A Cranky Gen-Xer’s Tribute to Paul Kantner.
2016 was a big year for celebrity deaths. It became kind of a competition in some ways. David Bowie’s death hit a lot of people hard, but then the famous people kept dropping, and soon it was like “oh yeah? Prince was whatever. GEORGE MICHAEL really had an impact on my life!” and then the person would have to talk about how everyone is celebrating/mourning/talking about _____, but nobody is mentioning ______ as much as they should blah blah blah.
I’m not about to do that. Everyone’s death in 2016 was tragic (except possibly Phyllis Schlafly’s and Antonin Scalia’s, but that’s another entry). However, I would like to bring your attention to one death in particular that made me think: Paul Kantner.
I grew up a cynical, cranky Gen-Xer raised by hippies. My upbringing was not that unusual; many people of my generation were raised with the idea that everything in the 80s was boring, and that nothing was as good or exciting as it was in the 1960s. Baby Boomers adopted a superior attitude of “you weren’t there, you have NO IDEA how boring it is now!” Note, “the 60s” = 1967-1974.
I loved 80s music and was totally into punk and New Wave. In 1986, when this video came out (see below), I was heavily into U2, Big Country, Simple Minds, and other bands which my parents deemed “crap.” In their minds, in order to be cool, I had to listen to 60s music. They sat me down and made me listen to Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen (RIP), whom I have an appreciation for now, but to the ears of a 13 year old obsessed with British New Wave, it just sounded like dreary noise.
60s music was played as background music in every store in my neck of the woods. New Wave was spectacularly un-cool. In my time-forgotten corner of Upstate NY, all my peers were into Pink Floyd and The Who. The Beatles were omnipresent, but they were so cliché at that point; I had heard every song a million times, and their music had become shorthand for “what follows is supposed to appeal to old people.”
Out of all the 60s music I was forced to listen to, the Jefferson Airplane was the only one I could relate to. I liked “White Rabbit” a lot, and I discovered that when a group of Baby Boomers were together and reminiscing, I could name drop the Jefferson Airplane (after many caveats that no, I did not equate it with Starship, the band’s incarnation at the time), and Boomers would think I was “cool” and that I “get it” and didn’t have to give me the lectures on how everything we did was boring and pointless and how they engaged in Real Activism Back In The Day, unlike whatever crap passes for whatever now.
Which brings me to the song “America” by the KBC Band (a band comprised of Paul Kantner, Marty Balin and Jack Casady from the Jefferson Airplane). This is the first song I had heard that actually celebrated the youth of America that was released in my lifetime. It was optimistic!
Streets of gold
Streets of wonder
Streets of people growing stronger
Revolution and voices of thunder
It’s a New world, new people
New dreams for all of the children
Young country, new love
New dreams of freedom
The part that really resonated with me was this:
don’t be afraid of anything
don’t be afraid of anyone
young men are dreaming and
young girls believing
and asking questions like
where are the frontiers?
how do i get there?
I was inspired. I was uplifted. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do about it, but it made me resent my parents’ generation slightly less. I thought, hey, if the members of the Jefferson Airplane can maintain optimism about my generation, anyone can! Throughout all my Babyy Boomer dominated childhood, I had internalized that my entire generation was doomed because we were lazy slackers who listened to shitty music. Maybe we don’t suck so much after all! I mean, even Paul Kantner sang:
something’s happening in america
can you feel it? can you feel it comin’?
it’s like the green party in Germany
young people with visions and dreams
in Nicaragua n’ Chile, Poland and South Africa
freedom brewing, it’s an uphill dream
At this point in my life, I was harboring secret desires to be a revolutionary (I wanted to join the IRA), and this song made it seem like maybe I wasn’t the only one. Of course, the closest thing I ever got to revolution was writing a lot of letters to my Congress people and on behalf of Amnesty International, but still. This song had a giant impact on my early adolescent life. My generation (it didn’t really have a name yet; I don’t think Generation X was yet coined as a term for my peers) wasn’t just a cheap imitation of the one before it, we could make our mark for ourselves!
Jefferson Airplane was awesome, but they belonged to my parents’ generation. The KBC Band was something that belonged to my generation. Even though it was made up of Baby Boomer icons, the music was still new, and mine. It wasn’t me discovering something from the old days, that I could bring to my elders and they would condescendingly talk about how great it was and what’s wrong with me that I was just discovering it now? I heard the KBC Band first. My parents would not hear it unless I played it for them, because they were too busy wallowing in the music of the past to ever bother with anything new. I felt that unlike with Starship, the Jefferson Airplane made finally itself into a version for me.
OK, it may be a long shot to attribute the stalling of my rapidly snowballing cynicism of an entire generation to one pop song, but that one pop song forever cemented in my head that Paul Kantner was awesome (along with Balin and Casady). Rest in Peace.