|BEEN SO LONG:|
My Life and Music
By Jorma Kaukonen
There's an old joke that goes "If you can remember the Sixties, you weren't there." Those 60 and over go ha-ha, ho-ho, I get it, too many flashbacks, too many bong hits, far too many uppers to balance all those downers, and, too many long drum solos. The conceit was that there was too much experience crammed into too-few years; many of us who thrived and jived on the wide, permissive mores of the Sixties ought to still be overwhelmed, asking ourselves what happened. Who among us might recollect that glorious experiment in living? Jorma Kaukonen, founding member of and lead guitarist for the definitive 60s/San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, remembers and brings his recollections together in a new memoir Been So Long: My Life and Music. It's worth noting up front that the musician, a stalwart figure who preferred to remain in the background, quiet though attentive while fellow JA members Grace Slick and Paul Kanter did the many media interviews admits early on that the book is composed of his recollections of how he remembers events transpired, but that some of what he's recounting might be vague or incomplete in the telling. He offers a disclaimer in the introduction mentioning his imperfect recollection: "...this is my story as I remember it as seen through the prism of my mind's eye. I can do no better than that."
However reticent Kaukonen was to speak with the press at the peak of his fame with the Airplane (and later with Hot Tuna, his long-term folk and electric blues project with JA bassist Jack Casady), the author’s memory seems to serve him well in these pages. A second generation American of Finnish descent born in Washington DC in 1940, young Kaukonen had already seen much of the world, particularly Philippines and Pakistan courtesy of his father’s diplomatic corps assignments. His early years seemed a case of accidental wanderlust, his family from moving city to city, country to country, with Kaukonen, easily making friends in each new home though, it seems, shared interests in music, cars (“gearheads” as they called themselves) and, to be sure, girls. While in Washington he acquired a guitar and began learning traditional folk songs, learned the advantages of keeping his guitar tuned, and made a lifelong friendship with future JA bassist Jack Casady. What Kaukonen realized was that playing music was pretty much what he wanted to do, and muses that music seemed the elixir that made brought a dimension to his life than just merely existing and putting with boring jobs and mean people. Laconically and tersely, he concludes “Music seemed to me to be the reward for being alive.”
The first half of the book is full of reminisces about his family, his two sets of grandparents from Europe in the quest for the opportunities migrations to America promised, and he speaks fondly, lovingly of his parents, aunts and uncles and shares what he recalls of their expectations of a new life in the promised land. Most tellingly, though, was Kaukonen’s seemingly slow but eventual emersion into music. We see in negotiation with his father for a guitar, his playing DC clubs with Casady, with fake IDs, when Casady was playing lead guitar and Kaukonen played rhythm. And we see his growing interest in folk music styles that would become the defining essence of what would become his electric guitar style with Jefferson Airplane. Developing into a fine finger picker and with an affinity for the simple and elegantly articulated patterns of folk-blues, Kaukonen incorporated these techniques into his eventual electric work for the Airplane, giving them a rattling guitar sound unique in an era where every other guitarist fashioned Clapton impersonations. Kaukonen’s style slid and slithered, his leads full of peculiar tunings, odd emphasis on blues bends, and a jarring vibrato that made teeth chatter and nerve endings fire up. It was a style that informed the Airplane’s best songs— “Lather”, “White Rabbit”, “Greasy Heart”—and which was a sound that was an essential part of the complex and wonderful weave that characterized this band’s best albums, from Jefferson Airplane Takes Off through Volunteers.
At a point, Jefferson Airplane was among the top bands of the era, one of the top bands in the world, originating in the countercultural environs of San Francisco and adventuring beyond those city blocks to perform historical rock gigs such as the Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. It was something of a charmed life, Kaukonen was earning a good amount of money. He was, he admits, willing to start spending it, buying homes, new cars, new equipment. The band was at the top of their game, and on a Dick Cavett, Show following the last night of the Woodstock Art and Music Festival, a myriad of performers—David Crosby, Joni Mitchell, the Airplane, Steve Stills among them—sat around a rather casual set for the program and bantered breathlessly about the monumental experience they’d all just been through. In the afterglow, at that moment, it seemed as though Ralph Gleason’s mid-Sixties prediction in Rolling Stone that the Sixties Youth, spearheaded by the music, musicians, troubadours, and poets of the time, would change America profoundly, enact a revolution without bloodshed or bombs. The music would set you free. Believe me, I was there, watching the Cavett show at least in my parent’s basement TV, as well as reading the newspaper and 6pm news reports on the massive concert. For a few minutes, just a few, it all seemed possible, especially when watching the beautiful and brilliant Grace Slick and the Teutonically authoritative Paul Kanter lay it out what many took to be a forecast of the American future. Kaukonen was on the set as well, in the background, sitting with his guitar. He was happy to let Slick and Kanter do the talking; as reiterates through the narrative that he was happy to play his guitar and let others be the prophets.
There is much ground Kaukonen tries to cover in Been So Long, but there is a lack of urgency on the author’s part to offer detail, specifics, characteristics or insights connected to the material progression of his story. He is an able writer that conveys a personality that’s sufficiently humble after the long, strange trip he’s been on. He has gratitude for the gift that has been bestowed upon him and humble in the face of the hard times and deviltries he’s survived. But there is a kind of cracker-barrel philosophy in tone, a succession of incidents, occasions, fetes, celebrations and disappointments in his life, told in sketchy detail summarized with a cornball summation, a reworked cliché, a platitude passing as hindsight. He mentions family, wives, children, famous musicians in a continual flow of circumstances, but does not actually say much beyond the convenient sentiment when you expect him to give a hard-won perspective of his adventures before and after the Rock and Roll Life. Despite having a life’s story that might otherwise seem impossible to tell in a dull manner, Kaukonen is intent on doing just that.
He does not tell tales out of school, he doesn’t reveal the quirks of his friends. what he might consider the essence of their genius; structurally the book reads as if it were compiled from notecards and handwritten journals, arranged in order (more or less), assembled for a rapid walk- through rather a revelation of what drew an artistic temperament to this kind of life at all. Kaukonen’s reticence to write more deeply prevents a fascinating and unique tale on the face of it from being more compelling. It’s as if he’s talking about things he would rather not disclose; the half-measured commitment shows up when he mentions his increasing reliance upon an addiction to alcohol through the book’s chapters. Using phrases from the principal writings of Alcoholics Anonymous as well and peppering his text with 12 step mottos, it’s apparent from those in recovery where the musician got help for this alcoholism. A large part of the A.A. program is for members to find a God of their understanding, a power greater than oneself which can help them with their problem. For those who have a “God Problem”, the fellowship also refers generically to “a power greater than oneself”. A god of one’s own understanding? Fair enough, but Kaukonen here takes to writing God as “G-d” for reasons that remain explained. It’s one thing to not demand that others have the have the same theology as yourself, but it’s another to routinely omit an offending “O” when the world God comes into expressive play. Being more forthcoming on this quirk, offering a reason for the eccentric use, would have offered more light on the outline Kaukonen offers. It is a small mystery, an annoying one, a recurring bump in the road that stops the reader; what is Kaukonen not telling us?
Perhaps an as-told-to memoir like Keith Richard’s memoir Life would have eased more nuance and insight and crucial detail from the hesitant Kaukonen. Richards, speaking at length and on-the-record with collaborator James Fox, the Rolling Stones guitarist speaks frankly and at length about the highlights and low spots of his life in music; free to speak as he pleased to Fox’s probing questions and not having to worry about censoring himself while at the typewriter or with pen-in-hand, Life is a witty, harrowing, bristling account of one remarkable musician’s life. On the surface, Kaukonen’s tale is as full and intriguing as a rock and roll biography requires— worldly as a young man, ROTC, a lover of music and cars, a founding member of one of the most significant bands of the Sixties in the midst of a major cultural revolution, drugs, money, fame, glory, flaming out, regrouping—the outline is here, yet Kaukonen does little to flesh it out or reveal the sex, sizzle, and drama under the facts and their note-card descriptions. Richard’s work with a collaborator allowed his mouth to run as long as it needed to tell the best story he had, his own, the final payoff is an engrossing read blessed with Richard’s hard-won and refreshingly offhand wisdom. The Jefferson Airplane guitarist is not so garrulous, is reflectively taciturn and terse, in fact. One needs to respect his right to tell his story as he sees appropriate; the shame is that what is likely a great story doesn’t so much get told as mentioned in passing.
Been So Long remains a fascinating read and is an interesting addition of first-hand accounts of the psychedelic revolution in the 60s from a key player. The irony here is that Kaukonen does indeed remember the decade—he just doesn’t see the need to get into the weeds, dig in the dirt and relate something fuller, an account of a life fully lived.
(This first appeared in the San Diego Troubadour. Used with kind permission)