Monday, 15 February 2016
Tribute Special: Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson (Jefferson Airplane)
"If you can fasten on that moment and expand through the afterglow you can reverse your mind in time and travel back to when the earth was formed, the sky was born and the universe began"
"One for Paul, one for Signe, one for to make my heart rejoice, can't your hear your lambs a calling? Oh Good Shepherd feed my sheep"
I know, I know, I'm very late with this article. As in 'White Rabbit' late funnily enough given that this is, sadly, a Jefferson Airplane tribute special. Everyone else has made their tributes already and moved on in this difficult period when we seem to be losing musical heroes by the day. But as regular readers who've been waiting patiently for me to resume my reviews again know I couldn't write the article I wanted to write on January 28th when we lost not one but two founding members of one of the greatest bands on the planet (or outside it). Both Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson, key players in the AAA, deserve their tribute though however late it is. And if anyone taught to me to look outside the constructing linear structures of Earthly mortal time it was Paul, who may have represented the 1960s spirit better than almost anyone else on the one hand but on the other definitely lived outside of it, already more than a half a footstep into the great bright world of tomorrow when hippie ideals came true and humanity had finally found the right path.
That's why his death has been so hard for us Airplaners to take. Surely someone so larger than life, so utterly determined to live his life to his own value system and who spent so many years and so many songs dreaming about the future has to be there to see it. Given the amount of health scares Paul had shrugged aside down the years that should have killed him several times over: a motorbike accident that left him with a shattered skull in the mid 1960s, a cerebral haemorrhage in 1980 - even after suffering a first heart attack in March 2015 Kantner rallied enough to be playing shows with his re-booted Jefferson Starship up until a few weeks before his death. If anyone seemed to be immortal it was surely Paul, our hippie spirit guide who kept us safe whilst being built like a tank, refusing to slow down or stop to the very end and whose ability to take no nonsense from anyone singled him out in the hippie community.
This makes more sense when you learn about Paul's childhood, which funnily enough I spent some time researching last Summer in an effort to get the biographies section of my Jefferson Airplane book into gear. Now, often writing these biographies you get little sense of what will come later - it's amazing how many of the AAA bands lived full and happy childhood lives given the existential angst in much of the music to come. But Paul's childhood was the sort of Dickensian tale that usually creates mad dictators rather than writers intent on spreading peace and love. His father was of German descent and his mother French (with some ancestors who were also German) which made Paul rather the odd one out amongst his peers. In addition, Paul's father (also named Paul) had already been married previously, unusual in 1940s America. His mother Cora died when he was only eight. Unsure what to do with him his father first packed him off to the circus so he wouldn't be a 'problem' during her funeral (leaving the boy with no real chance to say goodbye) and then packed him off to a strict Catholic Military Boarding School. Paul hated almost everything about it - the rigid discipline, the restrictive teachings, the religious dogma shoved down the throats of him and his peers. Paul responded by giving what little spare time he had over to his own personal rebellion against the school's non-nonsense structure by learning to play the guitar (folk protest songs a speciality - Pete Seeger was his favourite) and spending hours in the school library entranced by science fiction writers. Though the teachers no doubt Paul he was wasting time that could be better spent learning or praying, both loves were to play a big part in Paul making his name and career.
Finding that career on leaving school, though, was difficult. Kantner reluctantly became a college student, switching between three institutions before dropping out altogether in his third year determined to make music his life. Paul had been waiting for so long to become a full time musician that, together with his natural optimistic lookout that things would work out, he probably hadn't given a thought to just how hard it was to make a living as a solo folk guitarist playing coffee houses. Paul did, at least, discover a whole new community of like-minded friends for pretty much the first time and created several friendships with members of different bands (CSNY, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service) that would last a lifetime. After four years of not much happening Paul was playing a solo gig at a San Francisco club known as The Drinking Gourd when another singer-guitarist named Marty Balin stopped him at the end of his set and asked for a chat. Marty owned his own club and wanted to form a folk-rock band to play as the 'house band' and though the coffee houses and clubs were over-run with wannabes in 1965 Marty sensed that he'd found a musical and political soulmate, up for adventure and experimentation. As it turned out, it was a canny move: though the Airplane and later the Jefferson Starship would both grow into sextets Paul is the only member of the group to have played on every record by both incarnations, staying the course until 1984 (when the band became simply 'Starship').
That's twenty years of classic anthems, legendary gigs, top ten hits, forgotten gems and enough political waves to make establishment figures very very nervous of anything with the Jefferson name attached to it. The dynamic of the band was unique: Marty wrote the love songs, Signe (at first) stayed pure folk, Grace (later) developed her own intensely emotional style, Jorma and Jack provided the noisiest-yet-always-musical guitar-bass section in rock and first Skip Spence, then Spencer Dryden, provided the offbeat humour and drums. That's enough for six or seven bands - it was learning how to contain all these different parts together that made the Airplane so different to other bands, so ridiculously exciting with a set of original songs that ranged from drugs ('White Rabbit') to James Joyce pastiche ('ReJoyce') and from politically earth-shaking anthems ('We Can Be Together', the first song ever released with the 'f' word - as far back as 1970) to some of the most gorgeous love songs of the period ('Comin' Back To Me' and 'Today').
At first Paul was at the back: the rhythm guitarist in the unfashionable bottle glasses with the deep bass voice who was no one's idea of a pop star in the 1960s. That didn't stop Paul though: as the albums went on he grew in confidence to the point where he became as close to a leader as the democratic Airplane would ever allow and his unique, uncopyable songs provided the greatest fuel to their rocket fire. As early as the first album 'Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!' Paul is writing songs that no one else would have thought of: 'Let Me In' is an agonised rant so awkward and desperate in stark contrast to Marty's casual ease. 'DCBA-25' from the band's biggest selling album follow-up 'Surrealistic Pillow' in 1967 explored Paul's love of folk music with a new guitar tuning he'd learnt (and proudly showed off in the title). It's on album number three though, our AAA pick as the greatest album Jefferson Airplane ever made (even if hardly anyone seems to know it - shocking!) that really shows what Paul can do. With Marty drifting away from the group, Kantner fills the gap by having a hand in six of the album's eleven dazzling songs, all of which breaks new ground. The most famous of these is 'The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil' which is perhaps the most Kantner song of them all, namechecking two of his favourite and very different heroes (folk singer Freddy Neil of 'Everybody's Talkin' fame and AA Milne's Winnie The Pooh'). Surrealist imagination and brutal tell-it-like-it-is politics mesh in a song where everything is turned on its head ('Doesn't the sky look green today?!'), that opens with the most ear-piercing shriek of feedback ever recorded and in which band members get to shout 'armadillo!' at random intervals and yet it somehow all makes sense. Though something as a flop when released as the follow-up to big hits 'Somebody To Love' and 'White Rabbit', psychedelic enthusiasts recognise is today as one of the greatest concoctions of 1967. Less well known but just as strong are 'Martha' (a runaway who leaves a surburban home to find happiness in a hippie cult - if she'd read a few more sci-fi books along the way Martha could have been Paul himself), 'Wild Thyme' the ultimate hippie anthem ('I'm doing things that haven't got a name yet!') and 'Won't You Try?-Saturday Afternoon', a tribute to the hippie movement so moving and colourful surely even Richard Nixon would have run away to join in if only someone had slipped the song to him.
Talking of Nixon, Paul began to realise about 1968 that the Airplane had an important part to play in the role of attacking Conservative America and inflicted the sort of restrictions he'd spent his childhood fighting. From this point on Jefferson Airplane become one of the bravest, most radicalised of bands - 'The House At Pooneil Corners' imagines a future where the nuclear button has been pressed and 'the idiots have won!'; 'Volunteers' screams 'Gotta Revolution!' as hippies get their own rallying call to match the Government's Vietnam drafts; 'We can Be Together' promises to get the corrupt powers that be 'up against the wall'; 'The Son Of Jesus' takes a belated dig at the Catholicism shoved down his throat as a boy; Grace's 'Mexico' damns Nixon for making money out of the drug trade in Latin America while outwardly damning it. The Government of the day became genuinely afraid of the Airplane; sadly a Grace Slick-led plan to douse Nixon with acid (as a posh public school kid herself she was sent an invite under her maiden name Grace Wing and decided to take them up on it - alas security recognised her at the door and wouldn't let her in) came to nothing. This gritty realism also made a neat match for Kantner's growing pile of science-fiction songs starting with 'Crown Of Creation' in 1968 (based on a line from classic John Wyndham novel 'The Chrysalids' that man had reached his peak 'and has got no place to go'), through to 'When The Earth Moves Again' (a utopian future) and 'Have You Seen The Saucers?' (which as a tale of Government conspiracy and alien visitation would have made a handy second theme for 'The X-Files').
This will reach its peak in 1971 when, in time off from recording with the Airplane, Paul brings a bunch of his friends from his own and other bands in to help him record the concept album 'Blows Against The Empire'. Set in a 1990s that sadly never came to pass, this is the tale of a bunch of hippies who steal a starship that the Government intends to use to colonise other planets in the name of capitalism and instead spreads 'free dope, free love, free music' around the universe instead. The collaborative record is a true masterpiece and was even nominated for a HUGO science fiction award in 1971 in the 'best dramatic presentation' category (oddly there was no overall winner given that year. Given that as a sci-fi buff of the highest order Paul had read almost all the nominees every year since the awards began it must have been a huge thrill, as was getting a letter from author Robert Heinlein after asking permission to use certain themes from his books as part of the record ('Everybody pinches my work all the time - but you're the first person ever to ask!') For what it's worth 'Blows' is currently listed on my 'greatest ever albums' site list as the third greatest album ever made by anyone. Lyrical yet listenable, tight but loose, musical yet experimental (with two tracks dedicated to sound effects!), it's a triumph and arguably Paul's peak as a performer and writer, notwithstanding his major achievements with the Airplane and Starship.
Paul enjoyed a particularly close relationship with Grace who surely deserved a co-credit for her hard work on that record and the pair even had a child together (China) in 1971 (the story that her parents genuinely meant to all her 'god' 'with a small 'g' to keep her humble' has been doing the rounds again in all the obituaries but isn't technically true: Grace was deliberately provoking a Conservative newspaper reporter who called round for an interview). The pair quickly became one of the most celebrated couples of their day (a hippie Posh and Becks if you will, or perhaps an even hippier John and Yoko might be closer) but the relationship took a long time to arrive. During her time in the Airplane Grace went out/slept with three other members of the band first (she never did hook up with Marty to give you a clue). The Kanter-Slick pairing was by far the most solid though and the pair made another record together, 'Sunfighter', in 1971 which is another classic album based around the rough theme of their child's birth and on Paul's songs, his worry about what sort of a world she'll be growing up in. A third album, co-credited to Quicksilver's David Freiberg, was released in 1972 in tribute to the pair's David Crosby-coined nicknames, 'Baron Von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun' (Paul 'is very...German' as Grace puts it in the sleevenotes). The pair remained a couple until the mid-1970s when Grace moved on to the Airplane's lighting man Skip Johnson; it's a tribute to the band's free love principles that Paul, Grace and Skip worked side by side through to the 1980s despite this. Their relationship can be best summed up by a question Paul was asked in 2007 over how much of the Jefferson name Paul was allowed to use in his touring band: 'She's suing me at the moment from some unknown reason, but generally we get along very well!' Paul later met Cynthia Bowman in 1978 who became his girlfriend for much of the next decade, but never formally married.
Jefferson Airplane had naturally fallen apart by 1972: too many solo albums and line-up changes (Marty was off on his own too by now, the band were on their third drummer and Jorma and Jack were having more fun with their new blues band Hot Tuna, originally conceived of as the Airplane's warm-up act), while the mood in hippiedom had grown notably darker since the days of Monterey and Woodstock, with the Jeffersons themselves playing Altamont (where their set gets delayed when poor Marty gets beaten up for trying to rescue a member of the crowd from a hell's angel biker; Paul's angry rants from the stage being equally brave in context). Paul had already formed a sort-of sequel band 'Jefferson Starship' for Blows, which included a hot-shot then-fifteen year old guitarist named Craig Chaquico and David Frieberg amongst the cast and 'crew'. He and Grace decided to make the band a more full-time affair in 1974 with both their friends on board alongside late-period Airplane drummer Johnny Barbata (fresh from his work with CSNY), late-period Airplane violin player Papa John Creach (then in his fifties) and session bassist/keyboard player Pete Sears. A few sessions in Marty also arrived as a 'guest' - and stayed as a permanent fixture for the next three albums. Though less daring and bold than the Airplane, Jefferson Starship had lost none of their musical prowess or love of large concepts and their music also sold, at least at first, in greater numbers than the Airplane's (a fact that often gets overlooked these days).
At first Paul was the lynchpin of the band, dominating the writing and vocal credits for first (and arguably best) album 'Dragonfly' and though his influence waned as the band got more mainstream and actually started having hits again (Marty's sweet ballad 'Miracles' from 1975), Paul's work remains some of the band's best. He kicks the Starship years off in spectacular form with the driving rocker 'Ride The Tiger', an aggressive song about spirituality and a pure Kantner song if ever there was one; wrote the music for the exceptional seven minute ballad 'Caroline'; damned the entire state of the world in 1975 on 'I Want To See Another World'; came up with the idea for the gorgeously dreamy prog rock ballad 'St Charles' and went even more epic on the two-part suite 'Song Of The Sun'. By 1978 though the Starship had crash-landed with a weak fourth album 'Earth', a bizarre cameo in the much-lampooned Star Wars TV Holiday Special of 1978 (I'm still waiting for the band to appear in one of the actual films - they'd improve them no end! Princess Leia needs a bit of Grace Slicking up!) and lost members like anything: Marty to boredom, Johnny to a car crash that left an arm injured and Grace to an increasingly out of control drinking problem. Paul considered that the band had grown 'soft' and decided to re-model them as a more current, new wave band. Hiring new singer Mickey Thomas, the Starship re-launched with 'Freedom At Point Zero' in 1979, a brave album of crackling energy and primal instincts that Paul dominated like no album since 'Baxters' twelve years before. Though it doesn't 'sound' much like a Kantner LP, Paul's mixture of gritty realism and spiritual awakening is very much in evidence in the lyrics which feature several of his favourite themes mixing Armageddon and hope in equal measure. The record also introduces one of his favourite characters, Rose, who becomes the saviour of the human race in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust and represents everything Kantner longs to see happen in the future. Jefferson Starship end up making three more records with this line-up - two and a bit of them with Grace back in the band - ending with the under-rated cold war parable 'Nuclear Furniture' in 1984. Paul also got round to writing a sequel to 'Blows Against The Empire' in 1983, although the sad and bitter 'The Empire Blows Back' is often a hard album to listen to, with many of the original cast dead , dying or imprisoned (David Crosby was inside on a drugs charge; Jerry Garcia was still recovering from a diabetic coma that oh so nearly killed him) and the hippies only win at the very end this time.
By this time, though, Kantner is feeling ostracised from a band that once centred around him and feeling ever more adrift from the current music scene as new wave turns to bland 80s synth pop. Paul left in the middle of an American tour after a Starship equivalent of nuclear fallout and as the only 'founding' member left in the band (Grace had joined a year in) also took with him the rights to the band's name (or at least the 'Jefferson' bit). By 1985 what was left of the group has re-styled themselves as purely 'Starship', a far poppier mainstream band. Paul responded by forming another Jefferson-orientated band and album, the under-rated 'KBC Band' (Kantner Balin Casady), although this record sold even fewer copies than the late-period Jefferson records had. This and Grace getting bored with 'Starship' led to a full way original of as near as many of the 'famous' Airplaners as possible in 1988 (though sadly Spencer Dryden couldn't make it), for what turned out to be the last 'mainstream' album Paul was ever involved with. The band were still at loggerheards in the court-rooms at the time (the antithesis of the 'freedom' with which they'd started a quarter century earlier) but Grace turned up unannounced at a Kantner gig and started singing 'White Rabbit' - a grinning Kantner had put his differences aside and kicked the band into the song instead. The record, alas, was a disappointment, largely made up of songs recycled from solo albums, and the Airplane split for good in 1989. Paul continued touring with his own incarnation of Jefferson Starship though, sometimes alongside Marty when dates allowed for it, releasing several live albums, an album of originals on a low budget label (1999's 'Windows Of Heaven') and a reunion, of sorts, with lots of old Jeffersoners regrouping for 2008's 'Jefferson's Tree Of Liberty' (though sadly not at the same time). Paul's last release turned out to be near-impossible to find: 2010's two part 'Windowpane Collection' whose names 'A Martian Christmas' and 'Venusian Love Songs' point to the fact that the sci-fi element in his songs was still going strong.
Paul had suffered a heart attack in March 2015 which looked very bad - bad enough for the Jefferson community to hold its breath and wait in worried silence. But, as he so often did Paul recovered to the point where Jefferson Starship were back touring again months later. It really did look as if Paul was immortal, here to stay forever. Sadly, though, even Paul couldn't survive a second heart attack a few days after new year's day 2016 and the guitarist never recovered, officially dying from multiple organ failure and septic shock at the age of 74. He leaves behind him an incredible legacy; some of the greatest - and most epic - recordings in rock and roll, a more spiritually and politically aware generation and a whole host of heartbroken fans who want him back home safely on planet Earth. Kantner, however, is finally in the stars where he always wanted to be, free from the shackles of society at last and enjoying the fruits of where he believed humanity belonged some day, into infinity and beyond. I still believe that one day 'Blows Against The Empire' must come true and that mankind is due a happier, freer time enjoying getting lost in space and time; I put it to you now that when the time comes and our first starship rises into space we have to call it the 'SS Kantner' or maybe the 'Jefferson Kantner'. We owe nothing less to the musician who more than any other made us aware of the possibilities of our future and made so much effort making them real in the present. Kantner was a hero to the rest of us who were earth-bound for fifty glorious years - not a superman of course and often far from perfect, but a hero nonetheless. For he gave us hope and awareness and music, reinventing all of these over and over for us across his career. Who could ask for more than that? Pioneer, searcher, refugee. We followed you - and you followed we.
As usual in these cases, the music community has come together in grief with several moving quotes. Here's fellow guitarist Jorma Kaukanen: 'Paul and I were old friends...Our commonality was always the music and whatever it took to make it happen. In my opinion Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious… he could be loving and kind… his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable... Friends are always good… you can’t have too many of them. That said, the old ones share that wondrous gift of knowing you when you were young. You can’t buy that. I will miss your presence on this plane…Ride free to the end of the earth my old friend… I will not forget you!' Here's Jefferson singer Marty Balin: 'He was like an American David Bowie," says Balin. "He had these mad, epic ideas'. Here's his friend and occasional collaborator David Crosby: 'Paul was a lot like me — opinionated, confident and not very afraid of anything. But Paul wasn't trying to convince you that you had to do it his way. He did think that leading by example was the right thing. He was a believer in music as a lifting force. It lifts humanity up, makes it better... He had a very forthright approach. He didn't do tender ballads. He liked songs where he could sing out strong, in full voice. He was always the toughest of us. You thought nothing could kill him'. Grace's tribute simply read: 'Rest in peace my friend, love Grace'.
Spookily - and in a sort of spiritual mystical coincidence the pair would have loved - fellow founding member Signe Toly Anderson died the exact same day as Paul (though her family, sensibly, kept the news private an extra 24 hours in order to let the news about Kantner filter through). Though less prolific (she only ever recorded that first album with Jefferson Airplane before retiring from music more or less for good) and far less covered by the media, her death is no less tragic. Not many fans even remember that the Airplane had a female lead singer before Grace Slick but they did - and how! Signe arguably had more of a career going than any of the other band members when she took up Marty's invitation to join the fledging group, having built up a name for herself as a solo singer specialising in jazz and folk. Having mixed gender bands was deeply unusual back in 1965 but Signe was a natural fit for the band: despite her folkier roots she could holler rock and roll with the best of them and her voice was a natural blend with Marty's and Paul's. She had to move from Portland, Oregon to San Francisco to join the band and took her family with her - her husband was Jerry Anderson, a member of the 'Merry Pranksters', part of author Ken Kesey's local hippie 'commune'. Though Marty was still clearly the 'leader' in those early days, much of the publicity surrounding the early Airplane days centred around Signe: a hippie chick in pigtails who looked like a sweet and innocent schoolgirl but sounded more like Janis Joplin. Signe was a key part of developing and recording many early Airplane classics, including live favourite 'High Flying Bird' (which Grace later took over), debut single 'Runnin' Round This World' (immediately banned for its drug and sex-referencing line 'the nights I've spent with you have been fantastic trips!') and Signe's much-requested fan favourite signature tune 'Chauffeur's Blues'. A rocking remake of a blues song thought to be first recorded by 'Memphis Minnie' in 1941, it's a sign of just how many styles Signe was able to juggle with elements of folk, blues, jazz and rock adding up to an impressive whole.
Alas that was pretty much all Airplane fans were able to hear of the band's founding co-lead singer. Signe officially left the band because she fell pregnant and she was worried about bringing up a baby in the mayhem that was already part of the Airplane's touring party. However she has also since spoken about her many disagreements with the Airplane's management, disliking their manager Matthew Katz and even fat the start insisted on a clause being added to her contract whereby she would be 'free' of him when and if she chose to quit the band. Officially Signe quit the Airplane as early as July 1966, merely a month after their first gigs together, but stayed until October as a 'favour' to the band. She even had a hand in nominating her replacement, suggesting Grace whose first band The Big Society had already crashed and burned over an even shorter lifespan than the first Airplane line-up. Most fans didn't know - Signe's departure was simply mentioned at the end of her last gig at the Filmore on October 15th, after which the fans caused such an outcry Signe was urged to come back on stage and sing 'Chauffeur's Blues' one last time. The Airplane simply turned up with Grace the next day, no explanation given (both shows are now out as lovingly re-created live 'bootlegs' on the Sony label; most fans agree Signe's is the best). Signe's final words of farewell to her fans as heard at the gig now make for a rather sweet epitaph: I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons. I love you all. Thank you and goodbye'.
After leaving the Airplane both Signe and Jerry moved back to Portland for a much quieter life at home where Signe largely brought up her children in privacy, though she stayed in regular contact with Marty and Paul across the years the Airplane were at their peak. She claimed to never miss the attention but she did miss the music so hooked up with a local band, 'Carl Smith and the Natural Gas Company' with whom she performed with on and off until 1974. By then her life was in turmoil: she'd split up with Jerry and was suffering from cancer while still in her early 30s. Life got easier by the end of the decade as Signe beat the illness and married again, to Michael Ettlin, who predeceased her in 2011. Signe continued to sing with Carl Smith's band but never made another recording; the closest she got was a surprise return to the media to talk about her role in the band, first for the 'Jefferson Airplane Loves You' box set released in 1992 and later for the first release of her 'farewell' show in 2010. She also made one-off guest appearances with Paul's Jefferson Starship and the KBC Band. Unfortunately health problems continued to make life difficult in later life, with fans rallying to her cause more than once to help raise funds for life-saving operations. In the end Signe lived to be 74 when she finally succumbed to Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease at her home in Oregon.
Though lesser known to the music world in general, the warmth and love shown for Signe over recent weeks proves how central she, too, was to the Jefferson story and how fond fans were of her 'footnote' role within the band. Her passing, too, was greeted with several comments by her former bandmates: Jack Casady called her 'A real sweetheart with a terrific contralto voice'. Jorma said on his blog: 'Signe was one of the strongest people I have ever met. She was our den mother in the early days of the Airplane… a voice of reason on more occasions than one… an important member of our dysfunctional little family. I always looked forward to seeing her when we played the Aladdin in Portland. She never complained and was always a joy'. And finally, Marty summed up the double tragedy with a story that both Paul and Signe would have loved, imagining them 'Both waking up in heaven, looking round in surprise and saying 'Hey! What are you doing here? I know - let's start a band!'
At first, they were iridescent. Then they became transparent. Finally, they were absent. And a whole generation mourns them.
Ten Classic Paul Kantner Songs...
The Ballad Of You and Me and Pooneil ('After Bathing At Baxters' 1967)
There has never been a song quite like 'Pooneil'. Having - temporarily - called a truce with record company RCA with the more commercial 'Surrealistic Pillow' album, Paul gleefully led the band straight back into the wild blue yonder, with the opening track and lead single of the band's third album one of the most uncompromising follow-ups to a top ten hit in history. Jorma's squealing feedback makes it clear we're going somewhere 'else' on one of the band's trippiest songs, before Paul merges his two unlikely heroes of Fred Neil and AA Milne into a land filled of imagination and new understanding where each revelation is punctuated by full-on three part-harmonies, drum battles and the single fattest bass line of the 1960s. Much of the lyrics hark back to the escape Paul felt in music, drugs and imagination as he joyfully escapes into his inner mind, a world where the sky is green and the land is full of armadillos, before crashing back to earth with the worry of loneliness and death if the narrator spends too long in this land, accompanied by the same opening crushing feedback. In concert this snakey, slinky song became a twelve minute epic (just the way Paul liked 'em) but the compact four minute original is still best.
Won't You Try?/Saturday Afternoon ('After Bathing At Baxters' 1967)
A glorious advert for the hippie way of life, this is Paul declaring 'Saturday' as his national hippie celebration day when the working week is done and humanity can get back to living life the way they were always meant to. Another urgent cry to fans to leave the 'normal' world behind this is a world where Paul promises 'caps of blue and silver sunlight for your hair', acid incense and balloons', 'people dancing everywhere largely shouting 'I don't care' and a world where 'everywhere there's sunshine instead of snow'. In short, it's a time for growing and for knowing love - and few songs capture the spirit of 1967 better. Together with a terrific Jorma-Jack guitar-bass interaction the song wanders awkwardly up to the middle section when suddenly, in true and tested Airplane fashion, the song is no longer walking but soaring. As the heavy bottom drops out of the song the guitars are circling and the three-part harmonies are gliding and...well this is why hippie music is simply the best. How can you not try after music as glorious as this? (The featured version is from the director's cut of the 'Woodstock' film and is one of the best performances of the song).
Crown Of Creation ('Crown Of Creation' 1968)
One of Paul's most intellectual songs, 'Crown' is about nothing less than the possible future evolution of mankind and whether anything can ever come along to knock him off his perch at the top of nature's tree. Paul, as usual, is deeply suspicious of the society view that mankind is the tops and turns in another song where everything is slightly 'wrong'. The track is bass heavy, Jack's yawning bass rolls dominating everything as mankind finally 'attain the stability you strive for' the only way nature knows how - as a fossil long buried in the earth as other species take over. Inspired by what might well be John Wyndham's novel grittiest novel 'The Chrysalids', Paul as ever goes further and complains: 'Life is change...I've seen their ways too often for my liking'. The closing ring of 'ahs' from Paul, Grace and Marty is gloriously final and chilling.
A Child Is Coming ('Blows Against The Empire' 1971)
And 'China' is her name. Our pick from 'Blows Against The Empire' (though, really, you could pick any of it) turns on a sixpence from joyous celebration to wide-awake-in-the-middle-of-the-night worry as Paul worries about the world his daughter might grow up in. With the help of Grace and David Crosby (who have a most magical blend of harmonies, even by Airplane/CSN standards), Paul refuses to hand over her details to 'Uncle Sam', 'looking for the print of their hand for the files in their number game'. 'I don't want his chances for freedom to ever be that slim' sings Paul, guessing the gender of his baby wrong, 'So let's not tell them about him!' Suddenly the track has switched gears, joined by a passionate Jack Casady bass squeal that peals up to the heavens and expands across the rest of the song as if turning from monochrome to technicolour ('Blows' is amongst the best engineered AAA albums alongside all its other strengths). Meanwhile, all three singers are off, trading and improvising lines both celebrating and fearing for the newborn's future life. Kantner, as usual, is the optimist: 'It's getting brighter, finer...higher'.
When I Was A Boy I Watched The Wolves ('Sunfighter' 1972)
As, effectively, an only child (who didn't live with his two older half-siblings) who felt abandoned for most of his childhood in a school where friendships were frowned on, Paul always longed to feel part of a 'gang'. He found it at last with his band and his hippie crowd - but 'Wolves' isn't really a 'hippie' sort of song. It's more of a primal song, about the desperate need all humans have to 'belong', accompanied by some stunning piercing guitar bursts from a still teenage Craig Chaquico and some more lovely Grace 'n' Crosby harmonies. Kantner is no longer so alone he has to 'rely on the fire of my friends' and is now in the fortunate position where 'I can carry a few - and I do when I can'. He still feels the other-worldly, supernatural pull of needing to 'belong' though leading to a final guttural cry: 'Get back, be bright, run with the wolfpack!' as the 'gang' turns into hippies everywhere, taking the world over one town at a time.
Your Mind Has Left Your Body ('Baron Von Tollbooth and The Chrome Nun' 1973)
Paul was slightly over-stretched in 1972, struggling to fill out the last two Airplane studio albums and contribute equal shares to the 'Chrome Nun' album. The highlight of the year, effectively, has him blissed out and meditating his way to a new spiritual understanding. Paul's 'floatiest', most surreal song, as we drift from being buried underneath the polar ice cap to rising up to the sky and a rainbow 'to see 2000 city lights flash below you'. Paul's most openly drug-riddled song, it's a final lament to a hippie way of life that was fading and a last instruction manual from the musician who more than almost anyone tried to make the world turn on. The song ends though, as so many Kantner epics do, with the knowledge that there is more to learn, waiting patiently till next time you manage to journey so far out.
St Charles ('Spitfire' 1976)
Though the credits list Marty, Craig and band friend Jesse Barrish as collaborators, this is surely a 'Kantner' song - it just has that 'feel' about it. One of the Starship's proggier moments, this haunting ballad follows a dream overseen by an imaginary saint. China, by now a feisty five-year-old with both her parent's outspoken-ness, is a 'dragon princess', while her dad gets hypnotised by a 'demon' and falls in love. Suddenly the vision - and the tempo - changes and we're inside the world of the future that Paul has spent his life dreaming of; 'another world of people dancin' in rhyme, dancing in the air, six fingered, webbed'. Suddenly 'she' is the 'storm changer' as the narrator gets brusquely tumbled back into the real world, convinced of a 'storm coming'. Craig's typically jaw-dropping virtuoso solo brings the curtain closing on a truly magical piece of music, impenetrable by Paul's usual standards but fascinatingly so with Jefferson Starship working together as a band like never before.
Girl With The Hungry Eyes ('Freedom At Point Zero' 1979)
By 1979 Jefferson Starship were getting a little bloated and ballad/top 40 hit heavy. Paul embraced the changing world of punk and new wave by making the band relevant all over again with a series of gritty, crunching, guitar 'n' drum heavy pop songs without a drug or hippie reference in sight. This example is one of the best: the closest to a straightforward 'love' song Paul ever wrote. Few love songs have ever included the line 'every atom of my body will inhale her' or finds the time to remind us how short-lived any romance in 1978 might be: 'I am a child of atomic war!' Fun and catchy, but in a blunt and tough way, 'Hungry Eyes' features a classic rock riff and a great performance from a band who weren't supposed to be able to pull off this sort of thing.
Stairway To Cleveland ('Modern Times' 1981)
A list of complaints about the modern world and music critics and even the band themselves ('The new drummer's crazy! The manager's an asshole! I can't stand your guitar playing!') set to music shouldn't be this good - but somehow it is. 'Why don't you sound like you used to?' the critics sigh 'Like '65' '67' '69' 75?' while saying that the band will 'never make it, never never never never never never never!' Saying 'can't' to Paul is a red rag to a bull though and he responds by drilling Jefferson Starship through a song that sounded more dangerous and daring than anything bands half the Jefferson's age were releasing in 1982 with a tour de force of a performance. Responding with a big (and literal by the end) 'fuck you' to the band's detractors and the world in general, Kantner asks a series of rhetorical questions that never get answered as he rants away over a simple rock and roll chord. 'Chaos coming?' asks Kantner. 'Keep strumming!' is his answer, just as it always has been. You know I like it, though predictably most of the band's critics said this one was 'too noisy'.
(I Came Back) From The Jaws Of The Dragon ('Winds Of Change' 1983)
Finally, dragons feature a lot in Kantner's work: mythical and exotic yet capable of great strength combined with spirituality, they were his perfect emblem. This track from the penultimate Jefferson Starship album has the dragon as a metaphor for life though - or possibly death given how close Paul had come to dying three years before (strangely enough Paul's mid 60s motorbike crash, which left a hole in his skull, probably saved his life at this point when a haemorrhage built up in Paul's brain). Predictably this near-brush with death ended up a song about refusing to give up on the one hand and to not get so stressed on the other. In one great last Kantner rant against the establishment he tells us: 'That's how they want you feel - dissatisfaction! Massive demoralisation! You are supposed to believe that war is imminent, that crime soars, that chaos prevails. Then they give you a moment of sweet sweet peace where you become so happy they send you to jail!' I'm convinced, by the way, that this track was 'swapped' with Jefferson Starship performance 'She's A Telepath' from 'The Empire Blows Back' as this song fits the 'story' much better.
...And one classic Signe Anderson Performance
Chauffeur Blues ('Jefferson Airplane Takes Off!' 1966)
As for Signe, there can only be one choice. 'Cheuffeur' may have been an old blues song but Signe makes it her own, delivering a groundbreaking performance that was outrageous for a girl to be singing in 1965. She likes her chauffeur but worries about him hanging around with girls and wants him to herself so she holds him up at gun point and asks to be driven round the world instead. Though the song could be done in many ways Signe gives it bounce and a childish glee as she relishes the thought of being in control of a relationship she's always wanted to happen. Though Grace always refused to sing the song, saying it was 'special' to Signe and her fans, the creation of Slick's tough uncompromising outspoken character starts here before she's even in the band. Signe's combination of blues, folk. jazz and rock would have been hard to beat though in any case, a sadly single example of just what Signe brought to the band as a lead vocalist.
That's all for now. We'll be back to our usual run of album reviews next Monday, alongside our further adventures with Lindisfarne. See you then!
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