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Jeff Moehlis: Paul Kantner Remembers the ‘60s
Paul Kantner was a co-founder, singer, rhythm guitarist and songwriter for the 1960s psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane, which is best known for the hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit.” His songwriting credits include “Crown of Creation,” “We Can Be Together,” “Volunteers” (co-written with bandmate Marty Balin) and “Wooden Ships” (co-written with David Crosby and Stephen Stills).
Kantner stayed onboard when Jefferson Airplane morphed into Jefferson Starship, which will be headlining a concert at Oreana Winery, 205 Anacapa St. in Santa Barbara, on Friday to benefit the Unity Shoppe. Also on the program are fellow psychedelic travelers Quicksilver Messenger Service and Country Joe McDonald.
I had the pleasure of talking with Kantner on the phone as he packed at his home in San Francisco for his upcoming tour. Here is an excerpt of our conversation.
Jeff Moehlis: What should we expect from your upcoming concert in Santa Barbara?
Paul Kantner: We’re bringing back a couple of songs, and doing a couple songs that we’ve never done before, and then our usual, and God only knows what will happen. I always look for an exciting time onstage, because it’s always so unexpectedly different every night.
We do have an extraordinary new woman singer named Cathy Richardson.
JM: She sang with you at the Heroes of Woodstock tour, right?
PK: Yes. We haven’t played for a little while, and I’m looking forward to getting back into the mode, as it were.
JM: How is touring now different from touring in the 1960s and 1970s?
PK: Going on the road and going onstage never changes in its own quiet kind of way. A certain thing occurs onstage that doesn’t occur anywhere else. The connection between live musicians and an audience is unrealizable in any other fashion, much like a theater play.
It occurs in its own unique way almost every night, and one of the great things that I like about music — particularly live music but all music — is the way it connects to the brain and causes emotion to occur, whatever the emotion may be. But that it can do that in the first place is almost like magic to me. Magic isn’t the right word, but it’s very metaphysical, if you will.
Why that occurs after 40 or whatever years, I still have yet to figure out. And I don’t know that I really want to. I just know that I can wield the music, and play it, and enjoy it, and watch other people enjoy it, and then see repercussions over time that come from both the music and the ideas specified in the music. That’s very satisfying on many levels.
I always remind myself that when musicians go to work, they play. I intend to keep it that way as long as I can.
JM: You’re probably planning to play some Jefferson Airplane songs at the show?
PK: We play everything. We play some stuff sometimes from before Jefferson Airplane, even.
JM: Such as?
PK: The song of a guy named Fred Neil. We do a song of his that I did long before Jefferson Airplane was even a thought called “Other Side of this Life.” Occasionally we’ll do another song called “High Flying Bird,” which is an old modern folk song.
We do from that all the way to Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship and my solo albums and Blows Against The Empire, to our latest album, which has a whole lot of, oddly enough, folk songs on it again: The Weavers, to sailing songs, to a Bob Dylan song we do that I’m really quite fond of. So we do a whole of different stuff. It changes every night, and I usually don’t make the set up until a half-hour before the show. We have about a hundred songs that we can draw from, so we’re pretty well flush with songs.
JM: Back when Jefferson Airplane was recording in the studio, did you work out the harmonies beforehand?
PK: At the very beginning, with our first singer, I would write out some harmonies. But then when Grace got in the band, the combination of not knowing what you’re really going to do between Grace and Marty and myself produced some of the most extravagantly lovely, in my opinion, harmonies. Most of them accidental, and very few bad notes.
I was the one who was responsible mostly for the harmony songs in the Airplane and the Starship. Marty did his solo business, and Grace did her solo business, and it was left to me to fashion these harmony songs, coming from the Weavers and God knows where else. We just did it, accidentally. I’d have a song, I’d go out and sing it once, and then they would start singing along, and they’d find places where to go, and where their range was good. They just came together, almost as an accident really. A fortuitous accident, but accidentally nonetheless.
JM: What about the instrumental arrangements?
PK: Same thing. In terms of my songs, I would write a song and play the chords on the guitar, and sing a background vocal or a vocal, and then we’d just go out in the studio. I’d give them chord changes on paper, and we’d just go out and start playing. Whatever came out — same way with the vocals — came out.
JM: In Jefferson Airplane, you were at a lot of the key events of The Sixties. What are your memories of the Human Be-In?
PK: Well, we went into the park expecting two or three hundred people to show up, like we normally did. And it turned out to be 20,000, or something like that. Just that alone was exhilarating, to know that there were that many crazy people in the nearby area of San Francisco, where we thought we weren’t very many. All of the sudden there’s all these people who have this inclination to go in that direction. It was a great surprise. It was quite joyous to be there. It was a great joy to be there among the crowd.
The show, as always in San Francisco, at the Fillmore and everywhere else, was really secondary to the gathering itself.
JM: Another big event, obviously, was Woodstock. What is your take on the original Woodstock?
PK: It was pretty much fun. It was rainy and muddy, and had all sorts of problems. Again, the gathering was extraordinary, and everything that went on over and above the stage was extraordinary. Despite the rain and the mud and the this and the that, I personally had quite a good time.
JM: Is it true that you were the one who coined the phrase, “If you remember The Sixties, then you weren’t actually there”?
PK: Everybody has credit for that. I think Robin Williams was the first one that I know of who said it.
JM: But maybe you said it and don’t remember, right?
Click here to read the full interview.
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.
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