What I Learned From Paul Kantner

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PHOTO: Clayton Call | Getty Images

“I don’t like old people on a rock and roll stage,” Grace Slick told the New York Times in 1998. “I think they look pathetic, me included.”

When I began touring with Jefferson Starship in 2012, one of the first things I asked Paul Kantner was what he thought of this famous quote from his former band mate (and mother of his daughter, China).

“My reply to that,” he said, “is that nothing keeps you young like playing rock and roll.”

I don’t agree with either of them.

I used to side strongly with Kantner in this debate, but after his death at age 74 on January 28 (it was a heart attack), and after reflecting on his inspiring 50-year rock odyssey—a musical adventure that spanned Jefferson Airplane, the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock, Altamont, four decades of Jefferson Starship, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a 2016 Grammy Award for lifetime achievement—I learned that playing rock and roll doesn’t keep you young.

Being young (in heart and mind) keeps you playing rock and roll.

Kantner showed me that one thing that keeps you “young” is the ability to take a stand for what you hold to be sacred. When Kantner was told to stop touring, stop smoking, stop playing his Rickenbacker 12-strings so damn loudly, stop his on-again/off-again love affair with “Vitamin V” (vodka), or, in the ’80s, stop fighting a move towards commerciality (a move that ultimately resulted in the Starship song “We Built This City”), he did not back down one micrometer.

There was no surrender in this man.

Another way to stay young, Kantner showed me, is to have indefatigable curiosity, as he did.

Aside from claiming to need a daily hotel power nap (a need that, coincidentally, always seemed to present itself whenever it was time for soundcheck), Kantner was a tireless musical explorer until the very end, and he proved it by dying, you could say, with a guitar pick in his hand. (He was due to play Milwaukee on the day he passed.)

PAUL KANTNER IS REMEMBERED ON THE “NO GUITAR IS SAFE” PODCAST

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“We had the fortune—or misfortune—of discovering Fender Twin Reverbs and LSD in the same week,” Kantner famously said of Jefferson Airplane’s early electric-guitar explorations.

When I played with Kantner, the LSD had been gone for decades, but the mighty open-tuned Ricks, strummed in stereo through a pair of Twins cranked to the verge of feedback, along with that ceaseless ambition to conquer new sonic worlds, stayed with him through his very last gig, which was January 16 in Jackson, Tennessee.

True, Kantner’s thunderous 12-string tapestries were a distinct weave in the fabric of psychedelic rock, ’70s radio rock, and beyond. (“You haven’t experienced anything until you’ve tried tuning a 12-string on acid,” reflected Airplane/Hot Tuna bassist Jack Casady at Kantner’s funeral, which instantly reminded me of a great line from Kantner: “The electronic guitar tuner killed the San Francisco sound.”)

However, the lesson Kantner taught me was bigger than any guitar style, and bigger than any of the lead guitarists who played for him (a list that includes Jorma Kaukonen, Craig Chaquico, Mark “Slick” Aguilar, and yours truly).

Like a great jazz artist, Kantner showed me that what’s more impressive than being able to play an instrument is being able to play your band.

There is a spectacular 1989 concert video of Miles Davis pulling the solo of a lifetime out of saxophonist Kenny Garrett by standing in front of him intimidatingly, while holding his trumpet mic up to the bell of Garrett’s horn for five long minutes, thus putting every eyeball in the building on the young alto player.

Kantner had his own ways of putting players in the spotlight, but the goal was the same: Lift the musicians and you lift the concert experience. If Kantner saw potential, he mined and developed it. (Fact: Kantner hired Chaquico when the future guitar star was just 16.)

That is what I like to call the “Kantner lift,” and I have been blessed with over 200 gigs’ worth of that lift all over the world, with more to shows come (this time with Jefferson Starship co-founder David Freiberg as the new Captain).

A great example of this lift is when Kantner pushed me up on stage all by myself in Tokyo in 2012 to perform Kaukonen’s wonderful acoustic guitar instrumental “Embryonic Journey” (from the seminal Jefferson Airplane album, Surrealistic Pillow).

Apparently liking the way I had updated the short piece by playing it on a Telecaster, adding some modern timbral elements via Boss Tera Echo and DigiTech Synth Wah pedals, and extending it with a few complementary licks of my own, he had me continue to develop it at nearly every concert thereafter.

Each night, when he and the rest of the band left the stage, Kantner wanted me to take the audience to the moon and back with Kaukonen’s great piece. He wanted me to develop it into a compelling concert moment, and enjoy accolades from his fans afterwards.

I’ll always be thankful to him for wanting me to soar like that—for wanting me to achieve escape velocity in that special moment.

Or maybe he just wanted a quick smoke break.

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