The death of Paul Kantner has hit me harder than I expected. More than anyone else that comes to mind, Paul represented the idealistic free spirit of the late 1960s when I had the very good fortune to come of age. Wordsworth’s lines about the French Revolution always carry a special power for me:
Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
Wordsworth grew more conservative with age, perhaps because his fame and celebrity drew him to the establishment, whereas Kantner remained unapologetically radical to the end. His later Starship band may have been more commercial but was based on a concept that Paul brought to fruition as late as 2008, with the protest album Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty. His continuing radicalism is clear in a recent interview with Ed Vulliamy:
“After a while, a figure approached, walking up the steep street in slippers, no socks, hair flowing from beneath a beret with a red star on it. Unmistakably: Paul Kantner …
… I always try to explain the entwined processes of age and politics in terms of two lines written by Paul. One is “Tear down the wall” – self-explanatory, from the Airplane’s revolutionary canon – and the other is “We are leaving / You don’t need us”, from Wooden Ships … One line affirms the revolutionary faith that is only extinguished – if it was ever felt – in those who lack soul. The other is the realisation with age that “the Wall” is still there, doing just fine, but one’s head hurts from banging against it and it is time to leave. For that distant place, be it in space – as Kantner believed – or within, or some shore towards which the Wooden Ships sail on their “fair wind blowing” …
… Kantner seemed ready to set sail. He broke into a requiem for all the things he and psychedelia had stood for, and a tirade against former vice president Dick Cheney – “almost as dangerous as fascism – at least Hitler had a cause!” – against SUV vehicles and mobile phones. But, he insisted, once the Summer of Love had happened in San Francisco, and the Airplane’s music was unleashed, “You are not going to be able to unring the bell! Thank you for your time.” With that, he stood up, shook my hand, signed my vinyl first edition of Surrealistic Pillow and strode off into the morning, cigarette in hand.”
In those volatile times – Vietnam was a huge awakening – Paul Kantner’s lyrics rang celebration and alarm bells alike and still resonate half a century later. But the revolutionary nature of bands like Jefferson Airplane was as much in the medium as the message. There was a wild, unpredictable, improvised edge to the music that defied the glib egotism of commercial celebrity with the fierce teamwork of a firebrand popular democracy – freedom, equality, solidarity – and the end result was always more than the sum of its parts. Surrounded by so many impassioned live bands – as I was lucky enough to witness – acts like the Airplane kept their headline status with a thrilling and daring musical empathy bordering on telepathy.
The musical collective was as much spiritual as political. Soon after hearing that Paul Kantner had died, Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead sat down and composed a statement about his fellow rhythm guitarist.
“Paul lived at the heart of the music, where the chords, the melody and the rhythm join together with the lyrics to form the story. His guitar was the glue that held all that together. His voice was the foundation of the choral vocals. Paul lived at the heart of the song. He was there for the Muse – when she needed a human voice or instrument, she channeled it through him.”
Weir explains that in the Airplane, the spotlight was on Grace Slick and Marty Balin, and musically, on Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady on bass.
Paul’s work was the mud from which those two lotuses grew. He made it possible for Jorma and Jack to be more adventurous with their lines, because they had a harmonic context, and a rhythmic context, to work off of.
As Bob Weir implies, Paul’s singing also underpins Grace and Marty’s extraordinary vocal flights in much the same way. His pivotal role is confirmed by guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, speaking after Paul’s death:
The Airplane was an amazing aggregate of personalities and talent. That we could all coexist in the same room was amazing. That we could function together and make the lasting art that we did was nothing short of a miracle. In my opinion Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious… he could be loving and kind… his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable.
These revealing personal insights made a refreshing change from the many lazy obituaries I ploughed through, all recycling the same facts and reducing Paul Kantner’s cultural significance and influence to a kind of celebrity tick-list. Put him back in the Sixties Box seemed to be the main idea. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Wall has been rebuilt and the Man is in charge again …
But let’s not get gloomy, that was never Paul’s style. Bob Weir concludes with a more optimistic thought:
When somebody you’re part of, and of that kind of import, dies, it’s a good time to take stock of what he offered, and see what you can make of it, and what you can take from it.
Haha, where do I start? Well, I began this post with the intention of saying what Paul Kantner means to me and ended by sharing what he means to other people. But I am moved that what I sensed from a distance is confirmed by people who knew him. It feels good to have and to hold Paul Kantner in common. He was, after all, a warrior fighting for a shared human future. And are we brave enough to honour his memory, I wonder, by looking for all the other things we have in common and learning how to settle our differences amicably?
We live in the spaces between one another. Music teaches us that. Like songs, we live on in the minds of others whenever we are out of sight and sound. In that sense, I suppose, we are already ghosts. Alive, dead, who cares as long as we are remembered with pride and affection? As William Faulkner once said, ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’ And I’m still 19 whenever I listen to Crown of Creation.
What else have I learned from Paul Kantner? Well, today, it’s … don’t vote for people who preach hate and division … get out the car and go for a walk … and switch off your mobile phone.
It’s a start …