Traveling Between the Eternities
Traveling Between the Eternities
A Q&A with Jorma Kaukonen
By Geoff Gehman
Jorma Kaukonen likes to call his psychedelic days in Jefferson Airplane, and the ’60s, as “a voice from another dimension.” That voice buzzsawed through him on Jan. 28, the last day for his Airplane comrades Paul Kantner and Signe Toly Anderson. Their deaths—one sudden, the other overdue—made him flash back to fond memories of his former band’s captain and den mother. He later memorialized them by lighting candles in Kantner’s home church, a sanctuary for a well-known burr in the Establishment’s ass.
Time also trips and flips on Kaukonen’s new record “Ain’t in No Hurry” (Red House), an acoustic union, and reunion, of some of his cherished bedrock tunes. The singing guitarist’s first studio recording of “Sweet Fern,” a song he’s been playing since 1960, shares a disc with a new version of his song “Bar Room Crystal Ball,” a staple cut last time and this time with bassist Jack Casady, his Hot Tuna partner. Another dimension-warping track is “Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me,” a 77-year-old Woody Guthrie poem scored by Kaukonen with guitarist/producer Larry Campbell, whose lively live rendition of “Bar Room Crystal Ball” helped convince Kaukonen to polish its glass.
Kaukonen will reminisce in song and story on Friday, March 4 in the Mauch Chunk Opera House. In the conversation below he discusses his 60-year friendship with Casady, a pair of songwriting epiphanies and the impact of a groovy expletive.
Q: I have to start off by thanking you for giving me the freedom to be proud about cursing out loud. I was around 10 when I started yelling “Hot Fuckin’ Tuna.” Man, it felt so fuckin’ good.
A: Glad to hear I contributed to raising your consciousness [laughs]. It’s kind of funny: I think of myself as articulate and respectful, even though the palette of profanity has been part of my life since I was around the age of my nine-year-old daughter, Izze. I took her to see [the film] “Daddy’s Home,” which has Mark Wahlberg and quite a lot of cursing. I asked her: “Are you okay with this?” And she said: “Dad, I’ve heard lots worse.” So it’s nice to be able to pass along the tradition of profanity in my own small way.
Q: Did you happen to mention Hot Fuckin’ Tuna to that eighth grader in Pennsylvania who interviewed you about the Counter Culture era?
A: No, that never came up. It was a cool project. The letter she wrote me was very respectful. She sent me all these questions; I guess she’s writing a paper or something. I took a lot of time with my answers. My feeling is that anybody so far away from those ’60s events who wants to know all about them deserves my best shot. When we were done she sent me a very respectful thank-you. Maybe I’ll meet her one day when she’s older and we’ll get around to talking about Hot Fuckin’ Tuna
Q: What need did you satisfy, what itch did you scratch, in making “Ain’t in No Hurry”? Why did you need to revisit “Bar Room Crystal Ball”? It’s been one of your cornerstones for a long time, especially with people struggling with sobriety.
A: You know, I like the Hot Tuna version; in no way did we ever fuck it up. But I wanted to do it better, to do it right. I like performing it live with [guitarist] Larry [Campbell] and [singer] Teresa [Williams]. I love her vocal harmony; I’d love to have her around more if she didn’t have a career of her own and I could afford her. They brought so much to the table, I wanted to revisit it.
I also wanted to hear all the words clearly this time because I like all the words. I remember when I wrote that song the writing was on the wall for me as far as alcoholism was concerned, but I saw no reason to change anything. Over the years people have had some pretty outrageous interpretations of the lyrics. I remember around 15 years ago there was this nascent blog and this guy had some pretty crazy ideas about what the words mean. At the time I questioned myself as a songwriter: Am I really that obtuse? As time has advanced, more and more people have listened more closely and understood what I meant.
When it came time to record [“Bar Room Crystal Ball]” I thought the only guy who could play bass on it was the first guy who played bass on it: Jack [Casady]. So I called him up and said: “Jack, it’s Jorma. Listen, I’m doing one of my solo projects and I’d like you to play on it.”
Here’s Jack [very slow, studied voice]: “Well, Jorma, don’t you think that sort of blurs the line between Jorma solo and Hot Tuna?”
Now imagine that line of thinking going on for eight minutes. So I finally told him: “Well, I played on your album.” And all he said was: “I’ll do it.”
Q: This year you and Jack are celebrating 60 years of friendship. How have you been able to play and stay together for so long? Obviously, it helps that you can finish each other’s musical sentences, even the punctuation marks.
A: You know, Jack’s my oldest friend. We’re really different but we’re both home boys from D.C. Even if we didn’t play music together, we’d have that bond. As far as the music is concerned, we’re on the same page; we listen to each other really, really well. When we’re teaching classes, one of the things I love to pass on is: You can learn all these songs, you can learn all these licks, but the one essential thing you have to teach yourself is the ability to listen to what your fellow musicians are saying.
That said, ultimately Jack will listen to what I’m saying and he’ll say: “Okay, I’ll do it.” It just takes a long time for him to get there–sometimes as long as eight minutes [laughs].
Q: Another standout track on the new album is Woody Guthrie’s “Suffer Little Children to Come Unto Me,” with you and Larry Campbell writing music to Woody’s words. When and how were you introduced to Woody? Is he one of your musical anchors, your ethical lightning rods?
A: Well, I grew up on Woody’s songs. My parents listened to him, Pete Seeger, Brownie McGhee, Sonny Boy Williamson, Mahalia Jackson, Woody’s music is so omnipresent; even in this day and age it’s hard not to know him. [His daughter] Nora Guthrie is sort of the guardian of his legacy. We’ve been buddies for a long time; for a long time she’s been saying to me: “You’ve got to put music to [Woody’s] lyrics.” Well, remembering that nature abhors a vacuum, we were doing “Ain’t in No Hurry” and we had to have another song for the record. And I said: “Wait a minute: Woody Guthrie. Nora.” And Larry [Campbell] says: “Yeah, that’s a good thing.”
Nora sent me through Dropbox images of four poems that Woody wrote, some on a typewriter, some in his own hand. It was just so cool to see the stuff. Three of these poems were free verse; I could have done them if I were a jazz guy. We picked [“Suffer Little Children”] because it had a finite number of lines. We were two days from the end of recording and I said to Larry: “Wait a minute, we haven’t written music to Woody’s song.” We were sitting in my wife’s office at Fur Peace Ranch [Kaukonen’s music camp in Ohio] and I played a blues lick and we began messing around and in like 15 minutes we had the song down.
Another reason I liked [“Suffer Little Children”] is that it’s clever, like many of Woody’s lyrics. I have a son about to enter college and the line “You go to college and you buy your degree” really resonated with me.
Q: I was very touched by your blog about lighting candles for your Airplane comrades Paul Kantner and Signe Anderson in the San Francisco church where Paul worshipped. What are your favorite, most indelible memories of them? Did you flash back to Signe’s fond farewell to the crowd during her last Airplane gig in 1966 at the Fillmore West? I mean, who the hell else could come up with “I want you all to wear smiles and daisies and box balloons”?
A: Signe was one of the coolest and the best people I’ve known. She was our den mother; she made sure our flies were up before we went onstage. She was also one of the strongest women I’ve ever met, and I’m lucky to have known a lot of strong women. She fought cancer and beat it a number of times. I never heard her complain, ever.
Most people don’t know how spiritual Paul was. He was an altar boy as a kid; his rock was the Roman Catholic Church. He criticized conservative institutions but he felt most comfortable in the church
Paul was such an old friend. We butted heads many times but we always respected each other. His dream was truly the Airplane and the Airplane-related family and he asked me many times to rejoin the family. When Jack and I moved on to the Hot Tuna stuff, we really left the building. We got back into the building in ‘89 [for an Airplane reunion] album and tour, but for me the magic was gone. And I realized, duh, that magic happened 20 years ago; that sort of magic only comes with youth, with being kids. I still feel the same way today, nearly 30 years later. Besides, without [lead vocalist] Grace [Slick] it’s really not the Airplane.
I knew Signe was seriously sick. I knew it was just a matter time [until she died] when one of her kids told me she couldn’t come to the phone anymore. Paul’s death was a surprise. I got an email from his daughter China [her mother is Slick] saying her dad was on life support after having a massive heart attack.
Their deaths really resonated on some level with me. They were like the turning of a page. I talked to one of my musician buddies and he said: “Well, now we’re the old guys.”
Listen, I’m not expected to drop dead any time soon. But I think Paul and Signe gave me a template for dying well. The fact they passed on the same day should make people who pooh-pooh the idea of a higher power want to rethink that belief. I think it’s a great example of “Coincidence is god’s way of remaining anonymous.”
Q: I know you perform some of your Airplane tunes—“Embryonic Journey,” for example–in concert. But do you ever play Airplane albums off the stage?
A: You know, I hadn’t played them in a long time until I started doing stuff with [Lake Street Dive vocalist] Rachael [Price] and the gang [Casady, Campbell, Williams, guitarist GE Smith]. We listened to a lot of Airplane records together to get prepared [for last year’s concert marking the Airplane’s 50th anniversary], to enter the headspace I had almost forgotten. First of all I thought: Wow, we were pretty good; that’s the kind of feeling you forget. The longer I listened, the more I realized that Paul was a really good rhythm guitar player. He was not a swinging-dick guitarist; he was unconventional and creative in the same way that [Grateful Dead rhythm guitarist] Bob Weir is. In fact, I think both of them are geniuses in their own way.
The sound that Paul made in the Airplane with Jack and [drummer] Spencer [Dryden] in those early years was pretty remarkable. People define me as a lead guitar player and I’m good at that, but without them I could never have gone as far as I did.
Q: I’m always interested in the afterlife of tunes, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them to the world. Can you put your finger on a tune of yours that has had the strangest, strongest, most surprising journey?
A: I guess “Genesis” comes to mind. I probably wrote it in ’71. It’s a real pretty song with really long legs. When people play it at weddings or sentimental parties I don’t tell them that what it’s really about is a guy—in this case, me—who’s unfaithful to his wife but still loves her and wants to make things right (She passed away a long time ago; even though we were divorced, we still loved each other). When I hear a crazy interpretation of one of my songs I wonder if I’m missing the mark as a writer. But when someone likes a song of mine I’m okay with a different interpretation than mine.
“Genesis” was an important song to write because it helped me with my ability to deal with emotions in a less self-conscious way, so I could write more personal songs. The other important thing about “Genesis” is that it’s the only song that [director] Wally Pfister picked for “Transcendence,” the Johnny Depp movie. As a result, it’s been very helpful to my kids’ college fund [laughs].
Q: So, Jorma, tell the truth: Do you miss that unruly lion’s mane of hair you had back in the ’60s and ’70s?
A: You know, my daughter looks at old pictures of me and goes; “Dad, that [hair is] nasty looking.” And I tell her: “Well, sweetie, it was a different time.” The good thing is that it was a long time ago and I can’t remember what it was like running my fingers through so much hair. So the answer is no, I don’t miss all that hair. You know, you’ve got to dance with the one who brung you.
Jorma Kaukonen: The Scoop
His first unforgettable song was “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets, which he heard on a 78 when he was 13 or 14 in Pakistan, where his diplomat father was stationed.
His first significant blues tunes appeared on Chess best-of collections for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson and Little Walterr—“that whole gaggle of guys who set us on fire. “
He based the design of his signature Martin M-30 guitar on two favorite old Martins.
Among the items sold by Fur Peace Ranch, his Ohio music camp, is “Jorma’s Rhythm Tonic Tea.”
He and his wife Vanessa host a show on WOUB, a National Public Radio affiliate in Athens, Ohio.
He and his wife were interviewed for an NPR special on the children of public figures. Asked what their kids thought of fame, Jorma and Vanessa answered at the same time, stereophonically: “Absolutely nothing.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown, for which he reviewed Jorma Kaukonen’s “Christmas” during a roundup of 1996 holiday CDs (Kaukonen “creates a setting as zesty as cutting evergreens in the snow”). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.