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A Guitarist’s Wisdom

Jorma Kaukonen played lead guitar for the Jefferson Airplane. Toward the end of his time with that band, he and his friend (Airplane bass player) Jack Casady formed a band they called Hot Tuna. The first album by Hot Tuna was recorded at a small club in Berkeley, California and featured a number of old blues tunes played on acoustic guitar, bass and accompanied by a harp player named Will Scarlett. When I lived in Berkeley in the 1970s and early 1980s, Scarlett lived in a nicely outfitted RV and would show up to jam with bands at local bars, in the parks and at events hosted by various college co-ops. Kaukonen was a regular in various bars at the time, sometimes playing with a punk outfit called Vital Parts and other times playing solo. Kaukonen also played at various street fairs in the Bay Area, including a memorable one on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue that was organized by the Bay Area White Panthers. The man had street cred. Unlike Jerry Garcia (who also had cred), Kaukonen somehow managed to avoid the fanaticism of so many Garcia and Grateful Dead fans. This enabled him to live a life less encumbered by the price of fame in the USA.

It did not, however, prevent him from going through some of the same ups and downs many of us living in the death throes of the counterculture. Various episodes with substance abuse, relationship successes and failures, financial ups and downs and friends lost and found. Through it all, however, Kaukonen had his love of music and a never-ending desire to learn more and play more. His hardcore fans joined him on his musical journey, exploring and expanding their musical understanding along with Jorma himself.

This is the essence of Kaukonen’s recently released memoir, Been So Long: My Life and Music. More than a catalog of his accomplishments and failures, Been So Long is a story from the heart. While he tells the story of his life, Kaukonen reflects on his mistakes and his successes, in music and in life. Beginning with his birth and a brief family history, Jorma describes not only the classic immigrant’s tale of his grandparents but also the life of a child whose father was in the US diplomatic corps. Although situated primarily in the Washington, DC area—like so many families of US government employees—the Kaukonen family also lived in various places around the world. Jorma’s memories of his time in Karachi, Pakistan in the 1950s or the Philippines a little later provide the reader with a glimpse into the world of those children with parents in the military or foreign service and living overseas. As someone who lived a similar life a decade later, there is much in Jorma’s descriptions of the strange combination of freedom and entrapment one experienced as the offspring of Washington’s imperial representatives that this reviewer found common ground with.

Although Kaukonen’s memories of his childhood and adolescence are entertaining and a good read, it is his role as one of the founders of the Jefferson Airplane that is the reason this book was published. In the pages preceding the founding of the band, Jorma describes his musical journey. Always interested in the blues and old-timey American music, the tale told here is one of constant discovery and growth. Like many other rock music stories of the Sixties, especially those regarding the San Francisco psychedelic movement, the creation of the Jefferson Airplane comes off as a magical accident. The right combination of musicians, cheap rent, a ready audience and the aggressive promotion of men with a little bit of money and drive came together to create not just a band but a sound. It is a sound that defined a city and ultimately a counterculture. Kaukonen’s description of the period, the scene and the Airplane’s role in it is modest in its telling and understated in its meaning. He defers to those he considers greater than him throughout his telling: Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane singers Grace Slick and Marty Balin. In doing so, he reminds the reader of the nature of rock and roll fame and fortune.

Simultaneous to his memories of the heyday of the Airplane and the San Francisco counterculture, Kaukonen discusses his personal life. It is a life that is not unique to Kaukonen or to famous people. Indeed, the story he relates is one that many readers can probably find points of commonality with. His telling of this life in Been So Long is peppered with remarks regarding regret and second-guessing. It is also told with an understanding by Kaukonen that he is lucky enough to have lived long enough to learn from his mistakes and also to make amends with those willing to accept them. Reflections like these can make for poor reading when done incorrectly. Fortunately, Kaukonen’s writing does the opposite. Although there is an element of contrition in his story, there is no sense of smugness or superiority. Indeed, one is barely cognizant of Jorma’s intention except when he mentions it as an aside.

But, back to the music. After the Jefferson Airplane fell apart, Jorma and Jack Casady went on the road with their band Hot Tuna. This musical entity came and went over the years, changing personnel and even disappearing from the public eye. The core of Casady and Kaukonen remains its essence. They continue to tour as both an acoustic and an electric band, presenting traditional American tunes and rock and roll in a style all their own. During the periods that Hot Tuna was dormant, Jorma formed a punk band, toured solo with an acoustic guitar and recorded a few albums. His musical prowess grew as he explored more musical forms. He didn’t always make much money, but he had enough to carry on in the musician’s life. Some of this reviewer’s favorite sections of Been So Long are those paragraphs when Jorma discusses making music. He discusses musical composition, the interaction between musicians on stage and in the studio, the art of stealing picking patterns, and the fun of trading interpretations of traditional tunes with other musicians. These sections of the book appear throughout the text and reveal much about the creative process and the musical heart of Jorma Kaukonen.

In fact, Been So Long could be considered a text that reveals not only the musical heart of Jorma Kaukonen, but his heart in and of itself. It is a memoir of a man who has lived an eventful life and has decided to take advantage of his later years to consider his past and his legacy both as an artist and as a human being.

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Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

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