Paul Kantner was born in the Sunset district, which is a good thing because it provided him the cover he needed.
“When it’s foggy, God can’t see what you’re doing,” he says. And lord knows, in between the sex, the drugs and the rock ’n’ roll, Kantner did a lot.
Kantner may well be San Francisco’s best-known ’60s survivor. As the co-founder of Jefferson Airplane and the leader of the band’s various incarnations for decades after, Kantner has been part of almost every wave in the music and concert business, and now at age 70, still tours with his merry band of pranksters and musicians.
Few people know better what a long strange trip it’s been. Amazingly, he remembers most of it.
I caught up with Kantner at Café Trieste, one of North Beach’s iconic gathering spots, which is not far from the long-gone Drinking Gourd, the club where Kantner performed one night in 1965 and was spotted by balladeer-supreme Marty Balin, who was forming a band.
There was no grand plan. Kantner considered himself a folk artist whose hero was Pete Seeger. He was friends with Jorma Kaukonen, a guitarist he knew from Santa Clara University who saw himself as a bluesman. They called bassist Jack Casady. They recruited a few other musicians and out of that partnership, Jefferson Airplane was formed.
“Everything we did was accidental,” Kantner said. “It just happened that simply.”
The music scene in San Francisco was exploding and musicians were flooding to The City to sample the action and the drugs. Folk bands started to find a new electric sound. Everybody tuned in and turned on. The ’60s were in full swing, and the Summer of Love was just around the corner.
“There was nothing going on like this anywhere else and there was so much happening that you couldn’t keep up with it,” he said. “At the time, we had the luxury of establishing our own universe, and drugs were a big part of it. In one year, I had discovered LSD and Fender twin reverb amplifiers.”
Record deals poured in, and it was the creative, not the business side that had the juice. By the time Grace Slick joined the band for its second album, the sublime masterpiece “Surrealistic Pillow,” the Airplane had hits, money and all the assorted craziness that went with it.
By the time they played Woodstock several years later, in-fighting among the band members had already taken its toll. Variations of the band now included members of the Grateful Dead and Crosby, Stills and Nash. The band changed so many times over the years that it ultimately morphed into Jefferson Starship, a group that Kantner found crassly commercial and ultimately divorced himself of in a series of messy lawsuits.
“The whole Starship thing was a debacle,” Kantner said. One song in particular, “We Built This City,” still irks him.
“We didn’t,” he said.
With the recent death of troubled British soul sensation Amy Winehouse, and the reminders about the tragic ends for rock stars like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and others, Kantner seems like the least likely candidate as a 50-year frontman. Although he says he never got into “the heavy stuff,” he dropped acid for years, had a not-too-brief flirtation with cocaine and now smokes incessantly.
Yet he still writes songs, tours with the latest version of Jefferson Starship and gets around pretty well except for a chronically bad back. In North Beach, he’s just Paul, perfectly content to be recognized with a casual nod.
“That’s one of the great things about San Francisco — it’s a place where people aren’t comfortable with fame,” he said. “If we really wanted to be famous, we would have had to move to New York or Los Angeles. We couldn’t have been from any other place.”
Long gone are the days when bands could pursue artistry without resulting hits. The only thing slick about the band was Grace, and she was a volcanic handful. They weren’t anti-war or anti-establishment, they just were, spilling out a series of love songs and psychedelic marches with three-part harmonies.
There are some things, like the ’60s, that you just can’t make up.