In the late '60s, Jefferson Airplane soared over the rock music scene with its psychedelic anthems devoted to Alice and the White Rabbit. Grace Slick’s commanding vocals might be the most memorable to many fans, but if you listen closely enough to the records, you’ll hear how intricate some of the band’s exploratory rhythms can be. Along with the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane invites listeners to get lost in the music: the Dead accomplished this in its noodling jams, as Garcia and Weir and others let the music take it where it led them; the Airplane did this thanks to the inventive and restlessly creative call-and-response playing of bassist Jack Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. Kaukonen and Casady started playing together in high school and followed their creative energy, propelling them through ups and downs first with the Airplane, then in Hot Tuna, and through solo careers. Casady and Kaukonen still tour as Hot Tuna. The pair is so in tune that they know where the other is leading, and their performances these days illustrate the ways that musical intuition and a desire to keep on growing musically enliven any tunes and provide the freedom to follow any notes wherever they want.
Kaukonen’s ingenuity, his creativity, his desire to follow a story wherever it takes him, and his crisp writing permeate his new autobiography Been So Long: My Life and Music (St. Martin’s); his writing is as smooth and intricate as his fingerstyle blues, and he’s a rattling good raconteur, drawing us in with tales of his days in the Airplane and Hot Tuna, and always candid about his own battles with alcoholism and drug use and his failed first marriage. Of course, he regales us with the details of his growing up as the child of a father who worked for the State Department and of his travels as a youngster to Pakistan and the Philippines from his home in Washington, DC. We learn early of his love for motorcycles and cars, as well as the love he develops for the road. He tells us that if he hadn’t lived a life in music he might have been an over-the-road truck driver. “Wheeled transportation always meant freedom to me … I may have had a conflicted view of my place in the universe in everyday life, but behind the wheel all was right with the world.”
Kaukonen also tells his own stories about the origins of Jefferson Airplane; Paul Kantner and Marty Balin were talking about putting together a folk rock band, and had Signe Anderson on vocals, Jerry Peloquin on drums, and Bob Harvey on bass. Kantner told Kaukonen: “We’re getting this rock and roll band together and we think we might need another guitar player.” Kaukonen wasn’t convinced, but he told Kantner to “count me in … at least for now.” True to his word, Kaukonen lends his growing guitar and songwriting skills to the band from 1967 to 1972. He shares his experiences with the band as they play Woodstock and Altamont, as well as his reflections on other musicians. “The first time I met Janis, I realized that I was in the presence of greatness. I knew nothing of her or her past … nothing. I just knew that I was as close to brilliant authenticity as I might ever get. She was looking for someone to accompany her. We started fooling around backstage and a set evolved.” “When I first met Jerry Garcia I was immediately taken by what a nice guy he was. I was shy more often than not; usually when I met people I would let my guitar do my talking for me. Jerry was an outgoing guy and we soon realized that we had a lot in common.”
While Kaukonen’s tales of the road are entertaining, the most compelling and engaging parts of this book involve his love of the guitar and his charming and captivating reflections on his continued growth as a musician. By the time he was senior in high school, Kaukonen had “moved on from old-timey tunes and crossover country to the music that was rocking our teenage world. When you are learning anything it is great to have lofty goals, but it is even more important to have realistic expectations. Buddy Holly is a prime example. His guitar work is much more complex than I was able to realize at the time, but I could sing many of his songs and my rhythm guitar was certainly an adequate addition … I was certainly no James Burton — the studio cat who played all the cool guitar leads on Ricky’s [Nelson] records — but I didn’t have to be. I could strum the guitar and sing ‘Poor Little Fool,’ and that was enough for me.”
Eventually, Kaukonen moves from flat picking to fingerstyle playing. “One of the gifts that I got from those early lessons at the Guitar Shop was to pay attention to my right hand. My flat picking techniques are no longer as facile as they once were, but I am still aware of the basics. Downstrokes, upstrokes: I really focused on all those things in the dawn of my guitar experience. As time went on and I learned more songs as a rhythm accompanist, the nuances of the accents were really important. I didn’t intellectualize this, but I had a good ear and I extracted what I needed to make the music flow … What I did get, though, was a solid hand and a deep groove … I focused on my right hand more than my left, an approach that has served me well over the years.”
Almost 50 years ago, Kaukonen recognized that the guitar, and his interest in always learning how to improve his playing, was the reason he was able to grow as an artist: “The guitar has always told me what to do, and my love for the instrument has always allowed me to listen. When I pick up my guitar I can almost guarantee that I will learn something and that there is a possibility that something will become a song. The little instrumental ‘Embryonic Journey’ is a case in point. I was exploring the landscape in dropped D tuning and fortunately a tape machine was running. Voilà! A song is born. On a more transcendental level I might be practicing or just fooling around and something will smack me in the face. If I have been granted at least one lyrical line and I choose to follow that lead, I will have a song.”
The book also features an appendix of many of Kaukonen's lyrics.
Kaukonen continues to follow those leads on his journey. He and his wife, Vanessa, built Fur Peace Ranch in southern Ohio — he tells the story of the early days of the ranch and its continued operation in the book — and he runs a recording studio and guitar and music camps at the ranch; some of the music teachers there include Jack Casady, Larry Campbell, and Bill Kirchen. As Kaukonen reminds us: “the music has 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.” Kaukonen’s illuminating stories and lilting prose warm us with this glow, too, and the book carries us on a lyrical journey through the hills and valleys of a man who is one of the five best guitarists playing today.