Ballad of a Bourgeois Punk
by Ben Dyment
As co-founder and general leader of the Jefferson Airplane and its many offshoots, Paul Kantner carried himself and his bands through the rise and fall of eras, styles and years, as witness and contributor to the environment that birthed him as it wound down from promise into revivalism. Looking like a bookworm Brian Jones, Kantner held down the rhythm and postulated beneath the backup mic as well as any of the rest, staking a claim to the future and refusing to let go long after it had fully lost its facade.
Born March 17th, 1941, Kantner grew up bereft of the childhood most post-war American youth took for granted, suffering the loss of his mother at an early age and being placed in a militant Catholic boarding school by his father afterwards. "I was an abandoned little child," he said. "The school was out of necessity, but still rather drastic. Nuns and guns. As a result, I now fear nothing." Paul immersed himself in literature, drawing lifelong inspiration from early heroes like A.A. Milne’s Pooh Bear (one-half of the ‘Pooneil’ given tribute in "The Ballad Of You, Me And Pooneil" and "The House At Pooneil Corners," the other being folk troubadour Fred Neil). "I have thousands of influences in literature and find it a turn-on to leave a little thing like that for people to find, and then go to the writer who it came from and read him," he said.
But Kantner was nothing if not a full-out science fiction freak. From the ever present weight of Robert A. Heinlein on his songs and lyrics (Heinlein’s Stranger In A Strange Land acted as a veritable Bible for the counterculture crowd - David Crosby’s paen to ‘water brothers’ in "Triad" being one of the more obvious references) to adapting elements of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids for the lyrics of "Crown of Creation," let alone the expansive breadth of imagination and exploration in Blows Against The Empire and other solo efforts, he articulated in his music the bright-eyed wonder and mysticism of SF (Sci-Fi in it’s golden-era contraction, not the locale) that so enraptured his age group - the first generation to grow up with the genre as a mass-market element, both in the high and low of pop-culture ephemera. As a medium, it was the optimal out sound that could sustain the dreams of total reinvention.
Initially a Bay Area folk purist and general refusenik, Kantner caught the attention of Marty Balin, forming the Airplane and following the transition from folk into rock that was happening around them. Among all the San Francisco bands, the Airplane developed a penchant for commercial impact without giving up any of their weirdness - amidst chart hits, they were the first to get ‘motherfucker’ released uncensored on a record, on RCA no less, as well as the first to say it on national television. The Airplane had it together - six distinct personalities, ranging in style and substance and providing a strong contrast that made it all so interesting. Within the mix, Kantner came off as overshadowed at times by the others, yet kept the group anchored. His compositions seemed to look towards the ‘ideal future’, mirroring the unrest of the era and the hope of stripping away of all social mores and attitudes deemed irrelevant and outmoded while retaining a dissonant edge that stayed back from total support or rejection of any one concept. Songs like "Martha," "Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon," "Watch Her Ride" and "Crown of Creation" took on the trappings of hippie idealism, confident in the coming changes yet valuing the individual more than anything else. "We were a very apolitical band if you really analyze it," he said during an episode of Speaking Freely in June of 2001. "We had the luxury of coming from San Francisco which is very nutritious for off the beam kind of normal people, and we, in contrast to say Berkeley or the SDS or the Weathermen, chose to and got away with creating our own quantum universe [...] there was a real commitment towards establishing our own place with our own laws and our own rules."
The apolitical nature of his work gradually gave way to a more forceful manner, emerging in "The House At Pooneil Corners" ("and we see, all the bullshit around us") and culminating in the call-to-arms of Volunteers and songs like "We Could Be Together" ("We are forces of chaos and anarchy/Everything they say we are we are/And we are very proud of ourselves"), before the peak of revolution romance in Blows Against the Empire ("While you sit in the dark, insane with the fear of dying/We'll ball in your parks, insane with the flash of living/I’m alive/I am human/I will be alive again" in "Mau Mau (Amerikon)"). Amidst it all they were there, for all the relative milestones, coming off like distanced idealists trying to reconcile their defiance with the capitalist way of life that provided the lear jets and 17-room mansions. Stunned participants at Altamont, Paul provided one of the few moments of levity: "Hey man, I’d like to mention that the Hell’s Angels just, uh, smashed Marty Balin in the face and knocked him out for a bit. I’d like to thank you for that."
At the height of their powers, the Airplane carried a propulsive furor that was all their own. Witness Jean Luc Godard and D.A. Pennebaker’s footage of the band assembled on a New York the rooftop in November of 1968, blasting "The House At Pooneil Corners" in full sonic assault mode on the morning commuters. It’s fucking great for a variety of reasons - the way Marty opens with "NEW YORK, WAKE UP YOU FUCKERS" then drags out the ol’ "FREE LOVE" eye-roll, the way Godard’s camera pans up to a shot of the RCA building in quasi-endorsement, the way the band throws their guitars down and run up to the guardrail to see the crowd reactions, even just the way they blow the mop-top’s later rooftop concert to pieces. It’s a brief snapshot of a point in time when moments seemed old mere months later.
It would be naive to view Kanter, or really anyone else of the time, as unmarked by the transition from idealists to relics that took most people for a ride in the successive decades, but even the twisted path that mutated the band into Starship was just one among endless variations that chewed up and spat out the supposed rebellion and uprising of the whole collective. Were the Airplane locking arms with the Motherfuckers or getting their heads kicked in during anti-Vietnam protests? No, but the hedonism and detachment leveled at them and their ilk was justified at the time by the surefire promise of what was soon and due to come forth - a new world, a new way of life, lightyears from the world they got, where "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love" can be found on ‘Swingin’ Sixties’ compilations lying in discount bin. Regardless of the endless reunions and Starship revival tours, you can’t refute Kantner’s belief in his work, and you can’t really blame him for trying to push back against the clock - for a while it all seemed possible."The Starship thing is really political action and reaction, the natural outgrowth of Volunteers. Having done Volunteers and seeing nothing get done, we decided to do this. You can't just sit around and make protest albums all your life; eventually it comes to the point where you have to do something. What we're saying now is you have a choice: You can stay, or you can go away. You can go out to sea, as in "Wooden Ships," or you can go out into space, as in Starship. Ultimately, it'll be getting away from the concept of ships altogether; maybe what we'll do is get out into space, hit a time warp, come back, and funnel back through the sixties." ("Paul Kantner Interview" by Patricia Kennealy, Jazz & Pop, February 1971)Paul Kantner died February 26th, 2016, aged 74, the same day as original Airplane singer Signe Toly Anderson. You can decide for yourself the cosmic significance of that.
Quotes, unless otherwise attributed, sourced from Got a Revolution!: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane, by Jeff Tamarkin.
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