By David Sheff
December 03, 1979 12:00 PM

By the end of last year the once high-flying Jefferson Starship seemed permanently grounded. When the band’s lead singer, Grace Slick, was too ill to perform at a festival in Germany, fans rioted, axing and torching $1 million in equipment. The next night Slick, who had a drinking problem, got so smashed and out of control the band cut off her mike; she quit after that show. Within weeks the other lead singer, Marty Balin, bailed out of the group he cruelly dubbed “Grace Sick and the Jefferson Wheelchair.” Then drummer John Barbata was in a near-fatal car crash. Guitarist Paul Kantner, 38, the only charter member still on board, found himself at what he calls “point zero.” “That,” explains keyboardist David Freiberg, “is where there is nothing left to lose.”

But the band also obviously found artistic Freedom at Point Zero, as their dazzling new album is titled. Fueled by the single, Jane, and a 30-city U.S. tour, the Starship’s out-of-the-ashes LP is its first studio work to hit the charts in nearly two years. “Adversity generally brings good ideas,” philosophizes Freiberg. “If everything is happy, you write boring songs.”

In the Starship’s case, last year’s trauma brought two brilliant replacement members and a more powerful, harder rock sound. British-born Aynsley Dunbar, 33, one of rock’s premier drummers during his five years with Journey, rejuvenated the stagnant quartet of Kantner, Freiberg, 41, lead guitarist Craig Chaquico, 25, and bassist Pete Sears, 32. Then, after many auditions, the pivotal singing chores went to Mickey Thomas, 29, a gospel-rooted Georgia tenor whose soaring pipes eerily recall Slick in the high ranges. “When Mickey turned up,” says Sears, “we became a whole new band.” Thomas, whose previous major credit was Elvin Bishop’s 1976 hit Fooled Around and Fell in Love, wisely recognized that “no one in their right mind would ever consider replacing Grace or Marty. I’m not trying to sing White Rabbit. That’s Grace’s song.”

But even Grace, now in Manhattan to cut a solo LP, admits: “The group sounds how they always wanted to but never did.” Balin, whose musical play Rock Justice has just opened to raves in San Francisco, adds, “Mickey has always been one of my favorite singers. I miss being part of the band, but they always told me I had too many ideas. Imagine that!”

It was Balin and fellow Bay Area folk-rocker Kantner who launched the original Jefferson Airplane in 1965. After nine gold LPs, including acid-rock classics like Surrealistic Pillow, Volunteers and After Bathing at Baxter’s, Balin split, shaken by close friend Janis Joplin’s death. Paul and Grace hung on professionally, but their romantic union, which produced daughter China (out of wedlock) in 1971, soured in mid-decade. Starship, formed in 1974, added Balin a year later and produced four LPs before the German tour that Kantner indecorously calls the Holocaust. With their hardware in ruins, “We were in hock,” Freiberg recalls. Worse, in addition to Slick and Balin, bassist Sears considered starting another band. “But Paul kept calling everybody,” Pete recalls, “keeping the spark alive.” Shrugs Kantner: “What was I supposed to do? Sell shoes?”

Paul lives in a spectacular house overlooking the Pacific, and China (called “god” at birth to tease the media) shuttles between parents. “There’s nothing formal about custody. She raises herself. She’s never treated like a child.” China even helped Dad with the lyrics on the new LP’s Things to Come.

Kantner is evasive about his love life but has “dated different women.” Reports one of them: “Grace is a hard act to follow: Any potential girlfriend is going to be compared to her. I don’t think Paul’s been in love since she left.” He does admit that his Lightning Rose (“I can’t go on without your love”) on Freedom “is and isn’t about Grace. I can’t dwell on it. It’s over.” (Grace married the group’s ex-lighting director, Skip Johnson, in 1976.)

Replacing Slick musically proved simpler. Thomas, the son of a Cairo, Ga. pool hall owner, harbored visions of being an archeologist until he saw the Beatles, and “especially the reaction of the girls,” at a concert. He decided to do his rock-digging with a guitar. Thomas learned from early-’60s R&B hits and quit Valdosta State College his senior year to join a gospel group. He toured with Southern rocker Bishop from 1975 to 1978 and did a solo LP before joining Starship.

Thomas, who separated from wife Shay last year, shares his rented Mill Valley home with Sara Kendrick. (Dunbar lives in a San Francisco apartment, while Sears, Freiberg and Chaquico all have homes in mellow Mill Valley, which Paul quips is “like taking PCP.”) Sara jogs every day, and Mickey, a “fair softballer,” watches hours of TV football. “I am not an intellectual,” he smiles. “I try not to take myself too seriously.” Mickey has a solo LP planned and fantasizes about acting, but for now admits that the Starship “is the best thing to happen to me career wise. We don’t do all-night burnout sessions, and everybody’s in real good shape.”

“The catastrophes paved the way,” hindsights Chaquico. “The new group is much more focused.” As Kantner describes the new, more peaceful ego-meshing: “Everybody before had their own kingdom. The new feeling is that everybody wants to help each other.” As for Starship’s flight pattern once the tour ends, Kantner knows better than to predict. “I like to walk on the edge. We’re taking chances, but that’s what makes it interesting.” Besides, he adds, “Whenever we try to plan anything, we screw up.”