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The Protest Music of Jefferson Airplane’s Paul Kantner

Paul Kantner, a founding member of the pioneering psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane and its subsequent evolution, Jefferson Starship, resented the notion that the music he helped create was aimed at confronting political problems.

“No! Politics I tend to steer clear of, as a general rule. It’s worse than the music business,” Kantner declared in a Yuzu Melodies interview in 2012.

The guitarist and songwriter, who died at 74 from multiple organ failure on January 28, wrote a number of songs that were unquestionably political and a product of the times. However, Kantner, along with others in Jefferson Airplane, virtually ensured the revolutionary spirit of their music would come off to numerous people as self-indulgent pastiche.

In 1972, Patrick Snyder-Scumpy of Crawdaddy wrote about Jefferson Airplane and how the band had a way of making a concert feel like a “tribal war dance.” Hearing “Volunteers” played led to a thousand fists thrust into the air. There was a sense of revolution against President Richard Nixon and all the other crooks in Washington, but the fans, who were turned on to their music because of its political nature, found it disheartening to learn the band members were basically bilking them.

Snyder-Scumpy blames fans for not recognizing the truth about Jefferson Airplane. “When our radically veering course of cultural evolution confronted the entrenched forces of the establishment and became by necessity a radical political revolution, we assumed that the shamans who had guided us in the former would become the field marshals for the latter with no thoughts of their abilities, qualifications, or desires. Whether Paul Kantner saw himself in the role or not, millions of kids looked to him for political guidance. This was our mistake, our failing, our naivete, not his. He was but a medium to communicate and preserve the truths we had discovered and come to accept; a poet, the producer of an ethnic art form by and for white, middle class acid heads.”

Indeed, in a Rolling Stone interview from 1970, Kantner and singer Grace Slick both maintained there was no importance to their lyrics. Kantner said they were just trying to “make consciousness, pointing things out, just make people enjoy themselves.” The band just wanted people to have a good time “with all this shit going on around us.”

Kantner acknowledged the shield rock and roll provided. They were able to smoke a lot of dope and ride in Cadillacs in New York without getting busted by cops. Police would lead them through New York to concerts so the War on Drugs was not being waged against any of them. White middle class rock stars could do whatever drugs they wanted to expand their minds while poor or lower class communities, especially people of color, were targeted.

Still, undeniably, the music Kantner and others in Jefferson Airplane created is protest music. So many of the songs weave counterculture narratives in with references to war in Vietnam, the threat of nuclear warfare, and government efforts to suppress dissent and demonize hippies. The music unquestionably helped agitate a generation. (Why else would the FBI have kept tabs on where Jefferson Airplane was performing next?)

“Volunteers,” the band’s sixth album released in 1969, is almost entirely protest music. The opening track, “We Can Be Together,” which was written by Kantner, has a message of unity and peace. The characters of the song are “all outlaws in the eyes of America.” They are “obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent, and young.” But those in authority should not be allowed to come between them. “Tear down the walls.” Everyone “begin here and now, a new continent of earth and fire.”

It is a call to resist, whether Kantner took it seriously or not. In fact, Kantner include a phrase popularized by the Black Panthers, “Up against the wall, motherfuckers.” He fought against the record company to have it appear uncensored on the album. The lyric then got past the censors when the band appeared on “The Dick Cavett Show” in 1969. It became the first time Americans heard “fuck” on television, and it was in the context of a revolutionary phrase of the era.

“The Farm,” co-written by Kantner, is about living a self-sufficient life without needing or depending on any part of the establishment.

The well-known song, “Wooden Ships,” was written and composed by Kantner, David Crosby, and Stephen Stills. The song is a story of people escaping what seems to be a nuclear apocalypse. They climb aboard wooden ships that set sail on the water. “Silver people,” men in suits, who are there to restore order after the mass destruction, appear to stop them, but the people aboard the ship refuse to let them stop their voyage.

“Lead her far from this barren land/Horror grips us as we watch you die/All we can do is echo your anguished cry and/Stare as all you human feelings die.” It is a metaphor for the soullessness of the powerful, who spread destruction. They have lost feeling and the people are no longer going to sit idly by and watch. They are going to “somewhere where we might laugh again”—some paradise away from this terror.

“Eskimo Blue Day,” co-written by Kantner, has a deep ecological theme. It is about humankind’s place in the cosmos. “Consider how small you are/Compared to your scream/The human dream/Doesn’t mean shit to a tree.” Humans are not any more important or more invulnerable than the animals. The redwoods do not care what humans do. In an entirely abstract manner, it evokes an image of a deforested land that can no longer support life, even if it is merely a collage of hippie freakout sloganeering.

Of course, “Volunteers” is the definitive anthem of the album. “Look what’s happening out in the streets/Got a revolution/Got a revolution.” It holds a place in music history as an endorsement of resistance. Co-written by Kantner, the people in the song recognize this generation “got no destination to hold.” They are “volunteers”—the people mobilizing daily to make the world a better place to exist—and they’re taking control of America from those in power.

Nothing else produced by Kantner has the explicit political qualities of “Volunteers.” However, he did write an entire science fiction concept album in 1970 called “Blows Against the Empire.” It was inspired by the work of Robert Heinlein, who he obtained permission from to use his ideas.

The narrative involves all those who are part of the counterculture, especially the bands who Kantner played with in the San Francisco Bay area. Everyone flees the oppression of Uncle Sam and take control of a starship in space. They go on a search for a new world to call home.

The opening track, “Mau Mau (Amerikon),” is proud celebration of mind-expanding drug and free love. It contains one of the earliest known references to Ronald Reagan: “You unleash the dogs of a grade-B movie star Governor’s war … so drop your fuckin’ bombs, burn your demon babies, I will live again!” This is an abstract rejection of militarism of the period. “Hey, Dick! Whatever you think of us is totally irrelevant,” which is obviously a dig at Nixon.

With “Hijack,” the revolutionaries and hippies are seizing a starship. It can only hold 7,000 people, but it will be place of “free minds, free bodies, free dope, free music.” Where do we go from here? Chaos or community?

“Have You Seen the Stars Tonight?” is a pleasant ode to the possible. “We are free/Any place/You can think of/We can be.” And, on “Starship,” the new intergalactic commune is off to a rocky start with a mutiny, as a large faction hesitates to travel to far from Earth. But the revolutionaries and hippies win and are off to pioneer their utopian civilization somewhere in the universe.

The album featured artists from The Grateful Dead, including Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Graham Nash, David Freiberg of the Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Harvey Brooks of Electric Flag. The supergroup produced a wild, glorious, fuzzed-out, idealistic, and chaotic dream suggesting this culture could only be free and prosper by leaving the planet.

As Kantner said in a “Jazz & Pop” interview in 1971, “The starship thing is really political action and reaction, the natural outgrowth of “Volunteers.” Having done “Volunteers” and seeing nothing get done, we decided to do this.”

“You can’t just sit around and make protest albums all your life; eventually it comes to the point where you have to do something,” Kantner added. “What we’re saying now is you have a choice: You can stay, or you can go away. You can go out to sea, as in Wooden Ships, or you can go out into space, as in Starship. Ultimately, it’ll be getting away from the concept of ships altogether; maybe what we’ll do is get out into space, hit a time warp, come back, and funnel back through the sixties.”

Kantner did not view protest music as major part of shifting consciousness and fueling rebellion. Since a line could not be drawn between the music and meaningful change, he reverted to the idea that decent human beings should instead focus on plotting their escape rather than sticking around to build long-term challenges to systemic oppression.

To some extent, one could argue Kantner was a protest musician in denial. He idolized Pete Seeger as a teenager and developed a deep appreciation for The Weavers. “Jefferson’s Tree of Liberty,” an album released in 2008 and co-produced by Kantner, was directly inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” It includes covers of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” by Phil Ochs, “Chimes of Freedom” by Bob Dylan, “Pastures of Plenty” by Woody Guthrie, and an arrangement of John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” called “Imagine Redemption.” But Kantner insisted “Tree of Liberty” was not a protest album, even though it had all the characteristics of a protest album.

Perhaps, this quote from Kantner is how one should remember his contribution to protest music and fearless creative exploration:

… I have been accused of writing things that no one can figure out what I am talking about, including myself. Art is always subjective and I don’t think you can really judge art on that basis. It does what it does. It’s really not up to you to judge the whys and wherefores of it. Rather just enjoy what it does for you. That still one of the charms of music for me. To this day nobody has figured out what it is, or why it works and we all know it works, but nobody knows. If they did they’d put out hit singles everyday of the week. Nobody can figure out what grabs people and why this record is good and this record isn’t good. They just know it internally that it doe something for them, that it moves them. It strikes them in some fashion that they haven’t been struck before.

What it did for so many is offer a soundtrack to their revolution against social conventions and authority, against the FBI, which spied and infiltrated activist groups and concert events, sometimes performed by Jefferson Airplane. The music played in their heads as they demonstrated against war. The songs grabbed them because they wanted artists to stand up against the crooked politicians in power, and in their performances, Kantner, Slick, Marty Balin, and other band members were.

Though today the music may evoke more nostalgia for protest than it does an urgency for revolution, that San Francisco psychedelic sound will always be worth the trip.

Rest in Power.

Jefferson Airplane perform “Volunteers,” live at Woodstock Music & Art Fair 1969:


Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."