Remembering Paul Kantner: 2005 Interview With Steve Silberman

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When I was in high school, my best friend gave me one of the best birthday presents I ever got: a cardboard box filled with things he thought I might like, from beautiful leaves and rocks to a vinyl LP called Blows Against The Empire. I was immediately fascinated by the inside of the album’s gatefold cover, printed in silver ink, which featured a drawing of Jefferson Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner, resplendent in a crown of pot-leaf hair.

Though the handsome blond songwriter was the sole original member to hang on through the band’s many reincarnations as the Airplane, the Starship, and whatnot, Kantner, who died on this day in 2016, never saw himself as the leader. He deferred to the electrifying guitar prowess of Jorma Kaukonen and the vocal stylings of silken crooner Marty Balin and goddess Grace Slick, who sang like a force of nature. By contrast, Kantner saw himself in modest terms as merely a “framer” of songs, as he put it, using his rhythm guitar to create basic structures that would be made amazing by the other band members. Even Balin didn’t fully appreciate Kantner’s gifts, dismissing tunes like “Hijack” (the centerpiece of Blows’ epic second side), “War Movie,” and “When the Earth Moves Again” as “long and ponderous … It was very difficult to make his songs fly.”

For me, however — as a science-fiction fanboy in New Jersey who was obsessed with the hippie culture of the Haight-Ashbury from afar – these tales of extraterrestrial psychedelia could not have been more up my alley. I wanted to live inside the second side of Blows, gazing up at the constellations from the deck of a starship, rather than marooned in dreary suburbia. Eventually, I realized that many of the same musicians who appeared on Blows also played on David Crosby’s first “solo” record, If I Could Only Remember My Name, which became my favorite album of all time. My 1993 book Skeleton Key: A Dictionary For Deadheads, co-written with David Shenk, featured an entry for the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra (or PERRO, as it is now commonly known by tape traders) – the name that this group of musicians used to refer to themselves in sessions at Wally Heider’s studio in San Francisco for albums like Blows, Sunfighter and Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun.

When a remastered version of Blows was released in 2005, David Gans asked me to interview Kantner for broadcast on Dead To The World on KPFA. We had a blast, smoking joints as Kantner loved doing even in airports, and exploring a wide range of San Francisco countercultural history. I submitted the transcript to the editors at Relix, who promised to publish it. But they never did, and for many years, I believed the interview had been lost forever.

Recently, however, I gave a public talk at San Francisco’s Tenderloin Museum on PERRO, and in the course of doing research, I found the transcript again. It has never been published before and contains revelatory exchanges on everything from how Paul and Grace Slick first became lovers to why Jerry Garcia got a credit as “spiritual advisor” on the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow. I’m honored to see this interview, conducted on September 16, 2005, finally published in JamBase.

Steve Silberman: Blows Against The Empire changed my life. It was also the first rock album to be nominated for a Hugo, the most prestigious science-fiction award.

Paul Kantner: It changed my life too. Me and Grace got together while we were making the album and eventually had our daughter China. So that record changed my life radically as well.

Silberman: How did a guy who went to Catholic military school get into science fiction?

Kantner: (in a heavy German accent) Yah, gut! I was really short in second grade, and all the science fiction books were on the lowest bottom shelf, while heretic books were probably under the carpet. I ran into C.S. Lewis at an early age and haven’t looked back since. Science fiction is very good escapist literature, particularly if you’re in a Catholic military boarding school and you’re not the type who belongs there. I never got a rank in all my years in military school because I was too much of a fuck-off. Didn’t get in trouble, but didn’t excel in the proper arts either. So C.S. Lewis started it all, and when I had children, I started reading his Narnia series. He was such a varied creature. The story of him taking his wife to Europe when she was dying of cancer is a beautiful, marvelous story. I’ve always been very fond of him.

Silberman: I was wondering if science fiction was one of the things that turned you into a bohemian.

Kantner: Saved my fucking life, starting in the second grade, and then going on through all the classics, Asimov and Heinlein and things like that. On career day in high school, I had “bank robber” and “suicide” on my list of possible future job prospects. Science fiction provided an alternate path forward.

Silberman: How did you get into folk music?

Kantner: The Weavers. The Weavers had an extraordinary influence on my career. Finding them was dramatically impressive to a young white boy from a Catholic boarding school. I was just swept away by what they did and how well they did it, and how simple and unpretentious and good it was — and how moving. I just went from there. I think mostly what I contributed to the Jefferson Airplane was the Weavers ethic of how to be a band with a sense of social responsibility as well as having a good time. San Francisco in the ‘60s was like Paris in the ‘20s for me. That sense of moving among the crowd was so invigorating.

Silberman: When did you start hanging out in the Haight-Ashbury?

Kantner: We didn’t get to San Francisco till about ‘64 maybe. We were influenced by Robert Heinlein’s description of communal life in Stranger In A Strange Land and tried to live it out in a practical way. Whoever needed money took it from the group money bowl and whoever had money put it in, group meals, that sort of thing. We found a good big flat in the Fillmore district, of 10 or 15 rooms, for real cheap.

Silberman: The Fillmore had at one time been the jazz capital of the world.

Kantner: When we got there, it was pretty much a slum. That’s why the rent was cheap, and we went for it, and never got into any particularly serious trouble. Though we lived over the all-night liquor store, it never presented much of a problem, potheads that we were.

Silberman: Last week, David Crosby told me a bit about the house you guys had with David Freiberg in Venice.

Kantner: Yeah, that was maybe ’61 or ’62. Same concept of communal living. I think Heinlein, being the Republican fascist that he was, was offended by all these hippies taking up his commune concept. Here’s a cute story, though. When I was making Blows Against The Empire, I wrote a letter to Heinlein asking permission to use some of his words and concepts. He wrote me back saying, “My God, this is staggering! You people have been ripping off my words and ideas for 30 or 40 years, and you’re the first person who ever had the decency to ask for permission.” Then he said, “P.S. Oh by the way, my gardener says he went to high school with Marty Balin. He sends his best.” That was cute.

Silberman: That’s great. Were there a lot of communal households in the Bay Area at that point?

Kantner: Not that we knew of. When I left Santa Clara University, where Jorma went as well, there was a fledgling group of people who went to San Jose State College, which was a party school; it’s where all the fuck-offs went. There was this great burgeoning beatnik community that I fell into accidentally, of people from David Freiberg and David Crosby to Sherry Snow, Jesse Fuller and Malvina Reynolds. We started a little folk nightclub in San Jose and would sell marijuana from under the bar. We also started a little music store and Jorma gave guitar lessons. It was a nice little community of musicians that extended from San Jose into Palo Alto, to a place called the Tangent. And in San Francisco, there was Coffee and Confusion and the Coffee Gallery, and over in Berkeley, there was a place called The Cabal. It was this little circuit of strange-people nightclubs that were nutritious to the left-wing amongst us.

Silberman: Did you ever run into any of the original Beats, like Allen Ginsberg or Neal Cassady?

Kantner: Oh yeah, we used to have a house at 623 Hayes Street, I still remember the address. There was this poet/writer/artist named Kenneth Milton who kept a French kind of kitchen/salon where everybody gathered and chatted. Neal always used to come by with his girlfriend. So I was quite familiar with Neal and those dudes.

Silberman: What made you guys want to pick up electric instruments and play rock ‘n’ roll?

Kantner: LSD. We were playing our little folk instruments in San Jose, and one kid who was on a trust fund had enough money to buy a Fender Twin Reverb amp, with reverb, right? You combine that with LSD and marijuana, and then a stage, and you go crazy from there.

Silberman: When did you first start to feel that something important was happening in San Francisco?

Kantner: When we were in San Jose, I always had the fond memory of a place called “Chloe on Noe,” named after a marijuana dealer who lived above the Castro up at the top of Noe Street. She lived with Mike Ferguson, who later became part of the Charlatans. They were the first progenitors of those antique rooms that we had in San Francisco, with the lamps and couches and hoo-ha from the Victorian age. “Chloe on Noe” was probably my first taste of San Francisco coming from San Jose, which was like driving into Oz from god knows where.

Silberman: How did you get into psychedelics?

Kantner: Dino Valenti [later of Quicksilver Messenger Service].We were running our club in San Jose and he was one of the people who came by and played along with Crosby and others. Dino brought over these little vials of blue liquid and said, “You guys gotta try this. It’s interesting.” And I took it on Halloween night in 1962 maybe, and spent the entire night laying in the back of my Volkswagen bus, staring out through the retractable ceiling at the stars. I was a natural for LSD; I hardly ever had a bad trip. It was a great aphrodisiac, it opened your mind to things like not throwing cigarettes out of cars and keeping the land and air clean. I think it contributed greatly to the whole Sierra Club mentality in those years. It was a great educational tool. It gave me a lot of clarity on certain levels, some of which I’m still working on. It opens a certain door and once that door is open, it’s open. You don’t have to keep opening it and closing it.

Silberman: The thing about Blows Against The Empire is that it’s not only one of your best albums, it’s one of the best recordings by Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, and many other musicians. Everyone was at a career peak when they recorded it.

Kantner: Oh God, yeah. Garcia played lovely, didn’t he? And it was almost all accidental. We had just come off the Volunteers tour and had been exposed to Nicky Hopkins. And Grace was stealing everything she could from him because he just was so good. We were just going in to do a demo for the next Airplane album, a couple of songs. We didn’t even go to Wally Heider’s, which was our usual place, because it was overbooked at the time. We went to a place called Pacific High Studios, which was in back of the old Carousel Ballroom, Fillmore West, with a couple of Grateful Dead engineers, Bob Matthews and Betty Cantor and eventually Bill Sawyer. And really just went in to do a demo. It was one take, the whole thing. I don’t know that we even rehearsed beforehand. I had a couple of good licks and figured we’d give those to the band and say, “Let’s expand on this,” because our band was great on expanding. Jorma, Jack [Casady] and Spencer [Dryden] were just marvelous improvisational players who would pick up on anything and take it to the Nth degree. “Sunrise,” which starts off side two, was about 12 or 15 takes of Jack. We’d say, “Ooh, that’s good Jack! Do another one!” RCA was paying for all that studio time — so yeah, “Do three or four more!” I go overboard sometimes, so I said, “Why don’t we use all of them?” And in this case it worked. Magnificently beautiful constructions of overlapping, not quite in time, offset chords and sustains. It was just orchestral. Better than Bach and Beethoven for me.

Silberman: One of the most amazing things about the album is Grace’s monumental piano playing …

Kantner: Oh, monumental! How did she get that good all of a sudden? Let’s blame Nicky Hopkins for that because he inspired her greatly. What she got from him is almost like gospel music. I didn’t notice it at first, but as we got into mixing the album and hearing it over and over the way you do in a studio, I said “Wow, that’s really sweet. Turn that up a little, will ya?”

Silberman: It holds the whole suite of the second side together.

Kantner: Oh yeah, it’s lovely. I just make frameworks, really. I’m just a rhythm guitar player. I’ve had the luxury of having Jack, Jorma and Spencer doing improvisations over my skeletal, amateurish, Beatles/Weavers/whatever chords. And then Grace coming into that one changed our whole life, really, in the sense that Grace and I got together over that album.

Silberman: I’m surprised you never got together before that. What kept you apart?

Kantner: I have no idea. I’m not really a hustler, and the women I really fell in love with in my life came after me. Wasn’t Grace Slick all of our dreams at one point in 1965? Starting with The Great Society. The first time I saw her I went, “Whoa,” because good, strong, vital woman singers move me beyond all degrees. It’s like the prow on a ship; you may as well not even have a ship if you don’t have that prow leading the charge. I learned that from Ronnie Gilbert of the Weavers. So when we started a band, that was a particular thrust for me. Marty said, “Do you want to start a band?” and I said, “Yeah, but we need a woman.” To his credit, Marty said, “I know one.” Signe [Anderson] was singing at the Drinking Gourd at the time, and she was very good and powerful. But then Grace just took our band over the edge.

Silberman: There’s a credit on the back of Surrealistic Pillow, “Jerry Garcia, Spiritual Adviser.” How did that happen?

Kantner: We had already worked with RCA on our first album and it was irritating. Jerry needed money because the Grateful Dead weren’t popular yet. So we made RCA pay him a good amount to come down and just be there and help us focus, contribute here and there, and give us advice because Jerry was a very sweet, bright, advisable person. He played on several songs, and he would say “Do this, and don’t do that.” Half the time we would believe him, and half the time we’d say, “Go fuck yourself.” It helped both of us: he made money to pay the rent on 710 Ashbury, and we got his great contributions to the album.

Silberman: One of the things that starts happening around Volunteers is that Garcia is sitting-in on pedal steel on “The Farm.” You have these other voices joining the Airplane …

Kantner: We always had other voices, like Garcia on “Plastic Fantastic Lover.”

Silberman: Right, but at some point Blows starts to become the product of a community of musicians – the so-called Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra.

Kantner: We were all in the same spot at the same time, collaborating on each other’s albums. The nexus point was Wally Heider’s studio.

Silberman: What was it about Heider’s?

Kantner: The quality of equipment. Wally was very high on good quality equipment and reproduction, tape recorders, microphones and all that. Heider’s became the studio of choice because he did it right. The pianos alone were beautiful. I could sit down at one of his studio-reconfigured pianos and it would sound like Beethoven. You just hit the sustain pedal and hit a chord and it’s beautiful. Any number of us would all be working at the same time, which was critical. I’d be making Blows in one studio, Garcia would be making something with the Dead down in D, Crosby would be up in C doing vocal overdubs. As in movies, there’s a lot of downtime, “hurry up and wait” time while they’re setting up this or that. So we’d aimlessly, on drugs, wander into each other’s studios, and listen, and say “Oh, I could add something to that.” Garcia would come in and play on a track, Harvey Brooks would play bass, Crosby and [Graham] Nash came in, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann … and all these people would just be wandering into each other’s studios. It wasn’t planned, it just occurred, just a very natural thing that happened. Mickey’s Rolling Thunder, Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, it was a very incestuous intermingling of musical variations that was very healthy and made for some great music.

I was trying to mix side two of Blows Against The Empire, the “space” side, for like three weeks. I’m the worst mixer in the world. I’m mathematically challenged, and three-quarters of mixing is mathematics. I was struggling for weeks, and we had Maurice [Ieraci] cutting up pieces of tape, so there was this checkerboard of taped-up shit all over the studio. Then Graham Nash comes in, who is a master at mixing. He listens and says, “I could make that sound really good.” So I said, “Go ahead.” It was while Graham was mixing that Grace and I made first contact. We had our hands on the board, and Grace reached over with her little finger and touched my little finger, and I went “Boing!”

Silberman: Graham told me he had a little lysergic help on that mix. One of the things that’s amazing about the album is that there a lot of non-traditional sounds on it. There are gongs, there’s Garcia doing “insect fear” guitar, and there’s that sound of rocket engines firing up called “XM.” Was that named after a movie called Rocketship XM?

Kantner: Very good, yeah. That was one of my first movies I watched when I was a child that moved me. That and Destination Moon. My father took me to New York, to the premiere of Destination Moon in some theater, and there was a guy walking around in a spacesuit out front. Both Rocketship XM and Destination Moon are really cheesy, bad movies. But the concept of going beyond the beyond is inherent in both. Combine that and The Weavers and you get my contribution to Jefferson Airplane.

Silberman: After Blows you did a couple more albums with roughly the same personnel …

Kantner: Everybody was here, and they were good. It’s some of Garcia’s best playing. He had this gift of tone-quality that’s like a beautiful singer. Garcia and B.B. King can produce a guitar tone that is elementally beautiful, and it just sucks you in no matter what. I can use no other word than “beautiful,” like a beautiful woman. Garcia is just uniquely, almost universally beautiful. There are just some people that have a spirit in them, and it translates through their brain, down their arm, into their fingers, into this piece of wood and metal and strings. A unique sound that is peculiarly theirs, like Miles, like Coltrane. In Jerry’s case, it’s a healthy, nutritious, “I want to hear more of that!” kind of sound. I had the great fortune of being in that nexus, at that time, having Jerry eager to be accessible, and producing some of the most beautiful sounds of all time.