NEW YORK – Paul Kantner, co-founder of the group Jefferson Airplane, whose psychedelic sound and free-spirited mindset helped define 1960s counterculture, died Thursday at age 74, media in his native San Francisco said.
With hits such as “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane wrote anthems for the hippie movement and the memorable “Summer of Love,” in which young people took over San Francisco in 1967.
While vocalists Grace Slick and Marty Balin were often the public faces of Jefferson Airplane, Kantner, a guitarist, was generally considered the creative force of the band as he brought a new urgency to the folk scene from which he emerged.
Under his leadership, Jefferson Airplane was an early attraction at Bill Graham’s club in San Francisco, The Fillmore, the epicenter of the hippie music scene that also featured the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and the Doors.
As icons of the counterculture, Jefferson Airplane was a headliner at the two top festivals of the era — Monterey, where the band turned its performance into a live album, and Woodstock, where the band’s set due for Saturday evening wound up taking place at 8 a.m. the next morning.
Kantner, who suffered intermittent health problems for years, died of multiple organ failure following a heart attack, the San Francisco Chronicle quoted his longtime publicist and friend Cynthia Bowman as saying.
Bowman could not be reached, but the Recording Academy, which is due to award Jefferson Airplane a lifetime achievement Grammy this year, issued a statement to mourn Kantner as “a true icon” of the 1960s music scene.
Born in San Francisco, Kantner resisted the frequent label of anarchist but said that the famously left-leaning city had a philosophy of breaking down rules.
He wrote the 1969 anthem “We Can Be Together” after hearing a slogan of the nascent Black Panther movement.
“We are obscene, lawless, hideous, dangerous, dirty, violent and young / But we should be together,” ran the signature verse.
In an interview at the time with Rolling Stone magazine, Kantner did not reject the characterization of his music as violent.
“Violent in terms of violently upsetting what’s going on, not a violence of blowing buildings up,” he said.
Kantner was unabashed about his drug use, enjoying LSD and advocating the legalization of marijuana while describing alcohol as the bigger danger.
He described LSD trips as the “most formative moment of my life,” telling the Sarasota Herald-Tribune last year that the psychedelic drug “gave me what I always hoped religion would give me, and never did.”
He was similarly sharp-tongued when asked about the Beatle George Harrison’s comment that 1967 San Francisco was awash with “horrible, spotty, drop-out kids.”
“I guess he didn’t get laid, which was hard to do back then,” he told the Virginia newspaper The Hook in 2007.
“It wasn’t just sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, but just a marvelous exploration in a different way of living,” he said.
Kantner for a time was involved with singer Slick, with whom he had a daughter, China, whose birth inspired the song “A Child Is Coming.”
Kantner was also heavily involved in the follow-up group Jefferson Starship, which had big hits such as “Miracles” and “Jane.”