Although he never wrote or sang lead on a hit single, Paul Kantner had the greatest impact on Jefferson Airplane/Starship of any member. He holds the record for the longest, unbroken membership (19 years), and he has been at times the only original member of the band present. His interest in science fiction helped transform Jefferson Airplane into Jefferson Starship, and, throughout it all, he presided over the band’s loose and sometimes messy democracy. If Marty Balin was the soul of the band, and Grace Slick its public persona, then Paul Kantner could be considered its brain.
The only native San Franciscan among the Airplane/Starship principles, Paul Lorin Kantner was born March 17, 1941, to Paul S. and Cora Lee (Fortier) Kantner. Paul had a much older half brother and half sister. When Paul was eight, his mother died; he later recalled that instead of being allowed to attend the funeral, he was sent to the circus. Paul’s father, a traveling salesman, could not raise the boy on his own and sent him to live in a Jesuit military boarding school. It was there, in the second or third grade, that he discovered science fiction while being left alone in the school library. The Jesuits apparently also taught Paul the military-like discipline and determination that would serve him well through his career’s ups and downs.
Nevertheless, Paul was a troublemaker while in his teens. Around 1960, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that left a permanent hole in the left side of his skull. (Ironically, this hole is credited with saving Paul from brain damage when he later suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, by allowing the pressure to escape.)
Paul completed three years of college at the University of Santa Clara (1959-61) and San Jose State College (1961-63), before dropping out. He decided to become a musician and hit the folk club circuit as an acoustic guitarist and five-string banjoist. Before leaving San Jose, Paul met such fellow musicians as future Byrd David Crosby and future Jefferson Starship member David Freiberg. Also in San Jose, in 1962, he met another guitarist who would play a prominent role in his future, Jorma Kaukonen.
By March 1965, Paul had returned to San Francisco. He was playing by night in a folk club called the Drinking Gourd. One night a young singer introduced himself and asked him if he wanted to join his band. The singer’s name was Marty Balin, and the group was Jefferson Airplane.
Although Marty was clearly the leader, Paul took an active role in how the band developed. He recommended Jorma Kaukonen to join the band as guitarist.
Paul originally adopted a subdued role within the band, playing rhythm guitar and singing backup and the occasional lead. His early compositions included Come Up the Years (with Marty) and Go to Her (later released on Early Flight) and Let Me In.
As the ’60s wore on, the Airplane became a symbol of the burgeoning counterculture, and Paul reflected this in songs such as Crown of Creation (1968) and We Can Be Together (1969). To Paul, the “Establishment” included everything from cops who unplugged the band during curfew to the band’s own record company, RCA. In We Can Be Together, he included the line, “Up against the wall, motherfucker,” which launched a bitter contest of wills between the band and RCA over its inclusion; the company finally backed down.
On the same album (Volunteers), Paul combined music and science fiction for the first time on Wooden Ships (co-written by David Crosby and Stephen Stills and simultaneously recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash), a song about a group of people who escape from a totalitarian society to start a free colony elsewhere. This concept would become a major theme of much of Paul’s subsequent efforts.
In 1969, his unrequited love for Grace was finally requited. They began a casual affair and soon started living together. Grace wanted to have his child; in January 1971, their daughter, China, was born.
By now the Airplane was moving in different directions. With Grace housebound for the duration of her pregnancy, Paul began recording a solo album in conjunction with David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, and others. The album, Blows Against the Empire, contained a mini science fiction epic on one side. As an afterthought, the album was co-credited to “Jefferson Starship,” marking the first use of that name. Blows was not only a commercial success, but was also nominated for science fiction’s prestigious Hugo Award.
From this point on, during this period Paul and Grace recorded joint solo efforts — Sunfighter (1971) and Baron Von Tollboth & the Chrome Nun (1973). In 1972, the Airplane recorded Long John Silver, which was a platinum album.
By 1973, the Airplane was no more, though neither Paul nor Grace wanted to admit it. In early 1974, he and Grace were faced with the prospect of moving on and forming a new band. Not wanting to completely break with the past, they hired musicians from the latter-day Airplane as well as their solo projects, and dubbed the band Jefferson Starship, which was managed by Bill Thompson.
Text copyright 1998 Greg Gildersleeve.