“Speaking Freely” show recorded June 20, 2001, in New York.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely,” a weekly conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I’m Ken Paulson. Since the founding of Jefferson Airplane in 1965, our guest has produced an extraordinary body of music, sometimes popular, sometimes provocative, sometimes both. We’re delighted to welcome Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member Paul Kantner.
Paulson: Not long ago, Paul, The Washington Post called you “the political conscience and space cadet” of the Jefferson Airplane.
Paul Kantner: (Laughs)
Paulson: Do you plead guilty as charged?
Kantner: Oh, and more.
Paulson: Were you really the political force behind a very political band?
Kantner: No, no, we were very apolitical then, if you really analyze it. And … we had the luxury of coming from San Francisco, which is very nutritious for off-the-beam, off-the-normal-beam kind of people and … and nurtures them, really, in its own way. And we … in contrast to, say, Berkeley for example in the ‘60s or the SDS or the Weathermen, chose and got away with creating our own alternate quantum, if you will, universe, this type of place where we, rather than going up against city hall and fighting city hall, like I’m sure you … all of you are probably engaged in doing, we had, and I must admit it’s a luxury, the ability to get away with not fighting city hall but in a sense creating our own city hall without all the bureaucracy, and just going out and … and establishing an ability to do what we wanted to do. And for some reason, we got away with it. I have no idea … I always say that if I had been born anywhere else in the country than San Francisco, I’d have probably been executed by now.
Kantner: Or … and in so doing, it … it caused a lot of people who do the fight that … the normal ACLU and the people do get involved in got a little resentful of us and called us sort of irresponsible hedonists and that whole sort of thing. But that there was a … a real … what would be the word? Commitment to establish having our own place with our own laws and our own rules. And we somehow, I don’t why to this day, got away with it.
Paulson: Well, you talk about the band as being apolitical. But —
Kantner: Not apolitical, but we didn’t deal in the normal political spectrums and … and submit ourselves to Congress and …
Kantner: … and deal with city hall and …
Kantner: … ask. I went to Catholic school and … and long ago I … I learned it was much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, as we say in Catholic school.
Kantner: And … nobody ever hammered us down. Jorma (Kaukonen), our lead guitar player, always thought that we were part of a CIA LSD experiment.
Kantner: So that whenever we would go out across the country, they would go in ahead of us and tell the local police department, “Don’t arrest them, they’re OK, we got an eye on them.” (Laughs) It’s … it’s part of the program.
Kantner: ‘Cause we just got away with the most ridiculous kind of stuff.
Paulson: Of course, even if you had that clearance from the CIA, that didn’t prevent certain police chiefs in certain towns from pulling the plug on the show, turning off lights —
Kantner: No, well, they probably (inaudible). (Laughs) And when the police and … or the church people or whoever would make a protest to us in contrast to the normal ACLU kind of approach, it would heighten our sales. And we would go out and debate with church leaders or politicians or policemen about this, that, or the other thing. And it would … it would be like good publicity, really. Even going to jail the few minor times that we were put in jail, it got written up in all the papers. (Laughs) And so there was no conscious effort to create some problem for anybody, other than the usual of just being. We were just doing what seemed to be the thing to do at the time.
Paulson: So you literally were not trying to start a revolution with “Volunteers.”
Kantner: We were … the revolution had been going on. Black Panthers and all that had been working, you know, when … since the early Sixties. And the Weathermen and the SDS had been reflecting since the early Sixties. And the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley had an effect on everybody. Country Joe and the Fish were doing the same thing from Berkeley, and … that was just a … a culmination of events that we were happy to be part of, you know.
Paulson: Your music, from the beginning in the Airplane, it was different from other people’s and I … I have to believe you never aspired to be Bobby Vee. It was always —
Kantner: I was a child of the Weavers. I was … not raised on the Weavers, but when I came into music I was musically raised by the Weavers. They were the first person who struck me as a … a force. They eventually became the … the form from which I wanted to be the kind of band I wanted to be in. And when we started our band, this was the template that, unconsciously anyway, I said, well … Marty (Balin) asked me the first night he met me, he said, “You want to start a band?” I said, “Yeah, I … we could do that. But there has to be a woman in it.” ‘Cause I had always been swept away by the work of Ronnie Gilbert, the woman singer in the Weavers. And we just went uphill from there. The Weavers had a great combination of both hedonism on the Lee Hays side all the way through the … social responsibility and the … the powerful singing and … into the total ascetic, almost Amish approach of Pete Seeger to life. So I … I was talking to Ronnie about it once before, and I said, “It looks to me that your band, like our band, all combined together make one sort of complete human being, you know, with all their faults and all their … vices and virtues.” They combined to make one whole unit that was very impressive to me, so I … I built what was our band on … on a … unconscious, actually, but a format of what the Weavers had done, both in social responsibility in terms of doing benefits, in terms of helping people that you were in a position to help, ‘cause it’s so easy as a rock and roll band to go out and … and raise a large amount of money for a serious cause, which most people cannot do. And all we have to do is just, like, go out and play. (Laughs) And so not to do it almost becomes a sin, in … in the Catholic sense, sin of omission. And it’s so easy to do, and the Weavers made it look easy despite all the McCarthy and the HUAC hearings, made it so easy to do to help so many people so quickly, that that’s one thing that … that I tried to do with our band as well.
Paulson: You know, you talk about how you lived a charmed life and you’ve gotten away with a lot of things and … and yeah, if you look at the newspaper reports, magazine reports in the ‘60s and ‘70s, there’s no band that has been banned so often as …
Kantner: Well, all right.
Paulson: The plaque is (inaudible).
Kantner: That’s what a band is supposed to do, that’s … that’s why they call it a “band.”
Paulson: I see. Thanks for clearing that up. The … there were radio stations who wouldn’t play your stuff. Spiro Agnew attacked you. Any number of politicians ran on platforms in opposition to … to Jefferson Airplane.
Kantner: Justly so.
Paulson: Absolutely. And then any number of people were saying that you were Satan’s children.
Kantner: I think the song goes, “Everything that they say we are, we are.”
Kantner: And we were very proud of that.
Paulson: That’s right. When did you get the first sense that Jefferson Airplane was going to make waves, that there would be some … and there’d be some backlash to what you’re doing?
Kantner: Oh, for me, it was the second grade in military school.
Paulson: You knew that.
Kantner: I just carried on the devil’s advocate. When I learned of the devil’s advocate in … in the eighth grade or so, I … I thought I’d found my position in life. And … and just carried on, it was a natural … we didn’t have radio stations that played our kind of music when we started, or nightclubs. We had to build our own nightclub, our … our scene … concocted their own radio stations, not searching for any commercial viability. We didn’t expect to make any money. We weren’t there to make money. It was almost an irrelevant point of contact with society. We were there to … God knows what we were there for, just to do what was to be done.
Paulson: For a band that never embraced commercial success, how did you come up with … kind of classic singles, like “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” Those were huge records. No attempt to create a hit record out of that?
Kantner: No. When they first put the record out with those songs on them, they didn’t even take those songs off to put out as a single. I mean, they sort of automatically put out a single when you put out a record. And they chose some other much less obnoxious song to put out on the radio, and it went … (Laughs) And then some radio stations starting pulling those … those songs off. And they just bloomed on their own.
Paulson: I know you’re … you’re always amused by criticism, but you had to be particularly entertained by … by the attempt to censor, to ban “White Rabbit.” What was that all about?
Kantner: The obvious, isn’t it? Drugs. (Laughs)
Paulson: And … and you intended it to be, as Spiro Agnew had said …
Kantner: The war on drugs has been going on ever since, and as with most American governmental wars, it’s a pathetic failure. I mean, we have the war on hunger, the war on homelessness, the war on drugs. What … what do we have left? The … the war on fat. The war on smoking. The war on … what, Saddam Hussein?
Paulson: So when —
Kantner: All of these wars America has lost since I was born.
Paulson: So when government officials suggested that a band like Jefferson Airplane was talking to the young people of America in code … to encourage them to use drugs, absolutely right?
Kantner: No, no, no, not at all. People made such a blossoming thing out of drugs because it’s the obvious tack-on point. But for us in San Francisco at the time, LSD was legal when we started. It … it was not banned. And we … we had been taking it for several years before that, before we had become a band, just experimenting with life as teenagers or young twenties do. And successfully, mostly, Art Linkletter’s daughter … notwithstanding. Most of the people who took LSD, they had no particular problems with it. And the culture made such a huge thing out of drugs, when in reality it was just like a minor dessert at a really fine meal. What was going on in San Francisco at the time was like what was going on in Paris in the ‘20s or New York in the ‘30s. In my case, in Nicaragua, even, in the ‘80s when I went down and visited. It’s that those cities at that time, for some reason, attracted people from all over the world because of what was going on there. And as I went to Nicaragua just to find out what was going on, people came to San Francisco in the ‘60s to find out what was going on. And everybody from Rudolf Nureyev, who got caught running across the rooftops of the Haight-Ashbury at a police bust, to mayors and baseball players and famous musicians and … were drawn there to see what was going on. And the glory of those moments is that you’re thrown into this cauldron with all of these scintillating, vital people coming together in this big sort of clash, the way Mel Brooks used to describe the making of the Jewish star. You know that story? The six guys with points came together in the room and just all smashed together. All of these forces came into confluence with each other and just exploded, and there was a one-and-one-equals-five kind of situation there that enticed and … and explored and exhilarated all of us. And … and you look for those places, and I’m sure they go on today, like Prague was about ten years ago after the communist downfall, it became an explosive place. I’m waiting for the next one to … (Laughs) to look up when it happens. I love those places. They’re really exhilarating.
Paulson: The —
Kantner: It’s like whitewater rafting, you know. You’re in … in a craft going down this whitewater, a few curves, and you have not the slightest idea of what’s gonna be around the next corner. And you’re trying to keep the boat in. You’re in there with a bunch of people and you’re … whatever. And you could crash on a bit rock at any moment. But I have never had any fear of going down in flames, you know. It’s almost like World War I fighter pilots, it’s almost your destiny. And if you don’t, then you’re condemned to an old-age life in an age … old-age home where you really don’t want to be, you know? So …
Paulson: One of the areas that radio companies and television companies and others censor often, as you’ve mentioned, has to do with language. Sometimes it has to do with drugs. And there was a song brought to you by David Crosby, one the Byrds would not record, “Triad.”
Kantner: “Triad.” So of course we wanted to do that. (Laughs)
Paulson: So you recorded that, which is a song … about a threesome. Is it tougher to get bandmates and others to write candid songs about sexuality? You have … you know, there are very few songs —
Kantner: We’ve never had problems with sexuality.
Kantner: It’s just sexuality run rampant. Totally, the doors crashed down as they needed to be and should have been. And a great Grecian balance was struck, I think in my life particularly, understanding sexuality, coming face to face with it, much less cowering in a corner like an Irish washermaid about it. It was just a celebration and a joy. And even to this day, now I think it’s … it’s our duty as well as those of you who want to take up the … the flag, to pursue joy and … and ecstasy and passion in life. Because God knows there’s precious little of it to be had just waiting for it. And so pursuing it and cutting your own path through a forest is … is something that we’ve had the luxury, again, of doing in San Francisco without getting severely arrested (inaudible).
Paulson: You’ve gone out after the … the “Volunteers” years and … and “Bark” and some other great work by Jefferson Airplane. During that period, you began to develop your own material, “Blows Against the Empire.” What … why did you set out on your own? Were there things you had to do that you couldn’t do?
Kantner: The group was breaking up. The group, as most groups do, eventually get to a point where you each want to do more of what you do and there’s not enough room for all of you in the band. I think that’s probably the answer to that. And we just naturally fell into that position.
Paulson: And you coined the phrase, “Jefferson Starship,” initially.
Kantner: A logical extension. I was the science fiction one in the band, so when I started a new band and I wanted to carry on what we had been doing to just logical … and the first album that I did was a science fiction album about stealing the first government starship that was up there. “Hijack” was a … was a really bad word to say, you know, in airports in those days. So (inaudible) let’s hijack the starship. And so it was just … just a logical (inaudible) …
Paulson: If you look at your work from that point on, there’s, you know, this band that you describe as not being concerned about commercial appeal early on suddenly —
Kantner: Well, we had no objection about commercial appeal. We just weren’t very commercial.
Paulson: But eventually you were. I mean, suddenly —
Kantner: Oh, I think you can … count the number of hits we’ve had in our career on one hand, really.
Paulson: When you recorded with a new lineup, a new/old lineup, you had a band called the KBC Band.
Paulson: And this was a band that had one album and had a clear point of view, and had a particular marketable song on there called “America.” Was that the kind of song you couldn’t do with whatever Starship had evolved into?
Kantner: Oh, no, not at all. That came … that was being written as I was leaving the Starship. And as we focused into the next band, it just became the song.
Paulson: Can you talk about that song and … it’s really well-received. I’ve seen you do it recently. For not being a major hit, it’s … it’s close to the hearts of a lot of people who are fans of your work.
Kantner: Yeah, the Democratic Convention used it … without permission in the convention for … who was the bozo before the last convention? Oh, Clinton.
Kantner: They played it at one of the nights. And I … (groans) ‘cause I’m not … I really have no fascination with politicians at all. I find most of them a pretty sorry lot. And I … it’s a very hard job and I respect the people who do go into that scene and deal with all of that crap, ’cause I … I just couldn’t imagine doing it myself. But the song, I … I’m an American. I was born, fortunately, in California. But all over America, it’s … an extraordinary country and what’s going on here is extraordinary in the history of the world. And as much as we, with our rights as Americans to confront what we feel needs confronting in America … that’s one of the glories of America, that we can do that without getting killed outright. So that … that’s a sort of a celebration of America. At the same time, both celebrating it and addressing some of the … the bad sides of America that might have needed some kind of address. We have that facility to do that, both as musicians and as Americans. And it’s … it’s a very celebrational song. I started with a fugue at the beginning of it, sort of not directly stolen but emotionally stolen from the work of Aaron Copland, who I really … enjoy and … and who really moves me as a musician. And the beginning fugue of … of the song is (laughs) total Aaron Copland steal, but not really ’cause we changed things, you know.
Paulson: In the … roughly the same period, you took a trip to Nicaragua in the late ‘80s. What was the fascination there?
Kantner: I had run across … I’m very fond of … what’s the word? What are those women who have two … bipolar women. Bipolar women who drink are the most exciting women that I’ve run into, as a general rule.
Kantner: And I ran into this story of Nora Astorga, who was a lawyer in Managua before the … during and before the revolution succeeded in 1979. And her story had been that she had been a … a lawyer who worked downtown, like on … what’s the street, Madison Avenue or something, type lawyer, but secretly was supportive of the Sandinistas and would do this, that and the other thing for them in her capacity as a downtown lawyer. And there was this general who was General Vega, something or other, who was hustling her and wanted her to be his confidant and this, that and the other thing. She would keep putting him off and off and off. Finally, one day they concocted a plot to lure him up to her apartment and to take him prisoner and hold him ransom-wise for the release of several Sandinistas who were in jail at the time. And when he got there, he got … he was very macho about it and they got in a big fight, and he ended up being killed. So at this point Nora has to flee into the mountains ’cause everybody knew where he was going and what he was trying to do. And she stays in the mountains until the revolution, fighting in mufti in her military outfits and this, that, and the other thing. And then when they won, the Sandinista council appointed her as a Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States. Reagan immediately refused her ’cause the guy they had killed had been a CIA contact, and so there was a little bad blood there. So in retaliation, they appointed her as representative to the United Nations, which Reagan had no control over. And that … it’s about this time I … run across the story and I said, “Whoa, this is some woman! This is nice!” And I hear that she’s coming to San Francisco to speak at Glide Memorial Church, so using my … whatever, powers of rock and roll, I inveigle my way into the National Lawyer’s Guild and … and ask for a ticket to the show, and I get to meet her. And we get to talking and exchanging … I had written a song about her, actually, called “Mariel” on the KBC album. And … and she heard it and we talked and I said, at some point in the conversation, “I’d love to come down with my band to play in your country.” She says, “Oh, come right ahead, we’d love to have you. We’re having a celebration of the revolution in July, come down and play for the people.” You know, no … no hoo-hah or … or visa problems or anything, just come on. And so we were all gonna go down there and play. My band was a little itchy about going down because of, you know, the situation that was going on there. It’s a war zone. But I sort of convinced them … or bullied them into … into going. And then Benjamin Linder, the first American who was killed in Nicaragua during the contra situation, happened. And they all got a little more itchy, and I was … I could understand and said, “OK, I’ll go down alone.” And I could see their wives sitting there saying, “You’re going where with Paul? Uh, I don’t think so. You have children, you know?” And I went down there and just had the most extraordinary time of my life. Again, like Paris, as silly as that may sound, is attracted … just this amazing group of people up from peasants to poets to military leaders to the head of the Beijing Opera Association I traveled with at one point. And they had an international book fair going on at the same time. So it was just a thriving metropolis of … of ideas and people. And that’s what I was looking for. And I found some musics down there that were very exhilarating. We’ll probably do one of those songs tonight, actually, one called “Carlos Von Sega,” that’s just very beautiful and sounds vaguely Russian, actually. But a lovely melody and there’s a beautiful … poetics written by Thomas Borge, who’s the … I think then became the minister of the interior. But it’s something like, “Possessed by the gods of fury and the devils of kindness, my heart goes out of this jail cell to the something and the thirsty for light, I name you my brothers in my hours of isolation. You come breaking down the walls of the night, giving something … bringing light into the darkness.” And it’s just beautiful stuff. And that’s the English, you know. The Spanish is even more beautiful if you know Spanish.
Paulson: You will … you’re a man who travels across countries seeking those things.
Kantner: Just looking for trouble.
Paulson: Causing trouble and … and looking for inspiration. But where does your inspiration come today?
Kantner: No idea. You don’t know why you make … you don’t know why you make music. Yet it’s a lifetime … it’s very easy to learn how to make music, you know. You can get a chord book and “Duh-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh,” kind of thing. But as to the why you make music, it’s … it’s … you don’t really know, I don’t think. It’s so undefined, in a certain sense. Nobody knows why music produces an emotional response. Why this odd collection of mathematics, virtually basically cycles per second in various combinations, will produce a tear, a nostalgia, a remembrance, or a glory to the future, a passion. And why that occurs is still a mystery to me, and I’m still exploring it. It’s like in “Fantasia,” when … when Mickey Mouse gets a hold of the … the sorcerer’s book and starts doing things, and the brooms get out of control and the water’s all over everywhere. Music is sort of for us, it’s like that. And you almost search for those times when music does get out of your control. And … and it takes … it takes you somewhere that you hadn’t planned on when you were going up on the stage that night. You didn’t expect to go where it takes you. And that’s … that’s one of the … I’m still exploring that.
Paulson: I had the chance to see you play recently and the show was terrific. But I think the greatest surprise to me was the connection with the audience and the fact that songs that you had written, you know, 30 years ago were clearly so moving to the audience. And there were a lot of people in that audience who … I’m trying to figure out a way to describe this. But if you saw them on the street, you would … you might cross the street ’cause you didn’t want to buy an insurance policy. They are … they are there with their arms raised in the air, you know, screaming “Volunteers of America” …
Kantner: Reliving their lost youth.
Paulson: … and yet, I mean, the passion is undeniable. It’s not … it’s not nostalgia. There … you’re touching something else inside them.
Kantner: Well, a lot of those battles haven’t been won yet, you know. It’s an ongoing struggle and fight. There … there are still homeless people in the country that need addressing, and … racism still needs serious address. The military situation needs address. The death penalty needs address. Most of the women that I know far prefer life in prison ’cause it’s much more horrible than that easy little shot in the arm. I mean, that’s what we would all like is to just go peacefully to sleep and die. So I don’t see that as a death penalty. If, as George Carlin says, they bring back crucifixions and burning at the stake and beheadings, then we have another question and why I don’t get into show business. But short of that, I … things like the death penalty, hunger, the drug wars, the … the atrocious number of children that are put in jail with hardened criminals for smoking a joint, and you create new criminals that you’re gonna release on the street in a while that are perverted and that are gonna walk amongst your children, is a crime in itself. You know, that … needs to be addressed. So there’s always a cause to fight, and those songs address some of those causes that are not resolved yet.
Paulson: Is there a topic that you haven’t been able to write a song about that you wanted to?
Paulson: You can address everything in music?
Kantner: Can’t think of a thing. George Carlin again says that you can make fun of anything.
Kantner: Anything will make you laugh. I think he brought up the concept of rape. He said you can even talk about rape. Somebody said, “How?” He said, “Well, consider Minnie … Porky Pig raping Minnie Mouse, you know.” (Laughs) You got to give him a few things. So it’s how you address it and with, I think, with what end in mind you address it and what kind of heart you have in … in trying to deal with a situation rather than just bluntly going up there and being abusive, which is one form of music that’s going on today. The … it takes a certain heart to address the difficult topics with an idea toward accomplishing something, you know, that … that’s worthwhile.
Paulson: Thank you for joining us today.
Kantner: Sure, my pleasure.
Paulson: Our guest today has been Paul Kantner. I’m Ken Paulson, back next week with another conversation about free expression, the arts, and America. I hope you can join us then for “Speaking Freely.”
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