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Remembering Paul Kantner, the Electric Pied Piper

Kantner’s dazzlingly original music provided the perfect soundtrack for a dream city that fired the world's imagination.

 

The San Francisco Sound just got a little quieter.

Paul Kantner, rhythm guitarist, vocalist, and songwriter for the Jefferson Airplane, died on Thursday. With his death, San Francisco has not only lost a major artist, but it has lost one whose best work captured the spirit of the city itself, at the moment when its youthful audacity and creative madness were at their zenith. It is lovely and fitting that Kantner was born here, and that he remained a devotee of his native city—which, echoing Herb Caen, he called “49 square miles surrounded by reality”—to the end.

Although we both lived in North Beach and even both frequented the Caffe Trieste, I didn’t know Kantner, although my downstairs neighbor had coffee with him every day. (This morning, artist Ellie Simmons was organizing a shrine on the newspaper box outside the café, and the Airplane’s music was playing inside.) By reputation he was an outspoken, prickly, cool guy who remained interested in politics—not surprising for a man who cowrote the great antiwar song “Wooden Ships” and was a passionate proponent of the ’60s revolution. It’s sad that he died at the relatively young age of 74. But that isn’t why I’m marking his passing. I come to praise the man who helped create two of the greatest rock albums ever made: Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s.

Surrealistic Pillow is an obvious choice. The band’s second album was released in May 1967 and reached No. 3 on the charts. Everyone of a certain age can remember the hair on the back of their neck standing up when they first heard Grace Slick’s huge alto just holding and holding and holding and killing that endless last vocal note of “Somebody to Love,” or the percussive, sophisticated originality of the rhythm guitars on “She Has Funny Cars.” But the song that wandered into the ids of a million teenagers was “White Rabbit,” which uncannily summoned up the waiting terrors and ecstasies of psychedelic drugs for 14-year-olds like me who hadn’t even heard of them yet. Its simple, hypnotic bass line is what inspired me to start playing the guitar. And for my generation, the whole album is inextricably associated with the dawn of whatever the hell the hippie thing was, before Hollywood and rust and our own mythic imaginations got hold of it. The first psychedelic rock poster I ever bought, in 1967 at the San Joaquin County Fair of all places, was for “White Rabbit.”

After Bathing at Baxter’s is a different kettle of Joycean feedback. Connoisseurs know it, but it’s not nearly as popular as Surrealistic Pillow. Bill Graham probably spoke for a lot of people when he complained, “There’s nothing on it you can hum.”

But the Airplane’s third album, released in November 1967, deserves to be celebrated as a masterpiece—a consummately strange one, but a masterpiece nonetheless. As a one-two punch, Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s rank up there with any rock album duo ever made, from Jimi Hendrix’s Axis, Bold as Love and Electric Ladyland to the Rolling Stones’ Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed. But in terms of quantum-leap artistic development, the best comparison may be with Rubber Soul and Revolver. Just as the Beatles went from the lovely but conventional “Michelle” to the mind-blowing, beyond-Stockhausen atonality of “Tomorrow Never Knows” in just eight months, so the Airplane went from the lovely but conventional “Comin’ Back to Me” to the savage, otherworldly “Two Heads” and the unforgettable homage to Ulysses, “ReJoyce”—“War’s good business so give your son/but I'd rather have my country die for me”—in just nine months. And just as Beatles fans argue endlessly over which of the two albums is superior, so Airplane fans duel over Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter’s. (I was never as big a fan of either Crown of Creation or Volunteers. To my teenage ears their music was less original, and they sounded excessively anthemic and call-to-hippie-arms-y. Unable to rescue myself from the stupidly final judgmentalism of youth, I never really listened to them again, so I could be wrong.)


If I were forced to make
the proverbial desert-island choice, it would be a tough call. Surrealistic Pillow is cleaner and punchier, and it has several songs, like “Somebody to Love,” that are simply flawless. And it’s far from saccharine: There’s an aggressive, edgy aspect to it as well. But Baxter’s has an audacity, an experimental, risk-taking quality, both in its music and in its lyrics, that for me sets it apart. Take the Kantner number that opens the album, “The Ballad of You and Me and Pooneil.” With its feedback intro, its unexpected chord changes, and its soaring descant, it remains, like the entire album, almost shockingly original. And its lyrics, which open with an image of a bird being carried joyously away by the wind, evoke the freedom of the ’60s as well as any I know.

Or take the album’s last song, the second part of the “Schizoforest Love Suite,” Kantner’s “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon.” The two themes, “won't you try” and “Saturday afternoon,” drift past each other, embrace, and slip away again, simultaneously evoking a nameless yearning and an LSD-drenched day in the park, over a strangely polyphonic musical background. Throughout the album, Jorma Kaukonen’s brilliant guitar, Jack Cassady’s equally brilliant bass, Grace Slick and Marty Balin’s soaring notes, Kantner’s own slightly dissonant vocals, and Spencer Dryden’s hip drums often all take center stage at the same time, like a Satchmo-era New Orleans jazz band on acid. 

When I was a kid growing up in Berkeley in that lost golden age, I listened to a lot of albums that remain signposts and inspirations even now. But maybe in part because the Airplane was from San Francisco, those two great albums will always have a special place in my heart. They were a soundtrack not of my actual life, but life as I imagined it could be. And when I listen to them, they still seem to beckon from some unexplored land hovering just over the horizon. Kantner and his fellow band members did something rare and precious: They captured an era, and did it while making music of genius. Today, the San Francisco Sound that Kantner helped invent, and that changed rock music forever, is playing a funeral march—with a blast of unconquerable feedback at the end.


If you were a bird and you lived very high

You’d lean on the wind when the breeze came by

You’d say to the wind as it took you away

That’s where I wanted to go today…

                                                          —Paul Kantner, 1941–2016

 

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