Jorma Kaukonen has surely lived a storied life. As a founding member and lead guitarist of the Jefferson Airplane, Kaukonen watched the Age of Aquarius both rise and fall. After that now-mythic band finally landed, he and Airplane bassist Jack Casady focused on Hot Tuna; their decades-long collaboration where they continue to aim their energies toward their shared love of acoustic prewar blues and searing, electric blues rock.
As a solo artist, Kaukonen has released more than 15 albums featuring his estimable original songs along with both reverent and innovative takes on material by early country blues masters; all delivered with his explorative and virtuosic finger-picked guitar work. Now he's adding chronicled his decades as a journeyman musician into a new memoir.
Published by St. Martin's Press and slated for an early September release, Been So Long: My Life and Music is Kaukonen's direct account of his experiences over the course of his 77+ years. If Kaukonen's candor, humility, and humorous approach to interviews are any indication, Been So Long is sure to be one of the more enjoyable and insightful music memoirs of recent years.
Folio Weekly spoke with Kaukonen from his longtime home of Fur Peace Ranch, his enclave in rural Ohio that is both his residency and site where he and other fellow, notable musicians teach visiting students about the ins and outs of playing and writing music.
Folio Weekly: So tell us about the new book.
Jorma Kaukonen: Well, I'd been approached by some people a decade or so ago and I realized at the time that they really weren't interested in the story that I wanted to tell; they were really interested in me dishing dirt on people that were more famous than me. So I wasn't really interested in that since there's nothing new to the seedy side of my story. But anyway, St. Martin's Press approached us and they basically just let me do what I wanted to do. Obviously they'd be happy if I'd tell about how Jerry Garcia and I planned to save the world together [laughs] but that's not how it played out. So I pretty much was able to just tell my story in two-hundred-and-something pages and I actually sat down and wrote the damn thing myself. You're a writer so you know the deal, but thank God for editors. There's a big difference between journaling and taking notes and actually completing a project. I'm pretty pleased I completed it and I'm satisfied with how I think it's going to come out. I'm also the voice for the audiobook and I guess I'll be doing a book tour, and who knows what else.
Over the course of your life have you journaled consistently or dotted things down as they were happening?
I've always enjoyed writing stuff since I was a kid but I never really considered ever being a "writer." But to be honest with you, I never really considered being a guitar player either and I kind of fell into that also. I'd never really done anything in an organized kind of way. But I guess maybe 15 years ago before the term "blog" was really as well known I was doing what you'd call some online blogging. Sometimes the entries are more fun than others and sometimes they're just diaries about setlists and stuff. To me, that's not as interesting but I like to keep the site alive and out there. But sometimes something sets me on fire and I have to talk about it.
Since you're primarily a song lyricist, how was it trying to transmute that into writing longer, episodic pieces?
Well, once I got committed to the project and they gave us an advance [laughs] - then I had to do it. Here's the funny thing about any of my creative activities, whether it's songwriting, and now prose, and/or guitar projects: I'm deadline driven. Sometimes something sets me on fire and I get inspired and do something but whenever I have a deadline; that is when I really get it done. So when I realized I was about a year and a half out, and I hadn't done shit (laughs), I just started in. And it's intimidating in the beginning but then I heard this thing on NPR that I liked and I think it was on Terri Gross' Fresh Air. And I forget who the guy was, and I wish I knew, but he's a Hollywood guy who writes, directs, and does all kinds of stuff. But she posed the question to him: "Of all of these creative things that you need to deal with, which are all different kinds things, do you wait for inspiration?" And his answer was, "If you waited for inspiration you'd be sitting on your ass until hell freezes over. I let the process be my inspiration." So that's what I kind of worked on and I found out after awhile that once I got off my ass and sat down and did something-then one word would follow the other. Another thing is that Steven Pressfield, the guy that wrote Gates of Fire, and The Legend of Bagger Vance, and all sorts of other things, wrote a book about his own creative process called, The War of Art. He really says some inspirational and helpful things, but the message is: "Get off your ass and do it."
It's like with music: "Book the gig and then form the band."
Exactly. "You know, we might need to rehearse a time or two."
In the last 20 years, there have been quite a few candid memoirs and there's an eager audience right there to read them. In the same way good blues has real authenticity, do you think the popularity of no-bullshit memoirs is due to people today really needing the same kind of authenticity?
I think there are a couple factors in play. Obviously, I'd like to believe that people are in need of that. For example, people occasionally ask me how would I see the keys to my longevity; and my comment to that is that I guess it's honesty and authenticity. Now a lot of the stuff is just because of the age that many of us are, some as old as me and some younger, but we all have these figures that are part of the soundtracks of our lives. So that's a contributing factor. But the other thing is that when you read a really good memoir, and it's a no-bullshit thing, you just think, "Yeah, I get it and I'm glad I read that."
Last year Fur Peace Ranch hit a major milestone with its 20th anniversary. You've created a kind of music utopia in rural Ohio. How has that overall experience been over the years?
You know, we couldn't have architected the way things played out in a million years. And there are a lot of things in play and I guess one of the things is that you could put it off to a higher power or whatever you wanted to. But when we started the place we had a kind of a limited vision. We thought people would come and the various teachers would share whatever we had to offer. But it's sort of gained a life of its own. We've got our museum now, our NPR radio show, we have our theatre, and all of this stuff that's grown so organically. To say we never would've imagined it is an understatement. And why is that? Again maybe authenticity and honesty. I always get offended when people say, "Oh, it's like a fantasy camp." Well, no it's not. We're not dressing up in spandex and playing, "Jim Dandy to the Rescue," or whatever horrible thing that might cross your mind. I just did a songwriting class in Sanibel Island, and we get those folks in the class who love music. And I'm not a tunesmith; I don't write songs for other people, like Jim Lauderdale or Guy Clark. But I'm a pretty good songwriter and my thing with the guys and gals in the class is, "Look - who knows where this gonna go?" But to be able to express yourself is a really good thing. And in the class, everyone came out of their shell to do that: on a more transcendental level, I think that's what happened with the ranch. I asked Gretchen Peters, one of the great songwriters who you'd almost expect to utter some profound, deep wisdom what she did first when she taught songwriting. She said, "First thing is I get everybody to show their ass." That's what I'm talking about. [Laughs]. So Fur Peace Ranch remains a place where people can show their ass without being criticized.
I've read where you described how in your earliest days as a musician, you weren't always paid for a gig but you were always paid to teach music. Someone can listen to 50+ years of your music and have an impression of how your playing style has evolved; but how do you think your teaching style has evolved?
It's evolved in a lot of ways. For one thing, I actually know what I'm doing and can explain it. One thing that's really interesting to me is that I'm never trying to create "Mini-Me"s. But there are things that I like that are important to my playing. But I've learned to appreciate the differences. I'm a three-finger picker and I wear fingerpicks and that's what I do. So if you want a sound like mine, this is how you have to do it; but I'm not saying that's important. But, if you develop a sound of your own, whether I like it or not really doesn't matter. But of all of the fine points and technique, I can basically show what's important to me and I do that a lot better than I did, I think even a decade ago.
You're a consummate improviser; I'm wondering if you could describe that actual experience of consciousness when you're in full-flight, extended improvisation?
That's a good question. And the answer is easier than you might think. One of the things is that it has a lot to do with people I'm playing with and I get to play with a guy like Jack Casady who, as you know, is incredibly inventive. Jack has a very deep groove; he doesn't fool around. He is a bass player. He's not a guy trying to play lead instrument on his bass. He can do that but that's not his main thing. However, his musical sensibility has always invited me to go places and when I sit in with other people I always look for that feeling and you know, I'm dealing with some of the best. One time I sat in with Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks and Susan was doing, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright" and I played the weirdest, off-the-wall solo (laughs). Derek looked at me after I'd finished the solo and later he asked, "Where did that come from?" And I said, "I don't know. I'm just playing with you guys." So to me, with improvising the importance is the dialogue between the people who are involved.