American Culture

Paul Kantner and his brainchild, Jefferson Airplane: a personal appreciation

Life is change/How it differs from the rocks… – Paul Kantner, “Crown of Creation”

Paul Kantner, rock star (image courtesy Wikimedia)

The recent series of rock star deaths  in these first months of 2016 has had me, not unlike many Boomers, pondering how to feel about the passing of my era and its music. I took a stab at explaining how it felt after three major figures – David Bowie, Glen Frey, and Paul Kantner – passed away in quick succession and thought I’d reached a satisfactory, if not satisfying conclusion: rock and roll may not be here to stay.

Writing about those figures who played such an important role in my life was cathartic. Saying goodbye, however painful that process may be, is always a good way to achieve closure. It’s a mature, psychologically and emotionally, response to the sense of loss.

Which is psychobabble, of course. And to which Kantner might say, in his own inimitable fashion, that it “…doesn’t mean shit to a tree.”

We mostly connect to our famous heroes because we admire them, because we desire them, because we want to be them. But once in a while we connect to a writer, an artist, an actor, a musician, because we can sense we’re like them.

I’m a guy like Paul Kantner. So sending some love to his brainchild Jefferson Airplane feels like a good way to say thanks to him for giving me so much.

Crosby, Stills & Nash – debut album (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In the summer of 1969 I was in a record store about to spend some of my hard earned cash. I knew I wanted Crosby, Stills & Nash, the extraordinary debut from former members of the Hollies, Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield. I was a Southern kid in love with both the chirpy power pop of Brit Invasion bands like the Hollies and with the folk-country-inflected music of the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. The Byrds’ now classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo had left me slightly cold. It was too country (though “Hickory Wind” was and is a wonder).

So after I picked up the CSN album, I was looking for something different. Really different.

A friend I was with suggested I get a Jefferson Airplane album. I knew the chart hits “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love,” of course, and had heard the album Surrealistic Pillow which contained both those hits. Initially I picked up a copy of that album, but at the last moment, moved by its cover as much as by anything else, I grabbed Crown of Creation instead. It was a revelation.

But first, a digression.

Look at these two album covers. The one above for Crosby, Stills & Nash has the three guys dressed in jeans and boots sitting on an old couch on the porch of a house. One of the guys, Stephen Stills, holds a guitar. Except for their hair, this could be the cover of a folk or country record from the era. For a member of the Boomer cognoscenti like me (and most people under thirty thought themselves members of that cognoscenti), it was recognized as an example of hippie chic – clever, deceptive, cool. And those on the other side of the generation gap would walk right by it without a second glance. Any kid could ask a parent to pick up that album and the parent would do so without hesitating, without any feeling of uneasiness that he/she might be contributing to the generational warfare that Life magazine warned about at least once a month from 1965 onward.

Crown of Creation – Jefferson Airplane (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Look at the cover of Crown of Creation. Double exposed pictures of the band members wearing full hippie regalia are superimposed on a USAF photo of a nuclear bomb test from the Nevada desert. No one of either generation would miss the points being made. As I said above, I bought this album because the cover was so cool (I had heard the song “Crown of Creation” a few times on the radio but it wasn’t a big hit like “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”) I knew the music had to be cool as well.

I was soooo right. The songs were amazingly different from anything else I listened to.

Marty Balin’s “If You Feel” might have been my first encounter with Zen concepts:

If you feel like china breaking/If you feel like laughing/Break china laughing….

“Triad,” a song written by David Crosby (of the above mentioned CSN), is a paean to polyamory sung by Grace Slick with make a 17 year old’s mouth drop open sultriness:

I don’t really see/Why can’t we go on as three…?

But it was Kantner’s “up against the wall, motherfuckers” anthem “Crown of Creation” that spoke to me most powerfully. Here was a guy not afraid to tell the powers that be that they’d got it all wrong even as he critiqued the conformity of his own generation:

Soon, you’ll attain the stability you strive for/In the only way that it’s granted/In a place among the fossils of our time…

Then there’s his whole “speak truth to power” shtick, a rallying cry in that tumultuous year of 1968 when he composed the song:

In loyalty to their kind/They cannot tolerate our minds/In loyalty to our kind/We cannot tolerate their obstruction….

Even cooler was to discover much later that Kantner had based his lyrics for “Crown of Creation” on a classic science fiction novel, The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham (best known for The Day of the Triffids and The Midwich Cuckoos, the basis of those Village of the Damned movies).  As Kantner himself explained in 1996 about his use of literary references:

I have thousands of influences in literature and find it a turn on to leave a little thing like that for people to find….

Thanks to Paul Kantner, I even began referencing literature in my own songs. One song, “The Rock and Roll Ideal,” (here’s an outtake) is based entirely on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem “Mutability.”

Kantner, as has been noted, was “the brain” of Jefferson Airplane. A driven guy dedicated to doing his music his way. He could be prickly. He could be downright maddening. But none of his band mates would ever say that he didn’t care, that he ever coasted, that he wasn’t after the best that he – and Jefferson Airplane – could produce.

I like to think my band mates would say the same of me.  That means I owe Paul Kantner a real debt.

I hope this, in some small way, repays part of that debt.

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