The Latest Starship Crew to Land in Glendale
Over the last 30 years, everything that could possibly happen to a rock band has happened to Jefferson Airplane/Starship.
They went from being the next big thing to becoming old news and breaking up, only to come back and get big again. They broke up another time and now they’re back together.
They’ve been critically praised and critically panned. They’ve had feuds, defections, reunions, affairs, abuse problems, illnesses, recoveries, children, name changes, style changes and more personnel changes and identities than any other major rock act.
Singer-guitarist-songwriter Paul Kantner says he’s learned to accept chaos as the natural condition of the universe.
Along with two other original members of the fabled Airplane--Marty Balin and Jack Casady--Kantner will land the latest incarnation of the Jefferson Starship in Glendale on Saturday. The group will headline the season’s first Glendale Summer Street Concert, along with Elvin Bishop and Lee Rocker.
This latest version of the band, which also includes Diana Mangano, Gary Cambra, Slick Aguilar and Prairie Prince, is recording an album of new material in San Francisco.
Kantner, 54, draws a metaphor of recording as a “white-water experience.” The rapids are the hours of intense work in the studio interspersed with hours of calm, when the general business of life can be conducted--such as waxing philosophic to a reporter on the other end of the phone.
Is the Starship on the runway to bigger things again?
Kantner doesn’t have a clue. He claims that when it comes to predicting success, he never had a clue.
“I still don’t believe it,” he says. “It’s an unreal world.”
Kantner says he tries not to look beyond three months ahead.
“We’re just observing,” Kantner says philosophically. “Through our good times and bad times, I feel fortunate to do what I do.”
If Grace Slick’s was the voice that launched a thousand trips, then Kantner’s, Balin’s and Casady’s could not have been far behind. Kantner started the band with Balin, Casady and others in 1965 in San Francisco. Kantner was a folk singer who tried to model the group after the Weavers, the folk group fronted by his idol Pete Seeger.
Slick joined the band before their second album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” which yielded two Top 10 hits, “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” and firmly established the group as a major act. She and Kantner were romantically involved for several years. Their daughter, China Kantner, 25, worked as a VJ on MTV and is currently an actress.
The Airplane provided the soundtrack for an era. The band produced music that was hip, passionate, intelligent and required listening in the later half of 1960s. Their fans included hippies on the street as well as people such as author Truman Capote, who on national television readily proclaimed himself a fan.
By the early 1970s, the band’s star had lost some of its luster. Band members became more interested in their own individual projects and the group officially splintered in 1972.
Kantner says that he did not want the Airplane to be like those hack groups from the 1950s that continue to perform their old hits with just one or two original members. He wanted to create something new, which also would carry the spirit of the Airplane’s music.
One of Kantner’s solo projects, “Blows Against the Empire,” which he had made in 1970, was inspired by a fascination with science fiction. It was nominated for the Hugo Award, the only rock album ever to be so nominated.
Rather than continue as the Jefferson Airplane, Kantner formed a new band, the Jefferson Starship, in 1974.
“We were dominated by our hippie ethic--my Pete Seeger ethic,” Kantner says. “ ‘Blows’ was an exhilarating experience for me, and science fiction just fit into this really well.”
The Starship’s first release, “Dragon Fly,” sold more than 500,000 copies. Balin joined the new band in time for its second album, “Red Octopus,” which sold over 2.5 million copies and contained the No. 1 single “Miracles.” Other albums and problems followed.
Slick left the group due to personal and drinking problems in 1978 and Kantner suffered a stroke in 1980, but both later returned. Balin left the group to pursue a solo career.
Finally, Kantner left his own group in 1984, leaving Slick as the only original remaining member. The band continued for five more years with Slick and Mickey Thomas as vocalists. The group was hugely successful, with hits such as “We Built this City,” “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” and other songs created by writers outside the band, which bore little resemblance to the group’s earlier work.
Kantner re-formed the Starship in 1991 and recruited Balin and former Airplane collaborator Casady.
According to Kantner, Casady made the remark that getting the band back together was like “getting together with five ex-wives.” Which, Kantner says, has its good and bad points.
“We don’t have the slightest idea what we’re doing here,” Kantner says.
Slick is not currently a member of the group. “She has no interest in performing now,” Kantner says. “She’s just writing and wondering about life like she always has.”
The band’s new female singer, Diana Mangano, was found through a demo tape.
The group has spent the last four years touring around the world. A live album, “Deep Space/Virgin Sky,” recorded at the House of Blues in Hollywood in January 1995, mixed the the old with the new. Slick even stopped by to sing “Somebody to Love.”
Kantner still lives in his hometown of San Francisco, which he refers to as “49 square miles entirely surrounded by reality.” But he appreciates the city’s unique vibe. He laughingly recalls that the city’s residents invited lots of people to come to San Francisco in the late ‘60s, but it didn’t work out and the “city won’t be making that mistake again soon.”
Kantner hears a lot of hard-edged music around the house. Alexander, his 14-year-old-son with Cynthia Bowman, the Starship’s former publicist, is a Metallica fan. And Kantner says he’s involved with other projects including spoken word recordings and writing books. But the Starship is his primary activity.
“I hang out with policemen, bikers, drunks and priests,” he says. “I’m interested in both sides of many coins.”
And, he’s accepted chaos.
The Airplane was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last January, the Starship’s new album is being recorded and Jim Carrey is singing “Somebody to Love” in the new film “The Cable Guy.” So what does it all mean?
“I haven’t got a clue,” Kantner says. He thinks that Gertrude Stein may have had the answer.
“You’re here and this is what it is--so, figure it out,” he says. “It’s a very savage universe out there. But, it’s all happening on the West Coast of America at the end of the century and we’re here.”
* WHAT: The Jefferson Starship, Elvin Bishop and Lee Rocker will perform in a free street concert.
* WHEN: 6-11 p.m. Saturday.
* WHERE: Brand Boulevard at Wilson Avenue in Glendale.
* FYI: This is the first concert in the city’s free Summer Street Concert series, and from 25,000-35,000 people are expected to attend. Five city blocks will be closed to traffic. Free street parking is also available, but limited. Follow street signs to event parking lots.