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Magic of '60s survives in Tuna's Kaukonen

Scott Hall/Special photo
Jorma Kaukonen, left, and Jack Casady were founding members of Rock Hall of Fame members Jefferson Airplane and jazzy-rock mainstays Hot Tuna, which will perform at the Wanee Music Festival Thursday.

Scott Hall/Special photo Jorma Kaukonen, left, and Jack Casady were founding members of Rock Hall of Fame members Jefferson Airplane and jazzy-rock mainstays Hot Tuna, which will perform at the Wanee Music Festival Thursday.

Carlton Fletcher

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Special photo Guitar greats Derek Trucks, left, and Warren Haynes trade off leads with the Allman Brothers Band at last year's Wanee Music Festival.

Much has been written of the sociological elements that clicked into place to spur the late-’60s hippie movement in and around San Francisco’s Haight District. No serious discussion of that era — the so-called gathering of the tribes — is complete, though, without an in-depth look at the influence of the musicians of that region, from the Grateful Dead to Janis Joplin to Santana to Quicksilver Messenger Service to the Jefferson Airplane.

One of the musicians who was knee-deep in that historic time — Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen — said in an interview with The Albany Herald that the entire California scene that changed America, and its music, forever was the perfect confluence of disparate elements that eventually challenged every aspect of the post-World War II status quo.

“Obviously, there was so much synchronicity in that region,” Kaukonen, who will perform Thursday with his iconic band Hot Tuna on the first night of the three-day Wanee Music Festival, said in a phone interview. “It was the perfect time and the perfect place for all these amazing changes to take place.

“Being a part of that, getting caught up in that part of history, was the last thing on my mind. I was actually thinking about moving to Europe and just seeing where life took me. But I met up with Paul (Kantner) and Marty (Balin), and they were looking for a guitar player for a band they were starting. I just said ‘Why not?’ and signed on for a bit. But at some point, it started being really fun.”

Kaukonen and The Airplane, who were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1996, caught the wave of the era and went on to national prominence, releasing such iconic works as the albums “Surrealistic Pillow” — which included classic songs “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” — “Crown of Creation,” “Volunteers” and “Bark.”

Even while the Jefferson Airplane were at the height of their popularity, Kaukonen and fellow Washington, D.C., native Jack Casady, the Airplane’s bassist, formed the jazzier, more eclectic combo Hot Tuna, which has endured, even flourished, to date.

“We didn’t have TV in our hotel rooms then, so Jack and I would end up writing music together,” Kaukonen said. “We’d be in the middle of a(n Airplane) show and Paul (Kantner) would want to take a smoke break or whatever, and he’d say, ‘Why don’t you guys play a few songs?’ We started doing that, and since our shows were sometimes days apart, we’d go out and play Tuna shows.”

Kaukonen, who with his wife Vanessa Lillian started the Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp on land they own in Southeastern Ohio, has worked to keep the spirit of the Summer of Love alive for subsequent generations, most far removed from that historic time.

“I live in the now, and even though I’m 72, I still look forward to the things that lie ahead, moreso than things I was involved in in the past,” Kaukonen said. “But, you know, what we did back then was pretty amazing. I was talking to (Airplane vocalist) Grace (Slick) the other night, and I told her that it was an honor to play with her back then. It really was a magical time.”

ALBANY HERALD: I talked with Jack (Casady) last year about yours and his D.C. connection. Do you find it ironic looking back that a couple of East Coast boys played such a big part in creating what became known as a purely West Coast sound?

JORMA KAUKONEN: I guess in a bizarre kind of way it is ironic. But I’d been introduced to so many different kinds of music in the Washington area, and what I found when I got to California in the early ‘60s is an exhilirating scene where people loved the same kinds of music I did. It wasn’t long after I got there that I realized that I’d stepped into something that was really magical.

AH: How did the West Coast compare musically to what you’d been around in Washington?

JK: I got to California around 1963 before Jack did. At that time, which was pre-psychedelic rock, there was an incredibly vibrant folk music scene. D.C. had been a fertile musical town, but in my memory moving to California was like taking everything from black and white into technicolor. It was like being in the “Wizard of Oz.” When I came to California, I had this attitude of “I’m gonna show these bumpkins what music’s all about.” I immediately was seduced into a scene where I realized these people were drinking from the same well I’d drank from.

AH: That was an interesting group of personalities that made up the Jefferson Airplane. How did that come about?

JK: If you believe in that kind of stuff, that band was ordained to be. Paul (Kantner) was into folk; I was more of a bluegrass picker; Marty (Balin) had already had some success with uptown folk music. We had to put aside a lot of misconceptions; I guess that’s why this is one of those bands, given the musicians, that you’d never plan in a million years. Man, we weren’t even a garage band. We were a living room band. But somehow it all worked, so I’ve always said it was a band that was meant to be.

AH: There has been a lot written about the “Summer of Love” that you guys were such an integral part of. What do you remember most about that time?

JK: The (pre-Airplane, pre-Dead) Charlatans started playing at dances and concerts in the district, and that really started something. You have to remember, San Francisco in 1962 was really more of a small town. In fact, that Haight district is really what Little Five Points has become in Atlanta. The first so-called hippies who came there were actually business people; they had their shops and their art studios and other type businesses. What happened was the things they believed in became viable business opportunities. And, when you’re in your 20s, what’s not fun about going out there and just doing the things that you love?

AH: Did forming Hot Tuna with Jack allow you guys to fill some musical need that you weren’t getting in the Airplane?

JK: We didn’t have long gigs back then, and Jack and I spent a lot of time writing music with him on bass and me on acoustic guitar. It was a different outlet for some of our musical interests that were outside what the Airplane was doing. At some point, though, the guys (in the Jefferson Airplane) no longer bonded, and what we were doing ceased to be fun. Hot Tuna, though, has never stopped being fun. For one thing, I can proudly say we’ve never had a band meeting to this day.

AH: Knowing your penchant for looking forward rather than back, did you see yourself still playing with Jack and still playing with Hot Tuna into your 70s?

JK: Just the thought of being in the 70s was incomprehensible to us. Jack and I, though, are oldest and best friends. But we’re different people. He’s nitpicky and anal; I’m the opposite. But Hot Tuna has never been about us having to be in the same place or having to recreate ourselves. The Airplane tried to get back together in 1989, and there was this thing of trying to sound the same as we had 20 years before. We didn’t. With Hot Tuna, the fans — and God bless ‘em — allow us to do what we want. There’s not this pressure to constantly work at recreating a certain sound.

AH: You’ve played as part of some pretty significant musical happenings. What are some of your favorite musical memories?

JK: It’s funny: I’m one of those live-in-the-moment kind of guys, but I still think it’s pretty amazing to have been a part of some of those historic festivals like Woodstock, Altamont, Monterey, Isle of Wight. But probably the coolest thing about all this is being able to find something I love and getting to do it my whole life.

AH: But what about all those myths that have grown up around the Airplane over the years? True or not?

JK: It’s hard to say about some of them, but I figure most are probably true.

AH: Where did the concept for the Fur Peace Ranch come from? It sounds like something that would have grown out of the Woodstock era?

JK: My wife and I own a couple of hundred acres of land in Southeast Ohio, and I started talking about putting together a guitar camp there. Of course, if it were up to me, I’d put out a couple of bales of hay and just sit out there and play guitar. But my wife, who’s a civil engineer, convinced me we needed to get all the permits and do things the right way. We try to keep each camp session to 30-35 people, and just make it all about music. Steve Earle and G.E. Smith were in last week, and there was this perfect vibe. No TV, just a community interested in music. In that way, it’s just like the ‘60s.

AH: You still prefer — and teach — the fingerpicking guitar style. Why is that?

JK: I’ve never been much of a joiner, and I’ve always thought the relationship between a man — well, a person — and his or her guitar is a magical thing. With fingerpicking, you can play with other people or play alone. There is a myriad of styles, a million ways to skin this cat. I find that liberating.

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Special photo The Wanee Music Festival at the Spirit of the Suwanee Music Park near Live Oak, Fla., will celebrate its ninth year Thursday-Saturday.

AH: You brought the Fur Peace camp to Wanee last year. What was it like taking it on the road?

JK: It was an experiment that I think worked well. We were going to expand it this year to have Leon Russell talk about his music and songwriting, but we have to pre-sale spots at the camp and it just wasn’t financially feasible this time around. Last year was a daring experiment, and we might do it again.

AH: What about the Wanee Festival? How does it rank among your musical memories?

JK: I think they’ve been able to capture a lot of the spirit of Woodstock at Wanee, the community spirit of the fans and the musicians. But things are so much better at Wanee: They have toilets and running water.

AH: Now that you’re at this point in your career, do you ever look back at all you’ve accomplished, all you’ve been a part of, and just say, “Wow?”

JK: Absolutely. I hear some of our old records, and you know, we were pretty good. Sometimes I think you can take that for granted. I was in Jamaica with Larry Campbell, and his wife came up to me and said, “I’m embarrassed to ask you this, but could you play ‘White Rabbit?’” I had to look it up online to reacquaint myself with it, but I did it and ended up thinking, ‘You know, this is f---ing great.’”

AH: Thank you again for your time. I look forward to seeing you at Wanee. Before I go, though, I have to ask you about that name. What is its origins?

JK: It’s Finnish. I have several relatives whose name was Jorma. In fact, it’s the most common name in the country.