Remembering Paul Kantner

News of the death of Paul Kantner, formerly of the Jefferson Airplane, reminded me of an early encounter I had with him.
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News of the death of Paul Kantner, formerly of the Jefferson Airplane, reminded me of an early encounter I had with him. So let me start here:

The Coen brothers' film, A Serious Man, was set in summer of 1967 in the Minneapolis suburb of St. Louis Park, where they grew up -- about six blocks from where I did.

(A brief sidenote: Also hailing from St. Louis Park: Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and U.S. Sen. Al Franken, again both slightly younger than me. Unfortunately, they've had to live in my shadow all these years but that's a burden I've learned to bear. I hope they have as well.)

Among that film's many pleasures, it offered the not-inaccurate observation that the Jefferson Airplane song, Somebody to Love, was ubiquitous that particular summer, just as the Rolling Stones' Satisfaction had been two summers earlier. You couldn't turn on a radio without hearing either Somebody to Love or the Airplane's other hit, White Rabbit, with its flamenco-like opening strums and rhythm.

Anyway, 1967 - quaintly referred to as the Summer of Love. Not in Minneapolis, of course, or at least not until much later, when we found out that's what it was called.

It was the summer before my senior year in high school, when I would be the editor of the feature page of my high school newspaper. I'd been reading about the Haight-Ashbury scene in San Francisco since the early spring (in the Minneapolis newspapers and Life magazine) and was enthralled with the hippies - or at least the idea of them. Peace and love? Sounded good to me. And, of course, rock'n'roll. Sex and drugs would both come a couple years later.

The summer's signal moment, of course, was the release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I ran out and bought. But I was thoroughly captivated by the sound of the Jefferson Airplane and, in particular, the keening voice of Grace Slick. And, of course, the fact that she was both hot and cool.

So when I saw an ad for a three-day concert-series at the Minneapolis Auditorium, the eager fan within me teamed with my inner enterprising journalist to say, "I want to go to there." Look at the lineup:

--The Shadows of Knight, whose version of the song Gloria was a bigger hit in the Twin Cities than the one by Van Morrison and Them;

--The Electric Prunes, who were having a moment with a song called I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night and went on to do a rock'n'roll song called Kol Nidre -- Google it, kids;

--The Buffalo Springfield (with Stephen Stills and Neil Young);

.... and the Jefferson Airplane as the headliners. My destiny lay before me: I must meet Grace Slick and, hopefully, interview her.

So I began making phone calls, starting with the Minneapolis Auditorium. In those bygone days before publicists ruled the world, I was actually put directly in touch with the Jefferson Airplane's road manager, a guy named Bill Thompson. I was directed to call him at the downtown Holiday Inn; when I reached him on the first try, I tried to sound official, telling him that I was the features editor of the St. Louis Park Echo and that I'd be interested in seeing the upcoming shows and interviewing the band when they were in town.

I'm not sure what Thompson heard me say but, upon reflection, I have to guess he thought I'd said St. Louis, rather than St. Louis Park. Why else would he offer up a backstage pass and interviews with both Grace Slick and Marty Balin (and then happily hand over passes to each night's concert for me and five of my friends) to a high-school journalist from suburban Minneapolis?

Those three nights were a highlight of my young life: hanging around backstage at the Auditorium every night, watching Grace and Marty and the rest of them as they warmed up, chatting with them, actually interviewing them -- and then watching them play. A great band in its early prime (check the live album Bless Its Pointed Little Head for a stirring representation of the music they were capable of on a good night).

Later, of course, I would kick myself at missing the opportunity to hear Buffalo Springfield. It was their For What It's Worth summer and, at that point, they had only the one hit; six months later, I would be obsessed with their second album, Buffalo Springfield Again, with songs like Rock'n'Roll Woman, Mr. Soul and Bluebird - and mortified to realize I'd ignored their performances when I'd had the chance to see them, especially when news arrived from Los Angeles shortly thereafter that the band had split up.

Somewhere in the bound volume of my high-school newspaper that resides in the home of my dear friend Larry (who was the editor-in-chief that year), there is a story I wrote for the school year's first issue in the fall of 1968 about hippies, with quotes from Grace Slick and Marty Balin straight from the Haight-Ashbury frontlines; not bad for a high-school kid. The story also quotes Sonny Bono, then of Sonny and Cher, whose press conference I'd talked my way into that summer. Sonny, of course, only dressed like a hippie as a way to sell records. He would later become a conservative congressman from Palm Springs before dying after crashing headfirst into a tree while skiing.)

When I interviewed her backstage (in an athletic shower room that served as part of the backstage area), Grace was exceptionally kind to and patient with a naïve Minnesota kid. I floated home that first night after interviewing her (and this was before I'd ever tried smoking marijuana, as you'll see), long after my parents had gone to bed, and left a note for my mother: "I'm in love with Grace Slick." A not-uncommon phenomenon of the period, me falling in love. Or teen-age boys falling for Grace Slick, for that matter.


But the real adventure happened the day of the first show. I was working that summer at the paper-recycling plant owned by my grandfather and great-uncle. I spent my days in a dark basement room, listening to WDGY and KDWB, the local Top 40 stations, on a tiny AM transistor radio. My job involved slicing the folds off newspapers with a giant manual paper cutter (with a guillotine arm that brought down a blade as long as the seam of a laid-out broadsheet newspaper). I then stacked these sheets on a pallet until the stacks were four or five feet tall, then bound them to the pallet with a device that secured a metal strap into a continuous loop. Amazing the odd skills you pick up.

On the day of the first concert, I took off from work, rounded up a couple of friends and drove to the downtown Holiday Inn, where Bill Thompson was staying. We figured the band must be there as well, so we'd plant ourselves in the lobby and ambush whoever we recognized and ask for an interview.

We hadn't even breached the front door of the hotel when we ran into Airplane guitarist/singer/songwriter Paul Kantner and one of the band's roadies, coming out of the hotel. We boldly stopped them, introduced ourselves as fans - and journalists - and asked if they'd talk to us.

"We were going to go drive around," Kantner said. "You can come with if you want. Say, is there a head shop around here?"

As it happened, there was, roughly 20 blocks away. So we piled into what I assumed was their rental car, a massive sedan -- bench seat, three in front, three in back, no seatbelts, of course, because it was 1967 -- and began directing them to the store, named Psychedelia.

There was a small but growing "hippie" scene in Minneapolis at that moment; within a year, long hair, paisley, tie-dye, bell-bottoms and the like would be the fodder for dress-code wars in high schools around the Twin Cities and the rest of the country.

Psychedelia was a hole in the wall that sold what head shops sold: cigarette papers, pipes, incense, batik-print, candles, buttons -- whichever aspects of the counterculture that had filtered into the Upper Midwest. The place had been open less than a year but already was stereotypically redolent of patchouli and incense -- except that this was before those scents became the stereotype. We parked the car on busy Nicollet Ave., scoring a meter right across the street from the store.

Coming from the actual Haight-Ashbury, ground-zero for the hippie explosion, Kantner undoubtedly had seen bigger, hipper and better-stocked head shops than our puny little entry, but he was like this friendly ambassador of hipness from the Haight who didn't seem to judge, just appreciate.

As it happened, there were a couple of local bikers -- I can't swear that they were Hell's Angels or whether Minneapolis even had a Hell's Angels chapter -- at the store. Kantner walked right up to them and started talking to them, saying he was in from San Francisco and talking about the Angels he knew in the Bay Area.

We stood there agog. Here we were, hanging out with a rock'n'roll star who had driven us there in his car. And we were sharing space with bikers, who at that point in time were considered something like mid-20th-century Visigoths.

Which presented us with a dilemma: On the one hand, we were trying to make it clear by the way we positioned ourselves that we were part of the Kantner entourage. On the other, we were afraid to actually look any of the bikers directly in the eye because, as noted, we were suburban high school kids and they were, well, bikers.

But, after about 10 minutes, Kantner essentially said, "Let's split," saying his goodbyes to the bikers and store staff (who had recognized him, where the bikers hadn't). We crossed Nicollet mid-block; it was now later afternoon and rush hour traffic was beginning to build.

I climbed into the backseat with Kantner, who said, "That was cool." Then, proffering his hand, he opened his palm to reveal a small, thin and obviously hand-rolled cigarette. "Want some?"

This is how innocent I was at that moment in 1967 a few months before I turned 17: While I had heard and read about marijuana, I had not yet encountered it and didn't think I knew anyone else who had (though that assumption turned out to be incorrect). Weed had not really filtered down to the high-school level in that part of the country (though the Coen brothers' movie depicts junior-high-aged stoners, a stretch I believe).

So I smiled at Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane and said, "No, thanks, I don't smoke." Because I didn't smoke -- cigarettes. Smoking pot had never occurred to me.

A year later, the first time I saw someone roll a joint, I flashed back to that moment and realized what I'd been offered and what I'd turned down.

It may have been naïveté. In any event, I didn't have long to ponder it because the roadie, who was driving, figured out that, in order to drive us all back to the Holiday Inn downtown, he would have to reverse course. So he did a U turn in the middle of a busy Nicollet Avenue, exiting a parking place on the southbound side of the street to swing into the northbound lane -- right in front of an oncoming city bus, whose driver honked loudly even as he stood on his brakes.

As I have considered that afternoon over the years, I often ponder the mysterious luck that kept us from being involved in a drug-related vehicular embroilment with the law. Instead, with the blitheness of one of God's fools, the roadie simply gunned it and tore off toward the hotel, unscathed.

Roughly 20 years later, I was working at a newspaper in Marin County, Calif., and Paul Kantner put out an album. The group was called the KBC Band and reunited Kantner with Airplane bandmates Marty Balin and Jack Casady. I arranged to interview him about it at his home, which was by the beach south of the Golden Gate Bridge.

At the end of the interview, I told him the story of our early encounter. He listened, bemused, and when I got to the part where I said, "No, thanks, I don't smoke," he smiled and said, "Good, better you never get started with that stuff."

"Too late," I replied and we both chuckled.

"Sorry, doesn't ring a bell," he said.

And, as I drove back to Marin, I thought, 'Why would it? It's my memory, not his.'

Marshall Fine writes about film and popular culture here.