A founder of Jefferson Airplane and the prime mover behind most of the San Francisco band's subsequent ventures, Kantner is on the road with a permutation of Jefferson Starship that includes fellow Airplane pilot Marty Balin. It's not an especially lucrative or well-publicized reunion, but that hasn't stopped the litigation filed by attorneys representing the band's previous management. Predictably, the issue is the use and ownership of the name Jefferson Airplane, under which Kantner and Balin were billed last year for a performance of the Airplane album Volunteers.
Like the vocal social (but not necessarily political) critic he is, Kantner quickly and cannily picks apart the case. "It's a bunch of silliness mostly generated by an ex-manager who's been living off the band's income for 30 years. He's just vengeful. The whole thing is puzzlingly stupid. These anal-retentive ex-managers and their long and windblown, specious motions," he says.
"In 1984, the last time this guy got impolite, I hired an Irish San Francisco homicide lawyer who smacked him down pretty hard. He got punished for using incompetent counsel. It's just revenge for that. The heart of the matter is that they're trying to engineer a minor program of keeping me from using the name. We settled the name thing long before this tour, though, with voluminous correspondence."
Kantner is referring to an arrangement he demurs is not unique among bands that know what they're doing. Jefferson Airplane, he explains, incorporated and divided its shares among its five members. That means that any legal dance initiated by the other members results in Kantner's tapping himself on the shoulder to cut in. "I'm suing myself," he says with a dry laugh. "But (litigation) is the nature of anybody who makes music with any success."
Kantner has enjoyed considerable success during his 35-year career. The Airplane took off overnight with the back-to-back rise of "Somebody to Love" and "White Rabbit" during the period between the Summer of Love and Altamont. The second Jefferson that Kantner spearheaded replaced the Airplane with Starship, yielding the mellow '70s hit "Miracles" and several more charting albums (Freedom at Point Zero, Winds of Change). Kantner also recorded a solo disc that won a Hugo award, the top prize among purveyors of science fiction -- something no other musician has done with or without the help of Yes album cover artist Roger Dean. He left Jefferson Starship in 1984. Grace Slick, one of the other original shareholders, dropped Jefferson, kept singer Mickey Thomas, and inflicted "We Built This City" on a Reagan-led nation.
Like most thinking people, Kantner abhors that song. But the notion of a community established on the pillars of a rock-driven counterculture still rings true for him. "There's a mistaken image of San Francisco bands as being interested in politics and changing the world," he says. "What we did was get away with ignoring the rest of the world, creating our own. Rather than standing on a soapbox, we were successful in creating our own quantum universe. It goes back to the discovery of gold in 1849 and the original Indians who considered the area a weird stomping ground. San Francisco has always been 49 square miles surrounded by reality. All these outside forces that have tried and failed to infiltrate us: the unions and politicos and the FBI and the record companies. These people come to town, try to corrupt us, and a week or a month or a year later they're found wandering in a daze.
"San Francisco is protective of oddballs and mavericks and odd artistic movements. Its value to the rest of the world as a community is that it gives a stage to those kind of people, offers some positive creative and directional movements."
He still approaches music with the anti-establishment pioneer spirit upon which Airplane began. "It's still a band-without-rules thing, whether we're talking about going into a concert with a setlist and changing it for an audience member request, or making an album. It is pathways through a forest that haven't been cut yet, an exploratory nature. It's like whitewater rafting. The river changes every day."
Yet Kantner is impatient, restless. For one, he's unhappy with the layout and execution of his admittedly spartan Web site. "I've been trying to interrelate with these Webbies. They're retentive, almost religiously so. So it's been a bit of a difficulty to get exactly what I want, and I get bored waiting. Nobody works well slowly in that world," Kantner continues, leaving open whether he means among technicians or musicians. "When things take too much time or don't come off right, I lose interest." He tightens his focus, aims at the Silicon Valley on his back porch. "It's not that interesting a world. Information gathering doesn't offer that much nourishment."
For Kantner, it's the city itself that feeds him. "We never did tour that much," he says. "(The late legendary concert promoter) Bill Graham was always complaining that we didn't tour like he wanted us to. But I don't like to be away from here for very long, not more than a couple or three weeks at a time."
Kantner instead makes rounds that are tightly concentric, visiting North Beach every day, making a routine of talking to strangers and friends in bars and on the street. He refers to his home on San Francisco's western border as "the edge of civilization."
"Forget politics and religion and saving your soul," Kantner evangelizes. "Human interaction is the very thing on which all civilization is based." He doesn't mean on the Web or through the wire; Kantner moves about his city every day looking to, as he puts it, "get a little socialization." Eschewing politics ("I do always keep my eyes open, though," he says), Kantner collects facts as a social historian would, in bursts of oral history gathered on his morning local tours.
It's that fresh civic connection that continues to inform Kantner's songwriting. An album is planned with Balin and the hired hands touring as Jefferson Starship. "I'm in the writing mode. I feel like we have a springboard for new material," Kantner says.
"And we already have a great body of songs that deserve to be played. They still speak to things going on. And I think we're playing better than ever, more in tune." He laughs again. "God bless tuning machines, particularly for us 12-string players.
"The process always surprises. The face-to-face element of playing live is beyond defining. And what it's all about, really, is playing with people who enjoy playing the music with you. Whoever that is is something you can't dictate if you want to be happy. We can't control that element any more than destiny." Of course, if you live in San Francisco and have a good attorney and still live on rock and roll, maybe you can. Maybe Kantner can.
Friday, July 14
at Station Casino