner: Jefferson Airplane broke up, and we didn't want to carry on with groups of different people using the same name. So when I started Jefferson Starship, I wanted something that was very modular, like a ship, available for people to sail around on and get on or off whenever you like. And that's what it's been. But Jefferson Airplane was a definite unit, and we didn't want to f*** with that. But in the ongoing plot to overthrow reality, we've got a pretty good group of players now.

The Hook: You were not in the group with Grace Slick that was just called "Starship." In 2004, Blender magazine rated Starship's "We Built This City" as "the #1 most awesomely bad song of all time." How glad are you that you weren't part of that?

Paul Kantner: Well, that's the reason I left the band in the first place. Usually I'm the last one at the party, but everyone else wanted to go in that more commercial direction. That's when I said, "If you want to play that, I'm gone." I really didn't listen to it, because I was busy putting together a new band. But it was definitely cringe-worthy.

The Hook: What's your relationship with Grace Slick like these days?

Paul Kantner: Right now she's suing me for some unknown reason, but generally we get along really well. Twenty years ago, feeling tired of the music business, she signed over her interest in Jefferson Starship to me, and now she's suing me for using the name. I actually had to go and dig up the piece of paper she signed, and I showed it to her, and she said, "I don't remember that." And I said, "What's your name? Cheney? Gonzales? I don't think so. I'm going to have to hold you to it." But generally we get along pretty well.

The Hook: Jefferson Airplane still has a huge fan base, and all of the principals all still alive. What would have to happen for a full-fledged reunion?

Paul Kantner: You can't predict these things; they just happen. We did it 10-15 years ago; it came together by accident. We're not working on a five-year-plan, which is good in a general anarchic way. But I'm open to the idea, no problem from me. We were a pretty good band, I like to think, playing that satanist, communist music.

The "Summer of Love" tour featuring Jefferson Starship, Big Brother & The Holding Company, Quicksilver Messenger Service, and others play the Charlottesville Pavilion, Saturday, July 7. Doors 4pm, show 5pm, $21.67/adults; free/under 12.



Kantner has one coherent revelation: the Beatles could never seem to get laid.

Are people actually going to this thing? I Captain Kirk going to be there too? Remember....when the acid wears off you'll be saying "this music still sucks". Ironic that the music most strongly associated with the so called "Summer of Love" is Sgt. Peppers.

Remeber, kids, termites are mere pests; easily exterminated. Such petulant whining! And it misses the greater point: this isn't an aesthetic, subjective issue about persoanl tastes in music. Rather, for those who do want to hear these bands, they must ask themselves: are these the actual bands that will play at the Pavillion, or merely musicians who've scored the licensing rights to use a band's name? More on that in a sec.

That said, a few corrections to the article and interview, above, should be asserted: Kantner is not "the man behind such counterculture anthems as 'Somebody to Love' and 'White Rabbit.'" Both are songs originally performed by a band called The Great Society, featuring a lead singer by the name of Grace Slick. She penned Somebody to Love and her brother, Great Society guitarist Darby Slick, wrote White Rabbit. It was on the strength of these two songs that Jeff Airplane lured Grace Slick into their band and she brought the songs with her. Kantner had nothing to do with the composition of either tune and very little to do with the arrangements. He and Grace Slick did have a kid together, though.

Now, Jeff Airplane's greatness is inversely proportional to the steady decline once the band splintered into Jeff Starship and a better outfit, Hot Tuna. Jeff Starship cut one great album, Red Octopus, then slid steadily into artistic bankruptcy, later mutating into simply Starship, which wrought the wretched "We Built this City." 'Nuff said.

The concern with this upcoming "Summer of Love" concert is that these bands will appear in name only. Grace Slick hasn't performed with Kantner or anybody else in Jeff Airplane or Starship for at least a decade. As for Big Brother and the Holding Company, they were nothing w/o Janis Joplin and as a backing band they sounded pretty atrocious even with her. And Quicksilver Messenger Service? There's a faded blast from the past, baby. They could book the 13th Floor Elevators or Electric Flag and nobody would know the diff.

Caveat emptor.

I am a long time pest and judging from your response still good at it. But only the Orkin man will give you the sales pitch regarding easy extermination. I did enjoy the support on Kantner's incoherence and the absurdity of yet another baby boomer show for those who must relive the 60s.

Does debate get any more vibrant than this?

"I am a long time pest...."

LOL. Thanks for the laff. Glad to learn that you have found your special calling.

To focus, the issue here is duplicitous music promoters who are shilling "classic rock" bands in name only.

Kantner's coherence -- or lack of -- is merely incidental. He was pretentious before he banked his first million.

But to dismiss the entire Jeff Airplane oveure with a simplistic "this music sucks" only undermines your credibility, such as it is. If your point is persuasion, you have failed. If your intent is to waste your time, then kudos. But you will waste no more of mine.

Take care.

You take me much too seriously. But it is a satisfying feeling to see you admit that I did waste your time.

You know you've really gotten to someone when they bring out the "P" word. Again, you boys are taking me much too seriously. And CC is the one who made it personal. That takes a real cyberspace man!

By the way HooFan:
Regarding "a interesting", English grammar requires an "an" prior to a word beginning in a vowel....but as I think about it, that's third grade English so you'll get that next year.....
The Termite...still cage free and free roaming

P.S. Remember, you and your cyber home boy made it personal. And yes, I know Cteve is taking a peek.

I was thinking about going to this concert, but it didn't seem like much of a show. Like Cteve said, the bands are just in name only. The price for a show at the Pavillion wasn't bad, less than $20, but you get what you pay for.

Oh: This comments board has too many trolls. Termite must be a sad little boy. He makes a post at 5:34 on a Sunday morning, then less than three hours later, at 8:25 a.m. he's checking the thread again. And posting again.

Can't hide anything from you. I am just so depressed at being found out.

By the way, from the Summer of Love concert goers (and I suspect J-Lynn did actually go), any bad trips other than the one you made to the Pavilion?

Ahhhhh....AC, Nadal and Federer on TV, and (watch this grammar move HooFan) an internet connection on a 100 degree day. Does not get any better.

OK CC, HooFan, J-Lynn: I know you have an itchy finger on that mouse. You know you want to hit that Submit Comment button. How about you CC? After all, YOU are the one who made it a personal attack which is your sole purpose for being on the internet-- to personalize a valid opinion. At least, have the b@lls to (try and) finish it.

Mickey Thomas is still the best lead singer than Jefferson Starship ever had.

Termite, You seem to be the only one making anything personal, yet you try to deflect your insecurities about general knowledge on others. Here's what you need to do.....Put the barrel in your mouth, take the safety off and pull the trigger. The world will be a lot less bitter with you removed from it. If you need assistance, I will gladly point you in the right direction...... oh, I'm sorry, did you take that seriously? Cliff in Pismo

Darby Slick was Grace's brother-in-law, not her brother. Born Grace Wing (a Norwegian name), she wedded boy next door Jerry Slick in I think 1961 or '62, and HIS brother was Darby. The three of them started the Great Society, and Darby wrote "Somebody to Love", and "White Rabbit" (with Grace). She took the songs with her when she left TGS for the Airplane in 1966.

Saw the Jefferson Starship at a "Heroes of Woodstock" event at the weekend in Edmonton, Canada. Kantner was in terrible shape. He didn't seem to know what was going on, and had trouble staying upright, despite round-the-clock attention from a highly frustrated roadie who just about kept him from hurting himself and everybody else. The embarrassing part for all watching was that the band seemed to be playing reasonably well in spite of his presence, rather than because of it. However, since he owns the Jefferson Starship name, if he doesn't go on stage, the rest of the band can't play under that name, so, regardless of how baked he may be at any given time, he calls the shots. It's a sad state of affairs when somebody gets to age 69 and is in that shape, and still thinks they've "got it." Paul ... do yourself a big favor and call it a day before you hurt somebody.

I'm listening to JS live 11/13/2009 and they sound pretty good. At 69 and lived it all you probably have your good and bad nights. Balin was the best singer they had by far, seen them all several times each, in different bands too. Best Starship album...'Blows Against the Empire', opened new paths in sound direction at the time even if it wasn't a huge commercial success.
To the detractors out there, don't go to their shows, nobody's forcing you. Besides, if you don't/never liked Kantner, why are you here?

Nice interview! Here is a link to a more recent interview which covers different ground: