Starship trooper refuses to remain grounded

Freiberg, who was pivotal in shaping the psychedelic San Francisco sound in the 60s, is keeping good vibes alive.

August 25, 2012 21:45
Jefferson Starship

Jefferson Starship 370. (photo credit: (Courtesy/PR))

David Freiberg might very well have been a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, except for one fateful factor. When his buddy and singing partner Paul Kantner was putting together the famed 1960s psychedelic group in 1966, Freiberg was serving time in a San Francisco lockup for possession of marijuana.

“Paul got Marty Balin to join instead of me, it was just one of those things. I guess I was supposed to form Quicksilver Messenger Service, karmically speaking,” explained a chuckling Freiberg, referring to the other pioneering San Francisco acid rock band he formed upon his release that, for a time, ruled late 1960s underground rock along with Airplane and The Grateful Dead.

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An unrepentant flower child, the 74-year-old Freiberg’s cosmic circle became complete when he eventually replaced Balin in Airplane in 1972. He then went on, along with Kantner and Airplane siren Grace Slick, to found Jefferson Starship out of the splinters of the crashed Airplane a couple years later.

By the mid-1980s, Starship had devolved from its San Francisco rock, Airplane-connected roots into a slick Top 40 hit-making machine without any of its original members aside from Slick (remember “We Built This City”?). But today, Freiberg and Kantner are back leading a version of Starship that focuses not only the mid- 1970s heyday of the band but also the cream of the Airplane’s music – from “Volunteers” to “Wooden Ships.”

For Freiberg, a classically-trained multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, it was always a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Raised in a Reform household in Cincinnati (“I didn’t have a bar mitzvah, we were too Reform for that – I had a confirmation instead), Freiberg migrated to the Bay Area in 1959 at age 21.

“I drove through the city with my mom and dad when I was in high school on one of those horrible driving trips out west, and I knew right away that I wanted to live there,” said Freiberg in a phone call last week from him home in Marin County, California, just north of San Francisco. “I already had a rebellious streak, I wasn’t getting along with my family, and it seemed the thing to do.”

Upon his arrival, Freiberg fell in with the pre-hippie beatnik community, working in a store during the day and at night becoming a familiar face in coffee houses with his folk songs and guitar.

“I loved folk music, so I bought a guitar when I moved to San Francisco and within a year and half I was making more money playing in folk clubs than I was in my straight day job, so I quit the straight job,” he said.

It would turn out to be last non-music related job he would ever have. It was also during that early 1960s time period that he met Kantner, eventually sharing a Venice Beach house with him and future rock legends like David Crosby and Janis Joplin.

Kantner and Freiberg tried forming a folk duo, but the whole acoustic music scene received a jolt in 1964 when The Beatles hit American shores, and overnight, folkies like Freiberg, Kantner and Crosby traded in their acoustic guitars for electric ones with big amplifiers and started forming rock ‘n’ roll bands.

While Kantner threw in his lot with Airplane, Freiberg hooked up with hotshot guitarist John Cipollina, guitarist Gary Duncan and drummer Greg Elmore to form Quicksilver in 1965. They signed to Capitol Records in late 1967 and released a series of albums, including 1969’s Happy Trails, that stands with the best of the San Francisco scene’s musical accomplishments. Quicksilver featured a tougher sound than most of their contemporaries, thanks to Cippolina and Duncan’s twin leads.

“I think we were the only band to have more than one person who actually had played rock ‘n’ roll before. All the other bands – the Airplane and the Dead among them – all came exclusively out of folk music,” said Freiberg. “I was the only folkie in Quicksilver so we definitely had a harder edge.”

According to Freiberg, there was a developed sense of camaraderie and good-natured rivalry between the local bands, especially before they were all signed to national recording contracts.

“San Francisco was like this fantasy land – we didn’t even have a record out and we’d go down to do a show at the Filmore Auditorium or Avalon Ballroom and there’d be lines around the block to see us,” said Freiberg.

“We’d go see each other play all the time. We’d look out in the audience and see Jerry Garcia watching us, and vice versa. Nobody was trying to outdo anyone else, and it was really nice for a while. And then everyone got famous.”

Increased egos, increased drug use and more adulation resulted in Quicksilver and Airplane’s case of frayed direction and dissension.

By 1972, Freiberg had departed Quicksilver, usurped by the high-profile role new member Dino Valenti was playing. Around the same time Airplane vocalist Balin had also quit amid that band’s personality clashes. So when old friend Kantner invited Freiberg to go out on the road with Airplane on a tour for their Long John Silver album, he jumped at the opportunity.

“I had left Quicksilver and was helping [Grateful Dead drummer] Mickey Hart record his solo album Diga. I brought in Paul and Grace to sing some harmonies with me on a track and it sounded really nice. So when Paul asked me if I wanted to join the Airplane, I said, ‘are you kidding? Of course!’” Freiberg didn’t realize he was joining another band being torn apart by factions, with Kantner and Slick on one side pushing for their sci-fi utopian approach and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen and bassist Jack Casady getting more into the rootsy blues they were enjoying with their side band Hot Tuna.

Out of the Airplane implosion rose Jefferson Starship, based on the Kantner/Slick-led album project Blows Against the Empire, featuring Kantner, Slick, Freiberg, and at least for one album Marty Balin.

By the time of the 1975 Starship album Red Octopus with its blockbuster hit “Miracles,” the band was one of the top attractions in the US, but over the years, with less involvement from the principals, there was a change in direction that turned Freiberg off.

“The writing was on the wall as the Starship evolved into a pop band that didn’t write their own material, and like with Quicksilver, there didn’t seem to be any place for me there,” said Freiberg.

After a few collaborations in the mid-1980s with former Quicksilver partner Duncan, he began to drift away from performing and became enthralled with the recording process.

“I started to learn how to use the Mac as a recording studio, and eventually helped various people record their material. I became a computer nerd,” said Freiberg, adding that he built his own recording studio.

It wasn’t until 2005, when Kantner was getting together a new version of the classic Starship, that Freiberg returned to the stage.

“And lo and behold, it was fun again. So I’ve kept on doing it and it’s become more fun – more fun that I’ve ever had playing before,” he said.

The Jefferson Starship band which is coming to Tel Aviv on September 4 at Reading 3 features Kantner and Freiberg, along with Kathy Richardson in the Grace Slick role, Marc Agular on guitar, Prairie Prince on drums and Chris Smith on keyboards.

“I love this band, and Kathy Richardson is fantastic.

She knows every song ever recorded,” said Freiberg.

For the veteran musician and singer, the feeling of the 1960s returns every time the band plays old classics like “Somebody to Love” and “Plastic Fantastic Lover.” And as someone who lived through it, he’s pretty sure the San Francisco of the mid-1960s isn’t going to return any time soon.

“I never quite felt anything like that, but then again, you’re only young once so something might feel like that for somebody else right now,” he said. “But I think it was something special – the world was focused for a moment and if you were there for the right couple of months, it was great.”

“But as soon as you make the cover of TIME, you know it’s over – the fame will always ruin it. The tour buses start coming, and the real people need to move away because nothing is happening aside from selling stuff. But for a while it was a really magical place – and for me, San Francisco is still magical. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

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