Jorma Kaukonen has been a force in rock music for more than a half-century. A founding member of two groundbreaking bands – Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna – the singer-guitarist has just released his new autobiography, Been So Long: My Life and Music.
Kaukonen’s guitar work with the Airplane helped define psychedelic rock guitar; at the same time, his “Embryonic Journey” instrumental has become a folk rock classic.
With Hot Tuna, formed in 1969 with Airplane bassist Jack Casady, Kaukonen performs blues and roots music for enthusiastic audiences across the U.S. And with wife Vanessa, Kaukonen started Fur Peace Ranch in 1989 as “a ranch that grows guitar players.” Musicians gather at the Meigs County, Ohio “music farm” to learn guitar techniques from Kaukonen and some of the most accomplished pickers in the business.
Been So Long reveals that Kaukonen’s musical roots were planted long before San Francisco and the Summer of Love. As a college student, Kaukonen traveled to New York’s Greenwich Village, where he played hootenannies at Gerde’s Folk City. By 1962 he’d arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he met a struggling singer named Janis Joplin.
Kaukonen would bring Casady, a friend since their teens, into the Airplane, where they would perform with another powerful female vocalist of the ’60s, Grace Slick.
Rock Cellar talked with Kaukonen about some of the surprises readers will find in Been So Long.
Rock Cellar: You didn’t use your new book to settle scores with the crooked industry people you must have met along the way. Was that intentional?
Jorma Kaukonen: Yeah, I don’t really feel I have to settle scores. I’ve managed to live this long, and I read a lot of artists’ stuff and it just seems pointless to do that. To me, the thing I think was more important is my finding my place in the world. Along the way I’ve met good people and bad people. Any bad deals I made, if I didn’t give somebody the opportunity to do that to me, well then, what can I say.
I really like to avoid punchin’ down on people. Stuff’s gonna happen, we all know that.
Had I done this 15 years ago, it might have all been about that.
Rock Cellar: There’s a lot of new information here because in the ’60s, most of the coverage of the Airplane was about Grace.
Jorma Kaukonen: That’s the deal, you know? Like it or not, and I certainly had no problem with it, she was different as the front person of a band. She was talented, she was good lookin’ and she was Grace.
Rock Cellar: Many of those stories compared Grace with Janis Joplin.
Jorma Kaukonen: I don’t think there’s any comparison between the two. They were two extremely visible women in an era when there weren’t a lot of women. There were backup singers, but there weren’t a lot of women up front in the ’60s. From a personality and from a music point of view, they were so utterly different. If you’re just talking about them as being in-your-face women at a time when women tended not to be as in-your-face, I get that.
But if you’re talking about them as artists, it’s apples and oranges. It’s a lazy comparison.
Rock Cellar: Many fans don’t realize that you started in the days of beatniks, folk music and hootenannies.
Jorma Kaukonen: The world that I grew up in in the early ’50s was so monochromatic. And I think we’re always looking for that Technicolor aspect. For a kid from the suburbs of DC coming from a bureaucratic, government, white-collar family, the beatniks and all that went along with it seemed so appealing compared to that sort of suburban sameness — it just looked exciting.
I also read a lot and these people had adventures, like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. People went places. My father was in the Foreign Service and we traveled around a lot but that’s not the same thing as hitchhiking across the country or going to New York to play the guitar. All that stuff was exciting.
Rock Cellar: You went to New York in 1961.
Jorma Kaukonen: New York’s an exciting place, especially to somebody that’s living in a small town in Ohio or the suburbs of DC. It’s New York for God’s sake. I got a chance to meet a lot of people but I was a complete non-entity. I was a kid. And I was just learning how to finger pick.
The musical scene back then was so accessible, even to people like me that nobody had ever heard of or could care less about. New York was the epicenter of that folk stuff.
Rock Cellar: You played Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village.
Jorma Kaukonen: I had an entree with my friend Ian Buchanan. He was part of that scene. Ian was friends with Dave Van Ronk and one day he asked me, “We’re going to play poker at Dave’s place, do you want to go?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” And he said, “Yeah, but you have to sit in the corner and don’t say a word.”
And that’s what I did and it was great. So it was just exciting. The master blues guys were still alive. I remember Gerde’s because that was sort of a “home hootenanny” for me. Any time they had a hoot I got a chance to play.
And then I got to know the people. I remember seeing John Lee Hooker play there one time. I remember seeing him come in out of that little dingy dressing room in the back. I was sitting at the bar and these two beautiful blonde women were there and I remember thinking, “I gotta be a blues man, this looks great.”
Rock Cellar: By 1962 you’d arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area to go to school.
Jorma Kaukonen: I had just come to Santa Clara. I was walkin’ around and looking at this odd, extremely conservative world that it was at that time and there’s a bunch of flyers up about a hootenanny at this place called the Folk Theater. I was so used to playing hoots that immediately, I was like “OK, I’m gonna be OK, I’m gonna be fine here.”
And I went there and that night, there’s Janis. It’s such an odd thing. Why she was in San Jose rather than San Francisco where she lived, I haven’t the slightest idea. But I guess we all were looking for places to play.
Rock Cellar: By 1965 the Airplane formed in San Francisco. Early albums like Surrealistic Pillow had a variety of music genres.
Jorma Kaukonen: When you think where everybody in the band was coming from, the only person who really had “professional band experience” was Jack, who’d played as a sideman in bands for a number of years. Marty was a front man and did some stuff before the Airplane but everybody else really weren’t the same kind of folkies. The Airplane wasn’t a blues band by any stretch of the imagination but there is a lot of that flavor in that because there’s so much blues in the folk music we all evolved from.
Rock Cellar: You only had a few of your originals on those albums, although you’re prolific. Was that a George Harrison-type of situation where Grace, Paul and Marty dominated the writing?
Jorma Kaukonen: Not really. I had never really written before. I’d never even thought about writing before. My buds and buddettes with the Airplane always encouraged me to do that because one of the things that really drove the spirit of the Airplane in those early years was original songs, rather than having other writers write songs for it.
Many of the other bands that were out there had songs written for them, those who were “successful” in the music business. But we didn’t want to be like that, we wanted to write our own songs. I didn’t write that many songs but every time I did, it made it on the album.
Rock Cellar: What’s the story behind “Embryonic Journey” on Surrealistic Pillow and what do you attribute its longevity to?
Jorma Kaukonen: “Embryonic Journey” is the first song that I ever “wrote.” And I wrote it in ’62 or ’63. And the term “wrote” is sort of self-inflating at some level. What happened was, I had just recently learned about dropped D tuning from this guy named Roger Perkins, who played at the Off Stage, which is what the Folk Theater became. He showed me “Good Shepherd” and that tuning. And I sort of flipped out about it.
I was doing a guitar workshop at the University of Santa Clara and somebody had loaned me a 12-string guitar. I’m not a 12-string player but they sound cool so I was messing with it. And I put it in dropped D tuning and I started messing around. This friend of mine, who had this huge tape recorder he used to drag around, taped everything. He taped that workshop. When we were done he says, “You ought to listen to what you were doing. It sounds like it could be a song.”
I needed to tidy it up a little bit but that was “Embryonic Journey.” I was just messing around. I tell people, when they ask me about my songwriting approach, the guitar almost always tells me what to do. And that’s what happened to that song.
With Surrealistic Pillow, I remember they were finishing up vocals and I was out in the office coming into the place with the security guard, just talkin’. I played the guitar and Rick Jarrard, the producer of that record, walked by. He says, “We gotta put that on the record.” And I remember telling him, “This is a rock and roll record, they don’t want this song.” He said, “Yeah, we do.”
Anyway, thanks Rick, really appreciate it.
Rock Cellar: You wrote about how impressed you were with Cream. Did you want to incorporate some of that power trio sound into the Airplane?
Jorma Kaukonen: I don’t think so. Certainly what I heard Eric [Clapton] do probably inspired me to become a little more aggressive but I recognized early on with the Airplane that its strength was not in trying to become a blues band, which I might have been inclined to do had it been “my band” or I had started a band by myself.
What Cream did, that kind of stuff really doesn’t work outside of the trio format. They didn’t need anybody else. The Airplane was a big band. The guys in Cream, I don’t know of any other electric band who has ever better adapted some of the traditional acoustic blues into an electric format without losing the flavor — in such a way that if I hadn’t researched and known where some of the songs came from, I would have thought they wrote them themselves.
And to the credit of a lot of those Brit guys that followed that path, they loved the music so much that they were true to it in a really honest kind of way.
Rock Cellar: Much of the Airplane’s music has been called psychedelic rock. Knowing that the listeners for the most part were stoned, did the band create the music with that in mind?
Jorma Kaukonen: No, absolutely not. We were all influenced by different things. We didn’t play well with others. Record companies, I don’t know what they do today because I’m not in that world anymore, but back in those days once there’s a trend of something, the record company goes, “Why don’t you write a hit like the Animals?” or “Write a hit like the Mamas and the Papas.”
We never looked down on our fans in a way that we felt we had to spoon-feed them something they were already ready for.
The first Airplane album, Takes Off, is a folk rock album. That was our first time in the “music business.” Surrealistic Pillow really is a rock and roll album and then we went off the deep end with After Bathing at Baxters. A lot of stuff was starting to happen. Feedback sounds, guitar sounds, they didn’t have a lot of pedals back in those days but I had a fuzz tone and a wah-wah. Just experimenting with stuff because it just seemed to make sense to us.
Now the good news for us was that our listeners were ready to hear that stuff. And since you mentioned our listeners being stoned all the time, you know, that’s not a joke, it’s the real deal, that’s what was going on. As a result of that our listeners were able to listen to us doing a lot of experimental stuff live. They gave us a chance to work stuff up live that an audience today would not tolerate.
Rock Cellar: What do you think of the outfits your wore in those days?
Jorma Kaukonen: Whenever I see a picture of myself from that era and I’m with somebody else, I always say I can’t believe my friends let me go out dressed like that. It seemed to make sense at the time.
My old buckskin shirt is up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame now. One of my friends is a curator up there and we were talking and I said, “If it still fit me I might never have given it to you.”
In a normal world I’d be a great-grandfather but in this one I have a 12-year-old daughter and a 20-year-old son. My son accepts all that stuff with equanimity but my daughter clearly won’t. She’s just appalled, utterly appalled.
Rock Cellar: Would your music have been better or worse without drugs?
Jorma Kaukonen: I came of age in the ’60s so I’ve taken psychedelics but that really wasn’t my thing. Most of the guys that I knew, the blues guys or a lot of the rock guys, amphetamines were more of the stuff that people were lookin’ for.
Some attitude in certain things might have been different. Obviously your environment shapes a lot of what you do so the fact that the people were taking drugs absolutely influenced it. Was it for better or worse? I don’t know, it’s hard to say. People sometimes say if you could do something over again, what would you do? And the only thing I can really think about is, my tempos wouldn’t have been as fast.
Rock Cellar: If you were re-doing those songs today, would you change the psychedelic-type of solos?
Jorma Kaukonen: I don’t think so because I think that was an important part of the process. There are a lot of guitar solos that are like vignettes that fit into the song, that are not an important part of the song in and of themselves. I think that some of the long solos, perhaps the audience tolerated them because they were stoned, I don’t know. But to me as somebody who likes to listen to music, when bands were playing these long solos, the ones that were good are still good today.
I know that Cream wasn’t one of Eric’s favorite incarnations, but I’ve listened to a lot of Cream because I really like them a lot. They were very inventive and I personally never found their long solos to be boring because I liked what he was saying. So no, I think the long solos were an important part of the time. Do they live as well today with younger people that didn’t grow up with that? I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
One of the other things I think that influenced all of us as much as drugs and environment was the fact that we were surrounded in San Francisco by really inventive jazz musicians. Some of us I think always felt a little less than, that the jazz guys were on another astral plane. What we liked was their ability to create musical landscapes that took more than two-and-a-half minutes.
That really influenced a lot of the stuff that the Airplane did. The Dead also. I’m not in their heads but I have a feeling that it was coming out of San Francisco and being surrounded by guys like Charles Lloyd and all the great jazz cats that came to North Beach because we all listened to that stuff.
Yeah, there’s nothing wrong with a good long solo.
Rock Cellar: What does working with Jack bring to Hot Tuna’s music?
Jorma Kaukonen: Jack’s my oldest bud. We’ve been playing in bands together since 1958. If you’ve ever talked to Jack, he’s a very different kind of cat than I am. But one of the things that’s always been our mutual bond was that even as kids we respected ourselves as men and as artists, whatever we were as artists. I’m not sure we thought about artistry that much back then. We always allowed each other to go our own way. We might not always listen to each other when we’re talkin’ about something [laughs] but when we play music we always listen to each other. And that tends to lead to a happier outcome.
Rock Cellar: Hot Tuna was playing Americana music before the term existed. You wrote about working with Rick Danko and The Band in Woodstock.
Jorma Kaukonen: They were just great guys. They’ve been influential to a lot of bands since then but as a rock and roll band, there was nobody like The Band back in that era.
Robbie Robertson as a guitar player did such interesting things. He did lead guitar work on two John Hammond cuts on an Atlantic album called I Can Tell. He played on “I Can Tell” and “I Wish You Would.” The level of the guitar, the bar has been raised so much. Kids are doing stuff that was incomprehensible to us back then. But what Robbie does – not just on The Band stuff but on those two cuts for John Hammond, it was monumental.
We joke about the Americana thing. Thank God they finally came up with a word for it so when you buy something on iTunes the category is Americana.
Rock Cellar: You wrote that you didn’t like the direction taken by Jefferson Starship around the time of the 1989 reunion. What made you uncomfortable?
Jorma Kaukonen: When we got in the reunion tour I hadn’t gotten sober yet. I don’t know if that had anything to do with anything, probably, who knows? I’d been in whatever my own musical world was and then I was thrust back into the commercial environment of that time. And it was like an alien world to me. A lot of the stuff that I enjoyed about what we’d do with the Airplane 20 years before no longer existed.
(A), we were 20 years older. And (B), at that time the producers really had an idea of what they wanted and they’d put things together and they did it their way. So I was just unfamiliar with that mode of doing things and frankly, I just didn’t find it to be that much fun.
Now all that being said, I’m not critical of any band finding success. People talk about, “Oh, ‘We Built This City on Rock and Roll’ is the worst song ever written.” I go, “Listen, you wish you wrote that song because your whole family could go to college on the money that song made.” I mean, it’s just a song, get real.
Rock Cellar: What’s coming up at Fur Peace Ranch and for Hot Tuna?
Jorma Kaukonen: We’ve got a really fun summer coming up. On our late summer tour, we’ve got Steve Kimock on board with us, which should be a lot of fun. One of the things that happened with Hot Tuna’s records back in the heyday of our recording, because multi-tracking was relatively new back then, there’s lots of guitar overdubs and this and that and whatnot. So for me to hang with a great guitar player like Steve Kimock, who is so tasty and so adaptive to other people’s styles, to be able to trade stuff with him and expand what we do on stage, it’s always a blast. So I’m really looking forward to that.
Fur Peace Ranch, we’re into our 21st year. We’re so fortunate because we also do shows. We had a show last weekend – and this is the kind of stuff I love to do – with this young trio of gals out of Nashville called Maybe April. We heard about them from a friend of mine who’s an agent.
When we booked them for the show they hadn’t even been signed. Now they’ve made a CD. These girls can play. They’re just three gals with the guitars, man. To be able to give people like that a chance early in their careers is just so exciting to me. And I told the girls, because they’re so good, you’re gonna have to screw up really bad not to be really great.
And the other thing I told them was, when you are really great, and you need an opening act, don’t forget me.
So the Ranch is going on, we’re teaching, we’re doing shows, we’ve got a little NPR radio show. Hot Tuna still owes Red House Records an album. Red House was recently bought by Compass. I don’t know what we’re gonna do. When I asked Gary West, the guy that’s the head of the company what he was looking for for a Hot Tuna record, he said, “Whatever you’re gonna tour behind” and I said, “I’ll let you know, it could go either way, it could be electric, it could be acoustic, I’m not sure.” Jack and I haven’t decided yet.
So in the next year we’ll probably do another Hot Tuna record. Life’s good.
Rock Cellar: What’s left that you haven’t done?
Jorma Kaukonen: I’ve been very fortunate because I’ve personally got a Grammy nomination, Jefferson Airplane got that Lifetime Achievement. We didn’t get into this game for that kind of stuff but it’s an honor to have it happen. I think what I’d like to do is just be able to not only continue to play and sing and to write as long as I possibly can but to also enjoy it as much as I still do.
What am I lookin’ for out of life? I’d like to see both my children as adults.