Stage fright can strike the most unlikely people.
Paul Kantner, veteran of Woodstock and Altamont, rock ‘n’ roll flight navigator for more than two decades with the Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and the KBC Band, felt it one day last summer on a visit to a coffee plantation in the mountains of Nicaragua.
As Kantner tells the story, he was touring the Nicaraguan countryside with Kris Kristofferson when some campesinos asked the visiting Yankee singing stars for an impromptu concert.
“I said, ‘My God, I can’t do that, I haven’t played solo since 1963,’ ” he said last week. “But then I picked up this old guitar and played ‘America’ (a 1986 KBC Band single), and then I did ‘Volunteers’ (the Jefferson Airplane protest anthem from 1969), and I just got blown away.”
Kantner said he went to Nicaragua during the Sandinistas’ eighth anniversary celebration of their victory over the Somoza dictatorship “to have an adventure” and to make contacts with Nicaraguan poets and musicians. While there, Kantner said, he started to recognize a familiar feeling: Revolutionary Nicaragua reminded him of San Francisco during the protest days of the ‘60s, when the Jefferson Airplane roused radical spirits with such political broadsides as “Volunteers,” “We Can Be Together” and the anti-war saga “Wooden Ships.”
Kantner, 45, said the Nicaraguan trip gave a needed jolt to his flagging radical spirit. “There’s a point where you become, not jaded, but you accept some things, learn to live with them. I was falling into that in terms of our own government, in terms of the music scene. In Nicaragua, I found a sense of naivete, an innocence, a fervor and anticipation of great things to come that was instantly applicable to my own life.”
The experience inspired Kantner to write his first book, “Nicaragua Diary,” subtitled, “How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Or, I Was a Commie Dupe for the Sandinistas.” He published it in the Bay Area earlier this year. He is now working intermittently on four different novels.
While pursuing new paths in prose, Kantner also has been renewing old musical associations. He is touring as guest performer with Hot Tuna, the duo made up of bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, old confederates from the Jefferson Airplane days.
Kantner and Casady worked together recently as the K and C in the KBC Band (the B is Marty Balin, who co-founded the Airplane with Kantner in 1965). But Kantner, Casady and Kaukonen had not collaborated since 1972, when Kaukonen and Casady left the Airplane to make Hot Tuna, previously a side project, their main pursuit.
When they left, Kantner said, he felt “radical disappointment. It was like a family breaking up, or a romance. I felt a sort of personal failure. I hold on to the bitter end in any relationship. We each went our own ways, sort of (angry) at each other. But it’s like in a family. Very few doors and bridges burn with these people. Things come around.”
One falling-out in the Airplane family was especially bitter: the breach between Kantner and Grace Slick. Starting in 1966, when Slick joined the Airplane for its second album, they had sung together, written songs together, even had a child together.
The relationship was severed in 1984 when Kantner left the Jefferson Starship, complaining that the other members, including Slick, were too willing to make artistic compromises in pursuit of big money. Kantner took his ex-band mates to court over royalties and the rights to the group name. Starship emerged shorn of half its name and, reportedly, of a large chunk of cash in a settlement with Kantner.
The consequence, Kantner told interviewers last year, was that “Grace thinks of me as like Satan.”
But “Grace and I are speaking again,” Kantner said. In fact, he said, since their rapprochement about a month ago (Kantner said it began with a letter he wrote to their 17-year-old daughter, China), they’ve renewed their artistic collaboration, mostly by phone.
“We haven’t really had songwriting sessions so much as discuss musical directions and concepts of songs,” he said. “We might have some amazing plans in store--I can’t tell you yet. She’s working on simplifying and clarifying my lyrical content for me. I can’t write a simple song to save my life.”
On Friday, the rekindled friendship was to strike its first public spark: Kantner said Slick, who recently announced that she no longer would tour with Starship, had agreed to join him and Hot Tuna for a song or two at their sold-out concert at the Fillmore in San Francisco.
That bit of news raises a question: With Kantner, Kaukonen, Casady and Slick willing to share a stage for the first time in more than 15 years, does that mean the Airplane is about to taxi out of its hangar, perhaps with Marty Balin in the crew as well?
That’s far from certain, Kantner said, but he’s willing to entertain the possibility. “We’re not looking to make a reunion. You can’t count on us all being together at one time. Marty’s out in left field at the moment,” working on other projects.
But for the Airplane to regroup for old times’ sake without offering new songs “would just be death, an admission of failure,” he said. “I’d hate to be known for doing the expected and boring people to death, some old (timers) playing their old songs. I would love to see a reunion if all the people (in the band) were enthusiastic.”
Kantner said the KBC Band is still alive but “in stasis” due to the members’ separate pursuits and a squabble with Arista Records. Kantner said the label was unhappy with songs KBC submitted for its second album because none were sure hits.
“They said, ‘We’d like to have a single, but we’re not going to give you any support until you have one,’ ” he said. “We feel if the album is going to succeed or fail, it should be on our (choice of songs).” Kantner said the seven members of KBC have scheduled a meeting to “just get our general bearings and see if we’re together or not.”
For now, Kantner said, he’s happy playing 12-string guitar in acoustic sets with Kaukonen and Casady that include a combination of Airplane songs both famous and obscure, Hot Tuna numbers, Kaukonen’s favored country blues, and a song or two inspired by Kantner’s Nicaraguan sojourn.
“This isn’t a big deal rock ‘n’ roll tour,” Kantner said. “It’s almost like kitchen music. We’re not out selling anything. The only reason we’re out here is because we’re having a good time and making some good music.”
PAUL KANTNER, with Hot Tuna
Tonight, 8 p.m.
Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano