Last spring, Paul Kantner rung up his old Jefferson Airplane bandmate Marty Balin at home in Tampa and invited him out on tour. Balin took one look at the "crazy, ridiculous" schedule Kantner proposed, and said no.
"Look, man, I don't want to do a crazy schedule like that, every night and all over the world," Balin told him. "But you oughta watch out for your health."
"Aw, naw, I can do it," Kantner replied. "I'm strong as a bull. Nothing can faze me."
"I don't think it was the second gig, he had a heart attack," Balin said Friday, recounting the story a day after Kantner's death from organ failure and septic shock at age 74. "He was the only one that didn't see it coming."
In many ways, Balin, who has lived in Carrollwood since 1999, knew Kantner better than anyone.
Fifty-one years ago, the two men co-founded Jefferson Airplane, the seminal psychedelic rock band that soundtracked American counterculture in the late '60s, thrusting concepts like drug use, free love and rebellion from the San Francisco shadows into the mainstream. Jefferson Airplane played Woodstock, Altamont and Monterey Pop; they appeared on the covers of Life and Rolling Stone. In 1996, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Jefferson Airplane was a collaborative entity, with singer Grace Slick, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden writing and contributing to songs like White Rabbit and Somebody to Love. But from the start, co-founders Balin and Kantner were the twin engines who propelled Jefferson Airplane to stardom, writing or co-writing more than half of their songs from 1966 to 1970, including the protest anthem Volunteers.
In 1965, when Balin recruited Kantner, a friend from the San Francisco folk scene, to form a new rock band, they were just "crazy guys in the '60s, having fun," Balin said. It was Kantner who first taught him how to roll a joint.
They developed a yin-and-yang dynamic that gave shape to their increasingly ambitious ideas. Balin had a gift for disciplined, delicate songcraft that helped rein in the wilder impulses of Kantner, "a madman on stage" whose compositions could be difficult to translate in the studio.
"He would write these songs sometimes, and they would be so long and ponderous, these giant epics about living in space," Balin said. "It was like a postmodernist, putting this and that and this together. It was very difficult to make his songs fly."
The bigger Jefferson Airplane got, Balin said, the less willing Kantner was to compromise. "If I wanted to change an arrangement or key change, it was very difficult for him," he said. "And so after a while, we didn't write together that much."
Balin left in 1971, sick of the egos and drug use that had consumed the rest of the band. But he and Kantner would resume their creative partnership in Jefferson Starship and other projects. And today, Balin admits that before Kantner's death, he would've been open to a Jefferson Airplane reunion.
"I was probably the only one, actually," he said. "They never really lived up to their potential, and I'd love to be in charge and produce the album. Like in the early days, when I was in charge, things got done. I made other people do things. When they all got famous, it went everybody's which-way. But I'd love to have been able to take them in and work with them. I'd still love to go in with Grace and do an album, just she and I. That'd be cool, to sing together. We don't have to go on tour. But I don't think it's ever gonna happen."
There was a chance it could have.
On Feb. 15, Jefferson Airplane will receive a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor that has left Balin "befuddled" but grateful. "I don't know what it could mean, but it's nice to get," he said.
Balin — who turns 73 Saturday — will be there to pick up his trophy; so might Slick, Kaukonen and Casady. Whether Kantner, who'd been in poor health for months, would've been well enough to come, Balin doesn't know. But he said the legacy his old partner left behind is worth honoring, even posthumously.
"He was one of the greats, one of the most interesting people I ever associated with," Balin said. "He left a good body of work. If people just listen to his music, they'll see how great he was."
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.