Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna in 1969 to get their blues fix while they were flying high as lead guitarist and bassist for Jefferson Airplane. Originally a side project, a band within a band, Hot Tuna, performing at the Ferguson Center on Friday, February, 18th, is now one of the longest running entities in rock music. But the J&J musical partnership goes back even further.
“Jack and I have been playing music together since 1958,” Kaukonen told me recently, “but we actually met in 1956. Jack is three years younger than me; his older brother Charles and I were buddies. We were both gearheads and we drove hot rods and stuff like that, and Charles, or Chick as we called him, turned me on to the blues music that I loved later on. In the process of hanging around their household, I met his younger brother Jack, who was taking guitar lessons. When I got into the guitar, we just sort of fell in together.
“AND…his mother would feed me roast beef sandwiches!”
The two were students in Washington, DC, but Kaukonen had already lived in several places by the time they met.
“My dad worked in the government service for over 35 years,” he explained. “In the ‘30s he was a fingerprint clerk for the FBI. When he was in the Navy he learned to speak Japanese, so he went to Japan in 1945 to translate stuff. For some reason he wound up in Korea. In the late ‘40s-early ‘50s he worked for the Department of Labor, then transferred into the State Department.
“We didn’t go to posts until the ‘50s. Our first post overseas was in Karachi, Pakistan—I lived there for three and a half years. Then I came home for a year to DC; then we went to The Phillipines for six years.
“But because of the war and my dad being overseas, my mom and my brother and I lived with my grandparents most of the time. He worked for the Public Health Service so we lived in Louisiana; we lived in Kansas where my brother was born; we lived all over the place.
“There is a commonality that service brats share, whether they’re in the military or the Foreign Service—that moving around thing. Every year you’re in a different place. It’s good and it’s bad. I spent my senior year in high school in DC, which is when Jack and I started playing music together, so that’s my hometown too, but I don’t have the same gaggle of friends that you have with twelve years together in school.”
The two would one day be enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with their Airplane copilots, and they would be present at some of the most important cultural markers of the ‘60s: the Summer of Love in San Francisco, the Monterey Pop Festival, Woodstock and Altamont. But Kaukonen’s route to the heart of the hippie moment was anything but direct.
“That’s part of the whole foreign service story,” he said. “I had gone to Antioch [College in Ohio]. I went to New York in 1959 and ’60, hung out and played guitar. I wanted to go back to school and my parents suggested that I come back to The Phillipines—they were stationed there—and I went to a Filipino Jesuit school called the Ateneo de Manila. It was a great college, but if you go to a Catholic college you pick up a lot of credits that mean nothing except to another Catholic college. When I came back to the States, the only place where my grades were good enough to get in was the University of Santa Clara outside of San Francisco. So that’s how I wound up there. In that era when $1,500.00 seemed like a lot of money for tuition, my dad said he’d pay it if I went to school.”
That’s where he met Paul Kantner:
“One of my buddies at the University of Santa Clara—who’s now the head of the marine biology department at Honolulu in Hawaii—his roommate the year before I got there was Paul. Paul had dropped out of school by the time I got there and was a surfer dude in Santa Cruz. Me and my friend Bob were the weirdest guys at the school, and believe me, by today’s standards we were hardly weird at all. He took me to Santa Cruz and I met Paul. We were both playing folk music and we became friends.
“We all did the folkie thing down there. The last year I was going to school, Paul had moved to San Francisco and he had met Marty [Balin]. The folk-rock thing was just beginning back then; it was really pretty hippie, all that stuff. They got this band together and that’s how I got involved. He’d been in San Francisco about six or seven months before I graduated and before the Airplane.
“I have a degree in Sociology, the last bastion of a Liberal Arts student who really doesn’t want to study! Honestly, for where I’ve gone in my life, it was a great degree. Not that I’ve used it specifically for anything, but it just taught me a lot about people.”
When the original bass player left the nascent Jefferson Airplane in the fall of 1965, Jorma Kaukonen called his friend Jack back in DC, who accepted the offer to come out and join the band.
“In the very beginning in ’65,” Kaukonen remembered, “when we were auditioning for record contracts, I was married at the time; Signe, who was the singer, was married; some of the other guys had girlfriends—all of us lived in a two-room apartment in West Hollywood. Not two bedrooms; two rooms! I’d rather run a sword through my gut than do that today. Can you imagine anybody’s wife tolerating that for two seconds? The times were different and we were younger, and we all had such dedication to the music. That’s what it was all about. We practiced relentlessly. Looking back on it now, it’s a situation comedy that nobody’s made yet.”
Jefferson Airplane went on to become the most successful purveyors of the psychedelic “San Francisco Sound” in the late ‘60s, propelled by hits like “Somebody to Love,” “White Rabbit” and classic albums like Surrealistic Pillow and Volunteers. And there was Woodstock.
“Obviously, it’s one of the great iconic festivals of our time,” he said. “We had been to the Woodstock site a week or so before it happened because I knew one of the guys on the production staff. It was beautiful farm country, they were building this big stage, and I thought, ‘Wow! This looks cool.’
“Then we drove away and played the Atlantic City Pop Festival. The next day or so, we drove back up to Woodstock. I remember staying at the Holiday Inn in Liberty; we got there the day before we were supposed to go on. We were still able to drive into the show, but by that time the Woodstock that we know today was starting to happen, with the traffic and all that stuff. By the time we got there and saw it, the visuals were just unbelievable.
“We went on at 6:00 in the morning, more than half a day late. There’s a great picture that Jim Marshall took of me sitting on a guitar case, leaning on my ex-wife’s leg. And let me put it this way: it’s not a pretty sight!”
Nowadays, he and his wife Vanessa own the Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio, where he and some of his famous friends conduct guitar workshops. He’s released some excellent solo recordings, and he and his old friend Jack Casady have continued to explore the rootsy blues and other musical forms they love together.
“We never quit doing Hot Tuna,” he said. “We hiatused for a little while at the end of the ‘70s, but we were smart enough never to disband so we never had to get back together again. Hot Tuna has always been a work in progress for us. And in that spirit, we just completed our first studio album in twenty years for Red House Records. It has twelve songs, most of them original. I got off my lazy ass and did some writing!”
Now 70 years old, Jorma Kaukonen is one of the greatest guitar players of his generation, an influence on countless musicians who have followed. He’s also a distinctive singer with a unique vocal timbre.
“When I started playing guitar,” he said, “I never conceived of myself as being a guitar player, I just wanted to sing songs. Then I learned to fingerpick and I thought, ‘well, you’re a guitar player’ and in the ‘60s a lead guitar player. I’ve learned a lot of stuff and I think I play better now than I ever did.
“At this point in my life, I just need to sound like me and that’ll have to do.”
with Charlie Musselwhite and Jim Lauderdale
Ferguson Center for the Arts
February 18 – 8:00 pm
(757) 594-7448; fergusoncenter.cnu.edu
copyright © 2011 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.