Black crowned night heron © Robert Sommers 2023

Monday, February 1, 2016

Jefferson Airplane takes off

It is hard for me to express my sadness at the passing of Paul Kantner. I didn't know him personally, mumbled a few words to him once, but still feel that he was an integral part of my life. There were lots of great psychedelic bands, the Dead, Quicksilver, Beatles to name a couple but few if any managed to weave a radical social and political message together with such a potent musical fire as the Airplane. And Paul Kantner was arguably the principal architect of that message. The Jefferson Airplane touched me hard.

I first was exposed to the airplane in Texas when my angry stepfather used to break my older sister Liz's 45 singles of white rabbit with regularity. This was sometime between 1966 and 1968. No sooner would he break them than she would replace them. We moved to New York soon thereafter and I recall waiting outside the Fillmore East late in the night for Liz on at least one occasion while the Airplane were playing. They were her favorite band and maybe mine. The dead were planes, trains and card games but the Airplane hit you in an altogether different place.

And then my little weird story. I had seen Tuna many times and Kantner sitting in with them on at least one occasion but never the airplane or starship. One day, many years ago, Leslie and I were walking down the street in Ocean Beach for one reason or another. We were walking by a tiny little club and the marquee said Jefferson Airplane and we looked at each other and said oh right and we walked in and there was Paul Kantner sitting in the middle of an empty room on a stool.

I walked up to him and asked him if he would play Other side of this life and he looked me straight in the spectacles and said coming right up and launched right into it. I stood next to him all night and called out a few favorites for Paul and his smoking band which if memory serves, included Slick Aguilar in that incarnation.

It was amazing and surreal. There can not have been more than 40 people in the room all night.

Jim Marshall Photography LLC
I do not think that Paul was particularly either a great singer or even displayed too much virtuosity in his rhythm guitar playing. What he had was a fantastic and giant brain and a beautiful being. I think that intelligence makes up for a hell of a lot. While not blessed with what could be termed a great voice, his harmonies a bit discordant, they were distinctive and functional. His lyrics were priceless and occasionally sublime.

It is very hard today to explain the impact of psychedelic music, for the simple reason that if you have never been psychedelic there is really no proper way to adequately describe the experience.

But if you happened to "make the trip" people like Paul Kantner and the Jefferson Airplane could provide some auditory touchstones that might lend needed comfort and navigational help on your personal interstellar excursion. Of which some of us were quite grateful.

My friend Vlad videotaped the Jerry Memorial in Golden Gate Park and we watched the previously unseen footage last time I was up in Monterey. And I remarked to him that Paul Kantner was the most moving speaker, his words were transcendent, eloquent and brilliant. Maybe one day he will let me post the video.

Leslie and I caught Papa John Creach's memorial in Hollywood many years ago. Merle Saunders played as did David La Flamme and then the airplane without Jorma. About midnight Paul announced a special guest and it was Grace and she sang long into the night, powerful, precise, beautiful and simply amazing. Another very magic moment in our lives. Leslie and I hung out at the bar with the late photographer Jim Marshall, a great guy himself.

Signe at the Matrix - Herbie Greene?
I wrote Michael L when I heard the news about Paul dying the other day. Michael had a leather shop in the Haight back in the day that eventually morphed into something huge. He wrote me this note:

I was at the Fillmore in 1967 it was either  Feb 4 or June 4 I looked it up,  to hear Grace Slick take over for Signe who had a baby, light shows, people dancing it seemed like everybody was high and non violent, if we could only recreate that feeling....my favorite song, Miracles 1975ish thanks for sharing I miss your blog


Lo and behold I couldn't believe it when I heard the news. Signe Anderson, original singer for the Airplane, who was incredibly loved (people were in tears when she left the band), died the very same day as Paul, January 28th. What a strange coincidence! Bless you guys. Bless your pointed little heads.


Anonymous said...

NO MAN IS AN ISLAND..................

Anonymous said...

Very eloquent re: Kantner. It has been a hard month or so with losses (Bowie, Frey, etc). But Paul was hardest for me. The Airplane and Starship were a BIG part of my early education to psychedelia. Too many of our heroes are gone. A big bummer

Anonymous said...

Im glad you loved him too. Nice story