By: Michael D. McClellan | Rock & roll is full of clichéd stories that begin this way, stories that start with the obligatory, alcohol-fueled car crash, followed immediately by those long, tense, white knuckle moments where life, in all its frailty, hangs suspended in the balance. There are broken bones and there is blood, the result of the violent, head-on collision, and there is chaos – the engine hissing its last breath, urgent voices in the darkness, the smell of smoke that could be mistaken for a gunshot. The ambulance ride to the hospital is like drinking a sadistic cocktail – a double shot of roiling pain garnished with choppy bouts of lucidity – followed by a cliff dive into the abyss. All the good rock stories start out this way: Jim Morrison found dead in a Paris apartment bathtub. Amy Winehouse, dead from alcohol poisoning. Michael Hutchence, suicide. Tupac cut down on the Vegas strip. Stardom amplified by tragedy, the resulting narrative transforming mere flesh and bone into something more than mortal – a deity in leather pants, a Christ in cornrows.
Craig Chaquico’s story starts out this way.
Except that it doesn’t.
Chaquico knows all about rescuers attempting to extricate his broken body from the mangled, twisted hunk of metal that was an automobile only seconds earlier, but before you seize on the image of Chaquico – the longtime Starship lead guitarist – as the poster child for tragic rock stars, think again; Chaquico walks among us intact, reveling in the platinum albums, the number one records, the Rolling Stone cover shoot, and the Grammy and Oscar nominations that come with being a part of rock music royalty. Spend any time with him at all and you quickly learn that Chaquico is the antithesis of a coked-up, Armani-sheathed, rapidly self-destructing rocker. Bright and articulate, Chaquico projects unnerving vitality – words tumble from his mouth at a rapid clip, and his voice carries the youthful exuberance of someone half his age. That Chaquico is even here at all is something of a miracle, given the car crash that nearly claimed his life when a drunk driver struck his father’s vehicle head on, resulting in two broken arms, a broken rib, broken wrist, broken thumb, broken ankle and broken foot. He was twelve at the time.
“I didn’t see the crash coming,” Chaquico says, “but I remember sitting in the front seat and the inside of our car lit up, which I can only imagine was the guy’s headlights, because he literally hit us head on. The next thing I remember was being pulled out of the wreck by a cop.”
“I didn’t see the crash coming, but I remember sitting in the front seat and the inside of our car lit up, which I can only imagine was the guy’s headlights, because he literally hit us head on. The next thing I remember was being pulled out of the wreck by a cop.” – Craig Chaquico
Nothing about that horrific scene presaged what was to come. His life in jeopardy, he was at once light years away from the clattering, delirious tumult that is multi-platinum stadium rock, while only a few short biological years from jamming with the likes of Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia. No, none of this was imaginable back then, because on this night, and in the days and weeks that followed, Craig Chaquico’s young mind was focused on more immediate challenges; enduring the next operation, coping with the pain, and suffering through the grueling physical therapy that often brought him to tears.
It’s a story that he has told often, yet it is jarring to hear Chaquico talk about that life-altering crash with such unencumbered sentiment. Sure, it damn near killed him. But it also transformed his life in ways that reverberate all these years later. Consider the irony: Chaquico is world famous today largely due to the drunk driver who crossed the center line like a Kamikaze pilot bearing down on its target, the resulting impact breaking him into pieces. He speaks about the crash – being careful not to categorize it as an accident – with the easy superfluity of someone who knows how lucky he is to be alive, and as someone who understands that this near-death experience triggered his career as a professional musician.
“Music became the thing that helped me get through my injuries,” Chaquico says. “I remember waking up and everything was in a cast, except for one leg, which seemed to be relatively unscathed. Physically I couldn’t do much. The rehab was torturous and included wheelchair therapy, physical therapy, crutches, and corrective shoes, but my doctor also encouraged me to play this little acoustic guitar that my mom had bought me. The problem was that I could only reach one string, because of the way my hands were set in the casts [laughs]. I think the doctor knew it would be good for me medically – it helped improve my coordination, dexterity, and circulation – but, more than that, I think she knew that it would be good for my soul. She was right; magically, somewhere between the science and the spirit and the soul is this thing called music, which she encouraged me to play for all of those reasons.”
It was a love of music that buffeted the young Chaquico during those dark days in that Sacramento hospital, his life interrupted by the a string of surgeries and the rehab that came along with it – ball games and bike rides replaced by those itchy casts and god-awful wheelchairs – and yet Chaquico was able to find the silver lining in his predicament. It didn’t hurt that he had a kindred spirit in Les Paul, the pioneer of the solid-body electric guitar – the instrument which made the sound of rock & roll possible.
“My dad told me that if I stuck with my wheelchair therapy, he would buy me a Les Paul guitar,” Chaquico says. “He told me the story about how Les Paul was also in a bad crash, and how he got through it and became one of the greatest guitar players ever. Dad said, ‘Les Paul not only made it, now they have a guitar with his name on it.’ The story motivated me. Even though I could only reach one string on that little acoustic guitar – the E string – I decided to write a song for my doctor, whose name was ‘Elizabeth’. I called it E-Lizabeth’s Song, and it ended up on my Grammy-nominated album thirty years later.”
~ ~ ~
Formed by Jimmy Page in 1968 after his previous band, the Yardbirds, imploded, Led Zeppelin was a winner from the very beginning. The band’s debut, Led Zeppelin, was purchased by Atlantic Records via the most lucrative record contract for a new group in rock history at that point. For fourteen-year-old Craig Chaquico, Zeppelin was a roadmap to the future, while his new Les Paul served as the compass.
“I was already playing all kinds of songs – Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Eric Clapton,” Chaquico says quickly. Prodigious, he often played until his fingers cracked and bled. “Back then I played everything by ear, and I practiced because I wanted to; I wasn’t looking at my watch, and my parents weren’t forcing me to practice. Anything I could do to get my hands on the guitar, I did it.”
Even today, Chaquico isn’t an expert reader of music, but it isn’t the technical aspects of the guitar that sets him apart. He’s a gifted player who improvises in whatever direction the music takes him. In 1968, that direction led him to form his own cover group.
“I had formed a power trio,” he recalls with a laugh. “We decided to set up and play on the senior lawn one afternoon, and afterwards my English teacher said he wanted to see me after school. I thought I was in trouble – freshmen weren’t supposed to be on the senior lawn – and I thought he was going to make me push an egg across the lawn with a screw in my mouth as punishment. Instead he pulled a guitar out and he said, ‘Hey, I heard you play. I’d like you to join my band.’”
The English teacher was Jack Traylor, a well-known folk singer, acoustic guitarist, and lyricist who used his lyrics as political commentary. He also taught a class called ‘Music is Literature’, and in it he only played songs that told stories. Chaquico soaked it up, studiously memorizing lyrics written by everyone from Bob Dylan to Jefferson Airplane.
“Jack Traylor’s band was called Steelwind, and it had some modest success in Sacramento and San Francisco,” Chaquico says. “I talked it over with my parents – okay, I begged them nonstop until they eventually let me play [laughs]. What I didn’t know at the time was that Grace Slick, Paul Kantner, and some of the Jefferson Airplane members were fans of his before they were famous.”
Slick and Kantner.
For the uninitiated, we’re talking about the founding members and driving forces behind Jefferson Airplane, future stars who had yet to break through on the world stage. Chaquico didn’t realize it then, but their impact on his life would be as equally profound as that car crash.
“It all happened so fast,” he says. “Jack Traylor was in a band with guys that were all fifteen, twenty years older than me. The age difference in itself was an interesting dynamic, and then you had to be twenty-one to play in the bars and nightclubs. Well, our flute player was a barber by day and had access to some very realistic fake mustaches. He got me one, and somehow we pulled it off; I played in nightclubs and bars all around town wearing that thing.”
Chaquico pauses, and then laughs at what’s about to come next.
“One night we were on a break, and I looked down and the mustache was floating around the ice cubes of my non-alcoholic beverage. I thought it was a caterpillar or something. I screamed, ‘It’s in my drink!’ and I spilled my glass right then and there. A few minutes later we glued the disguise back onto my face. Well, this particular glue fluoresced a really bright green under a black light. We didn’t find that out until we were back onstage and they turned on the black light. I’d say it was pretty obvious that the guitar player who was supposed to be twenty-one was actually a fourteen year-old kid with a fake facial hair and gobs of glue glowing on his face.”
“One night we were on a break, and I looked down and the mustache was floating around the ice cubes of my non-alcoholic beverage. I thought it was a caterpillar or something. I screamed, ‘It’s in my drink!’ and I spilled my glass right then and there. A few minutes later we glued the disguise back onto my face. Well, this particular glue fluoresced a really bright green under a black light. We didn’t find that out until we were back onstage and they turned on the black light. I’d say it was pretty obvious that the guitar player who was supposed to be twenty-one was actually a fourteen year-old kid with a fake facial hair and gobs of glue glowing on his face.” – Craig Chaquico
Disaster averted, the mustachioed Chaquico continued playing gigs with his new band mates. He was eventually introduced to Slick and Kantner, who were busy recording an Airplane album and needed someone on lead guitar. Traylor suggested Chaquico. He jumped at the chance, joining Airplane in the studio and eventually playing with the band during a series of concerts. He was sixteen.
“I wasn’t as big a deal as you might think,” he says, when asked how recording with Jefferson Airplane changed his profile in high school. “The album was very esoteric – it was an underground record that wasn’t that popular in the mainstream. My high school was kind of on the rural side, so it wasn’t as forward-thinking as the Bay Area yet. It fact, it was counter to that. You had the jocks on one side, and the musicians and artists on the other. It was a reflection of our country’s culture. The sixties polarized people – you had the Nixon generation and the military pitted against the counter-culture – people who listened to Jefferson Airplane, people who were talking about what had happened at Kent State. I was in the middle of all of that. I came from a military family and grew up on a farm, and yet I was listening to my older brother’s record collection, which had everything from The Doors to Crosby, Stills and Nash. So when I got to high school and got a chance to record, I don’t think a lot of people were really paying attention – except for my music teacher, who was the reason I met Paul Kantner and Grace Slick.”
The album – Sunfighter – was released in November, 1971, on Airplane’s own Grunt label, which was backed by RCA.
“They wanted to use some of Jack’s songs on the album, and someone said, ‘Well, you know the kid already knows the guitar parts, so why don’t you use him? That’s how I ended up getting involved. The album didn’t have a hit song on it, and it wasn’t like you heard any of those songs on the radio, like you did with Cream’s Sunshine of Your Love. But it was still cool to have my name on a record – although they misspelled it [laughs].”
Sunfighter was recorded at Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco. It was met with modest commercial success, peaking at No. 89 on the Billboard Pop Album chart. For Chaquico, it might as well landed at #1.
“It was a very surreal point in my life; I was riding my bicycle to school every day, just like any kid, and then on the weekend I’d be playing nightclubs, lying about my age, wearing a fake mustache, and jamming onstage with my English teacher. And every now and then, I was driving to San Francisco to record with Grace, Paul Kantner, and the other Jefferson Airplane members.”
Chaquico’s world, circa 1969, might not have been the same as Taylor Swift’s, whose security detail rivaled a presidential motorcade at a comparable age, but how many teenagers get to make records?
“That was pretty cool,” he says with a laugh. “I learned a lot from the guys in Steelwind, and from doing sessions with Grace and Paul Kantner and that group of musicians. There were a couple of songs where I was playing rhythm guitar and Jerry Garcia was going to come in and do the guitar solos later. I played a solo over the basic track on one song just for fun. I figured we could just erase it when Jerry came in. Jerry showed the next day to do his solos for several songs. When he heard the track with the solo I did he said. ‘That’s a great solo. Why don’t you let the kid have the solo?’”
If the thought of an acne-faced Craig Chaquico bumping Jerry Garcia out of a guitar solo sounds preposterous, then you haven’t heard him play. Listen to those old records. His gifts are on full display, a glimpse of things to come.
“It was a strange, dual existence,” Chaquico says. “By the time I graduated from high school, I’d already been on three studio albums as a guest musician. Plus, Steelwind got its own recording deal on a Jefferson Airplane label, and the band was opening for Jefferson Starship – which was basically Jefferson Airplane minus the guitar player and bass player – Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, who had left to form Hot Tuna. And on top of that, Paul offered me a chance to play guitar on that tour. I jumped at it. So did Peter Kaukonen, who was Jorma Kaukonen’s younger brother, who joined the group to play bass. It was a crazy time; Steelwind would open, and then Jefferson Starship would play, and I played in both bands.”
~ ~ ~
Tucked snugly between the violence of the car crash and the thrill of joining Jefferson Starship is a gifted musician on the precipice. Craig Chaquico couldn’t read music, but he was drawn to it just the same. A guitar in his hands was a natural act, as natural as lungs drawing air.
“I remember mom and dad both being musicians,” he reflects. “My dad originally played saxophone and accordion. My mom was an organist and a keyboard player. But both of them reached a point in their lives where they needed reliable sources of income. It’s hard to start a family when you don’t know when the next gig is going to come.”
His parents owned a farm back then, and Chaquico grew up loving the outdoors. He was around horses constantly. Both of his parents were good with their hands – his father owned a furniture shop, while his mother was a stenographer for a string of California governors. Ironically, his father lied about his age in order to box, often coming home with his face swollen, and on another occasion he ran away to play saxophone in a band.
“Somewhere in there I must have inherited my parents’ creative DNA,” Chaquico says. “They both played music. My dad made furniture with his hands. My mom was one of the fastest typists in the state. So I guess I came by my talent honestly.”
The family eventually moved off of the farm. By then, his older brother was building hot rods and riding motorcycles and listening to rock & roll. Chaquico remembers being ten or eleven and babysitting for his brother, who was thirteen years older, and sneaking on his headphones and listening to Third Stone from the Sun by Jimmy Hendrix for the first time. Just hearing in stereo what somebody could do with a guitar, and then listening to Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower, was more than enough to hook Chaquico for life.
“My brother and his wife went to a movie but decided to come back home because the line was too long,” he says. “And there I was, listening to his record collection with headphones on, while their kids were having pillow fights or jumping up and down on the bed. He wasn’t too happy about that, but what could I say? I wasn’t old enough to babysit – besides, I was a little bit distracted by Jimi Hendrix and the way he could make a guitar talk.
“I owe a lot to my brother for how I ended up. He was a Vietnam veteran who served on a submarine and spent time in Germany and Japan. He would come home with all of these really cool reel-to-reel tape recorders and things that most kids never saw. So, when he would deploy on those submarine missions that were taking place, he’d take off for months at a time doing secret military things, and we wouldn’t know where he was, but he would always let me use his stuff while he was gone. I would tape episodes of Star Trek so I could listen back later with his headphones – I was a big science fiction fan, which tied in nicely with my Jefferson Starship career – and I would record myself playing guitar. Funny how life works. Little did I know then that it would all come together the way that it did.”
~ ~ ~
Every good rock & roll story has it, and Chaquico remembers vividly his early days with Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, like the time he went to a Porsche dealership in San Francisco and bought the newest model off the showroom floor. The salesmen sized up Chaquico and Kantner dismissively, stereotyping the two long-haired rockers as a couple of grungy hippies without a dollar between them. Chaquico drove off with his Porsche that day. He wasn’t even old enough to drink.
Grace Slick bought an Aston-Martin the same way. Paid cash. Drove it for a short time, only to suffer a concussion when she piled it into a wall near the Golden Gate Bridge.
The Acid Queen of the ‘60s rock scene, Slick’s heavy partying was legendary. Pedal to the metal, full throttle to the grave, that was the modus operandi for rockers like Slick, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison. Somehow, Slick survived and sobered up, but not before hitting rock bottom when the fractious Airplane broke up in 1973.
“I was drinking from the moment I got up until I collapsed at night,” she was quoted a few years later, admitting to having no memory of this period in her life.
Jefferson Airplane’s disintegration had the feel of an ugly church split, with Hot Tuna and Jefferson Starship each claiming members of the original congregation. Slick and Kantner were on board as charter members of Jefferson Starship, as was keyboardist David Freiberg. They were joined by legendary violinist Papa John Creach, John Barbata on drums, Peter Sears on bass, and Chaquico on lead guitar.
“I was asked to play on the first Jefferson Starship album – Dragon Fly – and that ended up being my higher education for the next eighteen years,” he says. His presence would be the one constant in the on again, off again, revolving door lineup that frustrated so many of the group’s fans. Even the most die-hard devotees needed a cheat sheet to keep up with who was in the band. “I ended up being the only person on every album, every single, every hit, and every recording, from the first album to the last.”
“I was asked to play on the first Jefferson Starship album – Dragon Fly – and that ended up being my higher education for the next eighteen years. I ended up being the only person on every album, every single, every hit, and every recording, from the first album to the last.” – Craig Chaquico
Dragon Fly just missed the Top 10, but went gold within six months. Fans loved the record. Critics’ reviews were mixed; Rolling Stone had mostly good things to say, commenting that ‘guitarist Craig Chaquico makes up in ebullience what he lacks in subtlety’.
The group’s second album, Red Octopus, was released on June 13, 1975, and promptly landed at #1. There was also a hit single, Miracles, which reached #3 on the Billboard chart, making it the highest-charting single the band had until that point. Miracles was written by Marty Balin, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane who would join Jefferson Starship as a guest singer on Dragon Fly and then as a permanent member on Red Octopus. The album version of the song had two hurdles to clear on the way to becoming a hit: Miracles was 6 minutes, 52 seconds long, and the lyrics – I had a taste of the real world when I went down on you, girl – were too provocative for 1975 commercial airplay.
“No one was more surprised than us when it made the radio,” Chaquico says. “The lyrics were a bit X-rated. Just the whole idea of how that song went from Point A to Point B – from it starting as a weird idea to becoming big hit – is still mind-boggling to me.
“In the early days we used to brainstorm by showing up with our instruments and playing ideas for each other. One time Marty brought in a bunch of great songs, and one of them was Miracles. We were all in Paul’s living room – there were amps everywhere, and a drum kit – and Marty sits down on the couch and starts playing Miracles, all seven minutes of it, on his acoustic guitar. We didn’t know what it was all about but we knew it had potential to be a hit, so we started learning it. Thank God he brought a chord sheet, because there were so many different musical changes.
“When we went into the studio, the recording session was done live, just the five of us – Marty on his acoustic guitar in a vocal booth, singing behind the glass; John on drums; Pete Sears on base; and Paul and me on guitar. I remember doing a few takes to get it right, because it’s a seven minute song. I’m trying to play the guitar licks to illustrate what he saying with the lyrics, so when he says something about butterflies, or rainbows, or waterfalls, I try to do a guitar lick that sounds like the lyric. Thank God he didn’t find it annoying – he literally let me play licks after everything he said [laughs].
“The whole band played that song organically. There was no orchestration and no sheet music, other than the chord sheet. Everything was improvised, which meant that each take was a little different. When we finally got a take that everybody liked, I remember thinking that everybody sounded so great in it, but I wasn’t very happy with how my guitar part turned out. I had to get away from it for a few days before listening to it again and not being so critical of it.”
Red Octopus was one of the year’s best, most bracing albums. It remains the best-selling album by any incarnation of Jefferson Airplane and its spin-off groups.
“We recorded Red Octopus in the course of about three months. There was plenty of post-production work involved, especially on Miracles. There was a lot of percussion overdubbing, and we had tons of background vocals come in and go out. It’s hard to believe we pulled it off on the technology we had at the time; we were only using a 24-track recorder – there were no computers with unlimited numbers of tracks. We took advantage of every square centimeter of tape. If there was an open track we would put a vocal on it, or guitars on it, or we would add percussion. We even added a whole string section – all of the strings were recorded in Los Angeles.
“We recorded Red Octopus in the course of about three months. There was plenty of post-production work involved, especially on Miracles. There was a lot of percussion overdubbing, and we had tons of background vocals come in and go out. It’s hard to believe we pulled it off on the technology we had at the time; we were only using a 24-track recorder – there were no computers with unlimited numbers of tracks. We took advantage of every square centimeter of tape. If there was an open track we would put a vocal on it, or guitars on it, or we would add percussion. We even added a whole string section – all of the strings were recorded in Los Angeles.” – Craig Chaquico
“The finished product was astounding. What started as an acoustic song with only a guitar had evolved into this whole beautiful tapestry based on Marty’s brilliant lyrics. It’s a timeless song. It has a universal theme, kind of like Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer. ‘If only you believe in miracles…’ It touched people in so many personal ways. Everything clicked. Larry Cox, who mixed it and put it all together, deserves a lot of the credit. He was like the painter, and we were colors on his pallet; he decided how much guitar color to use here, how much a vocal color to use there, that sort of thing. That song was a big reason the album went to number one.”
~ ~ ~
For Chaquico, there was a positive side to Jefferson Starship’s constant state of flux: He was able to play with a wide range of talented artists. Papa John Creach, the legendary American blues violinist, was a part of that first lineup. So was a little-known guitar player named Kevin Moore, who would later rise to fame as Keb’ Mo’, the multi-Grammy-winning blues guitarist.
“I actually crossed paths with those guys when we were teenagers,” Chaquico says. “We shared a stage together when I was playing with Steelwind. We were playing nightclubs around San Francisco, and Papa John and Kevin Moore were playing with a band called Zulu at the time. I still have the poster of a concert that we did with Zulu and Papa John. It was a concert in support of Proposition 13, which was a proposition to legalize marijuana [laughs].
“Kevin was this really cool guitar player. The band was so funky, and the beats were infectious. I was a Sly and the Family Stone fan, and these guys play with that same groove. Papa John could do anything with that violin, and he was such a character. I really looked up to Kevin – he was maybe a year older than me, and he was already playing those nightclubs with a legend like Papa John. That was the big leagues. I was just getting my feet wet with Steelwind. I did realize he’d changed his stage name to Keb’ Mo’ until years later. He’s still an inspiration to me.”
Chaquico also got to collaborate with one of the most volatile rockers on the planet.
“I wrote the music for Fast Buck Freddie, and Grace wrote the lyrics,” he says quickly. “She had her demons, but she was an incredibly talented lady.”
~ ~ ~
Jefferson Starship released Spitfire in 1976, the platinum-selling follow-up to Red Octopus. It spent six weeks at #3. With Your Love was the album’s lead single, peaking at #12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #6 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. The band didn’t tour in 1977, partly due to Marty Balin’s reluctance to commit fully to the band. A year later Earth was released, and along with it the single Count on Me, which became a Top 10 hit. The album quickly went platinum, like the previous two, and Runaway was a solid follow-up single, but this would be the last Jefferson-anything record to feature Balin.
A US and European tour followed, and while Jefferson Starship seemed to succeed in spite of itself, Grace Slick’s alcohol and drug use conspired to wreck the band’s ethereal flow. She’d swore off liquor for a year in 1976 and gotten married, but promiscuity and sobriety were the yin and yang failings of a woman desperately in need of help. She once bragged of giving only five percent of herself to any one man, and her quotes on drug use were a tabloid journalist’s wet dream:
Marijuana? “I use it when I’m doing music.”
Cocaine? “Edison and Freud snorted, so I’m following in a great tradition.”
Pills? “If most people could take one, I could handle two or three.”
LSD? “I stopped dropping acid for a while after my daughter was born. It’s hard to keep an eye on the kid while you’re hallucinating.”
Alcohol? “Alcohol goes better with my body chemistry. I started drinking heavily at 16 – anything I could get my hands on. My headmistress thought I was drinking orange juice –actually I was getting smashed on screwdrivers.”
Suffice it to say that Grace Slick’s substance abuse was the stuff of legend by the time a case of ‘flu’ forced Starship to cancel a show in Germany at the last minute. Twelve thousand fans rioted – trashing $200,000 of the septet’s equipment – and the shock waves, the urban legend goes, sent Grace back to the bottle. The next night she turned the concert into a shambles, blowing cues, harassing the rest of the band onstage and putting her finger up the nose of a young German spectator. After playing one more concert with rented gear – and without Grace – Starship canceled its remaining 15 summer dates.
“At that point we knew it was over,” says Chaquico. “After the riot in Germany we never played together again. We were in flux. We lost Grace. John Barbata was in a bad car crash and dropped out. Marty Balin decided to do one more performance with us on the Star Wars Christmas Special and then he took off, and then it was a whole new band and a whole new producer. We were forced to regroup. We added Mickey Thomas on vocals and Aynsley Dunbar on drums, and we went off in new direction.”
~ ~ ~
As the 1970s drew to a close, uncertainty hung in the air. Fans wondered openly if this would be the end of the always bumpy, ever-changing Jefferson Airplane-Starship ride, or whether the group would reinvent itself again, renascent once more. Through it all, Chaquico continued to weather the storm and provide a steadying influence. He was no longer a pimply-faced kid. He was now one of the most tenured members of the band. But in some ways, little had changed for him.
“After that first tour with Jefferson Starship – and right before we recorded Dragon Fly – I bought a ’57 Gold Top Les Paul with my own money,” he says. “And then a couple of years after Dragon Fly, I bought a ’59 Standard Sunburst Les Paul. I used those two guitars almost exclusively on all of those first four albums – Dragon Fly, Red Octopus, Spitfire and Earth. Those albums had all of those big hits before the lineup changed in 1978. So, all of those hits like Miracles, Fast Buck Freddie, Ride the Tiger, Play on Love – all of those songs were done on those two Les Pauls. And it all started with my dad telling me about the real Les Paul, and with him buying me my first Les Paul after that car crash.”
About that 1959 Standard Sunburst: The last time Chaquico had it in his possession was that night the fans rioted in Lorelei, Germany. Forced to flee the stage and leave his equipment behind, Chaquico returned the next day to find only the charred remains of his Fender Bassman amplifiers.
“It was pretty devastating,” he says. “When I went to the scene of the riot, the aftermath looked like a plane had crashed. There was debris everywhere. The guitar could be replaced, but the sentimental value was irreplaceable. It’s not the same, but at least I can listen to it whenever I put on one of those old Jefferson Starship records.”
~ ~ ~
Freedom at Point Zero was made sans Slick and Balin, who had both gone solo. The 1979 album featured the monster hit Jane, which remains a classic and is still played widely today. Mickey Thomas was drafted to provide the voice for the group, and British session drummer Aynsley Dunbar (John Mayall, Frank Zappa, David Bowie, you name it) was added to the core of Kantner, Chaquico, and Peter Sears. It was a respectable effort. Thomas’ outrageous falsetto fully compensated for Slick’s absence, and the band had indeed found another lease on life.
“We went back to our roots and found some of the old Jefferson Airplane DNA,” Chaquico says. “While we had gone into some soft rock in the mid-70s, this record brought back some of the harder edge. It was a welcome change.
“We went back to our roots and found some of the old Jefferson Airplane DNA. While we had gone into some soft rock in the mid-70s, this record brought back some of the harder edge. It was a welcome change.” – Craig Chaquico
“When I was originally asked to join the band, I was encouraged to add that rocking side to it, so I felt that our first producer really held that balance well. But over time, our style evolved along with all of the changing faces. It happened again with this album. We lost Grace, Marty, and John, and then we add someone like Aynsley Dunbar on drums, who was considered to be more of a powerhouse rocking drummer, whereas John Barbata’s forte was in that hit making, studio style. That was completely awesome, because that kind of drumming is so rare. Everything worked out. To go from one great drummer to another was terrific, and to go from one great producer like Ron Nevison was icing on the cake. Ron was very much into the guitar arrangement style of producing. He had produced some of my favorite guitar bands, groups like Bad Company, Heart, UFO, and Zeppelin, so his taste leaned toward featuring the kind of guitar rocking style that I had liked.”
Nevis would produce the next two Jefferson Starship albums – 1981’s Modern Times and 1982’s Winds of Change. Grace Slick reemerged on Modern Times after a three-year absence. She returned near the end of the recording sessions, providing background vocals on some tracks as well as lead vocals on the single Stranger as a duet with lead singer Mickey Thomas.
“The one constant is that we’ve always had these terrific producers producing our music,” Chaquico says. “So even though our lineup was a revolving door – like Grace leaving and then coming back – we had great production in the background, which was a stabilizing influence. That’s why I like to say that the band members – and the instruments they play – are really like colors on a painter’s pallet. The producer is the painter who decides how much of each color to use, and where to use it. We have some say in that too, but the producers are the ones who put their magic hands on what we do. We were lucky to have Larry Cox working on our first four albums, who helped us produce hits like Miracles, Runaway, and Count on Me, and even the rocking tunes like Ride the Tiger, and Fast Buck Freddie. Ron’s engineer was a guy named Mike Clink, who later went on to produce the first Guns N’ Roses album – one of the greatest rock albums of all time. So I was again in a lucky position to have two awesome producing talents in the same studio, working on the songs that I was writing – like Jane, and Find Your Way Back.”
On May, 30, 1984, Nuclear Furniture was released, again with Nevis at the helm. It produced a pair of hits – Layin’ It on the Line and No Way Out, the latter of which landed at #1 on Billboard Magazine’s Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. The record’s success masked the groups inner turmoil, as it struggled to bridge a rich past with an uncertain future.
“While Freedom at Point Zero was a rock record, our sound was evolving into something closer to pop, which was another new direction for the band. So, within three or four years from the release of Freedom we had songs on the radio like No Way Out and We Built This City, which were diametrically opposed to the kind of style that was Jane, or even Miracles. There was a lot of inner turmoil. It wasn’t an easy adjustment for any of us.”
“While Freedom at Point Zero was a rock record, our sound was evolving into something closer to pop, which was another new direction for the band. So, within three or four years from the release of Freedom we had songs on the radio like No Way Out and We Built This City, which were diametrically opposed to the kind of style that was Jane, or even Miracles. There was a lot of inner turmoil. It wasn’t an easy adjustment for any of us.” – Craig Chaquico
Disillusioned by the band’s softening pop-rock approach, Kantner bailed out of Jefferson Starship in 1984, taking legal action to keep the band from using the Jefferson Starship name. The band continued as Starship. It’s debut album, Knee Deep in the Hoopla, went platinum, but history has not treated it well; Hoopla has become, in many ways, symbolic of what went wrong with ‘80s rock, and no song has received as much scorn as it’s mega hit – the band’s first single to reach #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
To this day, We Built This City is derided as an irksome ear worm, as self-aggrandizing anthem by a shell of a shell of a once-great band. The critics contend that while Jefferson Airplane was a vital countercultural force, Jefferson Starship was nowhere near as good, and that by 1985, it had devolved into horrible, horrible Starship, with Grace Slick surrounded by tacky keyboards singing that cloying chorus in rock music’s worst-ever abomination.
We built this city…
We built this city on rock and roll…
While many have piled on the song through the years, labeling it everything from obnoxious to lousy to the most appalling song ever, it’s easy to forget that it received…wait for it…a Grammy nomination.
“The ‘80s was an interesting time for the music industry in general,” Chaquico says. “MTV launched, bringing videos with it. I was still trying to add to reincorporate the guitar element into our sound when things started taking on more of that ‘80s flavor. It didn’t happen overnight, but at some point there was a real obvious shift as different members of the band left. The productions became more programmed, more sampled, and our sound took on more of a technopop kind of feel. The guitar was de-emphasized. We Built This City is a classic example of how the ‘80s morphed into this pop-ish thing for us. It was a flagship song that still kind of represents that era. It has definitely taken its hits through the years, but it reached number one and earned a Grammy nomination, so I’m proud to be part of the song. It didn’t have much guitar in it, except for at the end. And you know what? If it had more guitar, it probably wouldn’t have been such a big hit. So it’s probably a good thing that it didn’t have more guitar.”
Irony is another aspect of the song that is lost on the populace.
“Very few people get that,” he says quickly. “We Built This City was a protest against technopop, and yet the song was very much technopop. The lyrics were written by the legendary lyricist Bernie Taupin, who wrote all of those huge hits for Elton John – songs like Your Song, Bennie and the Jets, and Candle in the Wind. We Built This City was really about the disappearance of the great music venues where artists learned how to play their music and hone their craft. It was written during a time when these places were either turning into discos, or becoming nightclubs with deejays spinning records. So the lyrics are really a protest – where did all the great places go to play? ‘…don’t you remember? We built this city…we built this city on rock an’ roll.’ It’s kind of like if you cut out all of the comedy clubs that comedians like Robin Williams and Jerry Seinfeld went to before they became famous, then there wouldn’t be places for them to develop their talent.”
Sara also reached #1. It was written by Peter and Ina Wolf. Desperate Heart was written by Michael Bolton.
“It wasn’t so much a band anymore,” Chaquico says. “At least not in the sense of us doing our own thing. The band wasn’t writing many of the songs – just take a look at everyone who contributed lyrics to Knee Deep in the Hoopla. We weren’t writing the songs. But it was hard to argue with success, because we were getting really big hits. And if the lyricist is a great lyricist like Bernie Taupin, then you’re doing something right. The only thing that would have made it better is if we had Elton John playing piano on the song with us.
“I was very familiar with Bernie Taupin. I remember when we had all of that success with Red Octopus – one week we’d be number one, and the next week Elton John was number one. Then we’d knock him off the next week, and he’d knock us off the week after that. It happened four times that summer, and the lyricist for both Elton records was Bernie Taupin.”
“I was very familiar with Bernie Taupin. I remember when we had all of that success with Red Octopus – one week we’d be number one, and the next week Elton John was number one. Then we’d knock him off the next week, and he’d knock us off the week after that. It happened four times that summer, and the lyricist for both Elton records was Bernie Taupin.” – Craig Chaquico
Does the criticism bother Chaquico? Does it grind his gears that the group reemerged as a sleek, corporate band named Starship with some guy named Mickey Thomas as one of the lead singers?
“In some respects I really can’t complain,” he says. “It felt like there was some sort of divine intervention at work. We Built This City was a huge hit, and then came Sara, which was a beautiful love ballad. I had a little guitar solo in it, but the video didn’t feature the band at all. The technopop songs in the ’80s leaned toward featuring the lead singer, so we were following a formula. That’s how we got those number one songs.”
“And then comes Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now,” he says, referring to the band’s 1987 album No Protection. “That song was featured in the movie Mannequin and it was a monster hit for us – and another number one song. It was written by the incredible Diane Warren, who went on to write number one songs for acts like Bon Jovi, Cher, and Aerosmith. And then we followed that up with another Top 10 hit, It’s Not Over (‘Til It’s Over). So that part of it was nice. The other part, not so much.”
The other part?
“Nothing lasts forever. By the end of that run, everybody in the band that I enjoyed playing with had come and gone, and the guitar was even less an element in the productions. I felt marginalized and constrained. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a meeting that I had with Mickey Thomas and our manager at the time, Bill Thompson. The gist of the conversation was sort of like, ‘You’ve been here the whole time, and you can still be in the band, but you’ve seen all of the success that we’re having with these songs. So we’re not going to do any more guitar-based songs, so don’t even bother writing.’ And I’m thinking to myself, why do you even need me? You don’t need a guitar player, and you don’t need me to write songs. So that was it for me. I took a scary leap of faith. I quit my day job with Starship.”
Jettisoning from the Starship franchise was a risky career move for the talented guitar player. He was suddenly on his own, no longer tethered to the group that had helped make him a household name in the industry.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do, actually. I didn’t know what was going to happen next. I thought that starting a rock band with Mike Clink would work, so I did that, and we worked on a really fun project called Big Bad Wolf. The record was eventually released in Japan and Europe, because that style of music was still in favor over there, but the grunge movement hit the US right as we were about to release it in the States. Curt Cobain and Nirvana were the antithesis of anything that sounded like Starship. Grunge was in, and the stadium rock thing was out.”
~ ~ ~
Of all the twists and turns, what happened next may be the most reward of Chaquico’s career – and he didn’t even see it coming.
“In 1990, my wife got pregnant – it’s funny, you’re not in a band anymore, and you’re not traveling, somebody is going to get pregnant [laughs] – so it seemed like the acoustic guitar would be more welcome around the house. That’s when I started playing acoustic, little realizing that it would lead to an epiphany and a whole new direction – a number one smooth jazz instrumental record that would be Grammy-nominated and sell a million copies. It was completely divine intervention of a stylistic change that happened at the right time.”
The first record, 1993’s Acoustic Highway, was a creative shot in the arm for Chaquico, who made plenty of money during the ‘80s but had stagnated as an artist. A year later he released Acoustic Planet, which validated his decision to follow his heart. The record earned him a Grammy nomination for Best New Age Album.
“One of the biggest thrills of my career,” Chaquico says. “My acoustic records gave me the confidence to try something different. There wasn’t a master plan, it was more a case of me stumbling into the new age format. I knew that I wanted to play the blues because without blues music, there would be no rock & roll. And then that led to experimenting with acoustic jazz. The transition from one to the other was natural for me, because I’d learned to play the guitar by listening to blues players like Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. When I melded the three together – acoustic blues meets acoustic jazz meets rock & roll – everything just clicked.”
In 1995, one of his songs off of that album –Just One World – became a part of NASA’s Ark Project, which now permanently remains in orbit above the Earth. None of this would have been possible had the rock guitarist opted to play it safe.
“My acoustic records are still rock & roll, just done acoustically,” he says. “It was an exciting new direction because it was a different voice. I was able to produce a distinctive sound that helped me to establish myself in the new age genre, and it helped me to become known as more than just a rock guitarist. I think it’s easier to carve out an identity if you’re a singer. There’s very few instrumentalists who have a distinctive style that you can recognize immediately. Kenny G is one. When I decided to play rock acoustically, that set me apart from the crowd.
“It all started when I reached out to Ozzie Ahlers, who was the keyboard player for Jerry Garcia, and we immediately went to work on creating my signature new age style. It’s very gratifying to sell a million copies of Acoustic Planet and earn a Grammy nomination, and then to have one of my songs included in the NASA Ark Project. How cool is that? It sounds like I’m bragging, but the point is that we had so much rejection at the beginning. I think that’s a good lesson for any artist – writer, singer, musician, anybody – you have to be believe and you have to be persistent. Trust me, it wasn’t easy.”
Chaquico has done it all in a career spanning six decades, but it’s easy to hear the joy in his voice when discussing his solo career. To build something from the ground up, and to do it when so many in the industry were reluctant to take a chance on him, he understands more than anyone the fortunate circumstances that led to a career rebirth.
“I remember playing it for the new age label, and they said, ‘We hear new age, but we also hear some rock, and jazz, and blues. If you sounded more new age, like George Winston or Ottmar Liebert, we would sign you. Why don’t you take it to a blues, rock, or jazz label?’ So, rejection. We take it to a jazz label, and they say, ‘Well, we do hear some jazz, but your kind and not really playing the right kind of guitar for jazz. If you sounded more like Larry Carlton we’d sign you. Why don’t you take it to a new age label or a blues label?’ Well, we were down to rock and blues. We went to the rock label, but they wanted me to sound more like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai. We went to the blues label, but they wanted me to sound more like Robert Cray, or Eric Clapton, or Stevie Ray Vaughn.
“Basically, we struck out. It was very discouraging, and it was also very humbling – I quit my day job to run away and join the circus, only to learn the circus doesn’t exist. There were no opportunities. And just when things seemed the darkest, the publicist from the early Jefferson Starship days played my cassette for the new age label that had Ottmar Liebert. They loved it. They called me up and said they wanted to do it exactly the way that it was.
“Basically, we struck out. It was very discouraging, and it was also very humbling – I quit my day job to run away and join the circus, only to learn the circus doesn’t exist. There were no opportunities. And just when things seemed the darkest, the publicist from the early Jefferson Starship days played my cassette for the new age label that had Ottmar Liebert. They loved it. They called me up and said they wanted to do it exactly the way that it was.” – Craig Chaquico
“After they released the first record, it became Billboard Magazine’s top-selling independent new age album of the year. Then we release Acoustic Planet and it goes straight to number one, gets the Grammy nomination, and I win a Guitar Player Magazine reader’s poll for best instrumental guitarist. All of that stuff would never have happened if we had believed all of those people who said we needed to sound different. And if not for a little luck or divine intervention, we would have been the tree that fell in the forest that no one would have ever heard. But because of this one little connection with this publicist, who in turn played it for the label, we were able to get the record made and go on to produce ten others. We were one of the lucky ones. Ironically, I’ve heard from other artists who are trying to get their music made, and the labels are now saying, ‘Well, if you only sounded more like Craig Chaquico we’d sign you.’ Well, there was a time when I sounded exactly like Craig Chaquico and they wouldn’t sign me [laughs].”
Emboldened by his solo success, Chaquico has reinvented himself again, this time as a blues guitarist. Keb’ Mo’ would be proud.
“Keb’s great,” he says quickly. “What a fabulous career – he didn’t start out playing the blues, but look at what a career change has done for him. You never know what a little luck with the record sales and the chart positions can do for you. Looking back the career choices all seem so obvious, but at the time those decisions can create frightening, scary moments, kind of like when I woke up with two broken arms and a whole lot of other things broken, too.
“So I rolled the dice and said, ‘Heck, why not do a blues album?’ As it turned out, the best blues label on the planet, Blind Pig, was at my gig and we had a chance to talk afterwards. At one point the conversation we started talking about doing a blues record, but I was apprehensive. I said, ‘Man, I love your label but I’m not a traditional blues guy.’ I had to confess that I thought Cream wrote Crossroads until I got older [laughs], and that I didn’t know that Born Under a Bad Sign wasn’t written by Eric Clapton. I explained that my blues roots were going to be more like ZZ Top, Clapton, Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Zeppelin. I said that I’m not a traditional blues player, but they actually liked the idea of doing something from a different point of view. They liked that I was influenced by people like Neal Schon and Stevie Ray Vaughn, who in turn were influenced the original blues legends – people like the great Robert Johnson. So I went for it and made a blues record. It was a blast. For me, it’s a bucket list set of all of my favorite songs that I ever wanted to do.”
Speaking of bucket lists, does Chaquico have a bucket list of musicians he would like to play with?
“I would love to do something with Jimi Hendrix, but I might have to wait until the next world [laughs]. Clapton is someone I’ve always wanted to play guitar with, and Jeff Beck. I’ve rubbed shoulders with them. My bass player just got through mixing the new Santana album, and he works with Jeff Beck and Santana. That’s how close I’ve been able to get to some of my heroes, but aside from Carlos Santana, I haven’t jammed with guys like Clapton and Beck yet. I would absolutely love to do more stuff with Carlos.”
~ ~ ~
Remember Chaquico’s ’59 Les Paul Standard Sunburst? Now one of the rarest and most valuable guitars in the world – only 1,600 were produced – it had long been assumed destroyed, along with the rest of the Starship’s equipment in the notorious Lorelei concert riot in 1978. Then, in 2013, Pete Sears was miraculously reunited with his one-of-a-kind “Dragon” bass guitar, 35 years after it was lost in the riot. Sears got lucky; after seeing a photograph of it online, a German musician, who said he’d bought it from a private party in 1991, came forward, selling it back to Sears and giving Chaquico a glimmer of hope that maybe his guitar had survived as well.
And then, like something out of an episode of Dateline, a Vermont collector called him out of the blue with a stunning revelation – Chaquico’s treasured Sunburst hadn’t been destroyed after all. Using a serial number he’d seen in a German newspaper, the fan traced it to a collector in Southern California.
“My jaw hit the floor,” Chaquico recalls, noting that because the collector used aliases, he had to hire a private detective to find him. “The guy was stunned. He said, ‘I can’t believe this, but it’s obviously your guitar and I want to give it back.’”
But before the collector would agree to part with it, he wanted to be reimbursed the $180,000 that he originally paid for it ten years earlier. He allowed Chaquico, his lawyer, and Norman Harris – the dealer who originally sold him the Sunburst for about $4,000 – to take a look at the guitar close up.
“It’s exactly the same as the last time I saw it, right down to the little belt buckle scratches in the back that I put on it,” Chaquico says. “Even after all these years, the guitar looks just like it did on the night of the riot.”
Attorneys for Chaquico and the collector agreed on mediation, but the negotiations quickly fell apart.
“After a year of time and energy, and tens of thousands of dollars spent on my part – paying a lawyer and a private investigator – the guy with the guitar said he didn’t want to give it up, that he didn’t want to give it back to me,” Chaquico says. “Since we’re working through attorneys now, I have no idea why he changed his mind, but I suspect that he feels that the value of the guitar is far greater because I played it on all those hits.”
The case is now headed to federal court.
“I had no choice,” Chaquico says. “Part of me understands why the guy changed his mind. He took great care of the guitar and paid a lot of money for it. But the bottom line is it’s stolen property. It’s my baby. It has great sentimental value to me. This quest isn’t only for me. It’s for all the musicians who have ever had their instruments lost or stolen over the years, then eventually found, and just want to get them back.”
~ ~ ~
Chaquico knows how lucky he is – lucky to be alive, first and foremost. He’s never taken anything for granted, and he’s spent a lifetime giving back. He’s involved with the American Music Therapy Association, an organization that uses music in connection with other healing modalities to help people heal. He plays for a wide range of patients – Alzheimer’s, geriatric, pediatric, and Down’s Syndrome among them. He gives freely of his time and energy in a variety of other philanthropic endeavors. He grants interviews and cheerfully answers the same questions that he’s surely answered a million times before.
And he never forgets.
The crash that nearly claimed his life is never far from view, even after all of these years and the millions of records sold. He knows he could have easily died that night.
“Divine intervention,” he says without hesitation. “I say thanks every day that I was able to make it through that crash and all of the rehab, and everything else that came after is just a bonus. I love the way my life worked out and I wouldn’t change anything. I love playing music. And I guess if I was going to say anything about my musical experience, I would say that you never believe the first ‘no’, and it doesn’t matter how many ‘no’s’ there are, all you need is the right ‘yes’. I think that if there is anything that’s common in people who’ve found success in what they do, I think it’s that they would be doing it regardless of the money or the notoriety. For me, it all goes back to surviving that crash. Nothing would have been possible if that night had turned out differently.”
Chaquico never forgets.
“That was a frightening time, those days and weeks after that crash,” he says. “Years later, I went back to the same hospital that took such good care of me, and I played some songs off of my first acoustic album, Acoustic Highway. By then I’d already done all of the multi-platinum, million-selling Jefferson Starship / Starship tours around the world, with Grace Slick and all of that, but I just thought it would be a neat way to give back. It was a great experience, but I had hoped to get in touch with the doctor, Elizabeth, who had helped me get through the darkest period of my life. Unfortunately she had retired. I was so disappointed. I wanted to give her a high-five and thank her for doing such a great job. And I wanted to play guitar for her.”
Chaquico is a lucky man.
It’s only fitting – poetic – that luck played a part in closing the loop on the story that started out the way all of those tragic rock stories end.
“I never did get a chance to give my doctor a high five,” he says, pausing. “It was something I thought about often, because I couldn’t imagine how I would have ended up without her care and encouragement. I wouldn’t have been able to play that guitar solo that was intended for Jerry Garcia. I wouldn’t have played on all of those great records.
“Well, I was playing an outdoor concert in Sedona, Arizona, and there was a woman was in the audience who knew my story. She happened to work as a private investigator, and she had found a way to contact Elizabeth. I was floored. In a complete act of spontaneity, I reached out to her from the concert, right then and there, and we were able to hold my iPhone up so that she could see me play. It was a surreal, beautiful, moving experience for us both. To me, it’s another case of divine intervention. That’s only a theory, but it’s beyond coincidence when something comes full circle like that.”