We’re all on the dice table,” says Paul Kantner, 40, singer-guitarist, co-founder and resident philosopher of the Jefferson Starship, nee Airplane. “With the number of bad things waiting outside your door—or inside your door—you can go insane. Drug overdoses, polio, cancer, car accidents, H-bombs, red meat, mother’s milk, apple pie. Everything we eat, breathe, touch is bad—at least that’s what they tell you on TV. You just have to deal with it. You hope. And you got to be damned thankful you’ve survived all the stuff in back of you.”
Kantner certainly should know. During the last decade and a half, while the Starship accumulated 14 gold albums (including its latest, Modern Times), he has been simultaneously accumulating data to support his personal philosophy of informed paranoia. Last fall, after a recording session, Kantner encountered what was nearly his final piece of evidence.
Sitting up in the middle of the night in a Los Angeles hotel, he felt a pain in the back of his head. “I thought it was a headache, or food poisoning,” he recalls. Within a half hour he was in Cedars-Sinai Hospital, where a six-hour battery of tests showed a small blood vessel had burst and was hemorrhaging into his cerebral fluid, putting pressure on his brain.
Friends and band members rushed to his bedside while his daughter, China, 10, was at home in San Francisco being comforted by her governess. (Grace Slick, China’s mother and Kantner’s former housemate, had to stay in New York because her husband, stage lighting director Skip Johnson, was also ill.)
“They said I might die,” Kantner recalls. “I was ready. It wasn’t as if I had left a lot of things undone. I did have one regret: that I would not live to see China grow up.”
Luckily, the burst vessel miraculously healed itself. “No surgery at all,” marvels Kantner, who claims he “saw no light,” or other vision of what lay ahead on the other side. “If there was a Big Guy up there willing to talk to me, I was willing to listen. But nothing happened. It was all just like a small vacation.” Dr. Stephen Levy calls Kantner’s recovery “remarkable. He was young and vigorous. We were very pleased.”
He was hospitalized for only 10 days, and after a few weeks’ rest at home he was given a clean bill of health. “The doctors said, ‘Do everything you normally do’—and I have,” he says.
That “everything” is not as much as Kantner once did. He swore off cocaine 10 years ago, finding it “a subtly nasty drug,” and also abandoned acid. Heroin and freebasing coke, he finds, are “devastating. Rock stars don’t go crazy. They drug out. It’s just putting shit into your body that it can’t deal with.”
He does still help himself to swigs of cognac between solos onstage and takes a casual attitude toward marijuana. As he puts it, “Grass doesn’t seem to affect you terribly. Everybody’s got a vice. Everybody takes something. But this band,” he insists, “has never been one to burn itself out on anything.”
That includes money, claims Kantner: “We’re never really rich, but always behind. We split the pie eight or 10 ways. We spend it on ourselves or the band, and support local causes—like the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic. But we have poor planning. We don’t invest in oil stocks or Krugerrands or half of Maui. It’s a good living, but it isn’t Elton or McCartney. Besides, money can make it all decadent.”
Kantner, only child of a Bay Area drug-and-appliance retailer, was hardly aimed toward a life of excess. He attended a Catholic military school and lost himself in sci-fi reading—Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein. By his teens, he was picking on banjos and guitars and playing in folk groups around San Francisco. (He also survived a harrowing cycle accident in the early ’60s. “I hit a tree at 40 miles an hour head first and nearly shattered my skull,” he recalls. “I had a plate in there for a while.”) By 1965 he and local buddy Marty Balin had formed the Airplane. Their second LP, Surrealistic Pillow, in 1967 floated them to the barricades of the burgeoning acid-rock counterculture. The group, which recognized the space age by changing its name in 1974, has survived a series of personnel problems. Balin left in 1979, and Slick, who previously had bailed out, is now back with the band.
“We said what needed to be said,” reflects Kantner of the early polemic days. “There was an obvious call not to turn the other cheek when we were being slapped by the system.”
Over the years, though, he says, “we found we could get more by circumventing the Establishment than by beating up on it. The rock bands of the ’60s supplanted the football and military heroes, and just as all those heroes had fallen when put to the test, rock musicians proved they had no more of an answer to saving the world than anybody else.”
Still, Kantner is hardly less opinionated—or sneeringly defiant—at 40. “The first thing Reagan did in office was help out the poor oil companies with deregulation,” he says, for example. “You’d think he could have done something else first, like give a veteran a wheelchair.”
Kantner lives in an informal, cluttered house perched on a cliff 150 feet above San Francisco Bay. The spectacular view through floor-to-ceiling windows includes the Golden Gate. Paul and his longtime on-off girlfriend, Cynthia Bowman, the Starship’s publicist, often share the home, but despite her pregnahcy, says Kantner, “It’s nothing wifely. We lived together before. It got too manic.” (Grace now lives with husband Skip 20 minutes away in Mill Valley, while China divides her time between her parents’ homes.)
Kantner’s pastimes include driving a 1979 Porsche and using a home computer (programmed for eight levels of chess, math puzzles, video games and even his training course for a pilot’s license). “This is the future,” Paul says of his computer, “if Western civilization doesn’t blow itself up in 20 years.”
He’s confident enough of what lies ahead, however, that he is working on musical material he hopes will complement his novel-in-the-works, a futuristic sci-fi rock thriller. The book and the music are Kantner’s mid-life blows against convention. “Rock stars are misfits, but that’s not necessarily bad,” he says. “You need irritation, friction. Even Paradise would get boring if you were there long enough.”