Rocker recalls wild ride through sex, drugs and censorship

Friday, June 22, 2001
Jefferson Airplane in San Francisco, 1968. From left: Spencer Dryden, drummer; Marty Balin, rear, vocalist; Jorma Kaukonen, lead guitar; Grace Slick, vocalist; Paul Kantner, electric guitar; and Jack Casady, bass guitar.

NEW YORK — Sex, drugs and censorship. Jefferson Starship’s Paul Kantner has been there, experienced all three.

Through tumultuous times in the 1960s, he and his counterculture-San Francisco band, then called Jefferson Airplane, faced heavy pressure from politicians to record companies to tone down the image and music. That only gave him added impetus to rebel.

“I went to Catholic school, and long ago I learned that it was much easier to ask for forgiveness than permission,” Kantner said at a June 20 taping of the First Amendment Center’s weekly television show “Speaking Freely,” hosted by Ken Paulson, executive director of the center.

For example, he recalled the time he persuaded Jefferson Airplane’s high-profile lead singer, Grace Slick, to try to slip LSD into then-President Richard Nixon’s tea.

“This is something that I have to take credit for, humbly,” he said. White House “first daughter” Tricia Nixon had invited all of her Finch College alumni, including Slick, to the White House for tea.

Kantner suggested Slick slip LSD in Nixon’s drink at the tea party, he recalled. But she was stopped at the door with her date, Yippie icon and leader Abbie Hoffman, and then denied entrance because she was deemed a security risk, according to Kantner.

“She made all these Republican young ladies wait in the rain with their ‘dos for about an hour while they were checking her credentials, and then they turned them away,” Kantner said. “She had a pocket full of highly concentrated LSD at the moment and a long fingernail for the tea.”

Kantner, who still makes music with the re-formed Jefferson Starship and a new lead female vocalist, is still battling for free expression. But back in the ’60s, he said, it was a different sort of fight.

“We … got away with creating our own alternate quantum, if you will, universe,” the singer-songwriter said. “We just got away with the most ridiculous kind of stuff. … And when the police or the church people or whoever would make a protest to us … it would heighten our sales … . Even going to jail — the few minor times that we were put in jail, it got written up in all the papers. Oh, well, sell a few more records.”

Jefferson Airplane’s reputation for music that reflected on the turbulent anti-war and civil rights movements made ’60s police and FBI agents extra-wary of the band.

In addition, the group, which subsequently became Starship, was pressured by its own record label, RCA, Kantner said.

Paulson asked Kantner if the album Volunteers, which came out in 1969, had made RCA nervous. Kantner replied that by then the company was used to the controversial material the band produced.

“By that time, they had given in,” he said.

But, Kantner recalled, his song, “We Can Be Together,” on Volunteers, caused quite a stir with its lyric line, “Up against the wall, m————.” RCA said it could not put the curse word on an album, and pressured the group to delete the lyric.

Later, Kantner said, a fan discovered that RCA had allowed the musical “Hair” to use the same word in its soundtrack. Although RCA then allowed the lyric to stay on the Volunteers track, it wouldn’t allow the line to stay in the lyric book.

So Kantner said the band replaced the offending word with “Fred.”

“We call everyone Fred — everyone at RCA,” he said.

That was not the first time RCA had given the band a hard time, he added. The record label also cut the word “trips” off an early track because it alluded to drugs.

Kantner emphasized that the band wasn’t looking for trouble back then. “We were just doing what seemed to be the thing to do at the time.”

“So you literally were not trying to start a revolution with Volunteers?” Paulson asked, referring to the title song’s chorus of “Got a revolution. Got to revolution.”

“The revolution had been going on,” Kantner replied. “It was just a fulmination of events that we were happy to be part of.”

Kantner also recalled accusations by prominent politicians including then-Vice President Spiro Agnew that he wrote his music in a code that encouraged young people to experiment with drugs. After “White Rabbit” became popular, it was quickly denounced as “devil’s music,” Kantner said.

“When I learned of the devil’s advocate in the 8th grade or so, I thought I’d found my position in life,” Kantner added. “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 … do what was to be done.”

He also dismissed the government’s ongoing war on drugs as an effort that has long been on a losing streak.

“The war on drugs has been going on ever since ['White Rabbit'],” he said. “And as with most American governmental wars, it’s a pathetic failure. We have the war on hunger, the war on homelessness, the war on drugs … the war on fat, the war on smoking, the war on what — Saddam Hussein. All of these wars America has lost since I was born.”

Paulson asked, “So when government officials suggested that a band like Jefferson Airplane was talking to the young people in America in code … to encourage them to use drugs — absolutely right?”

Kantner replied emphatically, “The culture made such a huge thing out of drugs when in reality it was just like a minor dessert in 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 in New York in the ’30s. … The glory of those moments is that you’re thrown into this cauldron with all of these scintillating, vital people coming together into this big sort of clash.”

Kantner called the ’60s the “golden age” of free love. Explaining that years and years of Catholic school had set him up to seek sexual freedom after college, Kantner said there was no better joy in life than sexual ecstasy. That too was reflected in his songs. Jefferson Starship’s song “Try It” dealt with a ménage a trois, which was deemed unholy.

But Kantner said that he thrived on the freedom of expression in all its capacities. If he sang about doing drugs, he said, he could certainly sing about having a threesome. And he noted that the city of San Francisco allowed the band a freedom it might not have found elsewhere.

“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,” he added.

In the end, Kantner said, good intentions are all that matter.

“It’s how you address it and with what end in mind you address it,” he said. “And what kind of heart you have in trying to deal with the situation, rather than just bluntly going out there and being abusive, which is one form of music which is going on today. It takes a certain heart to address the difficult topics with an idea toward accomplishing something that’s worth while.”

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