(Pictured: Paul Kantner, circa 1991.)
Allow me to be the ten millionth writer to lead a piece by saying that 2016 has already been terribly hard on rock stars: David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and now Paul Kantner of Jefferson Airplane, who died yesterday at age 74.
I never saw Bowie except on TV. I saw the Eagles live in 1980. But I had a closer encounter with Kantner.
At some point in the early 90s, Kantner, Jack Casady, and Papa John Creach, with some other musicians, went on the road as Jefferson Starship: the Next Generation. And one year they played a show at Riverboat Days in Clinton, Iowa. My job was to introduce the band onstage before the show, as local DJs have done from the dawn of time.
This task is often less glamorous than it appears. I introduced REO Speedwagon once, and although all the members were walking around backstage, I didn’t meet any of them. When I introduced Steppenwolf, I never set eyes on John Kay, who apparently stayed on the bus until 30 seconds before the show was to start.
But the Jefferson Starship show was different. I was introduced to Kantner, Casady, and Prairie Prince, former drummer from the Tubes, who was in the new band—and we spent a half-hour just hanging out backstage, listening to the opening act. It was so pleasant—and they were so normal—that I had to keep reminding myself that Kantner and Casady were practically present at the creation, San Francisco, Summer of Love, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair, the whole bit, and here they were telling me about their lives on the road for these many years. Although I have seen stories this morning describing Kantner as “prickly,” he certainly wasn’t on that night.
The best part came when the opening act was finished. There’s often a gap between the local DJ introduction and the appearance of the band. For instance, Steppenwolf’s road manager had told me to say, “In a moment, John Kay and Steppenwolf”—but the moment lasted nearly 10 minutes. On this night, somebody from Riverboat Days came backstage and said, “OK, Jim, you’re on,” and I bid good night to Kantner, Casady, and Prince, and made ready to go do my schtick.
But as I was leaving, Kantner grabbed me by the sleeve and said, “Wait . . . go up with us.”
And so we all took the stage together, members of the rock ‘n’ roll brotherhood.
WSUP Update: My old college radio station has yet to decide whether to become a Wisconsin Public Radio affiliate. Wednesday night’s meeting did not reach a conclusion, although one staff member indicates that WPR affiliation is not imminent and may not happen at all.
I have learned a couple of things this week: WSUP approached WPR about affiliation, not the other way around, so it’s not a power grab of the type attempted in the 70s at WSUP and accomplished elsewhere in more recent times. The WPR regional manager who’s been involved in the discussions, Dean Kallenbach, was the WSUP student general manager when I got to Platteville (and he let me sleep on his couch in the summer of 1979 when I was a little baby DJ working weekends in Dubuque). He wrote an extensive post about the situation at the Facebook group discussing the change.
And also: WSUP is currently running on a shoestring. Where we had over 100 staff members, it currently has about 20. Most of us were radio-television majors, but that major doesn’t exist anymore. WSUP staffers are either media-studies majors or students with different majors entirely who do radio as a sideline. So what’s going on down there has little to do with student apathy—a conclusion several of us jumped to initially, and something we should be embarrassed about. It is, as I guessed in my post on Wednesday, mostly a sign of the times.
What WSUP’s management team is doing is the exact opposite of a sellout: they’re looking for a way to keep the place viable. Some college radio stations have had to surrender their licenses entirely, and WSUP, the oldest student-run station in the University of Wisconsin System, doesn’t want to be next.