Paul Kantner (1941-2016): Fondly Recalling a Jefferson Airplane Concert I Did Not Attend

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Paul Kantner died on January 28, 2016. Unlike two of his music colleagues who immediately preceded his departure, Kantner had neither the protean mystique of David Bowie nor the rock star appeal of Glenn Frey. Kantner was never widely known as a solo artist. He was not a principal guitarist, lead vocalist, main songwriter, or charismatic front man. But he was a co-founder of Jefferson Airplane. Paul Kantner was on board at the beginning and stayed with the Airplane from test flights to final descent. He provided second guitar to Jorma Kaukonen’s fierce lead guitar lines, and often sang backup to both Marty Balin’s and Grace Slick’s lead vocals. Perhaps more than this, Kantner helped give direction to this group’s often unstable flight path.

Kantner defended Jefferson Airplane against all adversaries. Be it a negative review or a physical altercation — he was unafraid to protect his band. The latter can be seen in the Gimme Shelter documentary covering the infamous Altamont rock festival of 1969. After a skirmish between audience members and Hells Angels spills onto the stage, it is Paul Kantner who takes the microphone and acerbically thanks the Angels for knocking Marty Balin unconscious. Even after an Angel climbs onstage to threaten the guitarist for this accusation, Kantner does not back down from the confrontation. When I recently suggested to Airplane biographer Jeff Tamarkin that Kantner’s personality was “a little prickly,” Tamarkin corrected me: “He was a lot prickly.” Tamarkin immediately adds, “But he was an original and his music had enormous impact.”

Oddly enough, the weekend before Paul Kantner’s death I listened to Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow all the way through. I had not done so in years. Surrealistic Pillow stands as one of the most enduring albums from San Francisco’s Summer of Love. In 1967, the emerging youth movement found this Jefferson Airplane album to be unspeakably hip. But it was simultaneously radio friendly, yielding two Top 40 hits — “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” Upon hearing it afresh, the many familiar songs of Surrealistic Pillow struck me as a collection of gentle, well-sung ballads with a few rockin’ moments and psychedelic touches surfacing around the edges. A very pleasant, melodic record. Hard now to believe that, in 1967, this could be a touchstone for generational strife.

But strife there was. Many parents were fearful of the times, and sometimes of their own children. Jefferson Airplane played on these fears. Paul Kantner encouraged the band’s fans to reject their parents and their ideals, as he and Grace Slick make clear in a 1970 Rolling Stone interview with Ben Fong-Torres. The revolution was at hand. Or, at least it should be. “Volunteers,” both the title of the group’s landmark album and the one Airplane song included on the Woodstock soundtrack, advocated immediate revolution. Things might have been moving more quickly than even they realized, for as Kantner and Slick were speaking with Fong-Torres, their influence was rapidly waning and their group had already released it last exceptional album.

In the late ’60s, before their decline became evident, Jefferson Airplane was remarkably important. The Airplane, along with the Grateful Dead, was the embodiment of the San Francisco sound. I was fortunate to see the Dead several times, but the original Jefferson Airplane didn’t survive as long, and they didn’t tour the Midwest nearly as much. When Jefferson Airplane did hit my part of the country, I was too young to go. They played the University of Iowa Fieldhouse in Iowa City, Iowa, on November 11, 1969, but I was in the ninth grade – and no way were my parents letting me travel two hours on a school night for some hippy rock concert.

When Jefferson Airplane played that gig in Iowa, the Woodstock festival had ended, but the event had not yet become a cultural explosion. That would begin on March 26, 1970 — the day the movie was released to theaters. Also, the dream crushing debacle of Altamont was still a month away. That autumn was a brief and interesting window of time.

Although I could not attend the Jefferson Airplane concert, an older friend was able to persuade skeptical parents of his urgent need to be there. When he returned, I hung on every detail. His narrative provided a vicarious experience – one I both appreciated and feared. I think I knew even then that his descriptions would be as close as I would ever get to seeing the Airplane. Turns out, I was right.

So, what follows are recollections of my friend’s memories of that 1969 Iowa City concert:

The University of Iowa Fieldhouse was filled with expectation. This was a band that everybody wanted to see. The group came onstage and began to play, but something didn’t seem right. Was it the hall’s bad acoustics? Were they out of tune? They looked like Jefferson Airplane, but they sure didn’t sound like them. The set continued and the audience was flummoxed. Maybe they can’t pull off their stuff in concert, wondered some. No; that can’t be true — they had released a live album earlier that very year, Bless Its Pointed Little Head, which showed them to be a fine concert group. What was going on? Did the band decide that these Iowa hicks were not worth the effort?

Whatever the reason, this did not sound like the Jefferson Airplane that people had come to see. The band took an intermission. When they returned to the stage, Grace Slick addressed the audience. She apologized for the first set. She said that as they were getting ready to do the show, Iowa City police had hassled them backstage about possession of grass. Because of this, the band was upset and not feeling very into it. She promised that the second set would be better. Slick said that the cops had confiscated their stash, so if anybody had “anything to share,” they sure would appreciate it.

Joints were passed to the stage. The band began to play. Grace was right: The music was now wonderful. Amidst the hall’s dense smoke and a beautiful light show, Jefferson Airplane finally arrived. All was forgiven, and the Iowa City audience seemed pleased to be involved with helping the Airplane become airborne.

What songs did they play? My friend said he recognized the tunes, for the most part, but couldn’t get very specific. I am not aware of any tape from that night, but set lists of this era, including their Woodstock date from just three months before, likely give an accurate idea of their stage repertoire. “Eskimo Blue Day,” “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon,” “Wooden Ships,” various well known album tracks and the two big hits were all likely performed.

Wish I’d been there, but the eye witness description helped assuage my disappointment. I continued to follow Jefferson Airplane’s career for the next couple of years. I played their live tracks from Woodstock 2 frequently. As for the band’s studio efforts, I never really cared much for the subsequent Bark and Long John Silver albums. I didn’t think those records came close to some of the heights of their previous work. Nobody did. Even so, when Jefferson Airplane had been at full throttle …

Earlier in this piece I called Jefferson Airplane an “important” band. I have no doubt that Paul Kantner would reprimand me for this accolade. Kantner told Fong-Torres in that 1970 interview: “‘Important’ is a shitty word.” Maybe so, but important they were. Go now and listen to one of their albums.

[The definitive biography of Jefferson Airplane is: Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane. By Jeff Tamarkin. (Introduction by Paul Kantner.) New York: Atria Books, 2003.]

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