An essay on change, stars, and rock ’n’ roll saints
The Dream: The 1980s version of the rock band Jefferson Starship had reunited and were performing “Sorry Me, Sorry You,” a song from their 1984 album Nuclear Furniture. They appeared to be rehearsing for a music video or concert, though no one else was around.
The band’s leader, Paul Kantner, had died, but the other members of that era — vocalists Grace Slick and Mickey Thomas, lead guitarist Craig Chaquico, bass and keyboard alternates David Freiberg and Pete Sears, and drummer Donny Baldwin — were all present and looking much like they did in the ’80s.
They were performing in a covered structure, like a shelter in a park, with iron pillars and grey walls.
I decided to go down from wherever I happened to be and watch them up close. I could have stayed back so they would not see or interact with me, but I chose to chance it.
I found a seat on the end of the covered structure and watched as they ran through other songs — not their best or most memorable, but pleasing enough contributions to that era when they were playing pop-metal to compete with what was popular on MTV.
After the performance, members of the band interacted with me and with each other. Curly-haired David Freiberg was the friendliest; Pete Sears, who always seemed to disappear behind his long straight hair and mountain of keyboards, was the most remote. Lead singer Mickey Thomas — who in reality shaved off his thick moustache to reveal a charming Michael J. Fox grin — appeared bubbly and excited.
As the rehearsal ended, band members started to leave. Pete placed his bass guitar in its case and walked away. I ran after him and told him I had been a fan of the band since the Freedom at Point Zero album in 1979. Some of my favorite songs were his own compositions, including “Fading Lady Light” and “Save Your Love.” Pete listened noncommittally as I couldn’t seem to come to whatever point I was trying to make.
Some Background: Jefferson Starship was an “evolution” of sorts of Jefferson Airplane, a San Francisco rock band which came to fame back in the 1960s. Though best remembered for the 1967 hits “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” Jefferson Airplane was one of the leading psychedelic bands of the day and played a crucial role in the evolution of rock ’n’ roll from teen hits to more adult and experimental directions.
In the 1970s, key members of the Airplane — mainly Paul Kantner and Grace Slick — transformed the band into Jefferson Starship, which enjoyed enormous success with romantic ballads such as “Miracles” and “Count on Me.” After another shake-up, they transformed themselves into a mainstream rock band and enjoyed further success at the turn of the ’80s with “Jane” and “Find Your Way Back.”
The band’s later evolution into Starship and “We Built this City” is well documented, but, for our purposes, this is where the dream finds them — re-experiencing their semi-glory days of the early ‘80s.
Interpretation and Analysis: It seems like much of the US and the world in general are in a holding pattern — waiting for a new presidential administration to take office, waiting for the Covid-19 situation to improve, waiting (for some of us) for God to act or for a sign from God, waiting for things to get better or worse, waiting, waiting, waiting.
Change is never easy, even when it’s beneficial. Change is traumatic, and it always thrusts us into an uncertain future. Meanwhile, we are left wondering how we can live our best lives in the present with the limitations and denials and conflict we are experiencing.
Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship were built on change, and each time the band changed, it produced bigger and better success. The arrival of Grace Slick (who replaced original vocalist Signe Anderson) gave them an iconic stage presence and unique voice that catapulted them into the national spotlight. The evolution into Jefferson Starship saw the band rising on the waves of 1970s music trends, and, in the ’80s, when they adapted to the MTV ethos of colorful videos and radio-friendly songs, the hits kept getting bigger and bigger.
But by the ’90s, the band had imploded, and two competing versions (Jefferson Starship: The Next Generation and Mickey Thomas’ Starship) orbited the music industry with little success.
The deaths of Kantner in 2016 and Airplane co-founder Marty Balin in 2018 reminded us that rock ’n’ roll stardom, like life itself, is finite. All stars eventually burn out.
In this dream, however, there is a reunion, a gathering of old friends and colleagues . . . a celebration of all they accomplished. It doesn’t matter that they are performing to no one. It doesn’t matter that the drab, iron-pillared structure is so different from a rock ’n’ roll stage. They have travelled in many different directions, but they find themselves back where they started (or at least where I found them) — on the ship Paul built and to which they each contributed in significant ways.
The band members behave as I expected or hoped they would behave: They genuinely like each other and have become a musical family. They even welcome me into their midst — a fan, an observer. There is no separation between the band and its audience (me). The gathering is almost like the communion of saints in Christian theology, where the living and the dead are joined in a mystical bond.
Curiously, the communion of saints concept seems to have been inspired by the teachings of St. Paul, whose namesake, Paul Kantner, once expressed his own idiosyncratic views of Christianity in a song called “Son of Jesus.”
During my late adolescence and into my 20s, Kantner was the band member I identified with most. He was the last original member of Jefferson Airplane and had stood in the eye of the storm as other musicians came and went, much as friends came and went from my life. There’s an implied loneliness in all this — and Kantner alluded to this loneliness in one interview; he described the period in the late 1970s, when “Grace left me and Marty left me” — as if he took their departures (temporary in Slick’s case) personally.
But I identified with Kantner in other ways, as well. With his glasses and helmet-shaped blonde hair, Kantner was as cool as he was a geek. He unabashedly wrote epic songs with science fiction themes or sociopolitical lyrics, defying the conventions of the time, which favored short, catchy, inoffensive tunes about love and heartbreak.
His songs never became hits (though he is credited as one of four co-writers on “Jane”), but he served as the spiritual center and guiding force of a band that featured varied points of view and musical styles.
It’s rather odd to think that, in the dream, I may be stepping in for Paul — even though I can’t play an instrument, sing, or write songs.
And it must be mentioned that Kantner’s own departure from the band in 1984 (shortly after the release of Nuclear Furniture) was full of conflict, including a lawsuit. This may be the reason why he is excluded from the reunion, just as the damned are excluded from the communion of saints. Yet the feeling of the dream is one of forgiveness and celebration, of enjoying the relationships and bonds people have, even though those bonds are severely tested by forces within and around us. The only reason Paul isn’t at the reunion is because he’s dead. All of the other members listed above are, at this writing, still alive.
In the dream, though, it’s Pete Sears I’m most interested in having a conversation with. Back in the day, Sears exhibited a quiet charisma. He didn’t sing, but he effortlessly switched from keyboards to bass and even played twin lead guitars with Chaquico on “Find Your Way Back.” Sears was a super-talented musician who did his job and didn’t demand the spotlight (though he did play an impressive and lengthy bass solo during concerts).
However, he and his wife, Jeanette, emerged as prolific songwriters in the 1980s; they wrote the minor hits “Stranger” and “Winds of Change,” as well as “Sorry Me, Sorry You.” As Christians, they added a spiritual dimension to a band that had once harshly criticized Christianity.
Approaching him, as I do in the dream, is like a former college student approaching a former professor — she may or may not remember you, she may or may not care that she influenced the course of your life, but there is something gratifying about going up to a relative stranger and saying “You mattered to me.”
I have never met any of these people, and I’ve always believed that it’s just as well. Following rock stars is like observing stars in the sky — they cause you to wonder and create theories. Up close, they may not be so impressive. Mostly, rock stars are just human beings who try to respond to the pressures and forces shaping them, as we all do. They can’t help but disappoint if you get too close.
Yet by keeping a distance, you deprive yourself of the ability to learn and grow, and you deprive them of the chance to know they made a difference.
Maybe you matter more to the stars than you think.