Thursday, February 4, 2016

PAUL KANTNER: A Personal Tribute to a Rock Legend

A Personal Tribute to a Rock Legend

When it came to social and
political perspectives, there
was very little on which we
agreed. In fact, if trapped
in a room with the man for
more than 15 minutes, he'd
have likely chewed my face
off. However, when it came
to music, I was on board
with Paul Kantner, 100%.

The summer of 1975 brought about a personal season of tremendous musical discovery. I was a young, wide-eyed church boy, transplanted recently from the Midwest to Central Florida. I'd also been moving further away that summer from many of my longtime pop music favorites, including John Denver, The Carpenters and Olivia Newton-John, while gravitating more towards such edgier rock artists as KISS, David Bowie, and Alice Cooper. I can still recall that day in July, when I walked into the record department of my local Sears store. I couldn't help but notice the row of vibrant red album covers positioned prominently in the "New Release" display — the words, JEFFERSON STARSHIP: RED OCTOPUS blazoned across the front in huge gold print.

Sweeter than honey, indeed.
As a twelve-year-old kid who also was enthralled by such R&B acts as Ohio Players, Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder, the name Paul Kantner meant nothing. I also had little knowledge of, and even less interest in, the Woodstock-era, hippy-dippy proverbs preached by his previous project. In fact, in 1975, I'd never even heard of Jefferson Airplane. All I knew was that everything about this "new" rock band seemed cool. The name was cool, the album cover was cool, the title was cool, the photo of the band on the back cover was cool  and that girl singer was really pretty.

Before long, my favorite Orlando Top 40 radio station, BJ 105, had placed the band's infectious feel-good, "Miracles," into heavy rotation. I immediately begged (and I do mean begged) my mom to PLEASE buy me a copy of the single — she did. And in short order, I'd lost my mind completely. Simply put, Elton John was OUT   my world now was ALL about ONE band — Jefferson Starship.

I still own my original "Miracles" 45.
(Thanks, Mom!)
Once I'd finally saved up enough lunch money to buy the entire Red Octopus album, my (now) teenage obsession with Jefferson Starship quickly ramped up even further. The sweet screeching of Papa John Creach's fiery fiddle pinned against Kantner and Craig Chaquico's delightfully organic electric and acoustic guitar work on the opening track, "Fast Buck Freddie," was unlike anything I'd heard before  making for a warm, seductive bed on which to gently place Grace Slick's enchanting vocals. Other album highlights that got me reeling included "Git Fiddler," "Sweeter Than Honey" and "There Will Be Love," as well as arguably one of the band's all-time strongest tunes, the Slick / Pete Sears-penned gem, "Play On Love."  40+ years later, Red Octopus still sounds fresh to me, and it remains one of my absolute favorite rock records.

Jefferson Starship, circa 1976.
(Balin, Kantner, Freiberg, Slick,
Sears, Barbata and Chaquico)
The next two Jefferson Starship records, Spitfire (1976) and Earth (1978) both brought me near-Red Octopus-caliber joy. And I remained "on board" fully with Kantner and his flight crew  even through the band's initial splintering — right up until the moment Kantner himself jumped ship, mid-way through the 1984 Nuclear Furniture tour the tour on which I'd finally gotten to see him perform live.

Still representin' after 40+ years.
I was extremely saddened last week, upon receiving a text message from a buddy with whom I'd attended that 1984 Jefferson Starship concert, apprising me of Paul Kantner's death at age 74. But, as I reflected on the news (now at age 53), I was transported immediately back to that Sears record department where I first discovered Kantner and his music in the summer of 1975 — and it made my heart happy, again. Great artists and great music can do wonderful, magical stuff like that. And fortunately, for fans around the world, Paul Kantner has left us with plenty of wonderful, magical, and timeless music. Well done, Captain!

-Christopher Long
(February 2016)

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