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CREEM - Magazine, October 1978
 

Starship Disaster

by Andy McConnell  

Grace Slick, Quits! --- Crowd Destroys, Kits! --- Band Has Fits!

The Starship arrived in Germany, by train, June 16. Behind them stood a successful five-weeek U.S. tour and a chart-riding album. Their first European tour in eight years had opened with a well-received show in Amsterdam. Spirits where high. They would leave, four days later under entirely different circumstances.

The group checked in to the Nassauer Hotel in Wiesbaden, a short drive from Frankfurt. The road crew headed directly to the site of Saturday's show; the Loreley Ampitheatre, 40 miles away, to set up the gear. The tour party awoke the following morning to the first inkling that all was not right. Grace Slick's husband, the Starships lightning director, Skip Johnson, told drummer John Barbata," Grace had a bit of a rough night. The doctor's coming."

The doctor arrived ten minutes later and went directly to Slick's suite. The singer described her symptoms. She has spent a restless night, vomitting and was suffering severe stomach pains. The doctor read her pulse. It was abnormally low. He felt unable to make a positive diagnosis, but suspected it was either a case of appendicitis or an infection of the intestines. In any case, he declared, " It would be extremely inadvisable for my patient to perform this afternoon: should she rupture either the appendix or intestines, she would almost certainly die."

It was 3:20 before Starship manager Bill Thompson received the news. He had taken his wife Judy, their son Tyrone and Slicks's daughter China to bathe in Wiesbaden's world-renowned health spa.
Forty minutes later, Thompson was standing beside Slick's bed. She confirmed the story. He then telephoned Werner Kuhls, promoter of the group's three German shows. Kuhls took the call at the festival site, where the audience was awaiting the opening act, Brand X.

"Werner, we have a problem," Thompson announced. "Grace is sick. The doctor says it might kill her to play." Kuhls' jaw dropped. He had 8.500 sitting inthe drizzle under a grey sky. He swallowed hard. "Give me the doctor's number," he said sternly. "I want to speak to him myself."

At 4:30, Luxembourg DJ Mark Wesley took the microphone, announced Brand X, and the Loreley festival was underway, on schedule. The doctor confirmed his diagnosis, but, upon lerning of Slick's long history of drug and alcohol abuse, agreed to return to the hotel for a re-examination.

In the meantime, emotions had exploded at the Nassauer. Kantner found access to his former lover's room blocked by Johnson, her present husband. For a few seconds, all hell broke loose: Kantner and Johnson flaying at each other with wild punches . Sudennly, slick flung open the door and screamed, "Stop it! I don't want any of this."

Tempers had cooled by 5 o'clock when the doctor returned. Slick, down to her lowest weight in years, looked positively undernourished, her face grey and dulled. Those unusually sharp penetrating eyes were muddied, The doctor suggested boosting her pulse with pills, so that it might be possible for her to perform with extreme caution.

On hearing the second diagnosis, Kantner and Balin (the Airplane's founding fathers), immediately visited their sole remaining partner in the Starship from the early days. They discussed the situation for a quarter-hour before Grace announced she was set against playing. "And not just this one," she told them defiantly, "I don't want to play with you guys ever again. I'm fed up with all the cockbitchery in the band," she stormed, gathering momentum. "I don't like the sound and ther hasn't been any publicity for this fucking tour." The she paused to take a breath. Kantner left Slick's room dazed, and promptly walked head-on into a wall. Shellscock.

At 5:50, Tommy Richter, stagemanager for Kuhl's Sunrise Productions, met Pete Sears, the Starship's English bassist and piano-player, in the Naussauer lobby. They joined Thompson, Kantner and Balin for a meeting in the corridor outside the ailing singers room. Sears and Balin drew up a possible set-list; the songs requiring Slick the least. 'Ride The Tiger,''Play On Love,''Caroline'.......'Volunteers'. Kantner had slumed into a window ledge and was only halflistening. But suddenly, a word, a song, jarred in his mind. He looked up. " 'Volunteers' without Grace? Impossible."

He has made his decision; if Grace would not perform, the Starship could not perform. " Look, man," he said, raising his eyes to the others. "We can't play, It would be like the Stones without Jagger. I don't want to fool our audience." Balin and Sears protested, but Kantner was adamant. Sears sugessted they explain the situation to the audience and play an impromptu session. All the eyes turned to Balin. "I can't do it without Grace," he told them, "but not without Paul too: his guitar opens all the songs."

Tommy Richter called his boss at the Loreley and reported the decision: the Jefferson Starship would not be appearing. In turn, Kuhls told him the mood of the audience was deteriorating already, and they had yet to be told about the cancellation of another advertised band, Jonathan Richman, let alone the Starship. Richter said Thompson and the musicians had agreed to compensate the Loreley audience with a free concert on July 2, but beyond that, he held out little hope.

Kuhl's appreciated the gesture, but was actualy aware of precedents when other British and American bands had failled to appear. Frankfurt, where equipment had been destroyed by angry fans at Jeff Beck and Uriah Heep shows. And Fehmarn, where caravans, tents and a local hostelry had been put to the torch. But mostly, Kuhl's remember Schaessel. Schaessel where, less than a year bevore, en entire stage, loaded with p.a. gear and lightning rigs, had been reduced to cinders and molten metal when only 5 of 23 avertised bands had actually appeared. Kuhl's remembered the $500.000 which went up in smoke that night. And then he looked out at the Loreley crowd, huddled together under plastic sheets.

By 6:30, it was generally rumored that the Atlanta Rhythm Section and their stand-by act, Richman and the Modern Lovers, where both out. The news pleased nobody. And if there's anything that fucked-up GIs and blown-out Germans can't stand, it's advertised bands not performing. - especially after they've shelled out $14 a ticket, endured the weather and suffered the indignities inherent in attending festivals.

Werner Kuhl's summoned his security chief. They had 58 men at their disposal; 18 on stage and 40 others around the site. Kuhl's instructed that they should be summoned, as subtlx as possible , to the front of the stage. Marchandise vendors were informed and began packing. Calls were made to local fire and police stations, requesting them to be on stand-by.

As Leo Kottke headed back for the first of his encores, he picked his way trough massive stacks of matte black cases cramming the sdtage- Starship gear. All ready and waiting.
And here the story differ!

The people at the hotel, 40 miles away- Thompson, Kantner, Balin- say they never realized the potentially ruinous implications of cancelling out on a German rock festival audience. That Tommy Richter and Werner Kuhls never told them. Richter and Kuhls however, insist they were very specific about the dangers.

What is certain, however, is that the mood at the Loreley was further deteriorating. Cans were being thrown at those who would not sit down - and hiting those who had been seated all day.
As evening approached, the skies darkened

Leo Kottke was trough at 7:12. His European manager, Barnie Marshall suggested, "Let's get the fuck out of here!"

At 7:15, Werner Kuhls called the nearby Koblenz police again. They suggested the announcement of the Starship's no-show be delayed for a further hour to give them enough time to send reinforcements. Kuhls replied that that to wait any longer would further increase the danger.

The three Starship musicians at the gig - Freiberg, Barbata, and Chaquico - discussed the possibility of the three of them performing alone. That was ruled out because there wasn't a singer amongst them.

Time to let everybody know.

It was dificult for them to move around the stage: It was packed with obstructions. The Starship's guitars were ready on their stands, Barbata's kit atop the podium. Switches, cables, cross-faders, octave equilizers and analog-delays all reday and waiting for a band that was not going to use them tonight..... or ever again.

Starship road manager Bill Laudner was first to the microphone. It had been decided that the first announcement would be made in English because many Germans speak English but few GIs speak German. "Unfortunately, Grace Slick is ill, ans so the Jefferson Starship cannot play today," Laudner growled to the p.a.
"This is one of the hardest moments of my life," Kuhls continued in precise German. "However, the group has agreed to retutn on July 2 to give a free show. Here beside me, is David Freiberg....." But nobody wanted to know.

"Bullshit!" they roared. Cans started to fly. Then bottles and stones and rocks. A vine bottle hit one of Kuhls'security guards full in the face. He collapsed. The security chief found Kuhls at stage right. "look man," he said steadily,"I cannot allow my men to be injured. They are not being paid to be killed."

Kuhls nodded and the 58 bouncers were withdrawn from the front of the stage. Another bottle sailed through the sky, felling the Starship's chief equipment roadie, Paul Dowell. He later received five stitches and treatment for concussion.

Then the invasion started. Germans and GIs alike poured over the barriers onto the stage, attacking anything with "Starsgip" stencilled across it with startling ferocity. Somebody pruduced an axe and set into a Marschall stack. Another set to work on the speakers with a sheath-knife.
The crowd roared his approval.

Trashed gear was thrown into a pile, doused with kerosene and set alight. The roadies - English, German and American - stood by helpless.

The fire brigade arrived to kill the fire. Mission accomplished, they left. Only to return an hour later to extinguish another blaze. They didn't bother with the third..... or the fourth. A score of GIs pleaded with fireman to be allowed to turn the hoses on the rampaging crowd. They were refused.

A group of 30 uniformed police stood on the brow of a copse overlocking the carnage. Nobody moved. Under German law, policemen are not required to intervene to save property and material goods when their lives are endangered.

"Seems everybody turned up here with a screwdriver," said Thompson's assistant, Jackie Kaukonen. Fans were dismating light trusses and consoles. A half-dozen set to work on the stage and canopy; unbolting the supports and loosening the wires. Their work complete, they pusheh over the entire stage covering. Ambulances ferried away the injured. U.S. military police busted a GI for smoking a joint.

Two-and-a-ahalf hours later the fires still burned. The crowd chanted, "Schaessel!...Schaessel!....Schaessel!"- rejoicing in a repeat of the previous year's debauchery. Members of the Starship entourage incepted a group of Germans staggering off with the grand piano.

Back at the hotel Tommy Richter found the band dining with their British tour guide, Colin Richardson. Richter bent down and whispered emotionally into Richardson's ear, "Colin, there has been another Schaessel. Will you please tell them."

Deep into the night, the Starship crew staggled back to Nassauer. The band was drowning its sorrows in the bar, still unaware of the full extent of the disaster. They had lost virtually everything. The gear they had spent 12 years tuning to perfection. All their guitars; Chaquicos 1959 Les Paul Sunburst, his'57 Gold Top. The Fender Jazz bass Pete Sears had played exclusively for 16 years. Barbata's vintage cymbals.

Guitar losses alone totalled five Gibsons, five Fenders, two Rickenbackers, an Ibanez double neck, a custom bass, two Guild accoustics and a pair of Ovation acoustic / electrics.
The Starship had brought $160.000 of equipment into Germany. About 15.000 remained, including three mixers hertoically saved by the sound engineers.

Kantner sipped his drink. He was on the defensive. It had been his decision not to play. "If I had to make the same decision again," he told listeners, "I still wouldn't play."
"Fuck you!" shouted an astouned roadie."I've risked my life today, and now you're telling me you'd do the same again!" He struggled to restrain the blow he longed to plant on his boss'chin. "You haven't even fucking thanked me!"

Sunday Morning

Thompson and Kuhls were already embroiled on discussions toresolve financial implications as he band boarded a hire bus to visit the charred Loreley site. They postponed their discussion; for the time being all ebergies would be focused on finding enough equipment to play Hamburg the following day.

"We don't want to cancel out if we can help it," Thompson told the promotor. "We want to play."

The Starship arrived at 4 p.m. As Kantner strolled through the gates, Max Norman, roadie for the English TFA/Elektrosound equipment hire company told him, "You should have played, man, you should have played." Kantner did not reply.

When they had finished their calculations it was announced that TFA/Elektrosound had equipment valued $190.000. "Shit," fumed Norman. "Why didn't they let us know what was happening. Nobody told us 'til the las moment. We weren't going to tell the fucking audience! We could have loaded up a bunch of stuff and locked it, if we'd had more time."

As the coach crwaled north through central Germany (speed limit, 50 mph), the Starship held a meeting in the aisles. Should they play Hamburg? If they did, would Grace? What would they tell the press conference summoned for Monday? "I'll tell them we were just obeying ordrers," said Kantner blackly, reffering to Nuremberg. "I made the decision," he added. "It stands, right or wrong." With that Barbata exploded;" You better tell me, just once, that if all happened again, you would play it!". "I trust that I would," Kantner replied quietly.

With three or four hours sleep behind them, the band emerged for the pressconference, just 15 minutes late. And there was Grace Slick - the first time most of the tour entourage had seen her since Friday. She walked with shaking precision towards the press reporters and sat down. Her face was drawn, her complexion pallid.
"How do you feel today?" I asked. "Not good," she replied coldly. "If you'd had any idea what was going happen at the Loreley, would you habe been able to play it?" "With a portable toilet," she hissed. Nobody asked her any more questions.

German roadies homed in on Hamburg from across northern Germany to lend a hand. The stage swarmed with heavy bouncer-types dressed in promo t-shirts. Lake offeredp.a. and lights; shops and individuals chipped in with the rest.

Thompson, meanwhile, was embroiled in legalistics, Ken Glancy, managing director of RCA, UK, had flown in with Ralph Mayes, manager of RCA, Europe. Beside them in the Plaza bar sat Leon Dean, RCA, German's number two. Lawyers formularized deals and counter-deals. Werner Kuhls wanted none of it. "Idon't want the lawyers involved," he said, "Once they get their teeth into it, it goes on for years and nobody - exept them - gets anything."

6:00, and virtually everything had arrived at the Congress Centre. Kantner plugged in his rented Telecaster and launched into the stirring opening riff to "Ride The Tiger." The place awoke. One hundred smiles illuminated the hall. "Fuckin' A!" somebody shouted exciteldy. "It's gonna happen!"

By 6:30, all the band, minus Ms Slick, were on stage blasting through "Tiger." Hardly custom gear, but everything considered, it sounded remarkably good. But where was Grace? Would she show?
Twenty minutes to show-time, she arrived. She stumbled. It was plain she was not in good shape as she propped herself against a wall. "Andy," pleaded the Starship's press-person, Cynthia Bowman. "Don't try to speak to Grace, please." The idea had never crossed my mind.

9:15. Starship time. The band took to the stage, launchning straight into"Tiger." They sounded almost confident, but was what of Grace? She was already blowing cues, and straying from the established lyrics. She sat down in front of the stage, legs dangling into the audience. Then she jumped the remaining foot and began touchning-up girls in the front row. They smiled back nervously. And then Slick was off, walking up and down the aisles, ad libbing lyrics.

Two tunes later she rejoined the band. Approaching Kantner as he sang, his old flame placed her hand over his mouth. "Well, you're her father," she chided him in some obscure reference to their daughter China. With that, she placed an arm over David Freiberg's shoulder. Then Balin's. Chaquico told her to cool it. "good, God!" she laughed, "I got some JEW in me!" And she was off the stage again, play punching memvers of the audience. She approached one girl and, with surprising precision, placed an outstretched finger up the unfortunate German's nose. Withdrwaning it, Slick wiped the residue onto a neighbor's face.

On stage again, she place a hand on Chaquico's crotch, then jumped back into the audience. She sang her abstract lyrics from a man's lap. The band was struggling hard. Hammering out the rhythm, coevering the best they could. Around the sides of the stage, musicians' wives danced grimly. As Slick skip/danced around the front of the stage, it was like watching a pathetic adult version of Shirley Temple. Grace boarded the stage once more for "Better Lying Down", her duet with Pete sears on piano. She reached for the microphone and shuttered, "I don't know.... I don't know who gives a fuck about the English, or what....I'm very sorry I didn't have a portable toilet at Wiesbaden."

She means me! Ms.Slick is obviously still brooding over my press conference questions earlier in the day. Whit that finally exorcised from her system, she sings the song. It had a little to do with the "Better Lying Down" anybody had heard before, but suddenly, Slick was hot; singing her blues. Walling and ranting demented lyrics. The song complete, she declared,"Okay, eberybody get right up out of those seats and go."
Nobody moved.

As Kantner launched into "Wooden Ships" she moved toward him, letting fly with a kick aimed inaccurately at his rear. He didn't flinch. "What are you going to do about it?" she sneered, "Stick it in somebody's ass?"

With that , the show was over. Numbed, the band retreated from the stage. But Grace just sat there, up on the drum podium, microphone in hand. The crowd , or hat was left of the 1800 who had each paid $15 a head, burst into a deafening, incongruous applause. "Zugabe!... Zugabe!... Zugabe!" they chanted. "More!... More?... More!" Balin returned to the stage. "You really want more?" he asked incredulously.

"Ja!" In return, the Starship gave them the weirdest "White Rabbit" they ever played, accompanied by screeming feedback. Paul Dowell, their stitched-up roadie, grabbed Grace's hand and led her off. Backstage, Marty Balin approached her. "grace," he said "you know I only did this tour because you said you wanted to and needed me. Well, nowcan we sit down and have lunch together tomorro to talk about it?" "No," she snapped. "Can we sit down over a coffee then?" "No," she repeated, "I don't give a fuck about any of you guys."
Later, a sad-eyed Balin would say, "How could she do that? After all those guys busted their ass to put tthat show together?" During the show somebody had broken into Kantner's room and stolen $1500 cash, his credit cards and passport.

Tuesday

At 12:30, representatives of Werner Kuhls, his brother Lothar, Thompson and the RCA-sponsored lawyers, signed a settlement in the Plaza coffee-shop. In return for indemnity against all suits for damages and breach of contract, the Starship would return the $ 145000 , already paid them in full by Sunrise for the three scheduled German gigs. The Berlin show was out of the question.

Another band meeting. "this whole fucking thing has gotten too big," somebody said. "It's out of control. We don't want to be like Fleetwood Mac, that's bullshit. Let's take it down, get smaller amps, and go playing small halls again." Everybody cheered, except Barbata:"Fuck it, man, let's ride the wave while we're on it."

England's Knebworth festival promotor - which the Starship was booked to co-headline on Saturday - had been on the phone. He wanted them to appear, come what may. They agreed to do the show without Grace, for the first time ever. "We should call ourselves the Jefferson Wheelchair," laughed Balin. "Grace Slick and the Jefferson Whellchair."

Saturday, Knebworth.

The band coach took 90 minutes to make its way from their Knightsbridge hotel to the Hertfordsshire manor house where the show was being staged. The sun shone as the bus drew up alongside the perimeter fence. Everybody aboard could see the tens of thousands stretching over the horizon. "Jeezus! What a fucking upper!"

Two hours on, Slick-less Starship hit the stage. The audience, having suffered and yawned through the Atlanta Rhythm Section, Devo and Tom Petty, where lethargic. Many slept quitly. "Ride The Tiger","again. It didn't sound good. The band had played - no soundcheck - on unfamiliar hardware. The opening songs provided the first opportunity to get familiar with it. Soemthing needed to happen. They needed a boost. Then Sears launched into a bass solo. For five minutes he attacked his instrument... And the crowd reacted. For the first time all afternoon.

A couple out front chanted "Grace Slick!... Grace Slick!" Few others seemed to care; news of her absence had been announced at a massive Park Tower Hotel press conference the previous day.
"Volunteers," the rallying cry of the late 60's slowed things down, then Balin slipped into an old r&n song they had rehearsed back in the States. The misicians followed him in, pumping, - not crashing - the rhythm. Tousands rose to their feet, leaping and dancing.

( Because all of the equipment was lost, the August tour dates were cancelled while the Starship flew around the country picking out new equipment. At press time, they were still planning to play four previously scheduled dates at the L.A. Universal Amphitheatre in September, "with or without Grace." Her position in the band is pretty tenuous right now, but her departure is being termed a "sabbatical", Altough she is still involved with the band, it's now Marty's turn to be the leader of the Jefferson Starship)
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