Jefferson Airplane's Paul Kantner's Last Flight-R.I.P.
One fall day in 1977 some friends and I went to a house on Bear Lake in New York where I dropped acid for the first time. It was my very first drug experience and as the trip rose to its peak and we’d listened to Tangerine Dream, Donovan and Hendrix, we put on The Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s. I swear the group literally came out of the speakers, reached out their hands, shook mine and said, “Welcome to the new world man!” But truthfully, I’d already gotten there 10 years before when I first heard the Airplane.
And now, Paul Kantner, the architect of so much of that sound, is gone at 74 from complications from his second heart attack on Thursday, January 28.
The Jefferson Airplane, along with Pink Floyd and Jimi Hendrix, created the first music I heard that opened up a new state of consciousness, unassisted by drugs. It was music that spoke to a higher purpose and meaning. I knew something was going on with Surrealistic Pillow, their second album and the one with their biggest hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” But it was their third album, After Bathing at Baxter’s, which sent my mind and imagination spinning.
“It’s a wild time. I see changes. All around me are changes.” – Wild Tyme
I wanted in. I hadn’t done any drugs at that point, and it would be a decade before I did. But the music sent my 13 year old mind me into a space I’d never experienced. In “Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane” author Jeff Tamarkin claims that “Baxter” was the band’s code for “LSD” and the title, as a whole, translates to After Tripping On Acid. It certainly sounded that way on the opening track, the Kantner penned and sung psychedelic anthem, “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil,” a roaring gallop into time shifting space that captures the whiplash connections and euphoria of an acid trip.
Grace Slick’s siren, domineering voice stormed the walls of convention. She sang like she knew exactly what it was all about. It’s little wonder Kantner fell in love with her. He was the one who stalked her at concerts with The Great Society, the band she was in before the Airplane. That was where she first wrote “White Rabbit” and sang “Somebody to Love” written by her brother in-law, Darby Slick.
Kantner was the third voice and rhythm guitarist in the group. But he wrote many of their most beautiful songs like “Today” which was actually two songs, one written by Kantner and the other by singer Marty Balin. They did that a lot on songs like “She Has Funny Cars” and “Saturday Afternoon/Won’t You Try.” “Saturday Afternoon” was written about the first San Francisco Be-In and Kantner lifted many of his lyrics from critic and Airplane supporter Ralph J. Gleason’s chronicle of the event.
Kantner’s transition from the acid folk ballad “Martha” into the psychedelic celebration, “Wild Tyme” was mind bending and exhilarating. He also wrote most of their hard driving and political songs like “Crown of Creation.”
Kantner and Slick went on to record some beautiful and underrated albums, including Sunfighter, their homage to their newborn child and cautionary tale of the world she was born into, and Baron Von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. There was also the first iteration of Jefferson Starship, a west coast all-star band Kantner put together for his psy-fi concept album, Blows Against the Empire that included David Crosby, Graham Nash, Jerry Garcia, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart.
The Jefferson Airplane left a legacy of music that still hasn’t gotten the recognition it deserves for its inventive style, wild three part harmonies, unusual song structures and instrumental arrangements. They represented everything that was wonderful and hopeful in the psychedelic revolution. Ironically, the Jefferson Airplane are set to receive a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in the spring. And now Paul Kantner, who struck blows against the empire and got high at Pooneil Corner, has taken the final flight.