Jefferson Airplane co-founder an icon of 1960s counterculture

Guitarist Paul Kantner on stage during the Summer Of Love 40th anniversary concert in San Francisco in 2007.
Guitarist Paul Kantner on stage during the Summer Of Love 40th anniversary concert in San Francisco in 2007. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Paul Kantner, the co-founder of Jefferson Airplane whose psychedelic sound and free- spirited mindset helped define 1960s counterculture in San Francisco, died on Thursday. He was 74.

With hits such as Somebody To Love and White Rabbit, Jefferson Airplane wrote anthems for the hippie movement and the memor- able Summer Of Love in which young people took over the United States city in 1967.

While vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin were the public faces of Jefferson Airplane, Kantner, a guitarist, was often considered the creative force of the band as he brought a new urgency to the folk scene from which he emerged.

"He was the first guy I picked for the band and he was the first guy who taught me how to roll a joint," Balin wrote on Facebook of his death. "And although I know he liked to play the devil's advocate, I am sure he has earned his wings now."

Kantner, who suffered intermittent health problems for years and who was famous for his advocacy and use of drugs, died of multiple organ failure following a heart attack, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted his publicist and friend Cynthia Bowman as saying.

The Recording Academy, which is due to award Jefferson Airplane a lifetime achievement Grammy this year, in a statement mourned Kantner as "a true icon" of the 1960s music scene.

Jefferson Airplane was one of the first bands to frequent Bill Graham's Fillmore club, the epicentre of the hippie music scene that also brought in the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and The Doors.

As icons of the counterculture, Jefferson Airplane were headliners at two emblematic festivals of the era - Monterey, where the band turned their performance into a live album, and Woodstock, where the band's set due for Saturday evening wound up taking place at 8am the next morning.

Born in San Francisco, Kantner was a lifelong cultural fixture in the famously left-leaning city whose philosophy, he liked to say, was to break all the rules. He wrote the 1969 anthem We Can Be Together after hearing a slogan of the nascent Black Panther movement.

"We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent and young/ But we should be together," ran the signature verse.

In an interview at the time with Rolling Stone magazine, he did not reject the characterisation of his music as violent. "Violent in terms of violently upsetting what's going on, not a violence of blowing buildings up," he said.

He was sharp-tongued when asked about Beatle George Harrison's comment that 1967 San Francisco was awash with "horrible, spotty, drop-out kids".

"I guess he didn't get laid, which was hard to do back then," he told the Virginia newspaper The Hook in 2007. "It wasn't just sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll but just a marvellous exploration in a different way of living," he said.

Kantner for a time was involved with Slick, with whom he had a daughter, China, whose birth inspired the song A Child Is Coming.

But he declined to follow Slick in the 1980s into the band Jefferson Starship, whose light pop sound brought No. 1 hits but also mockery for the commercial tilt.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2016, with the headline 'Jefferson Airplane co-founder an icon of 1960s counterculture Obituary'. Print Edition | Subscribe