30 Years Ago: Brutal Fight Changes Starship Forever
One of rock's most dramatic feuds boiled over on Sept. 24, 1989, when Starship's tour in support of Love Among the Cannibals reached Scranton, Penn. By the time it was over, Mickey Thomas would need facial reconstructive surgery and his longtime friend Donny Baldwin would be out of the group.
Their brutal altercation that night was all the more astonishing because Baldwin had served as drummer in the Elvin Bishop Band, where Thomas rose to early fame on the strength of their No. 3 1976 hit "Fooled Around and Fell in Love." It was Thomas who brought Baldwin on board in 1982 to replace Aynsley Dunbar in Jefferson Starship -- an act that originally grew out of one of the '60s signature flower-power groups, Jefferson Airplane.
On the outside looking in, their bond appeared to be rock solid. And times, for a while, had been good. Paul Kantner's subsequent, and quite bitter, split with the band led to a shortening of its moniker, and the newly rechristened Starship streaked even higher up the pop charts into the mid-'80s – with two Top 15 albums and three No. 1 singles.
Fast-forward to the end of the decade, and much had changed. Love Among the Cannibals followed the latest departure of Grace Slick, a stalwart who went back to the initial Jefferson Airplane days. This would also be the final album to feature Craig Chaquico, who had been guitarist on every previous Jefferson Starship/Starship release.
The pressure only intensified when Cannibals, released the month before, stalled on the charts – eventually limping to only No. 64, even with the Top 20 hit "It's Not Enough" in its arsenal. Then the Scranton show was canceled because of inclement weather. Starship retired to a local club, with plans to celebrate Chaquico's 35th birthday. Thomas emerged from the evening bloodied and broken.
"He was one of my best friends in the world until that crazy night," Thomas told the Marin Independent Journal. "It had to do with being on tour together for so many years in the crazy environment of the road. Being on the road is crazy enough without getting some other factors mixed in there, like resentment and alcohol and drugs. It was a very unfortunate incident that got out of hand. I'm sure each of us would love to go back and retrace our steps that night and make it different, but you can't do that. You change one thing and you may change the whole course of your life."
Listen to the Elvin Bishop Band Perform 'Fooled Around and Fell in Love'
Their friendship was such that, at first, Thomas refused to confirm he'd fought with Baldwin at all – claiming he had no idea who his attacker was. Speculation abounded. One initial news report placed the blame on a jealous boyfriend of a fan, saying the incident took place at an autograph session at the local Hilton. Another described it as a "parking-lot scuffle."
An RCA press release from a few days later, according to Jeff Tamarkin's Got a Revolution, only served to further muddy the waters. The label claimed Thomas had gotten into a dust-up while he was trying to defend one of Starship's backup singers. Manager Bill Thompson, meanwhile, told the San Francisco Chronicle that it happened outside Thomas' hotel room.
The damage, meanwhile, was shocking. Mickey Thomas' face was badly swollen, the result of massive injuries that included bone fractures around his eye. He'd also suffered broken ribs. Thomas tried to go to bed, but awoke in excruciating pain some three hours later. Starship's road manager finally took him to the nearby Mercy Hospital emergency room. Ultimately, doctors would insert three titanium plates in an effort to stabilize the area. Reconstructive surgery involved a cranial facial entry, which "basically means that they took my face off and then reattached it, with 60 staples in the top of my head," Thomas told Tamarkin.
Even when Donny Baldwin's departure was announced, weeks later, RCA chalked it up to the typical "creative differences." Only later did it become clear that something had been brewing between Mickey Thomas and Baldwin for some time. Thompson later admitted that the two had gotten into a shoving match earlier during the same tour. On another occasion, Baldwin had allegedly hit Thomas over the head with a drum stick. All of this, it's clear now, was leading to the eruption of violence that followed.
Watch Mickey Thomas and Donny Baldwin in Starship's 'No Way Out' Video
Despite the obvious severity of Thomas' injury, no charges were ever filed against Baldwin. Scranton police reportedly described Thomas and the band's crew as uncooperative. No witnesses had been found. "Donny was a great drummer and a funny, good-looking guy," Thomas told Tamarkin. "He just had that little dark side. He went to a place that I really wish he had not gone to, because I lost a friend in the process – as well as a piece of my face."
Already reeling, the Donny Baldwin incident effectively finished Starship. The remainder of the tour was postponed during Thomas' recovery. Kenny Stayripolous was hired to replace Baldwin, and a pair of singers took over for Grace Slick, who briefly joined a reformed Jefferson Airplane for a poorly selling self-titled 1989 reunion disc. She then retired, though her tangles with Thomas continued into the next decade when she took him to court in what would become a round robin of post-breakup suits and countersuits.
As with Baldwin, Mickey Thomas seems to hold no ill will for his former co-singer. "I think the world of Grace," Thomas told the Independent Journal. "Our relationship was always great. There are absolutely no hard feelings. But she's living her life and I'm doing my thing, and we don't get a chance to see each other or talk to each other as much as I'd like to."
Craig Chaquico left after the Cannibals tour concluded, and Starship announced that it would go dark, save for two new songs added to a 1991 hits package. But within a couple of years, Thomas began touring again as Starship Featuring Mickey Thomas, eventually issuing the band's first post-Cannibals release, 2013's Loveless Fascination.
Meanwhile, Paul Kantner jump-started Jefferson Starship again in 1992. Donny Baldwin surfaced as a member of that group in 2012, joining a lineup that also includes longtime member David Freiberg.
Slick, along with manager Thompson, also sued Kantner for touring under the Jefferson Starship name, citing their initial separation agreement in 1985. (All parties later agreed that Kantner could go forward, after paying Slick and Thompson an undisclosed fee.) These backstage issues, already brewing long before the Baldwin altercation, originally sparked the album title for Thomas – who still calls Love Among the Cannibals a lost Starship classic.
"There was a lot of other stuff going on during the making of that record," Thomas told Something Else! in 2013. "Grace had left the band, and then Paul was suing the band. Then Grace was suing Paul, and Paul was suing Grace – and they were suing our manager. That’s kind of what made me come up with the title and the song 'Love Among the Cannibals.' I thought, Wow, these people kind of exemplify the whole love generation of the late '60s, peace-and-love and wearing flowers in your hair and let’s-change-the-world, and now all they want to do is sue each other. 'Love Among the Cannibals' was my statement about all of that."
Mickey Thomas has still not spoken to his old buddy Baldwin after all these years. "From that day on, whenever I look in the mirror, it's a different face looking back at me than the face I previously knew," Thomas told Tamarkin. "So, it's pretty hard to forget. I'm just afraid that if were were to see each other and try to be friends again, something would happen that would open the old wounds, and we'd be at it again, and I don't want that. But, boy, do I miss him."