Been so long
Hot Tuna/Jefferson Airplane guitarist reflects on five decades of music
It’s Jefferson Airplane that got Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. As original members of the pioneering San Francisco band, the guitarist and bassist were there for the psychedelic rock explosion that was sparked by their band’s seminal album, Surrealistic Pillow, and its enormous and enduring hits, “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love.”
But it’s Hot Tuna—the band the two started as a Jefferson Airplane side project and has long outlasted the other—that has defined their music careers. In his 2018 autobiography, Been So Long: My Life and Music, released on the cusp of Hot Tuna’s 50th anniversary, Kaukonen reflects on the musical freedom he and Casady found with the group that has featured a revolving cast of 19 other musicians playing a range of acoustic and electric rock, country and blues over the course of its history.
“The financial success of the Airplane allowed Jack and me the wiggle room to nurse our young band through its infancy without financial constraints,” Kaukonen wrote. “It was fun and a real relief to be able to just get together with friends and play music without it being a ‘career move.’”
In comparison to the typical rock memoir that revels in the debauchery of the rich and famous, Kaukonen’s bio is not so controversial.
“In the mid- to early 2000s, I had an offer to do a book with somebody else as a co-writer,” said Kaukonen about an earlier attempt at a memoir. “But it became apparent that the publishing company that we had been discussing things with wanted all that salacious stuff. … As soon as I realized that they wanted me to dish dirt on people that were more famous than myself, I thought I didn’t want to do that.”
When he came back to the memoir, he decided to take it on by himself.
“For the book, I let the process be my inspiration,” he said. “So once I sat down, I would start out by knowing that I had to spend three hours that day writing. I’d sit down and maybe the first few minutes, it would be labored. But once I got into the flow, I found that I could do it. I found that I really enjoyed the process and was utterly unselfconscious about telling my story.”
The book is distinguished by its straightforward honesty about Kaukonen’s journey, with self-examination that explores his addiction and recovery, his troubled first marriage and still-thriving current one, the joy of fatherhood, the creation of his Fur Peace Ranch guitar/songwriting camp and, of course, his time in two notable bands from the history of rock ’n’ roll.
Kaukonen reveals that, in a sense, Hot Tuna was born before it was even Hot Tuna. The seeds were planted during an early Jefferson Airplane gig at the Fillmore East when guitarist/vocalist Paul Kanter asked Kaukonen and Casady to “go play an acoustic tune.”
Hot Tuna stayed active alongside Jefferson Airplane until the latter split up in 1972, and continued throughout 1970s, releasing five studio albums and three live releases that decade before starting a hiatus that lasted until 1986. Kaukonen and Casady have kept the group together since then, adding a pair of studio albums and several live releases to the Hot Tuna catalog.
These days, Kaukonen’s role at Hot Tuna concerts is that of a bard. In addition to tunes from across the band’s history, sets are rife with material by the band’s influences from the Americana canon—from the ragtime of Jelly Roll Morton to the gospel blues of Blind Willie Johnson—as well as select nuggets plucked from the Jefferson Airplane catalog.
With his memoir now in the rear view mirror, Kaukonen is continuing his Hot Tuna journey with Casady and looking forward to what’s next.
“When you think about writing a memoir and put down the last period, what do you do? Drop dead? I might want to write something else. I don’t know what it’s going to be about—I’ve already told that story, so I can’t go back.”