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Paul Kantner Biography

Last updated: 06/12/2011 12:00:00 PM

Although he never wrote or sang lead on a hit single, Paul Kantner had the greatest impact on Jefferson Airplane/Starship of any member. He holds the record for the longest, unbroken membership (19 years), and he has been at times the only original member of the band present. His interest in science fiction helped transform Jefferson Airplane into Jefferson Starship, and, throughout it all, he presided over the band's loose and sometimes messy democracy. If Marty Balin was the soul of the band, and Grace Slick its public persona, then Paul Kantner could be considered its brain.

The only native San Franciscan among the Airplane/Starship principles, Paul Lorin Kantner was born March 17, 1941, to Paul S. and Cora Lee (Fortier) Kantner. Paul had a much older half brother and half sister. When Paul was about six, his mother died; he later recalled that instead of being allowed to attend the funeral, he was sent to the circus. Paul's father, a traveling salesman, could not raise the boy on his own and sent him to live in a Jesuit military boarding school. It was there, in the second or third grade, that he discovered science fiction while being left alone in the school library. The Jesuits apparently also taught Paul the military-like discipline and determination that would serve him well through his career's ups and downs.

Nevertheless, Paul was once described as a troublemaker while in his teens. Around 1960, he was involved in a motorcycle accident that left a permanent hole in the left side of his skull. (Ironically, this hole is credited with saving Paul from brain damage when he later suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, by allowing the pressure to escape.)

Paul completed three years of college at the University of Santa Clara (1959-61) and San Jose State College (1961-63), before dropping out when someone reportedly introduced him to the electric guitar and LSD in the same week. He decided to become a musician and hit the folk club circuit as an acoustic guitarist and five-string banjoist. Before leaving San Jose, however, he lived in a "proto-hippie commune" with future Byrd David Crosby and future Jefferson Starship member David Freiberg. Also in San Jose, in 1962, he met another guitarist who would play a prominent role in his future, Jorma Kaukonen.

By March 1965, Paul had returned to San Francisco. While working in a cannery by day, he was playing by night in a folk club called the Drinking Gourd. One night a young singer introduced himself and suggested they form a band together. The singer's name was Marty Balin, and the group they formed was Jefferson Airplane.

Although Marty was clearly the leader, Paul took an active role in how the band developed. He recalled his earlier acquaintance with Jorma Kaukonen, and campaigned to get Jorma in the band. According to some sources, Paul also recommended female vocalist Signe Toly Anderson, also a Drinking Gourd regular, for the group. Ironically, Paul, according to bassist Bob Harvey, initially dismissed "Jefferson Airplane" as the band's name; Paul felt the public wouldn't accept it, and that the band should keep it as it's "secret" name. But despite Paul's reservations, the name stuck.

Paul originally adopted a subdued role within the band, playing rhythm guitar and singing backup and the occasional lead. His early compositions included Come Up the Years (with Marty) and Go to Her (later released on Early Flight). But if Paul took his time in finding his voice as a songwriter, his natural competitiveness wouldn't be held in check for long.

The Airplane became friendly with members of another band, the Great Society, and Paul, as he later admitted, fell instantly in love with its singer, Grace Slick. Grace, of course, was married, but Paul would bide his time. In September 1966, Paul suggested Grace as a replacement for Signe Anderson; within a month, Grace had joined the Airplane.

After the Airplane's rise to success the following year, the band began to pair off in factions, with Grace and drummer Spencer Dryden allied in one camp, and Jorma and bassist Jack Casady in another. Marty, lost in the shuffle, withdrew from the band, and Paul, by default, emerged as de facto leader. He began to assert himself, writing the majority of the band's third album, After Bathing at Baxter's (1967). That album contained Paul's loopy ode to A.A. Milne, The Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil.

As the '60s wore on, the Airplane became a symbol of the burgeoning counterculture, and Paul reflected this in songs such as Crown of Creation (1968) and We Can Be Together (1969). To Paul, the "Establishment" included everything from cops who unplugged the band during curfew to the band's own record company, RCA. In We Can Be Together, he included the line, "Up against the wall, motherfucker," which launched a bitter contest of wills between the band and RCA over its inclusion; the company finally backed down.

On the same album (Volunteers), Paul combined music and science fiction for the first time on Wooden Ships (co-written by David Crosby and Stephen Stills and simultaneously recorded by Crosby Stills & Nash), a song about a group of people who escape from a totalitarian society to start a free colony elsewhere. This concept would become a major theme of much of Paul's subsequent efforts.

Paul reportedly had numerous girlfriends during the Airplane's first few years, and, circa 1968, he fathered a son named Gareth. But in 1970, his unrequited love for Grace was finally requited. They began a casual affair and soon started living together. Grace wanted to have his child; in January 1971, their daughter, China, was born.

By now the Airplane was moving in different directions. With Grace housebound for the duration of her pregnancy, Paul began recording a solo album in conjunction with David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, and others. The album, Blows Against the Empire, contained a mini science fiction epic on one side. As an afterthought, the album was co-credited to "Jefferson Starship," marking the first use of that name. Blows was not only a commercial success, but was also nominated for science fiction's prestigious Hugo Award.

From this point on, Paul and Grace tried to balance Airplane albums with solo projects, but were never fully able to pull it off. Although their joint solo efforts -- Sunfighter (1971) and Baron Von Tollboth & the Chrome Nun (1973) -- are regarded by some fans as better than concurrent Airplane releases, they sold poorly. Meanwhile, Paul's contributions to the Airplane continued to be in the form of science fiction epics (When the Earth Moves Again, War Movie, both 1971), or overt attempts to be controversial (Son of Jesus, 1972). Grace later recalled that Paul would spend hours on the phone with the president of RCA, discussing whether Son of Jesus should be included on Long John Silver; such polemics might have attracted notice, but didn't always translate into record sales. Long John Silver did earn a gold record, but it could hardly sustain the weight of other failed projects on the band-owned Grunt Records.

By 1973, the Airplane was no more, though neither Paul nor Grace wanted to admit it. Paul continued to work relentlessly in the studio -- his workaholic habits earned him the nickname "Mr. Rock and Roll, 24 hours a day." But, in early 1974, he and Grace were faced with the prospect of moving on and forming a new band. Not wanting to completely break with the past, they hired musicians from the latter-day Airplane as well as their solo projects, and dubbed the band Jefferson Starship.

Despite his obvious position as leader of the new band, Paul contributed only two songs to its first album, Dragon Fly, but both songs attracted widespread notice. Ride the Tiger (co-written by Grace and inspired by their karate instructor, Byong Yu) made the U.S. singles charts and became a fixture of AOR stations. Caroline, co-written and featuring lead vocals by Marty, presaged the latter's return to the fold.

Paul likewise adopted a low-key persona within the band during the next few years, while Marty's romantic ballads kept the Starship on the airwaves and in platinum record sales. Meanwhile, Paul's tempestuous relationship with Grace began to cool and finally ended in late 1975. A year later, she married someone else.

Then, in 1978, following a disastrous incident in Germany, both Grace and Marty left the band, leaving Paul the only original member. Undaunted, he played a major role in changing the band's sound to hard rock, leading to an unprecedented and thoroughly unexpected "comeback." Paul's title track of the band's 1979 album Freedom at Point Zero sums up their determination to beat the odds: "Rock 'n' roll isn't over."

Paul bounced back from even greater odds a year later, when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage that apparently left no permanent damage. Not long after, he invited Grace to guest-sing on the Starship's next album, and that led to Grace rejoining the band in 1981.

Around this time, Paul became involved with the band's publicist, Cynthia Bowman, who bore his third child, Alexander, in 1982.

But as the Starship's sound changed the keep step with the early '80s, Paul found himself increasingly out of step with the band. His science fiction epics and protest songs (such as I Came Back from the Jaws of the Dragon, 1982) were at odds with formulaic hit singles such as Be My Lady and No Way Out. But although Paul had been the nominal leader for many years, the democratic nature of the band was swinging in a different direction, spearheaded by new lead singer Mickey Thomas. Finally, in July 1984, Paul left the band after 19 years as its only constant member.

Paul did not go quietly. Within a few months, he sued Grace and the others over ownership of the name Jefferson Starship. In 1985, he won a partial victory when the band agreed to carry on as Starship. (Contrary to what was reported at the time, Paul did not become the owner of "Jefferson Starship." According to JA scribe Jeff Tamarkin, Grace and manager Bill Thompson continued to own it, although Paul and Grace both agreed not to use "Jefferson" or "Airplane" for any subsequent bands they might form. Later, Grace reportedly sold her shares to Paul for one dollar!)

The lawsuit created a serious rift between Paul and Grace. They were not on speaking terms for several years. Meanwhile, Paul watched from the sidelines as his former band went on to its greatest success, beginning with We Built this City in 1985. Paul has always been openly contemptuous toward that song and the crass commercialism it represents. Meanwhile, his own band, KBC (with Marty Balin and Jack Casady), failed after one album.

In 1987, Paul claimed to have been inspired again when he traveled to Nicaragua and played for Sandinistas. The real-life revolutionaries were already familiar with Airplane songs such as Volunteers, and their zeal apparently rubbed off on Paul and reinvigorated his sense of purpose in making music.

Two years later, he instigated an Airplane reunion with Grace, Marty, Jack, and Jorma. The reunion lasted for one album and tour. Paul has always held out hope that another reformation might someday take place.

In the meantime, Paul violated his agreement with Grace and Bill Thompson in 1992 by launching a new band under the name Jefferson Starship. Paul claimed that he loved the idea of "hijacking" his own band; neither Grace nor Thompson opposed him.

In the years since then, Paul has continued to helm Jefferson Starship -- The Next Generation, along with stalwarts Marty Balin and Jack Casady. In 2000, however, he came under fire when he and Marty toured with an acoustic lineup as "Jefferson Airplane's Volunteers." The use of the former name drew the ire of Thompson, who sued Paul on behalf of Jefferson Airplane, Inc., a corporation owned by Thompson, Paul, Grace, Jorma, and Jack. Paul was thus in the unenviable position of suing himself.