Craig Chaquico Interview: Jefferson Starship Guitarist on the Quest to Recover His Beloved Ax and the Passing of Paul Kantner
Image attributed to Craig Chaquico
Craig Chaquico, as a member of Jefferson Starship from 1974 to 1990, was the only member of the band to appear in every recording, album, tour and music video over the course of the band’s tenure in the rock and roll scene. In the early 70s, Jefferson Starship was formed by several members of the former psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane, including iconic rocker Grace Slick and Paul Kantner (co-founder of Jefferson Airplane).
Widely known as the first female diva in rock and roll history, Slick’s career spanned four decades, most notably with Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Starship bands. The current Jefferson Starship was led by co-founder Kantner until his death on January 28, 2016.
“To me, Paul was a mentor, a catalyst; he inspired me and allowed me to explore the whole universe of music with him. He was either kind of an older brother that you loved getting in trouble with because he was a bit outlawish, or he was like a really cool stepdad with the greatest record collection in the world. It was a little bit of both because he was about fifteen years older than me, as was most of the band. In that way, he was such a key part in my musical evolution. They say you always remember your first time. Well, so many of my first times were with Paul: the first album I was ever on, the first song I ever recorded, the first hit song, the first gold and platinum albums, the first tour, the first ride in a private jet, the first ride in a Porsche.”
Chaquico is currently continuing a long quest to recover his beloved 1959 Les Paul Sunburst guitar stolen during a riot at a Jefferson Starship concert in Germany in 1978. From rock and roll and the blues to contemporary jazz, the San Francisco native has had over forty years of success in a variety of genres.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Craig, how’s it going?
Craig Chaquico: It’s going really well. Any day that I actually wake up in the morning and play my guitar, it’s got to be a great day. I miss our rhythm guitarist/songwriter from all those Jefferson Starship and Starship albums. He passed not too long ago, but I still feel like every time I play one of my guitars I played with him in concert or in the studio, it’s like he’s still here.
The music lives on. Life is good. It’s just difficult when we lose someone who’s part of your musical family. It is like losing a member of the family. How are things where you are?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very good. I’m in Birmingham, Alabama.
Craig Chaquico: Nice. Oh, I love that accent.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are you doing these days musically?
Craig Chaquico: If you check my website or my Facebook page, there’s some live video that we recorded last June 13, which is the exact day forty years later of the Red Octopus release (1975). That was one of the big Jefferson Starship albums that I was on. We played some of that, and I also do some of my smooth, jazz with an acoustic guitar. It was a fun show. I’m doing a little bit of everything, the classic hits, the acoustic instrumentals and get a chance to do some of my own favorite covers of Clapton, Hendrix and some blues. It’s the best of both worlds as a guitar player.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And the search for the missing guitar continues?
Craig Chaquico: I’m trying to get one of my prized guitars back. It’s the guitar I used on all those early albums, and it was thought to have been destroyed in a riot in Germany. It just popped up in somebody’s collection, and I’m trying to get that back so I can play it again.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Let’s go back to that concert in Germany all those years ago. Tell me what happened.
Craig Chaquico: In 1978, it was an afternoon concert at the Lorelei amphitheater which is a beautiful location looking down on the Rhine River. It’s an historic area where there were legends of the Lorelei siren or the mermaid that would lure sailors close to the rocks and sink ships. Ironically, our Jefferson Starship got pretty well sunk because that was the last time the band ever played together with that lineup that played on all those great albums – Dragon Fly, Red Octopus, Spitfire, Earth. I say they were great, not because of me, but because it was such a great lineup. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven when I joined that band. That was a magical time.
We got to the amphitheater in the afternoon, and all our amps and guitars were onstage ready to play. We were supposed to go on stage, but Grace and some of the band had not shown up. It turned out that Grace had gotten sick and had to cancel the show. When that announcement was made, the audience rioted and burned the stage down. The riot lasted all afternoon into the night.
John Barbata and I were able to get out of there before the announcement was made, but we went back to see if we could talk to the band to see what was going on there. By the time we got down the hill, the riot had already broken out, and you could see the glow from Wiesbaden to Lorelei on the hill. Fifty miles away you could see this glowing fire. The next day, we went back and everything was burnt and gone. It looked like a plane crash you’d see on television because it was this big slash in the middle of a field with this charred remains of things. No guitars. Nothing was left except I recognized a couple of corners from my amps. That was barely recognizable.
We had to get borrowed equipment and do the next two shows without any of our gear. All our amps and guitars were lost in the fire, or so we thought. The next show, Grace got pretty out there (laughs). Although looking back, it was pretty fun. But it was the last show she ever did with us. Then the following show was in front of 100,000 people in England when we co-headlined with Genesis, and I think Tom Petty went on before us, the Atlanta Rhythm Section and Devo. We did that whole show on not even our own instruments and with Marty … but no Grace. That was the last time he sang with us.
We went back home and expected Marty to show up at some point, but then our drummer got in a bad car accident, and we never saw Marty, Grace, or our drummer for years. That’s when we started the new band with Mickey Thomas on vocals, Aynsley Dunbar on drums, no Grace, but a new producer named Ron Nevison who was way into turning the guitars up, thankfully.
These guitars were like my girlfriends. It was like going to the airport to pick up your high school sweetheart and the plane crashes. You go to the field, and there’s nothing left, so you think, “That’s it.” Every time I would hear those songs on the radio and hear the rare 1957 Gold Top and 1959 Sunburst guitars on all those hits, it was like seeing pictures of your ex-girlfriend that you never got over. I slept with these guitars sometimes, as corny as that sounds. They were really a big part of my musical voice and loves of my life. To have them gone was traumatic.
Thirty-five years after that time in Germany, one of Pete Sears’ basses showed up. The person who had it realized it was his and wanted to give it back to him. That started me thinking that maybe my Les Paul was still alive. I didn’t have serial numbers for them, so I didn’t have a way to identify the guitars. Out of the blue, somebody called me because of the guitar I played in the Star Wars Holiday Special on TV. It was a black, custom made, Boogie Body Strat that only had a few metal parts. It was supposed to look like the constellation Orion. It was on the cover of Freedom at Point Zero which is the first album we did with “Jane” and some of the songs I wrote that had a guitar, rock base sound to them. Mickey was our new singer and totally made those songs happen.
This great guy from back east was trying to locate the guitar because he saw it in that Christmas special, and somehow he thought it was at the Lorelei concert. I always had two made so I’d have backups. The one in Lorelei was the one that was destroyed, and he found serial numbers for all my guitars. I thought, “Wait a minute! You have the serial numbers for the Les Paul and some of the guitars that were lost?” He said, “Yeah. I think I know where your Sunburst is because somebody posted it with a serial number.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Unbelievable!
Craig Chaquico: It was so crazy! That’s how I found out this guitar was even alive. The guy who had it had all these different names, and we had to hire a private eye to find out where it was because if he found out it was stolen and I knew he had it, he might disappear with it. It turns out that when he found out it was mine, he said, “I want to give it back. I don’t want a stolen guitar, but I didn’t know it was yours.” I took his word for that because he wouldn’t have posted the serial numbers if he had known it was mine.
He wanted to give it back, but then he said it was an investment in his retirement. It wasn’t like he played it. I told him I would help him with that. I said, “Get it from your insurance company or the guy who sold you the guitar. But at the end of the day, it’s stolen property, and it belongs to me.” For this last year, I’ve been doing depositions and spent tens of thousands of dollars to try to get my guitar back and make sure he was taken care of. Since then, maybe he’s thinking the guitar is sort of famous having been played on all these hits because he’s changed his mind about giving it back to me. There’s no way he’s giving it back, and there’s no way I just want to walk away from it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Next step is to sue?
Craig Chaquico: Yes. I’m taking him to court. Another weird thing is the video I mentioned to you that I did on June 13 last year. It was the exact day Red Octopus was released forty years ago. Well, June 13 of this year, the 41st anniversary of Red Octopus, is the court date. To me, this whole thing is cosmic beyond belief. Whatever is going to happen, it’s meant to be.
I want the guy to be okay, but I definitely want my baby back. I actually lost real girlfriends because I played these guitars so much and went on the road. In fact, a song I wrote called “Find Your Way Back” was about that. How many times has a musician chosen guitars over girlfriends? Maybe not the right choices, but “Find Your Way Back” is about going back and starting all over. I wish I could go back in time and get my guitars back.
Seeing my guitar was like seeing that long lost girlfriend who never got old. The guitar looks exactly the same. I’m forty years older, but the guitar looks exactly the same. I appreciate he took such great care of it. It’s in mint condition except for a few buckle marks I put on the back of it (laughs). I just hope the right thing gets done for everybody. I think about musicians like myself that have had their guitars stolen. Sometimes there’s a reason they come back. Joe Perry got his ’59 Sunburst back from Slash. We’ll see, but I think right now it’s becoming more of a court situation.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Good luck!
Craig Chaquico: Thank you.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You mentioned Paul Kantner who passed away on January 28. What did he mean to you?
Craig Chaquico: When I heard that Paul passed, it really was like losing a member of the family. We were all part of this musical family. I think that music is very spiritual, but yet very scientific, which was how Paul was. He was a science fiction guy, and his music really told stories. Some of his songs were as long as movies. They would have beginnings, middles and ends and would tell stories.
Often he would shoot me the last three minutes of the song to play guitar and tell the story in the language of music. He wrote “St. Charles,” and it tells this amazing story with imagery that takes you to these places in your imagination before MTV. I would listen to songs with my headphones on and create my own stories.
When I was a little kid, I had a music teacher that would play us songs like “Peter and the Wolf,” “William Tell Overture” and “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” These symphonic arrangements were quite long, but they told musical stories. The teacher would tell us that each musical instrument in these opuses were characters in a musical story told in the language of music. She would tell us to close our eyes, put our heads on the desk and listen to these arrangements that were made a hundred years ago. That always stuck with me.
Before MTV, music would tell me stories. Paul’s lyrics did that in the same fashion with his music. When he would shoot me the instrumental sections, I would feel like it was my turn to tell the story with a beginning, middle and end in the language of music with my guitar solos. Something like “St. Charles” has this feeling of a tempest in the ocean and the waves crashing against the ship and being tied down to the main mast and surviving the story in the way that it all unfolds in his lyrics. I tried to make it do the same thing in the music.
To me, Paul was a mentor, a catalyst; he inspired me and allowed me to explore the whole universe of music with him. He was either kind of an older brother that you loved getting in trouble with because he was a bit outlawish, or he was like a really cool stepdad with the greatest record collection in the world. It was a little bit of both because he was about fifteen years older than me, as was most of the band. In that way, he was such a key part in my musical evolution. They say you always remember your first time. Well, so many of my first times were with Paul: the first album I was ever on, the first song I ever recorded, the first hit song, the first gold and platinum albums, the first tour, the first ride in a private jet, the first ride in a Porsche.
In fact, when I wasn’t even old enough to drink yet, Paul and I went to a showroom floor in San Francisco at a Porsche dealership. How weird it was for these two long-haired guys to walk into this Porsche dealership (laughs). They’re looking at us like, “You guys want what?” Grace had bought an Aston Martin that way. She just looked like a hippie chick, and they didn’t think she had the money for the car. Of course, she paid cash. I always thought that was a cool story.
Anyway, I bought a brand new Porsche off the showroom floor. A brand new Porsche and all these guitars were the only things I owned. That’s all I needed. Paul was there for that, and he was there the first time I met Jane Fonda, Jerry Garcia, the Pointer Sisters, Santana, Marlon Brando, Abbie Hoffman. My first times for so many things were with Paul. He’s the first person in our band to pass along to the other side except for Papa John Creach who was with us early on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And now there probably won’t be a reunion without Paul?
Craig Chaquico: I was hoping we’d get together for one more reunion. It’s so weird. Everybody in the band knows this. I had been calling people in the band saying, “Hey you guys. People are asking me why we don’t get together. We haven’t played together since ’78.” Everybody was into it, and the last person to contact was Paul, but he was in the hospital at that time months ago. Then he ended up leaving us before we could ever do it. Who knows. Maybe there will be a time to play again with Paul with all of us under the stars one night. But a chance to play together, that ship left the station. That Starship left the launch pad without us.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): For years, Grace Slick had a reputation for being wild, and to quote you, for being “out there.” What was she really like?
Craig Chaquico: She was really like that. Grace was wild and drinking. When I see people say things about Lindsay Lohan, I think, “Are you kidding me?” That was standard operating procedure for Janis Joplin, Grace Slick and Jim Morrison. That was what you did. I looked at it like it was normal. Looking back, I see how lazy and dysfunctional some of that stuff was. But maybe through some of our dark sides comes our creative sides because Grace was certainly creative
Grace was definitely flamboyant and eccentric, and yes, if it wasn’t for her pushing the envelope, maybe there wouldn’t have been that riot. Maybe if she had done the show, I wouldn’t have lost my guitars. I don’t hold anything against her, man. I’m glad I got to be in a band with a legend. When I’d play on stage and hear my guitar, I’d go, “That sounds just like me playing a Les Paul, but that person singing sounds just like Grace Slick.” I’d look over, and it was Grace Slick.
I’d close my eyes and go, “Man, that guy singing sounds just like the lead singer from Quicksilver Messenger Service who joined Jefferson Airplane.” I’d look over there, and it was David Freiberg who was in the band with me. The same thing with Pete Sears on bass. I’d think he sounded like the guy who played on those Rod Stewart albums. All these people that were larger than life were real life to me.
I don’t have anything bad to say about Grace. People can bad mouth her all they want, but I won’t. To tell you the truth, in a very down to earth backstage way, Grace was one of the guys. I don’t mean that to sound chauvinistic. I just mean she didn’t have an “I’m a big star, and the rest of you guys are in my back up band,” attitude. She never did that. She was so cool and a team plyer. For her to acknowledge me at all and to give me guitar solos with the rest of the band, was like dying and going to heaven. Although Paul beat me to heaven, I felt like I was there the whole time just because I got to be in a band with Grace regardless of whatever bad reputation she might have.
I can’t say anything bad about Grace or Paul for that matter. I know there were times where all of us wanted to strangle Paul with our own hands. He definitely had his own way of doing things and was a very headstrong guy, but we loved him. Now that he’s gone, I cannot remember anything about him that would make me mad anymore. He was the best.
Grace has her reputation, but I can’t say anything bad about her. I wish I still had my guitars over those years, but maybe that’s just a matter of time when they’ll come back to me. Maybe then I can talk Grace into doing a song with me and Pete since he has gotten his bass back.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you joined Jefferson Starship at age sixteen, how did your parents feel about you jumping right into the 70s music scene?
Craig Chaquico: I think it was scary for my parents. I had an older brother, and it was fun to get into trouble with him. So now Paul would be my older brother, and there was the “Acid Queen” Grace Slick. Mom and dad thought, “He’s going to turn out just like his older brother!” If it weren’t for my older brother, I probably wouldn’t have listened to the Jimi Hendrix album, Are You Experienced, for the first time. I was babysitting for him, and when I put the kids to bed early and put on the headphones, it changed my world because I’d never heard Jimi Hendrix.
My brother came home early, and his kids were jumping up and down on the bed having pillow fights. I was oblivious in another world listening to Hendrix. That was the start. My mom and dad were more worried about it than I was. I first met Paul and Grace on my 16th birthday. Up until then I was in a band with my English teacher who heard me play when I was fourteen in a high school band that played all these Hendrix songs and rock and roll tunes during lunch.
My English teacher told me to come to his class after school, and it turned out that he wanted me to be in his band. At fourteen, I’m playing with all these older guys, and I had to wear a fake mustache because you had to be 21 to play in the nightclubs back then. The thing I didn’t know about my English teacher, Jack Traylor, was that he was a well known folk singer and lyricist that Paul and Grace were fans of before they were ever famous. He would play all the coffee shops they’d go to, so they’d come to see him play, not me.
When they wanted to use a song or two on their solo albums, they figured I already knew them. In fact, there was an album I did where they already had Jerry Garcia picked for a couple of solos and me for a couple of solos. On one of the songs where it was supposed to be a Garcia solo, I was playing on the basic track. When it came time for the solo, I just played through it thinking the next day Jerry would come in and overdub his solo.
The next day when they were playing the track back, they forgot to mute my solo when it went by, and Jerry heard it. I was told that he heard the solo and asked, “Why don’t you just let the kid have that solo, too?” I always felt like every time I saw Jerry, I wanted to give him a high four and a half for that one. He was missing a finger, so it would be four and a half fingers for him.
Those are the kinds of things that happened. These guys were so kind to a young kid. By then I had already been on a few albums. I’d been to Altamont as a teenager before, but had never met these folks. By the time I graduated from high school, I had already been doing these recording sessions on the weekends with my heroes. My parents were telling me, “If you don’t keep your grades up, we’re going to throw your guitar out the window!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What about the drug scene?
Craig Chaquico: When I joined the band, the last thing on my mind was more partying. A friend of mine who went on to college probably did more drugs and alcohol than I did. What got me high was the music. That’s what made me the happiest. The roadies would say they were headed to the bars, and I’d say I would be in my room practicing and playing guitar. I think that worked well for me. I think that’s probably why I’m still alive (laughs).
Those were the things I remember about being that young, and it was just an amazing opportunity to play with such great people. Doing drugs and alcohol to a great degree would have gotten in the way of that. By then also, the band had sort of gone through their wilder times, and I think they were slowing down a little bit. But that’s a relative term, I guess.
When I got in the band, it wasn’t crazy like nowadays. The drug use was more like Cheech and Chong meet Norman Rockwell. It wasn’t at all like a dark drug scene. I didn’t really do the drug thing or any of that to any degree at all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It had to have been so surreal for you to be around the Rolling Stones, Jerry Garcia, all the musical greats during that time.
Craig Chaquico: Oh my goodness, to be on tour and have my favorite bands actually opening for us! To have Jeff Beck play in front of us, or Santana or Foreigner! I was in awe of the whole experience of being able to rub shoulders with all these folks. It was all because Paul and Grace wanted to start a new band. They called it Jefferson Starship with all the Airplane members at the time. Instead of Jorma and Jack, it was me and Jorma’s younger brother, Peter Kaukonen, who did the first tour.
I played in my English teacher’s band, Jack Traylor and Steelwind, and then I played in what was called Jefferson Starship. It was Peter Kaukonen playing bass. We just got along great. Paul and Grace asked me to move to San Francisco to form a new band instead of going back to Sacramento and back to college. They said they would get Pete Sears from England to play bass, and I would be the lead guitar player. I’d like to say I told them I’d think about it, but I was like, “No problem. I’ll be right there!”
By that time, I was already 19, and I’d done a lot of the recordings and stuff. I think my parents figured I was going to do what I was going to do. My dad was the one that was leeriest of it. Mom told him, “If you don’t let him to do it, he’ll always wonder. If it works out, he can play guitar. If not, he can always go back to college.” My dad ran away and joined a band playing saxophone about that age, and he boxed professionally in Sacramento, lying about his age. His dad found out because he saw a poster of my dad that explained why he always had bruises around his eyes. So my dad really couldn’t say too much about me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about your work as an artist advocate.
Craig Chaquico: I’m an artist advocate for the American Music Therapy Association. Dad and I were hit by a drunk driver when I was young. I broke both my arms, my leg, my thumb, my wrist, my ankle and my foot. The first thing I asked for in the hospital when I came to was my little acoustic guitar my parents had bought me. My doctor encouraged me to play. It’s probably good for your circulation, but it’s also good for your spirit and soul. That was the thing that got me through that difficult time.
My dad was pretty banged up, too, but he told me that Les Paul had been in an accident, and they were able to set him arm at an angle so he could play his guitar. Later, there was a guitar named after him. My dad said if I stuck to my wheelchair therapy, my crutches and corrective shoes, he would buy me a Les Paul someday. He kept his word. I ended up playing that one, and when I got the offer to play with Jefferson Starship, I bought a ’57 Gold top and ’59 Sunburst with my own money.
Anyway, during that time in the hospital, music was a healing component to my recovery, and it got me started playing guitar. Years later, when I did my first solo album with acoustic guitar, I did a song I had written in the hospital on the high E string because it was the only string I could reach with my hand in a cast. I named the song after my doctor whose name was Elizabeth. Since it was on the E string, I called it “E-Lizabeth’s Song.” That ended up on a Grammy-nominated solo album 30 years later.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So now you are playing for the hospital patients?
Craig Chaquico: I went back to the hospital just to play for kids, their family members, hospital crew. I wanted the patients to know that it may be scary now, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I found out there had already been research done on the healing properties of music and how doctors and musicians can work together to help recoveries be more effective. They found that music can work as a tranquilizer and calm people down without the use of drugs.
You can actually play music for someone in a coma, and it will calm them down. You can play music for people with head injuries or Alzheimer’s, music they listened to before they were injured. That music will help stimulate parts of the brain that got injured by the illness. They might learn to speak again, walk again, and by singing along, they can learn how to talk. Music has been used in healing for thousands of years. Now they’re looking back and seeing how we can use some old techniques from witch doctors and Native American drumming. Those things have a place in modern medicine, and music can have a place in the healing process.
Music can be used just to help you have a nicer day. I’ve played for Alzheimer’s patients, pediatric patients, geriatric patients, the criminally insane. I’ve played for all kinds of folks. The common denominator is music. It helped me heal, and I was helping others to heal years later by using the gift of music that was given to me.
I’m also an artist advocate for music and guitars in the classrooms. It’s a way to bring music back into the schools. They’ve done scientific experiments to show that music can help people with math. Music is somewhere in between the magic and the medicine, between the angels and algorithms, between the karma and the coincidences. I feel that having the chance to be part of that process and to get kids turned on to music is a way to again return the gift of music that was given to me.
That’s where I come in as an artist advocate, if you will. I’m just someone to spread the word that music is healing. If it just brightens your day, it’s something worth paying attention to. To have it back in the schools is an important thing for everyone.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is there currently a version of Jefferson Starship that is touring?
Craig Chaquico: With Paul gone, there is a Jefferson Starship with only one remaining member. I’m the only one on every album, tour and video from the original Jefferson Starship and original Starship. There’s also a Starship featuring Mickey Thomas which doesn’t include anyone ever in Starship. The music still lives on. There are guys that have been in the band with me that are each using the name, and they each asked me to play with them over the years. I’m proud of my history with the bands, but it would be hard to pick one or the other, so I just opted out of playing with either until we maybe have a reunion.
As I said, I actually called everybody in the original Jefferson Starship – Grace, Marty, Pete, David, John Barbata. They were all into playing together again. It was just that no one had contacted Paul yet. He was in the hospital, so I never did contact him. Then he passed before I could. That bothers me that we couldn’t have a real reunion. Maybe there will be something we could do together.
I’m hoping the five of us will get together, especially with the idea that Paul passed on a very cosmic time with five planets in alignment at dawn which doesn’t happen again until the summer. I thought that would be a great time for the five remaining members to play under those same planets underneath the stars with Paul. If we can get Grace also, it would be like Venus, the Goddess of Love (laughs). Maybe we can get it all going on.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That would be great, and I’d love to be in the audience.
Craig Chaquico: Well, I’ll let you know if we do it, Melissa. We’ll even learn “Melissa,” even though it’s an Allman Brothers song. That’s one of my favorite bands, so we’ll play you a song if we come together. I promise.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds good to me, Craig.
Craig Chaquico: Looking forward to seeing you down the road, and we’ll definitely do a version of “Melissa.” See ya then.
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