Jorma Kaukonen – founding member of Jefferson Airplane, co-founder of Hot Tuna, teacher, archivist, brilliant rock, folk and blues guitarist, and tinkerer extraordinaire – charts his journey, so far, in a new memoir, and hits the road for more music at 77
Guitarist and songwriter Jorma Kaukonen has long been in the spotlight–as a 1950s high-schooler playing blues in Washington, D.C. clubs and later as a founding member of Jefferson Airplane. In 1969, Kaukonen launched Hot Tuna, a band that played both raucous rock and traditional blues, with Airplane band mate, bassist Jack Casady; over the last four-plus decades, he has also gone on to pick out successful solo projects and assemble acclaimed touring bands. Hitting the road again this month—his motor revved by a new memoir, due out tomorrow —the ever-curious Kaukonen is looking back and ahead at the same time.
What is it that makes us who and what we are? If I truly knew, I wouldn’t have to write this book. I’ve got some suspicions though. Our first moments of existence grow in the darkness of our mother’s womb. At some point the moment comes when we venture from darkness to the light of the world. It seems that we have been waiting for a long time. My first memories of light in the world seem to be about two or three years of age, and I remember this because that light came to me in the form of my mother’s song. When Mom was at home doing whatever chores awaited her, she would always sing, and if she wasn’t singing, the radio was on and song would fill the room. Music seemed to me to be the reward for being alive. To me, nothing has the power to evoke a place in time like music. It stirs memory in a singular way that is unmatched.
So opens Jorma Kaukonen’s new autobiography, Been So Long. He goes on in that preface to describe his early musical worlds, from practicing for his junior high piano recitals to working out open-mike renditions with friends Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia. In describing those first times on stage, Kaukonen says he loved performing, professing, “I was nervous and excited, but not afraid. For someone who was intrinsically shy as I was, this gave me a way to communicate on a primal level.”
That primal level has long been available to avowed “Jorma” fans: from the snaking, sitar-like, guitar run that follows Casady’s thrumming bassline at the opening of Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 “White Rabbit” and on throughout each decade of Hot Tuna.
Here is the Airplane, on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967:
Kaukonen’s impassioned finger-picking style earned him a 2002 Grammy nomination for “Blue Country Heart”, a top-charting folk album that re-connected both Kaukonen and his audience to the music of country stars Jimmy Rodgers, Jimmy Davis, Gene Autry and The Delmore Brothers, stand-outs from the 1930s and 1940s who first caught Kaukonen’s ear as a kid.
Now, at 77, Kaukonen still plays “out” nearly 80-some times a year, and whenever he’s not touring he shares his musicianship in retreats and performances he hosts on his Southeast Ohio Fur Peace Ranch. The Ranch has been developed by he and his wife Vanessa since the early 1990s, a time when Kaukonen reveals in Been So Long he was struggling with aging parents and staying clear of drugs and alcohol. The property had been left to an old pal from his San Francisco days and was, as Kaukonen recounts, a “fur piece from anywhere.” In a call last week, he described discovering the 126-acre spread as “nothing but poison ivy and multiflora rose, which is Br’er Rabbit’s briar patch, and an old dilapidated A-frame. Because I always liked teaching, I thought my wife and I could build a music school there. It took time, and we’ve built a place that now has a museum [called “The Psylodelic Gallery” containing 1960s-centered artwork, clothing and exhibits, all housed in a grain silo], a theater [the 200-seat Station Concert Hall], a restaurant and all kinds of stuff. What it really is, though, is a community of like-minded spirits of all ages, that all love music. It just feels good to do what we do there.”
Among Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch “instructors” are his former bandmates and fellow musical contemporaries, including G.E. Smith, Arlo Guthrie, Oteil Burbridge, Steve Kimock, Warren Haynes–the list goes on–and, of course, Jack Casady. Musical guests at the Ranch are also a folk, soul and blues who’s who; upcoming sold-out shows are set to feature Moonalice, Gretchen Peters and Tom Paxton, Bettye Lavette, Hubby Jenkins and Magic Dick with Shun Ng. In describing the setting, Kaukonen added, “We’re about twenty miles from the University of Ohio in Athens, and that makes it not as xenophobic as it otherwise might be; it’s not deep country as I know it—I can still hear the highway—but it’s deep country to city people.”
The highway is a draw to Kaukonen; he feels he would have been a truck driver had he not been a musician. Both in his book and on our call, he described the bliss he feels while on wheels. As hot-rod minded as he’s ever been, Kaukonen currently rides a 2016 CVO Breakout Harley-Davidson and drives a pick-up with a Cummins turbo diesel.
“I’ve been a gearhead since I was a kid”, Kaukonen explained. “It’s always been important to me to have horsepower.”
That love of power and precision is evident throughout Been So Long, not only in recounting his motorcycles and automobiles, but also conveying his guitar gear–from his first Gibson Sunburst J-45 in 1956 to the specs of the Martin Jorma M-30 he plays today. In one three-page sequence of the book, Kaukonen details learning the basics of finger-picking–“the thumb plays quarter notes and the fingers play the melody, typically eighth notes”–and then rebuilds a Triumph 650cc motorcycle so he can buy a new guitar. Kaukonen’s drive for precision can also be seen in his playing and his teaching, with much of that expertise available freely online in countless live videos.
In re-capping Been So Long, Kaukonen says, “My publisher would have been happier if I had more stories about Jerry and Janis and that kind of stuff. What I told them was, ‘Look, we’re having this conversation because I have visibility as an artist. All these people were just my buddies. It wasn’t like I was a fan, saying, ‘Wow, I got to hang out with Janis backstage.’ To me, it was just another day.” In the book’s Afterword, Casady–who first connected with Kaukonen as neighborhood friends in 1956–writes, “You would think I would know something about someone during all this time, and perhaps I do somewhat. I have been drawn to Jorma’s ability to tell a story and put so many to song. However, here is the chance for me to absorb some of the deep aspects to this man’s life and feelings, from childhood to present.”
All that said, Kaukonen does delve into certain “rock god” experiences in detail, such as discovering cocaine at The Monterey Pop Festival, courtesy of Owsley Stanley; playing at Woodstock and providing what Grace Slick proclaimed “Morning Maniac Music”; living at The Airplane’s infamous Fulton Street mansion; flying to Washington, D.C. in a Lear Jet for a Bobby Kennedy fundraiser; pulling Slick out of her Doyle Drive car crash (they were racing–she in her Mercedes and he in his Lotus Elan); his thinking of amphetamines as “a working drug” and finding the gregarious Garcia happily smoking opium in a closet.
As Casady suggests, the most satisfying parts of the book are Kaukonen’s insight to his growing up abroad, the son of an American diplomat; his learning to avoid conflict at home, how that came to haunt him as he “grew up”; and his musical influences and how they came into his life. Those remembrances are the core of Been So Long, and much of his personal storyline is already in place by the time Kaukonen reaches Antioch College in 1959 as a motorcycle-riding, blues and folk-influenced, socially-conscious wild-child. Having kept a journal for decades and looking back on the book, Kaukonen said last week, “I just couldn’t get everything in there.”
One of the things “not in there” is Kaukonen’s vision; he needs and wears glasses, but never on stage. When asked what he sees when going on stage, Kaukonen answered, “You go from the dark into the light, it’s like moving into a parallel universe. There’s another thing–I’m blind as a bat without my glasses and have worn glasses since I was 12 for everything that requires seeing, like driving. But I’ve never worn them on stage because, God forbid, I make eye contact with someone and forget what I’m doing, where I’m going and what I’m in the middle of.” Kaukonen also omits discussing his gold-capped front tooth, the remnant of an early Airplane-era skating accident originally covered by a white cap, but then knocked out by his ex-wife who was practicing her sparring in the studio one night: “She was practicing an overhand combination–like she needed to be doing that–and her right hand clipped the cap and the tooth came off. When you lose a tooth in that part of your mouth, it’s like you drop 80 points off your IQ. I never liked how the white cap felt and wanted one in gold instead. The dentist said, ‘You’re going to look horrible’; I said, ‘That’s what I want’, and it’s been there ever since.”
Despite not seeing his audience clearly–and being able to, potentially, scare them with a smile–Kaukonen takes the musician/listener relationship seriously. He explained that when he started, “In the folk theaters in San Jose, the lights stayed on because they had espresso machines and bars, so people had to see what they were doing; you were in a room with a bunch of people and there was a feeling of being part of a dialogue. I have always felt a responsibility–I think all of us that are fortunate to have an audience–have a responsibility to give them the best of us at any given time. I’ve gotten to a place in my life where I don’t have train wrecks. I do the best I can in the moment to communicate with that particular audience–that means being a stickler for what I do with the guitar and being as honest and clear as I can with my voice.”
For better or for worse, music has always been my beacon and I have followed it most of the time. The sounds of music in general and the guitar in particular have always pierced my night with a welcome glow. The feeling of the guitar on my lap and my hand on the neck has always surrounded me in a protective armor of tranquility. After all these years, the feeling is stronger than ever. The light brought me out of the darkness and into the world, and at some point I will follow the last light and it will take me home. I’m definitely not in a hurry for that journey. – Jorma Kaukonen, “Been So Long”
In His Own Words
Jorma looks back at San Francisco of the early 1960s
Recorded August 7, 2018
PKM: What brought together San Francisco’s psychedelic 1960s scene?
Jorma Kaukonen: It’s absurd to say today because it’s now so ridiculously expensive, but San Francisco in the early Sixties was a cheap place to live. My first apartment in San Francisco was a three-floor walk up on Divisadero Street in the Western Addition–a three-room apartment with a garage; it was like $80 a month. Artists gravitated to San Francisco because they could afford to live there; that was the draw–you could live cheap, and there were a lot of second-hand stores, a lot of cool stuff; that and there was the romantic cachét of the Barbary Coast, the pubs, the cable cars, the beatniks and all that.
What happened for us had been brewing in the witch’s cauldron for a number of years. I came because I was in love with the beat scene–or, more accurately, what I perceived what the beat seemed to be, because I’d never been to San Francisco before and I had never actually seen it. I had read this and that–Kerouac, Burroughs–it was really enticing to me, on every level.
I wanted to go to the University of San Francisco; my grades weren’t good enough and I ended up at Santa Clara University [outside of San Jose]. It was just one of those things it was meant to be. Our little folk scene in San Jose [David Crosby, Jerry Garcia, Paul Kantner, Janis Joplin, Steve Talbott, Tom Hobson, Mike Wilhelm] ruled for a while, but San Jose in those days was this two-bit town with a couple of universities in it; San Francisco was where the action was.
I graduated college in ’65; that was the year that Kantner moved to San Francisco, and because he does, I wind up getting called into play. My scene moved from being a big fish in a small pond in the San Jose/Santa Clara area to being a non-entity for a while in San Francisco, but thanks to Paul, who had already met Marty [Balin] and Signe [Anderson], what would become The Airplane was already in the mix. Again, it was just one of those things it was meant to be.
[In Been So Long, Kaukonen describes that first meeting with his soon-to-be bandmates at The Matrix in San Francisco and plugging into Ken Kesey’s Maestro Echoplex EP-2, an electronic effects unit being used at The Acid Tests. That “just plain fun”, as Kaukonen remembers it, caused him to tell Kantner to “Count me in…at least for a little while.” He still has no explanation of how Kesey came to be there that night and why Kesey happened to have that effects unit with him.]
Jorma continues his thought…
You can’t drop the acid thing out of the San Francisco equation. Acid was not a drug I was particularly fond of. It lasted so long and I just couldn’t play on it. The whole Merry Prankster scene, like The Acid Test stuff, was a little bit frightening to me on some level. But even back then, I recognized that what was happening as a result of what they were doing was really important; there were major changes happening in our culture in San Francisco.
And I’m not an expert on this, but by the time the rest of America, the rest of the world, became aware of what we were doing in San Francisco, that really integral artistic community where everybody knew each other, regardless of what kind of an artist they were–graphic, spoken word, musician, whatever–had already started to dissipate.
As soon as “it” hit Look, Life or Time, or whatever magazine had the first thing about the pre-Summer of Love and then the Summer of Love, people started to come from all over the place. Now you had a town full of homeless people. Things got different, fast; the nurturing, artistic scene that was so real, and so important to all of us, was already gone. Interestingly enough, when you look back–and when you think of how short that scene was–it has very long legs today.
PKM: Who would you like to see again from those days?
Jorma Kaukonen: George Hunter from The Charlatans! It’s hard to imagine what would have happened had not The Charlatans gone to Virginia City [Nevada, in June 1965] and started their scene there at The Red Dog Saloon. When they came back to San Francisco that fall, they played some of the first Family Dog shows at Longshoreman’s Hall.
The Charlatans: “The Shadow Knows”:
You look back at all this history that people are still so excited about and you always kinda rewrite it in your own light. What was the role of The Jefferson Airplane? What exactly was the psychedelic era? All that. After I saw the Rockin’ at the Red Dog documentary, I realized that The Charlatans–Dan Hicks, Mike Wilhelm, George and all those guys–they started that entire hippie-dance-hall scene. They had the clothes, the poster art, Owsley’s acid. I’d love to see George again, just because I want to see what he looks like today.
[A witches’ cauldron, The Pranksters, The Charlatans and The Warlocks–the latter later to become better known as the Grateful Dead–such a conjuring confluence of names and imagery all in one place; San Francisco didn’t stand a chance. And, yes, we at PKM reached out to The Charlatans’ George Hunter, by way of Ben Marks of Collectors Weekly and The Rock Poster Society, and are connecting him to Jorma Kaukonen. To see Kaukonen’s tour schedule, click here.]