Remembering Paul Kantner’s Flight, from Jefferson Airplane to Jefferson Starship

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An abiding passion for science fiction led Paul Kantner to transform his psychedelic 1960s-era Jefferson Airplane into Jefferson Starship over the subsequent decade — and it guided his stewardship of the band until his last days. Kantner died on Jan. 28, 2015 at 74 after suffering from failing health for some time.

His final releases with Jefferson Starship, which relaunched in 1992 with a lineup that initially included ’70s-era members Jack Casady and Papa John Creach as well as then-newcomer Mark “Slick” Aguilar, were both live albums: One from their classic period, 2013’s Live In Central Park NYC May 12, 1975; and another from the final incarnation of the group, 2012’s a double-live album Tales from the Mothership — a concert that took place at the perfect setting, in Roswell, N.M.

On the latter, as with recordings like 2008’s Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty, Paul Kantner steered the band back towards its roots — mixing and matching songs from the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship repertoires, along with other legacy music that contextualized their contributions to rock. At the same time, in keeping with Kantner’s most memorable work with the group over 15 years beginning in 1970, everything was held together with stardust.

And that seemed to bring things full circle, recalling the feel of Blows Against the Empire, a Kantner solo album with a sci-fi theme that ostensibly launched the Jefferson Starship more than any of the mid-1980s chart-topping confections subsequently issued under Mickey Thomas’ Starship banner.

Thomas, with whom Kantner had a successful collaboration between 1979-84, is leading a separate group focusing on the more pop-oriented fare that followed their split. Guitarist Craig Chaquico, who spanned both incarnations, had departed by 1990, as well.

Paul Kantner soldiered on, working with classic-era member David Freiberg, Donny Baldwin (who previously appeared in the early-1980s Kantner-Thomas lineups), Cathy Richardson (filling in for the retired Grace Slick) and Jude Gold, who took Aguilar’s spot after the guitarist was forced to retire in 2012 because of health issues. A heart attack in March 2015 finally took Kantner off the road.

By then, however, Jefferson Starship’s legend was secure – having initially grown out of the show featured on Live In Central Park NYC May 12, 1975, well before the breakout Red Octopus album, and its Marty Balin-sung hit “Miracles,” arrived. Not that Kantner could predict just where things were headed. He just liked the setting: “I never sense the group is on the verge of anything,” he told Nick DeRiso of Something Else! in 2014. “We carry on, in our own way, and what comes out of it is normally entirely unpredictable. My favorite places to play are outdoors, in the parks.”

After Balin’s initial departure, Jefferson Starship emerged with a heavier sound heard on turn-of-the-1980s songs like Freiberg’s “Jane” — and it seemed like the band had been reborn. That made Jefferson Starship’s eventual turn toward the pop mainstream all the more surprising for the quickly departing Kantner.

He took the “Jefferson” portion of the name, and has later reasserted a seminal interest in folk music since starting the band up again — including several adaptations of songs by the Weavers, for instance, on Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. The impetus, Kantner told us, was “just the very glory of the Weavers, and all that they contributed to my idea of how to be a band.”

Meanwhile, a childhood interest with the works of fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis — specifically, he said Perelandra and Out of the Silent Planent, “still classic masterpieces” — fired Kantner’s imagination until the end. “Science fiction, for me, was an escape from the harsh environment I was in — a Catholic, all boys, military boarding school,” Kantner told Something Else! “Actually, an escape to, not an escape from: It was an adventure, an exploration of discovery and wonder.”

He even found himself arrested once, quite memorably, with none other than Carl Sagan when both were trying to sneak into Area 51. Looking back, Kantner told us in 2014 that it happened “just by the circumstances of being in that mode,” adding: “We shared similar beliefs and goals.”

Kantner, even that late in the game, remained optimistic, with his head in the clouds. Actually, with his head far above the clouds.

He was considering the idea of presenting mid-1970s Jefferson Starship albums like Dragonfly or Red Octopus in their entirety. But Paul Kantner wasn’t going to settle for your typical earthen venues. That wouldn’t do.

Instead, he ruminated a bit, then offered: “Perhaps a concert on Mars.”

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