Gary James' Interview With Craig Chaquico Of
Jefferson Starship and Starship
Craig Chaquico, as a member of Jefferson Starship from 1974 to 1990, was the only member of the band to appear on every recording, album, tour and music video. His first solo album in 1993, "Acoustic Highway"" was Billboard's Number One Independent New Age Album Of The Year. His follow-up album, "Acoustic Planet" led to a Grammy nomination in the category of Best New Age Album and went to number one on the Billboard chart. Craig Chaquico plans to tour the world in 2016, performing the Jefferson Starship and Starship songs he helped make famous in addition to playing songs from his solo albums released over the past twenty-three years.
These days Craig Chaquico is in a fight to recover his 1959 Les Paul Standard Starburst guitar, a guitar he used on the Jefferson Starship albums "Spitfire" and "Earth". And so we begin the interview with Craig talking about his struggle to get that guitar back.
Q - Craig, I've been reading about your ongoing battle to get your '59 Les Paul Standard Sunburst guitar back. After all the time and money you've spent, I hope that when you do get it back you write a hit song on it so you can re-coup your costs!
A - (laughs) I would just like to play it again. That would be worth it right there. You're right, a lot of money has been spent getting it back, but originally it was lost in a riot in Germany in 1978 which is the last time Jefferson Starship with that line-up played together. You know, the line-up that did "Red Octopus", "Dragonfly", "Earth", "Spitfire". That line-up with the original eight of us, the last time we played together was the last show Grace, Marty and John ever played with us in 1978. That's when I lost this guitar that was thought to be destroyed. It showed up in somebody's guitar collection this year (2016) and we're just trying to get it back. He was very cool about it at first. He said, "Oh my God. It is your guitar," 'cause we have all the serial numbers and photos and so I've been spending tens of thousands of dollars traveling back and forth to California to do all these depositions to try to make it so he can get his insurance company to pay him or get it from the guy he bought it from. Now, for some reason he has recently decided not to give it back at all. So that leaves me having spent all this time and energy to help him get his insurance to find out that now he doesn't even want to give it back to me. I'm thinking that guitar was on all those hits. My guitar. I bought it. It belongs to me. For now we have to sort of go to court and let a judge decide.
Q - Where was the security on that stage that night? Didn't the venue have security?
A - It was an outdoor show and I'm sure they had the normal security, but I don't think they had ever had a riot. I have never been in a riot. I left before it started. So when I went back the next day I saw nothing left but a big, burnt patch of ground. It looked like a plane crash. This is before the Internet. This is before cable TV. It made all three network news channels in America 'cause that's all there was back then. It looked like a plane crash. To me it was like showing up at the airport to pick up your girlfriend and finding out that the plane crashed and she's in that rubble. There was nothing at all to ever indicate that anything had survived. I know that we have crew and security, but we had to get to the next concert. A couple of days later we were playing in front of 100,000 people in Knebworth, England with Genesis, Tom Petty, Devo and some other bands. We were playing on rented equipment. None of these were our instruments. I had taken the guitars that I had loved. I probably lost girlfriends with the time I spent with these guitars. (laughs) So it really was like losing a girlfriend when it got destroyed in that riot. Every time I hear a song on the radio with one of my solos, I know it was played on that guitar which now apparently is still around. I mean, we thought they were destroyed. Everything about it made it look as if everything was gone until Pete Sears actually got his bass back maybe two years ago. Since then I started thinking if he got his bass back maybe my guitars are around. But there was no way to track it down until someone out of the blue... because it was a Star Wars Christmas Special I was in, contacted me about a guitar I played in that and somehow the conversation led to the riot in Lorelei (Germany) and this fellow had tracked down an article that was written in the '70s in German right after the riot that had the serial numbers in it. There were thirty to forty people on the road with us. We were on tour to play our music so somewhere along the line somebody must've got the word out and these serial numbers were available even though everything was destroyed and thirty years later this guy has a copy of it and shows me these serial numbers of my original Les Paul. Here's where it get really interesting, like the Raiders Of The Lost Arc movie. I swear to God. He said not only did he discover me through the Star Wars Christmas Special, which is iconic in its own way 'cause it's such a strange production. It's so bad, it's good. One of those. The science fiction song I wrote sort of talks about ancient astronauts. This is back in the '70s. The guitar I was playing was a black, custom made Boogie body Strat, except for a few pieces of chrome. It was supposed to look like the Orion constellation. He thought that guitar was the one he owned. He wanted to know if that was the one I played in the Special. He said he had the serial number from the riot. I said no because if it was in the riot it was destroyed. The one I played in the Special was a duplicate that I already had made. I said you can keep the guitar either way, but if you have those serial numbers maybe I can find some of my other guitars. He said that he knew where the Sunburst was. I practically fell out of my chair when he said it. He told me somebody had it and published the serial number and a picture of it. So here it was. I thought thirty-seven years ago I went to the airport and the plane crashed with my girlfriend in it and now I find out she never got on the plane and she's had amnesia all these years and didn't know where I was and I didn't know where she was, if you want to make the analogy the guitar is like a girlfriend. I'm going, "I would sure like to get my guitar back," and the guy was totally into it. He said, "I want to give it back to you." He thought it more of an investment. He thought of it as a retirement thing. I forget the story, but he inherited some money from his wife and bought this and he keeps it in his safe and doesn't really play it much. When I bought it, I bought it to play it. I played the guitar on all those hits. He seemed to be really anxious to give it back at first, and so for the last year or so I've been spending tens of thousands of dollars and traveling to California to talk to his lawyers and his insurance people so he doesn't come out bad. I'm sure he didn't think it was stolen when he bought it. He didn't steal it. He just bought it from a guitar dealer thinking it was a valuable instrument. Now he finds out it's stolen. It's really not his fault. I said, "Let's get you another one so I can have mine back," and that's what we've been doing for a year, trying to get him another one or get his insurance to pay him so he's not out his investment.
Q - A judge has to rule in it.
A - Now he does because the guy doesn't even want to give it back. At one point he wanted to totally give it back. For some reason he's changed his mind and I don't know why that would be. Now that he doesn't want to give it back, it has to go to court. It has to be a cut and dried "You're in possession of stolen goods." The judge has to decide who is the rightful owner of my guitar right now.
Q - Did you ever meet Les Paul?
A - Yes, I did. My Dad and I were in a bad car crash and my Dad told me how Les Paul was in a bad car crash. I broke both my arms, my thumb, my wrist, my leg, my foot and my ankle in this crash. There's a picture of me on my web page playing my little guitar with my hands in casts 'cause I could only reach one string 'cause of the way the casts were. I wrote a song on the one string that was on a Grammy nominated album thirty years later for my doctor whose name was Elizabeth. So, I called it "E-Lizabeth's Song". Little did I know it would be on a Grammy nominated album years later. My Dad told me about Les Paul and promised me that if I got through my therapy with the crutches and the corrective shoes and the wheelchair that he would buy me a Les Paul when I got healed. He told me Les Paul was in a bad accident and he became a great guitar player with a guitar named after him. My Dad was trying to encourage me that anything was possible. Dad kept his promise and bought me a Les Paul. After he bought me that one, which sort of looked like a '56, he hadn't bought a real Les Paul, I bought a Sunburst which was the one that was lost. When I met the real Les Paul at a benefit, I had drawn a picture of my old '59 Sunburst on the back of a Levi jacket. They all kind of look the same really. It's a Sunburst Les Paul. I had Les Paul sign it. I signed it. Then I had a bunch of guitar player friends sign it like Slash, Sammy Hager, Jerry Garcia, Santana, and Les Paul signed it with his own autograph. Incidentally, he told me that isn't his autograph. The Art Department came up with that signature. He had to learn to sign his name like it is on the Les Paul. I told him we're going to donate this jacket for the cancer benefit. I asked him, "Doesn't that make you feel good that all this healing is coming from your music?" He kind of smiled and said, "Yeah." With all the history he created, I'm sure my little story was just a drop in the bucket, but it was really neat to meet him.
Q - How is Grace Slick doing these days? We don't hear much about her.
A - I just spoke with her recently 'cause Paul (Kantner) passed, but she's always been the same to me. She's always been really smart and quick and witty and funny and sarcastic and loveable. As far as I can tell she's going to be that way forever. We did talk under the sad circumstances of losing one of our band members. She's kind of gotten out of performing. It's not as much fun for her as it used to be so she mostly paints and writes. An artist like that is always going to be doing something creative. We hadn't actually spoken for a few months before. For some reason, I don't know if it was a premonition or not, it occurred to me that all the original band from '78 hadn't played since that riot where I lost these guitars, maybe if I got my guitar back and Pete Sears got his bass back recently, that maybe would could get together and do a re-creation. I said we're all still alive and kickin'. I talked to everybody, including Grace, and nobody said no. In fact, three of the guys wanted to do it right away. They said, "You think Paul would want to do it?" Then when I tried to get a hold of him he was in the hospital and wasn't available back then. It had been ruminating. Suddenly he dies of organ failure. So that was the next time I talked to her was then. I never mentioned anything about the band getting together at that point, but before that I knew that she was kind of out of the scene. She liked the idea that we were still all around, but she was just thinking, man, nobody's gonna want to see me sing after all these years. I'm going, "That's where you're wrong! Grace, even if you just came out for a couple of songs." That was quite a while ago that we talked about that. As far as she's doing, she's still the same Amazing Grace. (laughs)
Q - You're talking about doing a world tour this year. Is that as a solo act or part of a band?
A - I've had the same bass player and drummer in my own band for the last twenty years. In fact, my bass player just mixed the new Santana album. He's also a great engineer. When I first met him he did a piece in my little recording studio in the '80s in Mill Valley, California. He was a student. Talk about student becoming a teacher. Now he's a total professional engineer and bass player in my band. Besides finishing up Santana's 'live' record, Jim Reitael, my bass player is finishing up my 'live' DVD and a recording that we did at the Sweetwater in Mill Valley, which was this little club in Mill Valley back when I first met Jim and where all the bands lived. When I moved there in the '70s every band was there. In fact, a lot of them were on my street. There was like Neal Schon, Greg Rolie, Carlos Santana, The Doobie Brothers, The Grateful Dead, Maria Muldaur, Grace Slick, Bonnie Raitt, Dan Hicks. Every musician basically lived in this little area. We would all go to this little club, the Sweetwater, even though it only sat about a hundred people. So, I went back there and recorded my band there on the 40th anniversary of "Red Octopus", June 13, 2015. So, we have a 'live' album of us and 'live' DVD so people can see what we look and sound like. After that, we're going to start dialing in more shows. It's Heaven for me. Talk about a bucket list! For me it's like playing all my favorite songs from five decades at the top of the charts. One way or another if I was a band member or band leader I'd been lucky enough to be on all these hits over the years. So I got to play the Jefferson Starship songs plus the stuff I do as a solo artist. Then I even self-indulge a little bit and play some of my favorite Hendrix, Clapton and some Blues in the set. A killer band like this and a great body of work to choose from, I couldn't be happier. Hopefully people will see what I'm doing and like it enough to go hear it.
Q - Is it easy or hard for you to write what I guess we would call a "hit" song?
A - Boy, it's a mystery that anything is ever a hit in the first place because I have never sat down to write a hit song. When we had our biggest hits like "Red Octopus" went to number 1 four different times one Summer, Grace and I laughed. The first few times we heard the band saying, "We're number one! We're number one!", Grace and I thought the Raiders or the 49ers had won a game. We thought home teams. San Francisco. We're number one. We didn't know we were number one. So, none of us ever sat down at a band meeting and said, "Let's make this number one album, "Red Octopus". We just said, "Let's make some good music." How do we do that? Without even saying that, that's what we did. That's what we intended to do. We just wanted to play good music. No one said here's a formula for a hit that I remember. But they just happened. So, when I helped co-write anything like "Jane" or "Find Your Way Back" and they became hits, or something on my solo record that were Grammy nominated, number one records, believe me, that was the last thing on my mind, especially when my first solo album ended up being a number one album on Billboard and my second album was Grammy nominated and also number one. I say that because when I was playing people those songs on the acoustic guitar after Starship, nobody thought they would be hits either. So it wasn't until a bunch of rejections that somebody put that album out and it became the number one album of the year and I get to do what I do now. The part about hits, how hard is it for me? Well, on one hand it's really easy because they just happen without me thinking about it, but on the other hand if I had to do it I wouldn't know how to do it. I wouldn't know to say here's the next hit. I didn't know my album was going to be number one or I might have hits on 'em. Somebody up there must like me man, maybe one more person up there, Paul, our rhythm guitar player who's in the Milky Way with the rest of those bands. It has to be Divine Intervention because I certainly don't deserve the credit for writing any hits, even though I have. I don't know who did those.
Q - How much did you know about Jefferson Starship before you joined the group?
A - Well, there was no Jefferson Starship. I was the original founding member with everybody else. There was Jefferson Airplane. While I was still in high school I was doing sessions for Paul and Grace on some of their solo albums like "Sunfighter", "Baron Von Tollbooth", "The Chrome Nun". There's a title for you, and Grace's solo album "Manhole" were all done while I was still in high school. I was a guest guitar player with a lot of other great guitarists that were friends. It just seems like there was a family of musicians that would get together and play on each other's albums. So when I was going into a session there would be Jerry Garcia, Graham Nash, The Pointer Sisters, John Cipollina, and it was just this big group of like-minded musicians that got together and played music, is how I perceived it. So for those first few years I was just one of those guys that they asked in to play along with all the other guys. When my band got a record contract with the Jefferson Airplane and we toured, we toured for what was first called Jefferson Starship On Tour. And at that point we hadn't done our album yet. Paul had used the name on a solo album that he did, a fabulous science fiction theme solo album called "Blows Against The Empire" where he basically referred to everybody in that story as hijacking the Starship and everybody on that album as Jefferson Starship. So, when they toured with me in the band, I was actually in both bands. I was in the opening band and Jefferson Starship. It was after that tour that they asked me if I wanted to do the Jefferson Starship album, "Dragonfly". They were going to get Pete Sears to work with them who just came over from England. Pete had done some of those same studio albums I had done, but he had been in England recording with Rod Stewart. He was willing to come and give it a shot. Of course when they asked me to do it after that first tour, boy, I couldn't believe my ears. It wasn't one of those things where I said "Have your people call my people. I'll get back to you." It was like, "Definitely. I'd love to do that." But I expected it to be just few months in San Francisco recording with them. I didn't know their album would be their first Gold album in years and Platinum and the albums I played on would all be the hits. So, who knew? I had no idea. I had not heard of Jefferson Starship. I had only heard of Jefferson Airplane. When I joined the band, who knew that I would be the only one on every hit 'til the end? I didn't know that. At the end of it all, I'm the only one on every hit tour and the guitars I'm trying to get back were on all the first ones. But no one can predict that. I had no idea that any of that was possible. In fact, this might all be a dream. (laughs)
Q - Let's hope not.
A - (laughs) Yeah, I hope not.
Q - You have your own management company?
A - I have my own manager. Incidentally, she is the daughter of the owner and publisher of Guitar Player magazine, which was the first magazine that I knew that I could go to and find information about my heroes. As a kid I would read stories about; it wasn't just a Pop magazine, it was a magazine about real guitar players from Rock stars to studio players to Country players, Bluegrass. Segovia could be in it. Duane Allman could be in it. Tommy Tedesco could be in it. This magazine was our Holy Grail. In fact, Joe Satriani and I, our similar ages and I think we grew up with that same inspiration, dreaming some day that we'd be on the cover of Guitar Player, and we were. Joe just wrote a forward to a book that's about those glory years that were Guitar Player back then in the '70s and '80s when were all aspiring to be working musicians. Ironically, my manager is the daughter of the owner and publisher of Guitar Player. So I'm feeling like that's a pretty good endorsement of my possible future in the music business. If she can see some potential in my guitar playing she might think I'm worth listening to. (laughs) That's my management company right now.
Q - After a show, what do fans come up and ask you about? I don't even know, do you get a chance to speak with anybody in the audience or are you off to the next gig?
A - We often get a chance to speak with the audience and there's some interaction during the show too. Afterwards it can be a variety of questions that go back to the songs with Jefferson Starship that started in the '70s. "Dragonfly" came out in '74. I started playing on those albums around '70, '71, and so sometimes they ask me about that, about Grace. Sometimes they have no idea I was in that band. They only know me from my instrumental music and my Jazz stuff. They'll ask me, "What's it like playing with George Benson?", instead of "What's it like playing with Grace Slick?" (laughs) So it can really vary, depending on what people are most familiar with. My concerts now, at least lately, I've had the chance to play music from all my Jefferson Starship stuff as well my solo stuff that I've done. Then I get to do some favorite songs like Hendrix and Clapton did with a little twist to it. I guess the main question I get now is "Who's your lead singer?" (laughs) We have a couple of lead singers we use for different parts, depending on the show. Everybody loved my lead singer. Maybe that means I need to practice my guitar more. Also, I think it means I'm lucky enough to have been in a band with great singers and have songs that I can go back and play that I wrote and played on with those iconic singers. Now I have singers with me that people like just as much. But I hear all kinds of different comments, like "What kind of guitar is that you're playing?" or "What did you play on this?". Hopefully I'll be hearing people asking, "What's it like to be playing your Les Paul now that you got it back?" (laughs)