Photo by Damion Lloyd
August 29, 2019
David Freiberg grew up in Cincinnati, in a household where Reform Judaism was practiced. Reform Judaism is a progressive form of its namesake.
“My father would do the blessing over the wine every Friday and he didn’t have to use Kosher wine,” Freiberg said in a phone interview. “He used French wine. He figured God made all the grapes.”
As progressive as Freiberg’s household was in certain respects, his parents weren’t quite prepared for the effect that San Francisco would have on their son on a family trip.
“We came around this corner and the fog was coming in over the city and it was all pink,” he said. “The sun was setting. And I said, ‘Whew…I’m going to live there, man.’”
When he returned to Cincinnati, he said he “proceeded to mess up his life enough” that he was forced to leave for good.
What ensued was an illustrious music career that will bring him to Fort Wayne with his band Jefferson Starship.
Hippie before ‘hippie’ was a word
Freiberg, who’d been classically trained on violin and viola in Cincinnati, bought a guitar soon after moving to the Bay Area in the late 1950s.
“I started hanging out at the folk music places that were around there,” he said. “It was the end of the Beatnik era and they hadn’t made up ‘hippies’ yet.”
Freiberg started playing at hootenannies, what millennials now call (with considerably less panache) open mic nights.
“I ended up being a professional folk singer,” he said. “Which is kind of an oxymoron.”
Freiberg hooked up with Paul Kantner and the pair moved to Venice Beach with a plan of forming a folk duo.
“No one was much interested in us,” Freiberg said, laughing.
Legend has it that David Crosby lived with them for a time, but Freiberg said he mostly visited. A lot.
Music aficionados might like to imagine the three men making beautiful music together. But that’s not why Crosby dropped by.
“He came by to get his pot rolled,” Freiberg said. “Paul and I were really good at rolling joints.”
Freiberg had no clue at the time that a lucrative and estimable career in music was the destiny of any of the slackers in his immediate vicinity.
“I don’t think I was looking for a clue,” he said.
Freiberg got busted for possession, so he decided to take a straight job with the railroad as a way of creating the impression that he was a more upstanding member of society than he, in fact, was.
“I tried to be straight, which was wrong,” he said. “It seemed like every time I tried to act straight, I got arrested.”
During these chaotic times for Freiberg, Kantner formed Jefferson Airplane. After another jail stint, Freiberg decided that the straight life wasn’t good for his criminal record. So he formed a band called Quicksilver Messenger Service.
It was an extraordinary time to be a band in the Bay Area, Freiberg said. The musicians were supportive of each other and the fans were eager to turn out in droves to hear bands they knew little about.
“There’s something to be said for being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Quicksilver Messenger Service was much beloved in the Bay Area and beyond, but it fell victim to altered consciousness.
“(Co-founder Gary Duncan) was doing a lot of speed at the time,” Freiberg said. “He grew really paranoid and decided to quit the band. There’s nothing like speed for making bad decisions.”
Freiberg worked with Grateful Dead’s Mickey Hart on one of Hart’s solo albums and asked Kantner and Marty Balin to provide backing vocals.
“All the way through everything, Paul was always my best friend,” Freiberg said.
Kantner eventually asked Freiberg to join Jefferson Airplane.
In 1970, Kantner released a science fiction-themed solo album called Blows Against the Empire. Freiberg said he recruited almost every musician of note in or associated with the Bay Area to contribute to the album. He referred to them as the “Jefferson Starship crew.”
The name stuck.
The dreaded creative differences
It wasn’t all smooth cruising for Jefferson Starship.
In the mid-’80s, creative differences led to the departure of Kantner, Freiberg and, eventually, Pete Sears.
A radically reimagined version of the band, called merely Starship, cranked out radio-friendly hits like “We Built This City,” “Sara,” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”
“That wasn’t my kind of stuff,” Freiberg said of Starship. “They were not writing music collaboratively. The songs were brought in from outside writers. Not that they weren’t good songs. Some of them were really great. It just seemed like I was extra weight they had to carry around.”
Freiberg stopped performing entirely and delved into the music technology side of the business.
But after Starship had run its course, Kantner re-formed Jefferson Starship and brought Freiberg back into the fold.
Living Kantner’s Legacy
Kantner’s death in 2016 at the age of 74 was an enormous blow to the band.
“Paul lived to go out and play,” Freiberg said. “That was his only reason for staying alive.”
Kantner was so sick at the end that he constructed a version of the band that could tour without him. Kantner’s family asked the band to keep going after his death, Freiberg said.
The band’s current lead vocalist, Cathy Richardson, was recruited by Kantner (vocalist Grace Slick retired from the music business in the early 1990s).
“What the band is right now is the band Paul had when he passed away,” Freiberg said. “Cathy is a fantastic singer who can channel anybody, including herself. She was a revelation when we started playing with her.”
Initially, Freiberg said, the band decided not to perform any hits from the Starship era. But that stance has since softened.
“We do them because a lot of people are really confused about what was Jefferson Starship and what wasn’t,” he said. “So many of those songs were put on the same compilations. ‘Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now’ is somebody’s wedding song. They’ll be really hurt if it doesn’t get played.
“It’s fine, it’s fun,” Freiberg said. “They’re some really good songs.”
Freiberg turned 81 in August and what keeps him going is an unwillingness to analyze what keeps him going.
“I don’t want to find out what happens when I stop,” he said.
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