Your Mind Has Left Your Body

I can now empathize with the shock and grief of all the Bowiephiles out there, as my greatest musical hero passed away a couple of weeks back. I'm speaking of singer/guitarist/visionary Paul Kantner, the guiding light behind Jefferson Airplane and later, Jefferson Starship.

Most people haven't even heard of him, and here's why: for all his stubbornness and obstinacy, Paul was in some ways the ultimate team player. In the Airplane, he was flanked by two expressive, talented vocalists (Grace Slick and Marty Balin) and three staggeringly gifted instrumentalists (guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden). Paul's guitar—always subtle, never flashy, sometimes buried in the mix—was, in Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's words, "the glue that held all that together." As for his singing, Weir continues, "his voice was the foundation of the choral vocals." Without exception, his songs were vehicles for the ensemble, sonic flights of fancy in which the collective could shine. As Jorma noted in his touching tribute, "Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen."

Another reason you don't know Paul Kantner: though he was the only constant over a 19-year whirlwind of personnel changes, he never wrote or sang lead on a hit single. It wasn't his way or his interest, really, as his esoteric compositions didn't lend themselves to hit-making. His biography on the Airplane's website puts it succinctly: "If Marty Balin was the soul of the band and Grace Slick its public persona, then Paul Kantner could be considered its brain."

The first member Marty recruited for his new band in March 1965, Paul may be the only person in rock history who passed the audition by not auditioning. Marty: "I was at a hootenanny at this folk club in Frisco called The Drinking Gourd. I was just looking at people; they were filling up the list for the hootenanny and this guy comes in with two [guitar] cases, a 6 and a 12, in his hand. I was looking for a guy who could play a 12-string; I'd come out of folk and liked 12-string a lot. I said, 'Hey, give him my spot. Let's see what he does.' And it was the funniest thing. He started to play, and then just stopped. He said, 'I can't do this.' And for some reason I said, 'That's the guy. That's the guy, right there.'"

From such humble beginnings Paul became, hands down, my favourite guitarist of all time. Were I to make this claim to a roomful of guitar devotees, predominant reactions would be two: first, "Who?" And second, for those with passing familiarity with his music, "You're kidding, right?" Indeed, this is a man who, during the darkest days of '80s-era Jefferson Starship, was told by one of his bandmates that he couldn't play, much less write a decent song.

A brilliant technician he's not, but Paul was a true original in a realm where everyone sounds like each other. Alternately chiming and slashing through the maelstrom with his Rickenbacker 12-string, his sound, voicing and arrangement skills were unique. Doubters and naysayers should check out, among others, "Wild Tyme" from the Airplane's epic After Bathing at Baxter's album. (If you can figure out what Paul's playing, let me know. I've no idea how he's hitting those odd chords, most of which lack major or minor thirds. Paul's guitar is on the left.) To hear him in a vastly different context, try "Love Too Good," the lead track off Jefferson Starship's Earth. He's on the right here, a bit lower in the mix, and his part kicks in around 0:27 with some gorgeous harmonics.

Also recommended is "The Other Side of This Life" from the Airplane's live Bless Its Pointed Little Head. While Grace, Marty, Jack, Jorma and Spencer chase each other like a pack of wild hounds, there's Paul on your left, bell-like, chiming away, his guitar almost having the timbre of a piano, holding the whole thing together. Again I emphasize: no other rhythm guitarist sounds like this. If you can figure out what the heck he's doing, I'd love to know.

In tribute, I'm working up several of Paul's songs to, in his words, "carry the fire." It's not been an easy task because as mentioned earlier, this was an artist who wrote not for himself but the band. Much of his stuff requires the vocal and instrumental acrobatics of others to truly flower. I have, however, managed to cherry-pick five or six tunes (so far) that translate well to solo performance. I only hope to do them justice.

I got to meet Paul once, when a late iteration of Jefferson Starship played a club date in Toronto some 15 years back. He and Marty signed my Volunteers album, and I chatted briefly with Marty but couldn't bring myself to approach Paul. You know how it is: when you meet your heroes you either get completely tongue-tied or gush at them for hours. I sure didn't want to do that, and a simple "I love your music" seemed hollow and trite, though certainly true. So, I shook his hand, thanked him for the autograph and left.

More accolades from those who knew Paul best—here's Jorma Kaukonen again: "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."

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart: "[Paul] was kind of the backbone of that band. It was always about Grace and Jack and Jorma [but] I don't think he got the credit he deserved."

Bob Weir: "Paul lived at the heart of the song. He was there for the Muse—when she needed a human voice or instrument, she channelled it through him."

Jack Casady: "[Paul] was the pilot who flew Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship to unparallelled heights, beyond our wildest dreams, but not his. He had a vision. And he pursued that vision with relentless abandon."

Marty Balin: "He would write these songs sometimes, and they would be so long and ponderous, these giant epics about living in space. It was like a postmodernist, putting this and that and this together. It was very difficult to make his songs fly. Some of his songs were, God, gigantic pieces of music, but he developed his own thing. He was one of the greats, one of the most interesting people I ever associated with. He left a good body of work. If people just listen to his music, they'll see how great he was."

You can do just that by starting with this (Airplane-heavy) top ten list of Paul's songs. If you hear in them what I do, you're in for a wonderful journey. I could of course recommend dozens more, but that's for you to discover.

I'll leave the last word to Jack Casady, as I think he put it best: "It was always Paul's vision that steered the ship. I would like to offer my condolences to Paul's family, especially his children China, Gareth and Alexander. He will be greatly missed. But he will also be remembered and cherished by the legions of fans that he made at every port he stopped at. Fare thee well, fair aviator."

You have left your body
Return when you may
Save it for another day ... beyond you

- Paul Kantner, 1973

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Photographs by Carol Witwicky. Instrument illustrations and GZ logo © 2017 Grinning Zone Studios.
Album and lyrics page artwork © 2017 Gabriel Altrows. Web design by Vern Nicholson.
Sour Landslide and Benvereens archival footage courtesy Neil Whitlock.
All pages and contents © 2017-2019 Vern Nicholson.