On Thursday, January 28, Paul Kantner, co-founder of the Jefferson Airplane and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, died from multiple organ failure. He was 74. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, he had also
suffered a heart attack earlier in the week.
One of the most influential musicians of the ’60s, the singer, songwriter and guitarist was synonymous with San Francisco’s mythical Haight-Ashbury scene. In addition to pioneering psychedelia and acid rock with the landmark singles “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” The Jefferson Airplane can be credited with serving as one of the critical voices for hippie culture and the anti-Vietnam War movement. Co-written with singer Marty Balin, the fiery “Volunteers” is one of the era’s most beloved protest anthems.
One of the most influential musicians of the ’60s, the singer, songwriter and guitarist was synonymous with San Francisco’s mythical Haight-Ashbury scene
Emerging from the same Bay Area folk scene that also produced a young Jerry Garcia, Kantner and Balin founded The Jefferson Airplane after meeting at a local club called The Drinking Gourd. The outfit made their debut at Balin’s own club, The Matrix, in August of 1965. At first, the Jefferson Airplane specialized in a soaring and jangly brand of folk-rock heavily inspired The Lovin’ Spoonful and The Mamas & the Papas. Managed by impresario Bill Graham, they quickly became one of city’s most popular underground bands, often playing informal happenings and protest rallies in addition to the legendary Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium.
After achieving global stardom thanks to 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow album, The Jefferson Airplane underwent one of the most radical and abrupt transformations in the history of rock music. Inspired by the high-decibel sounds of The Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream, Kantner and vocalist Grace Slick boldly pushed the band to eschew folk-rock for distortion-soaked psychedelia and protest music. The result was a string of brilliantly challenging albums, namely After Bathing at Baxter’s, Crown of Creation and Volunteers.
In August of 1969, the band’s stature as representatives of the hippie movement culminated in an early morning appearance at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. But despite unleashing one of the festival’s most memorable performances, The Jefferson Airplane were slipping into a state of disintegration. By 1972, the band had all but fallen apart. Kantner and Slick (who were romantically involved between the years 1969 and ’75) began to focus their artistic energies on their other group, the Jefferson Starship.
Though the Jefferson Starship started off as a loose vehicle for Kantner’s love of science fiction-inspired psychedelia (1970’s Blows Against the Empire is one of his finest hours as an artist), it eventually morphed into a full-time pop-rock act that racked up a series of platinum albums, including Red Octopus, Spitfire and Earth.
Kantner eventually left the group in 1984 after a series of creative disputes with the other members. Outside of a smattering of short-lived reunions with both the Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship, the San Francisco icon lived a fairly low-key life throughout the 1990s and 2000s. Kantner is survived by his sons Gareth and Alexander and daughter China.