Rockers rush to aid ailing Jefferson Starship guitarist

Slick Aguilar, lead guitarist of Jefferson Starship, had a liver transplant last year and has run up over $1 million in medical bills. His friends will throw a benefit for him Friday, March 14 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC).

Somewhere in between talking about contracting hepatitis C, his 16 hour liver transplant surgery and the cost of the 34 pills he takes every day, Slick Aguilar tells stories about how lucky he’s been.

SAN FRANCISCO: Slick Aguilar (L) and Paul Kantner (R) attend the Ben and Jerry's One World One Heart Festival at the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park on September 20, 1992.

Like the story about how he met his wife. Or how he was discovered by David Crosby – yes, of Stills & Nash and sometimes Young. Or how a developer named Steve Silverman decided to throw a benefit for him at NJPAC on Friday.

“He is my angel,” Aguilar said. “I had doctors who saved my life. Friends who help me. There is a God, and he has blessed me. I’ve been very, very lucky.”

It begins with Crosby, because the rest of Aguilar’s luck plays off his life as a rock guitarist. In the early ’80s, he had a regular gig with a “jam band” called The Tattoos at the Coconut Grove Hotel in Miami.

“David was in town and he was at this guy’s house, listening to a homemade recording, and said, ‘Hmm, who’s that on guitar?’ The guy said, ‘That’s Slick Aguilar. He’s playing tonight. Wanna go see him?’ “

After the show, Crosby asked Aguilar if he wanted to join his band.

“I said, ‘When?’ He said, ‘Tomorrow night. Pack a suitcase, we’re going on the road.'”

Aguilar was then asked by Marty Balin, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane, to join a new band. Eight years later, they became Jefferson Starship.

Pete Sears, David Freiberg, Slick Aguilar, Marty Balin and David Crosby

It was during a Starship show at the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank that he met Maureen McGee, who was there because she won a radio station giveaway.

“I went out for a smoke and I saw this woman and thought, ‘I got to get to know her,’ ” he said. “I never told her I was in the band. When we took the stage, she said to her friend, ‘That’s the guy! That’s the guy I met outside!’ After the show, I rushed out to catch her.”

Long story short, they’re still together, living in Long Branch with son, Mark. Life was pretty good to Slick Aguilar.

“Man, the people I’ve played with … you stick around long enough, you know everybody,” and he begins to name more names. Carlos Santana, Jimmy Buffett, KC & the Sunshine Band …

This conversation was taking place in McLoone’s Pier House in Long Branch, when over the sound system came a cover of “I Can’t Tell You Why” by the Eagles. Aguilar tells a story about how the Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit played a rough version for him before it was recorded.

“He was like, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Man, it’s beautiful.’ ”

Aguilar, 59, who brought his Fender Stratocaster to the restaurant, began, un-amped, to play along. When “Mrs. Robinson” came on next and he moved effortlessly into Paul Simon’s signature riff, all while talking about his illness.

Slick Aguilar & Mark Karan

The first time he knew something wrong, he was on stage with Starship in New York on New Year’s Eve.

“It was about 10 years ago and I got this tension in my forearm, and my index finger started curling up.”

Swelling in his legs, fatigue and shortness of breath followed in the coming years. Three years ago, it could no longer be ignored. He was diagnosed with hepatitis C and his liver was shutting down.

Around that time, Jefferson Starship played at a yearly backyard party for developer Steve Silverman in Monmouth Beach.

Silverman said he always hires bands “that supplied the soundtrack of our lives. These were bands my friends and I tried to emulate in our bands when we were, 12, 13, 14.”

He’s had Dave Mason, Felix Cavaliere, Mark Farner of Grand Funk, Paul Rogers from Bad Company, Don Felder from the Eagles, Lou Gramm of Foreigner, Starship and Little Feat.

After the Starship show, the band “just hung out,” Silverman said. “The sun was going down over the Navesink. It was a perfect day.”

He and Aguilar became friends. And he needed a friend like Silverman. Since his liver started going bad, Aguilar’s medical bills have topped $1 million. One of his prescriptions cost $1,000 a pill.

“It supposed to cure the hepatitis C,” he said. “I have to take it two times a day for 84 days. What’s that? $168,000 just for one drug.”

When Silverman decided to throw the benefit, he knew the perfect headliner — Gramm, the voice and co-writer of Foreigner’s dozen Top 10 hits, and his solo records.

Foreigner, New York, 7th February 1977. Left to right: drummer Dennis Elliott, lead guitarist Mick Jones, rhythm guitarist Ian McDonald, bassist Ed Gagliardi (1952 - 2014), keyboard player Al Greenwood and singer Lou Gramm.

Gramm had what was thought to be an inoperable brain tumor in the mid-1990s. It wrapped itself around his optic nerve and pituitary gland.

“They said there was nothing they could do. They sent me home to die,” he said.

A few days later, he saw a TV special about a doctor who was doing revolutionary brain surgery, and Gramm called. Within three days, he was in surgery. That was in March 1997. By that August, he was touring Japan, though the road to full recovery has been long.

“I had my life saved,” he said. “So when I was asked to do this, I got a pang in my heart that was undeniable. I’m a Christian man, and when I can help, I will.”

The show will be at NJPAC’s Victoria Theater, at 8 p.m. Friday. Tickets are AVAILABLE through Ticketmaster’s website.

Click HERE for this article as posted by Mark Di Ionno/Star-Ledger Columnist on March 11, 2014.