Category: Jefferson Airplane

We Can Be Together

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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.

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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 …

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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?

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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.

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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 …

 

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For Paul Kantner (1941-2016)

   'Where do we go from here, chaos or community?' - Paul Kantner


Two poems for peace 
which I offer in tribute 
to the memory 
of a true idealist



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		POSSESSION

We'd seen the posters stuck on every wall
(a travelling show encamped just out of town)
But when we looked again, saw none at all - 
As fast as they'd gone up they'd been torn down.
The balaclava boys were out in force
And hooded mobs watched out for signs of fun.
The circus came to town that night, of course,
But not as advertised. A signal gun

Was fired. The party crowd began to leave 
With blazing torches bobbing down the hill.
We heard the distant screams, could not believe
That folk we knew and liked were out to kill.
The evil from outside they'd keep at bay 
Burned deep within their foolish hearts that day.

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	  IN YOUR EYES

listen to the band play guitar
people come from very far
standing in a crowd you can't hide
and your joy is multiplied

	open up your eyes
	this is no surprise
	don't look to the skies
	just see it 
	in their eyes

an old man stumbles in the street
all he can hear is the passing feet
go up to him and hold his hand
feel his life running out like sand

	open up your eyes
	this is no surprise
	don't look to the skies
	just see it 
	in his eyes

live your life just for yourself
line your nest and count your wealth
build your walls as high as the skies
you can't buy a mirror that will tell you lies

	open up your eyes
	this is no surprise
	don't look to the skies
	just see it
	in your eyes

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"Hide witch hide
The good folks come to burn thee
Their keen enjoyment hid behind
A gothic mask of duty ... "
        
	opening lyric of the album
	Blows Against the Empire (1970)
	by Paul Kantner


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       Rest in Peace


Arts Wars

When I began A Nomad In Cyberspace six months ago, my declared aim was to avoid going over old ground. Then I proceeded to write about my childhood memories, musical nostalgias and firmly-entrenched opinions. Ha, so much for mission statements! Memoirs Of An Old Codger, you might think, though you’re much too polite to say it to my face.

Well, go ahead. I’m a grown-up. I can take it.

More than that, I need it. Any writer worth his salt must have something to offer the present. The young Arthur Rimbaud, who seemed to pack a lifetime’s experience into his brief career as a poet, put this as well as anyone.

It’s necessary to be absolutely modern.

No hymns: hold the yard gained. Harsh night! The dried blood smokes on my face, and I’ve nothing at my back but that horrible stunted tree.

I take ‘modern’ to mean ‘future-proof’ as well as ‘of the moment’ because Rimbaud’s writing never seems dated. His words above wouldn’t have been out of place in Sam Beckett’s existentialist play Waiting For Godot, almost eighty years later.

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Trying to develop as a writer in your sixties, it’s easy to feel daunted by young writers like Rimbaud and John Keats who were done and dusted before they were a third your age. But the precocious perception of the 24 year-old Keats can give an old-timer hope.

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven – What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please “The vale of Soul-making” … Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence – There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions – but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself.

As a humanist, I can find little to argue with here – his philosophy seems closer to Buddhism than to conventional Christianity. As a teacher, I welcome his rejection of passive fatalism in favour of an active existentialism and feel that this wise young man still holds out a generous hand to other young people struggling to find a foothold – nil desperandum, he seems to say, just hang on in there because things can only get better. And as one who has somehow made it through, I can only confirm the beautiful truth – and truthful beauty – of his prescient insight. Everyone deserves to discover that ripeness is all.

But the young teach the old as much as they learn from them. When your own future is ‘circumscribed’, to echo Keats, hope comes from the future of others. And as a would-be writer I want to communicate with everyone, not just the old and nostalgic. I must live in the present, in the harsh light of day rather than the rosy glow of evening.

To stretch the metaphor – only in the here and now, together, can we bear to face the black night to come. Your energy becomes mine. I was young, as you will be old. Je est un autre, said Rimbaud, I is another. Perhaps we are become a single being in cyberspace? Could this be the starship Paul Kantner said we should hijack? Mankind gone from the cage, he sang when the internet was still just a hippie dream, all the years gone from your age. Only connect …

Alas, the fragile web of language comes apart so easily. These days, I need to hear the snap and crack of a scourge. And spurred on by guilt at the mighty mess my generation has left yours to clear up – our old freedom cry of Do your own thing long since hijacked to justify the selfish individualism that rampages across the planet like a bull in a china shop – yes, spurred on by morality and creaky metaphor, I might yet do something. Think Lucky driven ever onward by the whip of a greedy Pozzo

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Lucky I might be – luckier than Lucky, for sure – but the mess isn’t all my fault. I never voted for those bastards …

In downbeat moments, I do wonder whether my moment has passed. A one-act play competition at the local theatre galvanised me into finishing one of my dribbling dialogues as I drolly dub them. The winner was a brilliant young poet called Toby Campion.

If this floats your boat, you can view another of his performance monologues by hitting the Sob Story link on my menu cloud.

Yeah yeah, Sob Story. The title is two months old. My sobs are subsided. Now I can take it. I’m grown up. And it doesn’t hurt – would I lie to you? – when a feller loses to a younger, more vigorous competitor …

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The beautiful truth, of course, is that all competitors share in the genuine victory of the better man. Here is a young talent with striking maturity, a unique voice that combines celebration with a call to arms and the bravery to speak up for a town and even a whole region. My private victory was in finishing a play for the first time.

Unless you count the script for a horror film I wrote as a kid. Bored on holiday and fed up with the feeble fright-factory that was Hammer Horror, I resolved to come up with something really scary. With my brother and sister and a couple of other kids in the cast, we performed it to an audience of parents. The details have gone – perhaps blotted out to spare my own psyche – but the upshot was that they confiscated my pens for the whole fortnight.

This time round, my only regret is not making the shortlist which would have earned me some official feedback. With that in mind, I’m publishing my one-act play online. If you have an hour or so to spare, you are welcome to take a look. Click on Beyond The Gilded Cage and a Word document should load after a few moments. I really would appreciate any opinions, the more candid the better. It is necessary to be absolutely modern. And as Keats almost said, No pain, no gain …

Up Against The Wall, Muckerfuthers!

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Online feedback from people who share my passion for music has got me thinking. Was there ever a more intense musical moment in history than the late 1960s? It was a confluence of many currents – musical, political, sociological, philosophical, technological … even biological if you count the contraceptive pill and, er, other medicaments – and there was one band who, more than any other, channelled that heady zeitgeist. Even their name straddled past and present, yoking a slave-owning founding-father with the newest and fastest form of transport.

Jefferson Airplane took off in the folk clubs of San Francisco, fuelled up mid-air with jazzed-tinged blues-rock and went stratospheric when Grace Slick brought her extraordinary voice and two hit songs – her brother’s Somebody To Love and her own exotic concoction White Rabbit, a provocative blend of children’s literature and psychedelic knowingness.

The surprise success of the Surrealistic Pillow album put them in the driving seat and a grateful production company gave them free rein in the studio for their next album, After Bathing At Baxter’s. Its wild and cheerfully uncommercial excesses, hated by the suits but loved by Airplane freaks, allowed them to develop adventurous three-way vocal harmonies – as here in Won’t You Try, still sounding good at Woodstock three years later.

Next up was the more disciplined Crown of Creation album, still my own favourite by a short head, but a TV appearance where Grace ‘blacks up’ to sing the title track highlights their volatile and rebellious unpredictability undimmed by success. And just listen to those resonant words, rock long since freed by Bob Dylan to say something worthwhile – something we’d come to expect by 1968.

This social relevance continued and even extended on the Volunteers album, whose opening track We Can Be Together blends war-weary alienation and communitarian idealism in an almost perfect apotheosis of those slightly unhinged times. Another track Wooden Ships imagines a dystopian future of hippie exile from a broken society, a theme that its co-writer Paul Kantner (the others being Stephen Stills and David Crosby) was soon to revisit in his magnificent sci-fi concept album Blows Against The Empire – solo, that is, with valuable help from several Airplane, CSNY and Dead members.

If you’ve never heard Blows and fancy some beautifully performed and still exhilarating rock music that evokes those tempestuous times, do yourself a big favour and listen to it straight through. I won’t spoil it by telling you the plot – but the album was nominated for a Hugo award, normally reserved for sci-fi novels. Side One – huh, remember sides? – begins with an acapella chant which establishes a powerful sense of historical disenchantment, conjuring a comparison of the troubled present with the paranoia of 17th Century religious persecution across the so-called civilised world..

Hide, witch, hide / The good folks come to burn thee / Their keen enjoyment hid behind / A Gothic mask of duty

A track from around halfway through the album – Sunrise – goes back way beyond the Witchfinder General to the root of the problem. Two thousand years, sings Grace Slick with passion, two thousand years of your goddam glory … No shrinking violet, she, and many of us loved her and her band for their brave and uncompromising critique of ‘straight’ society and its many hypocrisies.

But the album is much more than a call to arms. At the heart of its elaborate central metaphor is also a glorious celebration of human potentiality. Neither that burning idealism nor its musical realisation has dated for one second and listening to this magical album can give us the experience of stepping outside time to values which are eternal. And there’s nothing anti-religious about that.

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