Paul Kantner Remembered by Former Jefferson Airplane Bandmate Marty Balin: Exclusive

Marty Balin, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick
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Marty Balin, Paul Kantner and Grace Slick New York circa 1978.

Marty Balin knew Paul Kantner for more than 50 years, meeting in San Francisco during 1965 as fledgling folk musicians and going on to form the Jefferson Airplane and later work together in Jefferson Starship. And though Kantner would become the pilot of both enterprises, he recalled Balin as "the guy who drove the ship at the beginning and really pushed things forward." As bandmates and songwriting partners, the two spent time joined at the hip and occasionally at each other's throats when creative and lifestyle differences drove Balin away from the mothership on more than one occasion. In the wake of Kantner's death on Thursday, Balin's memories -- as told to Billboard -- are clear-eyed and unromantic, but also appreciative of what they achieved together.

Paul Kantner, Jefferson Airplane Co-Founder & Guitarist, Dies at 74

When I met him I was looking for people to start a band with at the time. I was at a hootenanny at this folk club in Frisco called The Drinking Gourd. I was just looking at people; they were filling up the list for the hootenanny and this guy comes in with (guitar) cases, a six (string) and a 12, in his hand. I was looking for a guy who could play a 12-string; I'd come out of folk and liked 12-string a lot. I said, "Put this guy on. I want to see this guy." Turned out he was playing some of the folk clubs around California. He knew (David) Crosby and those cats. He knew Jorma (Kaukonen) from playing the clubs, (Jerry) Garcia.

When it got to his turn, (Kantner) opened his guitar case, tuned up a little and started to play and then said, "I can't do this" and walked off. I said, "That's the guy I want to work with right there!" I just go by inspiration sometimes. So I went backstage and said, "Hey, I'm Marty Balin. I'd like to get together and play with you, show some ideas to you." He looked at me like, "Wha...?" We got together after that at his house and showed each other some ideas and started working together from there. 

He was a hell of a 12-string player. He and I wrote a lot together at the beginning, a lot of the material for the band so we would have something to do on stage. In the early days he wrote some beautiful love songs but then he developed his own sci-fi kind of thing. He told me later, as the years went by, he found it difficult to write a simple love song anymore. Some of his songs were, God, gigantic pieces of music, but he developed his own thing. 

Grace Slick to Paul Kantner: 'Rest in Peace My Friend'

He was a hard-headed guy to get along with and wouldn't do anybody else's music. We had to do what he could do, so that's what we all did eventually. We pretty much just did Paul's music. That's all he wanted to do. But it was unique. It was part of that era, part of that time. A lot of those songs still exist, still live on, still are good. It was a lot of fun at the time, being the first hippie band, kind of, out of Frisco, traveling around the country. 

We actually put together some good music, I think. Albums really came in at that time, too, so we got to explore more ideas that way, let the song stretch out. Because of Jorma and Jack (Casady) in the band, we were in the beginning of that jam band thing, when you could take off and really explore and not stick to any strict structures. We began jamming a lot, then the Grateful Dead started jamming a lot and we all started jamming on every song and that became our approach.

I left the Airplane because there was too much cocaine. Everybody was on cocaine, and you can't deal wtih people on cocaine. God, I couldn't even talk to the roadies. I was a little guy drinking my pint whiskey in my pocket; I didn't care for the drugstore too much. It got kind of ridiculous. It all got too famous and I couldn't deal with (Kantner). I couldn't talk to him. I didn't have the energy to fight him, so I just went and did my own thing.

It was sad to see. He didn't do anything to take care of his health with all his drinking and everything, smoking cigarettes all the time, pushing himself too much. He asked me to join him for this last go-round. He'd been touring around the world and I talked to him and said, "You better be careful. Take care of yourself. You've got a grueling schedule." He just said, "Don't worry about me. I can do anything. I'm strong as a bull." He WAS a hard-headed German.

--As told to Gary Graff