In ’67, Surrealistic Pillow was the soundtrack to the summer of love; After Bathing at Baxter’s and Crown of Creation in ’68 captured psychedelia as effectively and weirdly as Aoxamoxoa. By ’69, things had turned ugly, and Volunteers was the album for that moment: a strident, overtly political album which even Jerry’s beautiful pedal steel guitar could not mellow. A response to Ohio and Chicago and a contribution to the increasingly bitter and angry anti-war campaign, it was right out there, right from the start.
“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America,” it boasts. “We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent, and young, but we should be together.”
And then it changed again. In 1970, Kantner created Blows Against the Empire: “You got to let go, you know”. Nominated for the Hugo Science Fiction (literary!) award, this is the album I’ve been playing most since I woke yesterday to the news that Kantner’s heart attack had proved fatal. The starship is full of stars – Jerry, Crosby, Graham Nash, Micky Hart, Bill Kreutzmann and Grace is superb. But this is Kantner at his most brilliant.
To be honest, the last time I saw Kantner, here in Leamington Spa five years or so ago, he didn’t look well, but he turned in a characteristically passionate and powerful performance, delivering a magnificent rendition of Bob’s Chimes of Freedom, which he introduced as his favourite song ever, as well as a poignant China and also a Diana > Volunteers: “Sing a song for the children who are gone”.
Several have gone recently: Bowie of course, which leaves me saddened but not bereft - I never embraced his various personae in the way that so many did; Glenn Frey also, which touches me as a human being but, as a music lover, leaves me unmoved.
But Kantner was seminal. At an important time of my life, he was responsible for creating the music which perfectly articulated my sense of what was happening. He didn’t push or stretch me like the Dead; he didn’t confuse or contradict like Bob. He just said it – powerfully, passionately, profoundly.
As Jorma wrote on the morning he died: “Paul was the catalyst that made the alchemy happen. He held our feet to the flame. He could be argumentative and contentious … he could be loving and kind… his dedication to the Airplane’s destiny as he saw it was undeniable.”
As is his greatness. RIP Paul Kantner.