With or Without Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen Keeps Flying

While the chance of all of them performing collectively again has been pooh-poohed recently, Kaukonen, who obligingly covered the subject in detail, leaves the door open for some type of formal get-together.
01/27/2015 12:10 pm ET Updated Mar 29, 2015

Jorma Kaukonen was halfway through a 45-minute phone interview last week when the subject of a Jefferson Airplane reunion finally came up.

The former lead guitarist of the band that not only helped define the psychedelic '60s but also its brand of freewheeling rock is, at the age of 74, still a busy man. He was looking ahead to two weeks of teaching guitar at his Fur Peace Ranch On the Road at Dana Point, Calif., before starting a tour to promote his precious new solo record, Ain't In No Hurry (Red House Records), a smooth blend of blues, folk, traditional and original tunes that releases February 17.

Call it coincidence, serendipity or the primal forces of nature at work, but the gentle soul with the magic fingerpicking hands that work as well as his mind was discussing plans to commemorate Jefferson Airplane's 50th anniversary when he was interrupted by the trill ringtone on his nearby cellphone.

"Oh, it's Jack Casady," Kaukonen merrily announced. "I'll call him later."

He and his bass-playing partner -- before, during and long after the '60s -- certainly have a lot to talk about, now more than ever. And expect the other surviving core members of the Airplane -- Paul Kantner, Marty Balin and Grace Slick -- to join that conversation as long as the days during this milestone year remain.

While the chance of all of them performing collectively again has been pooh-poohed recently, Kaukonen, who obligingly covered the subject in detail, leaves the door open for some type of formal get-together.

Before his cellphone rang, Kaukonen (left) said, "You know, Grace not singing anymore has taken a lot of pressure off the rest of us that really don't have the time it would take to put together a show like that. Listen, I have nothing but respect for the Airplane but I'm just not there today. But just the last time I was in California, I had dinner with Paul; we just did a gig (in December) at the Beacon (Theatre in New York for Casady's 70th birthday), where Marty sat in for four or five songs (including 'Volunteers'). And I talk to Grace all the time."

After the brief delay, Kaukonen sounded like he was giving the Jefferson Airplane idea a ringing endorsement.

"Anyway, so we talk about this stuff and my idea, because I think that something needs to be done, we're sort of working to see if everyone else is on board, 'cause it would take so much work literally to put a band together, much less the band (former drummers Spencer Dryden and Joey Covington are deceased). But we're all here, you know. It would be a shame not to do something.

"I could see yakking on talk shows. To be honest with you, I could see doing lectures at colleges. Not just talking about, telling war stories about the time. Maybe talking about the creative process. I could see all of us who are into it; Grace won't do it but Paul and Marty and Jack and I would, I think. I haven't heard from Paul or Marty on this yet."

Kaukonen did backtrack to add that Slick might chime in, as long as she doesn't have to sing. But you never know -- Stevie Nicks said in 2012 that the chances of Christine McVie returning to Fleetwood Mac were about as likely as "an asteroid hitting the earth," and look what happened -- the most lucrative tour of 2014 continues.

"If it's just talking, she might (participate)," Kaukonen said of Slick. "She loves to talk. And she's a great ... I mean nobody can yak like Grace can. But I can see the rest of us sitting with our instruments and going, 'Yeah, I remember doing this or doing that.' Just basically like having a seminar that involves the audience. That would be my idea."

Getting 'very personal'
The articulate Kaukonen is filled with ideas, and many of them work their way into songs, including four on the upcoming Ain't In No Hurry, his first solo album since 2009's River of Time.

While he won't pick a favorite -- "I don't write that many songs; I gotta like 'em all," he said modestly -- Kaukonen clearly admires "In My Dreams," which he wrote about his wife Vanessa, and "Seasons in the Field," a touching encapsulation of this time in his life that he calls "a poem set to words."

Larry Campbell, a jack-of-all-instruments who's kept legendary company while touring with the likes of Bob Dylan and Levon Helm, assisted on the album-closing tune's music, but its Kaukonen's raspy voice, poignant words and breathtaking acoustic guitar that just might move you to tears.

Each previous moment /
Was a blessing in disguise /
I never saw so clearly /
It was right before my eyes

Though he said the song needed some editing -- "It's not like, 'OK, I'm done here; I'm brilliant and it's perfect,' " Kaukonen added -- writing "Seasons in the Field" was a relaxing process.

"I'm not a wordsmith," Kaukonen said, though he contributed to plenty of Airplane albums during its existence. "I'm not a professional songwriter, guys like Jim Lauderdale or Guy Clark or Verlon Thompson, guys that write brilliant songs, brilliant song after song. And I'm not really sure what process motivates them to be able to be so prolific. I know some of their songs are very personal, but not all of them. But mine are always very personal.

"So something's has to be going on. So in 'Seasons of the Field,' I just started kind of reflecting. I've got a little office over a garage that I have at home because, you know, you can't practice or write around family. They don't mean to but they cannot not let you alone. And I just started thinking about what was going on and, you know, I spent some time working on the lyrics but really the whole thing just flowed very easily for me."

Hopefully, it'll be a set list fixture as he performs as a trio (with Campbell and Teresa Williams) from Feb. 14-22, solo from Feb. 25-28, then with mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff from March 5-15.

"Self-employed people don't have days off," Kaukonen said from his home in southeast Ohio less than a week before departing for the West Coast.

Still pleased to be playing acoustic Jefferson Airplane songs that he wrote ("Trial by Fire," "Third Week at the Chelsea") or performed (the traditional "Good Shepherd"), Kaukonen even went on iTunes to download two of the band's biggest hits -- "White Rabbit" and "Somebody to Love" -- to relearn before Williams sang them at Casady's birthday bash.

If the Airplane's highly publicized volatility left any bitter feelings, Kaukonen believes it's a thing of the past.

"Well, I just reconnected with Paul," he said. "We had some issues. I mean it's just guys running their mouth," said Kaukonen, who looks back on an "amenable" relationship with all his ex-band members. "No big deal but I got to thinking. We're not kids anymore. You know, if you can't be friends with your old friends, who can you be friends with? You know, it's not like we fucked each other or anything like that. We didn't. We never did. It's not like, 'Well, I hate him because ...' It's not like Levon and Robbie Robertson (in The Band). Or actually, when you think about that, that's pretty absurd, too. But that's not for me to say. ....

"You know, a lot of years went by when I don't think we talked at all. But I've never found myself to be adversarial with them. Which is good. It saves lawyer money."

In the beginning
Kaukonen actually brought up the Airplane first during this interview, mentioning several times how luck has played a part in his personal and professional longevity. But his health apparently is a priority.

"I have a lot of physicals these days," he said. "The insurance companies insist on it. My doctor goes, 'You know, you really owe your parents a debt of gratitude. Good genes. ... My family's been, generally speaking, long-lived and pretty healthy for the most part."

Kaukonen, who laughs easily and often, must have inherited his sense of humor from his parents, too. He said his mother (Beatrice) lived to be almost 88 and his dad (Jorma Sr.) just fell short of 87 and both were "very, very funny people."

"My dad dropped dead at my mom's feet," he recalled. "It sucked for her; it was probably great for him. At his memorial, we're sitting, everybody's lionizing the old man, my mother turned to me and she said, 'Your father always was an inconsiderate bastard.' "

Musically, while attending Antioch College in Ohio, Kaukonen learned fingerpicking directly from Ian Buchanan and indirectly from seeing Rev. Gary Davis play. In 1962, he went to the University of Santa Clara, south of San Francisco, a school "where I couldn't afford to send my kid (17-year-old Zach) today."

That first weekend, he said, "I remember I was walking around the campus, and I saw a mimeographed sheet tacked up to a phone pole. And it said hootenanny at the Folk Theater on First Avenue in San Jose. ... I got there and Janis (Joplin) was there, I met a guy named Steve Talbott, he's passed away since. (Pre-Grateful Dead) Jerry Garcia, "Pigpen" (McKernan), actually they've all passed away, too. People that became mainstays. Actually, everybody we've mentioned so far except me has passed away. ...

"It was so funny, it was so exciting to ... in this sort of conservative, staid, what I perceived as sort of a staid college campus, to meet people from that area that loved the kind of stuff that I did."

It was there, Kaukonen said, where he first performed the Jimmy Cox cover "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out" with Joplin. (A 1964 version by the two can be found on bootleg recordings.)

Appearing on a Jorma album for the first time, his roots-rock version that opens Ain't In No Hurry is a treat -- even minus that unmistakable Joplin voice.

"The PA in a little coffee house like the Folk Theater was less than minimal," Kaukonen said. "One microphone. And, of course, Janis was, as we all know, very powerful. So when the time came for me to be heard, I remember having, it was like one of those bluegrass things, you step up and shove your guitar into the microphone. I had to push her back. ... It was something. She was really something."

Preparing for takeoff
Performing together since 1958 as high schoolers in Washington D.C., Kaukonen and Casady became road roomies in the early Airplane days when, Kaukonen said, "I know this is hard for kids today to understand, but hotels didn't even have TVs."

When the group formed in 1965, Kaukonen claimed he made more money teaching guitar lessons in a San Jose basement than he did as the Airplane's lead guitarist.

Though he's a college graduate ("and I use the term loosely," Kaukonen said) with a degree in sociology, his only interest was playing music. Oh, there was a time in elementary school when he wanted to follow in his grandfather's footsteps to become a research bacteriologist, but "then I realized you had to study science and math. It wasn't just owning a bunch of test tubes and cool-looking stuff."

Becoming a heavily involved participant in the drug culture was practically a rite of passage those days in the Bay Area, but 50 years later, Kaukonen offers this frank opinion on a period that continues to be romanticized in books, films and music:

"For me and a lot of my friends ... the whole drugs and alcohol thing wasn't as much fun as we thought it was. It didn't play out that way. And I know a lot of people that say, 'Wow, I wish I was there; we could've done this, we could've done that,' and I'm going, 'Yeah, you could've.' But maybe it wasn't all it was cracked up to be."

Feeling good about being "sober for a number of years" now, Kaukonen confessed that "I don't think I was unscathed for a long time. ... But I managed to survive and I found my way and I'm doing OK. Many of my buddies that we could be talking about didn't and aren't."

In Living in the Material World, the Martin Scorsese documentary on George Harrison, the late Beatles guitarist recalls the disappointment of his first visit to San Francisco, saying, "I went to Haight-Ashbury expecting it to be this brilliant place. I thought it was gonna be all these groovy kind of gypsy kind of people with little shops making works of art and paintings and carvings. But instead it turned out to be just a lot of bums."

Before the Summer of Love in 1967, though, Kaukonen witnessed a different setting "that you tend not to hear so much."

"The hippie scene -- well what started out, it wasn't hippie, it was more of a beatnik scene -- was hard-working people; people had ideas, artists, writers, poets, musicians," he said. ... "This was way before the spare change thing, you know. Everybody really worked hard. Yes, it was different, yes, people dressed differently, yes, people smoked a lot of pot. But they got a lot of stuff done."

Summer of '69 and beyond
Playing Woodstock in August 1969 was a historical high for Kaukonen, who contends, "I'll probably never work another Woodstock. I did work Bonnaroo some years ago. Without getting specific, it's not Woodstock."

While he still enjoys playing festivals -- and plans to return to the Lockn' Music Festival in Arrington, Va., this September -- he doesn't see how that "Woodstock moment" can be duplicated.

"I never played before a crowd like that and probably never will again," Kaukonen said. "The fact that we, you know, we of a certain age, all of a sudden had an identity, you know the camaraderie that we were actually part of the culture. Even my father got it, you know. And he hated all that stuff back then." (laughs)

On the flip side, though, only a few months later there was Altamont, which Kaukonen said was as horrifying as it has been described and shown in the Rolling Stones documentary Gimme Shelter.

"I don't know whether they were trying to re-create a Woodstock at Altamont or if they were just trying to do a free show as the Airplane and the Dead and so many other people had done in New York, in San Francisco, and it just went terribly wrong," he said. "It's hard to say. I'm not in their heads, so I don't know what their goals were. (laughs) I know this is an understatement, but it didn't work."

At least he came away from it with a few important life lessons and a personal moment worth sharing, regarding the Airplane's experience:

"Our little thing, as a parenthetical conclusion, next time you see the movie, notice Jack and I and Spencer never stopped playing until we couldn't play anymore. You know, that's our mantra. That's what I tell students I'm teaching: No matter what happens onstage, don't stop playing.

"But anyway, you know Marty got punched, all that. Well, as soon as that was done, I wasn't there for the poor guy getting killed. As soon as we got offstage, I realized, 'This is really a drag.' And I remember my ex-wife and Spencer the Airplane drummer and I, they flew us in on a helicopter. But nobody was taking us out. And we had no car. I remember we went to the parking lot, I found some guy that was passed out on the hood of his Mustang, we woke him up and said, 'If you let me drive you and us in this car to San Francisco, we'll buy you a Mexican dinner.' He said, 'OK,' and so he did and we did."

Without the helicopter to produce an exit strategy, his suspicions were confirmed, especially under such disturbing conditions. "We always joke about this: You're a star before the show but as soon as you've played, you're a piece of shit."

Guitar heroes
If guitarists were gunslingers, Kaukonen could have had quite a shootout back in the day. But he says he never saw it that way, though he made sure to check out what top guns such as Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were doing.

The first time he saw Cream perform at the Fillmore, Kaukonen was so impressed with Clapton's ability (and apparently his guitar) that he took it out on his own Rickenbacker 12-string that was used on some Airplane songs.

"I went back to my apartment and threw it through the wall like a spear," Kaukonen said. "Fortunately, I didn't break it, so I could sell it or trade it for another guitar.

"I found Clapton not only so inventive but what he did with the traditional music that I loved in a format that I'd never heard before was cool," he added. "Now Hendrix, yes, iconic, brilliant, I know all that stuff. I related as a player more to what Clapton did than what Hendrix did. I think it was because it was easier for me to understand. Just like I liked Rev. Gary Davis better than Robert Johnson from a learning and playing point of view."

Kaukonen, who was schooled in electric guitar by Mike Bloomfield, still likes to plug in, especially when assisting students, but rarely touches the instrument at home while playing his acoustic all the time.

On certain occasions, he'll get fired up, though. Last year, he met Chicago bluesman Dave Specter, who introduced Kaukonen to the sound of a Mexican Jazzmaster that was playing on one of his vinyl records.

"So I bought one immediately, put Lindy Fralin pickups in it and I've been playing it, because we did a Hot Tuna Electric tour," Kaukonen said. "I remember there was an interview with (ZZ Top's) Billy Gibbons some years ago where they asked how he kept it fresh electrically, and I believe his answer was, 'Buy new gear.' So there is some truth to that. I've got like 800 bucks in this guitar and it's as good as my Les Pauls. It's different, but it's really cool."

Keeping company with guys like Hendrix, Clapton and Bloomfield on Rolling Stone writer David Fricke's "Top 100 Guitarists of All Time" in 2003 was "flattering," Kaukonen said, but "I'm not sure what it means. ... To be recognized by your peers and people listening to music is always a good thing. "

Admitting "electric guitar is very, very seductive," Kaukonen still can be lured by its magical qualities. Having played his share of jams before there were jam bands and being the same age as Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh, Kaukonen seemed like a possible go-to guitarist when that legendary group started searching for a candidate to celebrate their 50th year with three shows at Chicago's Soldier Field in July, two decades after Garcia's death.

So the proud Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who performed his dreamy "Embryonic Journey" from Surrealistic Pillow at the Airplane's induction ceremony in 1996 expressed mock indignation when asked if the Dead ever contacted him to replace the late Garcia (No. 13 on that "Top 100" list) instead of choosing Trey Anastasio, who was 2 years old during the Summer of Love.

"They did not," he said. "And my feelings are hurt. No, I was one of Phil's friends for a while. I've worked with them a little bit."

Getting serious, Kaukonen added, "I'm not the right guy for that gig. I think I'm more of a blues player. I don't really consider myself a pure blues player but I think that my muse is stronger as a blues player than Jerry's was. I think Trey's a great fit because he's a great guitar player, he's not a blues guitar player and he doesn't sound like Jerry. We'll see."

On that 2003 list, Kaukonen was ranked No. 54 between '50s session player Mickey Baker and Deep Purple's Ritchie Blackmore, but at no time did he want to be drawn into a popularity contest or pretend any rivalries existed.

"I don't think I considered that I played well enough to really ... I mean if I was gonna consider myself in the head-cutting business, I'd wanna play as well as any of the Chicago guys. You know, Elvin (Bishop), Bloomfield, Otis Rush, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Albert King. Any of those guys that I consider to be master players. And I couldn't do that, so I don't think I gave myself enough credit to consider myself in the competition game. Which is probably good because, hey, what's to be competitive about music?"

Back to his roots
For a fan of blues and bluegrass, concocting Hot Tuna with Casady initially as a Jefferson Airplane side project happened organically for Kaukonen.

With an acoustic guitar on the road, he would play his songs with Casady in their hotel room during "the very beginning" days of the Airplane. Before the two called themselves Hot Tuna, Kaukonen thinks it was Kantner who suggested they play a song or two during an Airplane show at the Fillmore East "probably in '68 or '69."

"I was on a microphone with my old (Gibson) J-50, Jack was playing electric bass and I think we probably played 'Hesitation Blues' and something else. I don't remember what. And the crowd liked it. Because I never really thought about that being an outlet, you know. But then we started doing it more and more. And all of a sudden, we did a gig by ourselves."

Around that time Cream broke up, and Clapton took a more roots-oriented path on his first solo album with members of Delaney & Bonnie & Friends, a supporting act during his brief fling with Blind Faith.

A few years after that, Jefferson Airplane split up.

While admiring Clapton -- "He broke my heart when he left Cream; like he gives a shit what Jorma thinks" -- making a leap of that magnitude was never considered because "that kind of stuff was so far over my head," Kaukonen said. "I cut school when they were teaching harmony, so I couldn't do any of that stuff."

Instead, his musical partnership with Casady -- "We just really focused on what we could do," he said -- seemed like the next logical step. As simple as that, at least for Kaukonen (right, with Casady).

"Jack and I never really approached our career intellectually," he said. "Now if Jack was part of this interview, he'd be having fun with us because Jack in his talk -- most people don't know this -- but Jack is a very intellectual guy. And he second-guesses himself and parses every sentence to about three or four subterranean levels. I mean this would be a complicated conversation.

"It just made sense for us. And I think musically speaking, we felt at home in that milieu. I mean, thank God we have the Americana concept, the Americana milieu. A lot of people are doing that stuff these days. It's not the stuff of Miley Cyrus. Hey, speaking of that, I was so excited to learn the word 'twerking.' I had no idea. ... We had other words for that stuff, but twerking wasn't one of them."

Kaukonen just hopes, even while the bar is always getting raised with the new kids on the block (he's a fan of Sturgill Simpson), that a few slots remain open at cozy clubs and genre-bending festivals for a couple of talented old-timers.

Finally getting an invitation to appear at South By Southwest, as a member of a panel to discuss the works of late photographer Jim Marshall, Kaukonen (who wrote the intro to the book The Haight) was thrilled to report that he also "was able to weasel my way into a showcase" this year.

Now, if only Austin City Limits or AmericanaFest would come calling.

There undoubtedly are more incredible tales to tell from the man whose "Third Week in the Chelsea" is among four selections he wrote for one of Jefferson Airplane's final studio albums.

Listening again to 1971's Bark, an original copy (wrapped in a grocery bag with Grace Slick illustrations of each band member) that remains in my vinyl collection, the last lines of "Third Week in the Chelsea" seem to summarize the end to a bittersweet chapter:

Time is getting late now and the sun is getting low /
My body's feeling tired from carrying another load /
And sunshine's waiting for me a little further down the road

While that bright prediction came true, Kaukonen still credits his former group for jump-starting his shining career. And what better way to close a late -- but not final -- chapter in this adventure than with those early comments regarding his professional longevity that included this thoughtful soliloquy:

"As far as the musical career thing, wow, that's a miracle. You can't script that, you know. I mean obviously, my sort of ... whatever you want to call what it is I do today, folkie, Americana, whatever it is that ball got rolling is thanks to the Jefferson Airplane. And I'd like to think I'd still be doing what I was doing without that. But I think I have more visibility as a result of that. But the fact that people still like what I do after all these years is, I mean, it's beyond a blessing. It really is. And there's no way you can script that kind of stuff.

"Jack and I talk about this a little bit. And I guess the only thing that I can really think of, besides the fact that I think the music is good most of the time, is that we're really honest. What you see with us is what you get."

It just goes to show, some folks don't need an Airplane to fly.

Publicity photos courtesy of Red House Records. Hot Tuna concert photo by Barry Berenson.