The San Francisco hippie scene is the one major nook of sixties rock that never interested me much. I never liked The Grateful Dead or The Youngbloods and never made much of an effort to explore the music of, say, Quicksilver Messenger Service or Country Joe and the Fish. The one huge exception is Jefferson Airplane. Possessing a true knack for pop craft, and a dark, aggressive quality that is punker than anything the other San Fran bands were offering, Jefferson Airplane is alluring, mysterious, exciting, and provocative. Obviously, all of those adjectives could also be used to describe Grace Slick, the face, and often the voice, of the Airplane. However, if that group of five very integral parts could be said to have had a leader, then that leader was probably Paul Kantner, who died yesterday at the age of 74 after suffering complete organ failure and septic shock following a heart attack.
Kantner's presence in the band was never felt more than on the band's signature work. Surrealistic Pillow may have yielded all the hits, but After Bathing at Baxter's was the studio album that best captured the improvisational spirit and all-out weirdness of Jefferson Airplane, and Paul Kantner contributed many of the albums finest songs. "Martha"is a beautiful and celebratory, yet sinister, portrait of a liberated young woman. "Watch Her Ride" is a dynamic, exhilarating shouldabeenahit, and yet, it is also sinister. "Wild Tyme" and "Won't You Try/Saturday Afternoon" are sweeping, mighty (sinister) surveys of San Francisco's famed summer of '67. "The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil" is...hell, it's just sinister through and through.
Kantner continued his mesmerizing streak through the next few Airplane albums with more thrilling songs ("Crown of Creation", the terrifying "House at Pooneil Corners", the majestic "We Can Be Together", "Wooden Ships", "When the Earth Moves Again", and "Twilight Double Leader") before the Airplane became the Starship. I'll leave commemoration of that band to someone who knew it better than I.
All this is to say that Paul Kantner made some of the most thrilling, majestic, beautiful, and yes, sinister music of rock's greatest era. He also embodied and subverted the iconic San Francisco spirit in ways that made him an icon too. Once I was taking a flight out of San Francisco International Airport, and who should I see in his flowy shirt and bandana roaming around the ticket counter? Needless to say, I couldn't imagine a more perfect celebrity sighting to have at a San Francisco airport. Fly, Jefferson Airplane.