Saturday, 30 January 2016

Labour Of Love - Paul Kantner RIP

Once again events have overtaken the original intention for this week's blog. The untimely death on Thursday night of Paul Kantner, founding member of my favourite American band Jefferson Airplane, means that today's post is taking the unusual form of an obituary (of sorts). I've never written an obituary before. It's my labour of love to an inspiration and a friend.

Paul Lorin Kantner was born in San Francisco on 17th March 1941. He liked to describe the sainted city as "forty-nine square miles surrounded entirely by reality", a view of his home turf that possibly reveals the essence of the man in a single phrase.

Fifty years ago in the counter-cultural heyday of the mid '60s, when San Francisco was both the crucible from which the hippy nation was born and briefly the epicentre of the musical world, Jefferson Airplane took off on their thunderous, wondrous trip from the stage of the Matrix club into incense-laden skies. Folk, blues and jazz musicians whose view of the world and their music-making was transformed by psychedelics, Jefferson Airplane just made it all up as they went along, starting from the principle that anything was possible and there were no rules (an approach later codified as "f*ck you, we do what we want"). Their first step was to open their own club, so they'd have somewhere to play. Over the next six mad, mind-blowing years they created in the process one of the finest bodies of work in contemporary music: Surrealistic Pillow, Crown Of Creation, Volunteers, Bark, Long John Silver and my second favourite album of all time, After Bathing At Baxter's. Paul Kantner was integral to all of this, renaissance mind and rhythm guitar in perfect harmony, hip rock royalty of the time (with worker aspirations, naturally).

Paul was an only child and his mother died when he was very young, so his father, a travelling salesman and a Catholic, entrusted young Paul into the permanent care of a Catholic military academy. The Christian Brothers, though strict, were kind and gave him a great liberal arts education. His eighth grade teacher even introduced him to the list of books forbidden by the Catholic Church (coincidentally called the Pauline Index) saying "there's probably a bunch of stuff on here you're going to want to look into as you get into high school and college." They also gave him a lasting interest in planes, rockets, stars, space and the great out there.

In college in Santa Cruz, Kantner got into folk music and the ideas and lifestyle that were its natural accompaniment. He embraced the sounds and social stance of the Weavers in particular - young, white, radical communists tilting at shallow, uptight America but doing so via enthralling vocal harmonies. He began playing banjo and guitar - completely self-taught - and singing at coffee houses and folk clubs like the Offstage, entertaining the Santa Cruz surfer community while waiting for something to happen.

That something was acid, LSD, which (still legal at that time) permeated the Offstage in 1961 or 1962 - and our man's life changed direction for ever almost overnight. With his buddies David Crosby (who found fame with the Byrds and CS&N) and David Freiberg (instrumental is the success of Quicksilver Messenger Service and later with Paul in Jefferson Starship) he dropped out of college, smoked dope, discussed life, politics, literature, music, the universe  and et cetera, honed his art and vision and eventually moved back to San Francisco, inspired by the impact of The Beatles, to form a rock and roll band and become part of the happening scene in 1965.

As Jefferson Airplane began to fly apart at the seams under the stress of six restlessly creative egos, Paul concentrated on making music that reflected his abiding love of science-fiction and was the first, possibly the only, musician to have an LP nominated for the prestigious Hugo science-fiction award. That album was Blows Against The Empire in 1970.There has been a constant rumour for the last quarter of a century that it is going to be recast as a Broadway multi-media stage production. It would be a fitting requiem.

Beyond the Airplane came Jefferson Starship, taking Kantner's musical vision one step further, and garnering unlikely commercial success in the shape of gold and platinum discs for Dragon Fly, Red Octopus and Earth throughout the '80s. But Paul didn't like the compromises that came with such high profile success and would rather play a free gig in Golden Gate Park than a money-spinning turn in Carnegie Hall.

I had been a fan of Jefferson Airplane and then Jefferson Starship for a decade and a half when Paul put out a second solo album, Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra, in 1983. My friend the editor at Melody Maker was as enthused about it as I was but said it wasn't the sort of thing the readers wanted to know about, as Haircut 100, the Human League and Kajagoogoo were flavour of the year. So I took a leaf out of the Airplane's manual and started my own fanzine to cover the music of Kantner, various configurations of Jefferson Airplane/Starship and offshoots and extended musical family for anyone who wanted to read about their exploits. That fanzine, which pulled in subscribers from America to Australia and all points in between, still functions to this day. Issue #58, when it emerges, will be a particularly poignant one.

Through that fanzine activity I got to know Paul Kantner personally, have interviewed him on several occasions, have spoken off the record on many more, have visited in the USA and helped to arrange UK appearances. It has been a pleasure and a privilege to assist in keeping his unique and original vision in front of those who appreciate it; he would term it helping to carry the fire. He was one of the greatest song-writers of his age, a damned fine 12-string guitar player and a refreshingly lively and non-conformist mind even in his later years. His regular table at Caffe Trieste in San Francisco's North Beach will feel lonely without him.

Paul is survived by three grown-up children, Gareth, China and Alexander, all artists in their own right, of whom he was justly proud. He also leaves a collection of fine, even iconic guitars, instruments that lent their distinctive tones to his greatest performances on record and on stage. In addition he has written two books. His supreme legacy, of course, is his music which changed lives and opened up possibilities in the same way that Elvis Presley, Boy Dylan and The Beatles did.

Paul Kantner has finally moved on out to the cool and the dark, so when you next gaze up at the field of stars, think fondly of him. It's where he always wanted to be. Please enjoy the music and the visuals in this attached YouTube link, five minutes of beautiful aural magic and a fitting tribute to a great musician and a fine human being:

Thanks for reading - and listening. Have a good week, S :-(((


Andy Higgins said...

Until reading this I didn't realise PK had departed - I was watching football yesterday morning and one of the lads' fathers said someone from a band I would like had passed on - it must have been old PK.

When Jello Biafra once stayed with me we chatted about JA and when he mentioned PK and said he was one of the few around from his era who was supportive of what the early SF / LA punk bands were doing.

RIP ....

Anonymous said...

At last - someone who has heard of Quicksilver Messenger Service! Do you remember Happy Trails? Was the Record Sleeve yellow with cowboys on? Or maybe not!!