Chances are, if someone were to mention the name Jorma Kaukonen, it wouldn’t ring the same bell as, say, Jimi Hendrix or Jerry Garcia. But should you spend any time with footage of the Summer of Love and the tumultuous scenes of the Vietnam War, you’ve heard Kaukonen’s guitar playing in the background and forming the sound of Jefferson Airplane, a band synonymous with the San Francisco revolution and the counterculture it established throughout the ’60s.
With Airplane, Kaukonen has been inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, given a Lifetime Achievement Grammy, and even designed his own signature guitar, but in his new biography, Been So Long: My Life and Music, the mythology of Jefferson Airplane and their importance in the evolution of rock, takes a backseat to the reflective nature of Kaukonen’s writing. Here, there are tales of Altamont, his first acid trip, meeting Bobby Kennedy, and playing alongside Janis Joplin before she took off, remembered with a refreshing lucidity that forgoes gossip or exaggeration. After all, as Kaukonen notes, “in memory everything is dimly seen across a smoke-filled room,” so trying to provide an accurate timeline is impossible. Instead the focus in on the guitarist’s journey as a “bystander,” trying to find a voice after leaving Airplane and starting the more blues-oriented Hot Tuna—all while battling addiction and financial instability through the ’80s.
The final third of Been So Long is the story of redemption. With the onset of fatherhood and sobriety, Kaukonen’s interspersed journal entries show a man who is modest about his legacy and incredibly humble about surviving it all intact. Having lived on his Fur Peace Ranch in Meigs County since 1991, we can officially call Kaukonen a true Buckeye. There, along with his wife Vanessa, he runs a compound that includes guitar clinics, live performances, and a café. It’s a place where the next chapter of Kaukonen’s life is being lovingly written as I found out in my conversation with him from the ranch last month.
Have you read the other Jefferson Airplane books? Do they align with your memories?
I’ve read Grace’s (Slick) and I have read the others. Grace is my sister-in-arms and I love her dearly, but she’ll be the first to admit there’s a lot of b.s. in her book. Jeff Tamarkin’s book was really well-researched, but was just a particular snapshot in time. For those of us who were there, you just have to honestly admit, even if you fact check a lot, it has to do with how we see things. If I read a book that’s written by someone who “was there” I don’t really want to read about historical information, I’d rather see an emotional track built by the writer.
In the book you say at one point, “My world should have been golden, but nothing seemed to give me a vision of a future in which I would find fulfillment.” I didn’t read this as a book of regrets, but if you had the chance to change a path in the ’60s, what would you have done?
You’re right. It’s kind of pointless to say “what if,” because I’m happy with who I am and I wouldn’t be here if all of that didn’t happen. However, I probably would have told my Airplane bandmates I was quitting so that we could have done a farewell tour and made some money. I made a lot of bad adult decisions that could’ve gone differently, but that was just how it was.
You also talk about being more of a “bystander” in those days. Why was it difficult for you to participate in the creative process with Jefferson Airplane?
Anytime you get around a bunch of artists, ego is a big part of it. That’s okay. But it wasn’t that I was being submerged by the egos around me, it’s just that I wasn’t a creative artist at that time. To me I was just a kid playing guitar and I didn’t see what I was doing as art. The good news is that I was surrounded by these really incredible artists, in Marty, Grace, and Paul, and even though they could fill every project and more with their stuff, they always left a space for me to do something. It was a real process to become that artist and make music that made people take notice.
You touch on the counterculture and politics of the time, but don’t really theorize on how or why society changed. What do you think is the greatest lesson learned from that generation?
Well, that high horse is a really dangerous horse to get on. A lot of my generation thinks they invented sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. We definitely changed rock-n-roll, but we didn’t invent sex and drugs. I think every generation, when they come of age, thinks they are the first ones to try anything. It’s interesting though—I took my 12-year old daughter to Bethel to see Woodstock, and I realized that the big difference is that the art, whether it was the literature, spoken-word, the music, was so intertwined with the social fabric of that era. I just don’t see that today. Now I’m not going to get on my high horse and tell my daughter that her generation sucks, because it doesn’t, but if there was one thing left from that time it is the idea of dreaming, and that if you’re able to follow that dream, amazing things will happen. Does that change the world? I doubt it—but individually, that concept is good for the soul.
The book doesn’t feel like an end for you, so what’s the next “adaptation” that you refer to in the epilogue?
Peter Wolverton, the editor who I worked with on this book, told me after a show once that he was glad that I could write so he didn’t have to lie to me. And then he asked if I had ever written fiction. Of course I hadn’t but I love to write. Will I write fiction? I’d like to try, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. When I finished the book I didn’t decide to pat myself on the belly with a shovel and be done with everything. The story is not over. •
Jorma Kaukonen will be celebrating the release of Been So Long on Sunday, October 7 with two special performances (sold out) and a book signing at Lost Weekend Records. Visit jormakaukonen.com for music, tour dates, and more information.