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Paul Kantner is the anarchic intellectual of the verdant 1960s San Francisco rock scene, an artist who remains incisive, smart, funny, and devoid of pretense or phoniness.
As the leader of Jefferson Airplane, which morphed into Jefferson Starship, Kantner stood at the swirling chaotic center of the musical movement with a 12-string guitar, a perpetually bemused expression, and an abiding appreciation for all things counter culture.
The bands also were armed with a remarkable arsenal of songs that evolved from hippie anthems -- "Volunteers," "White Rabbit," "Somebody to Love," "Wooden Ships" -- to sci-fi excursions "Crown of Creation," "Blows Against the Empire" -- and finally mainstream pop -- "Miracles" and "Play On Love."
Eventually the commercialism got out of control with songs like "Jane," "Find Your Way Back," and "We Built This City" so Kantner blew the band up and, after a series of lawsuits fighting over the name Jefferson Starship, regrouped into the current incarnation, whose most recent studio album is "Jefferson's Tree of Liberty" from 2008.
The current lineup along with Kantner is David Freiberg (vocals, guitar), Cathy Richardson (vocals), Slick Aguilar (lead guitar), Chris Smith (keyboards) and Donny Baldwin (drums).
That Kantner is still standing, bringing the latest iteration of Jefferson Starship to Toledo for the Valentine Theatre Gala Saturday is a testament to willpower and a burning passion for the music. He's survived a near-fatal illness, major band dramas that have found various members of the groups suing him (most notably Grace Slick, his former singing partner and the mother of his daughter), and epic changes in the music business.
And he's done it all with grace and a sense of artistic integrity that is expressed in his passion for books, science fiction, and rock and roll.
In a phone interview before flying to Italy for some shows, Kantner, 71, was up at 8 a.m. -- a habit he said he's followed ever since he had children (he has three, all of whom are adults). He has a wry sense of humor and was generous with his time. Just don't ask him which one of his various bands is his favorite.
Q. You have a pretty broad catalog of songs that are both acoustic and electric and sometimes you do shows that are one or the other. I wondered how you decide to build your set list and decide which style to play.
Lately we've been playing electrically as a full rock and roll band and most of the songs I do seem to work pretty well that way. Even the acoustic kind of stuff, or what used to be acoustic, anyway, like "Blows Against the Empire," works very well electrically and goes places that I don't expect.
That's one of the things I like in life -- the unexpected -- be it women, songs or drugs, for that matter. Sex, drugs and rock and roll. I came out of, if you can imagine this, an all boys Catholic boarding school and military school in the second grade through the fifth grade, and then I descended -- or ascended. however you want to look at it -- into the '60s from that. It was such a marvelous change of pace and I was just swept away and continue to be swept away. I live in San Francisco in North Beach and it's just full of the unexpected.
Q. I wondered what your take is on the various versions of the band over the years. You're obviously sort of the linchpin of the thing, but is there one era or another that is more special to you than any of the others?
I always characterize that as a cheap interviewer question because that's like asking someone which of their children they love the best. I've had the great fortune of them being unique unto themselves. When I graduated into doing science fiction more full-time that was a great step forward for me. Now, being in a really good kick-ass rock band as we always have been in our way, it's flowered really well.
Q. That is a cheap question, I have to admit.
No, don't take me seriously. I was just giving you some [guff.] (Laughs.)
Q. Oh, I deserve the [guff] for that. Let's move onto science fiction. You're obviously a huge connoisseur and fan of science fiction. Did you have the chance to meet any of those great authors back in the day, like Heinlein, Asimov or Harlan Ellison?
In our day we ran across several of them for various reasons. I'm always fonder of what they write rather than the authors themselves, as a general rule. So I don't do that so much more or seek it, because it's always a bit of a let down, if you know what I mean.
Q. You've been working on a couple of novels -- one science fiction the other sort of a memoir -- and I wondered how you separate your writing ideas between what is for music and what is for the books.
It just comes in its own form really. And you take it in and bend it, which is one of the fun parts of the process. Ideas are almost like a virus, I find, and how they can carry through a civilization or a culture with such speed and rapidity and touch so many people -- and more to the point move so many people -- is fascinating to me. And music does much the same thing. The architecture of music goes into your brain and to this day nobody knows why it creates such an emotional response. That's what I love about it, again the unexpected.
Q. Does it occur to you that you're one of the people who's responsible for sending some pretty interesting ideas out there that have resonated over decades through your songs?
Looking back, yes. But you don't think about that at the time. What you're doing at the time is just entertaining yourself, really, and musing what comes to you in whatever form you choose to. Like I say, it's like a virus and it's not controllable. And like I say, I like things that are a little out of control. Like my favorite women are bipolar, alcoholic, smoking sluts. At least the ones I've fallen in love with. And the same in music. I just like that out of control elements in things where you don't quite know how it's going to work out. I mean you have an idea... but you're always ready for a surprise.
Q. You said in a previous interview that you have been "accused of intellectualism." I don't think there's anything wrong with intellectualism, but I wondered why you chose that wording. What did you mean by that?
People distrust intellectuals as a rule and I like to be on the distrusted side of life rather than the trusted, normal, get-along side of life. More exciting things happen when you're on the side of life when people don't quite know what it's all about and haven't got really a clue about what you're doing. Like I don't think we seriously ever got arrested by the FBI back in the day because they couldn't figure out what was going on. We had any number of various police agencies and FBI agents and this that and other thing wandering the streets of Haight Asbury back then and they couldn't figure out what was going and what they should do about it.
Jefferson Starship plays at 8:30 p.m. Saturday at the Valentine Theatre, 410 Adams St. Tickets for the 14th Annual Fund-raising Dinner and show/Gala tickets are $150.Concert only tickets are available at $45 and $35 at the Valentine box office or online at www.valentinetheatre.com.
Contact Rod Lockwood at: email@example.com or 419-724-6159.