Wall Street Journal review of Jorma Kaukonen's 'Been So Long'

Sept. 7, 2018 5:08 p.m. ET Jorma Kaukonen isn’t quite so famous as some of his musical peers, a group that includes Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia and Jimi Hendrix. Yet unlike those eminences and many others, Mr. Kaukonen—a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame guitarist best known for his work with Jefferson Airplane—has hung around. Still touring as he approaches 80, he has now written an engaging memoir that will interest even those who wouldn’t know Hot Tuna (his current band) from a can of sardines. “Been So Long” is a survivor’s tale, well told and sprinkled with a bit of 1960s fairy dust. Mr. Kaukonen was born under a wandering star, seeing the wider world early on during deployments to the Philippines and Pakistan with his diplomatic-corps father. In Washington, D.C., he started learning traditional “porch-picking” tunes like “Jimmy Brown the Newsboy” and “Worried Man Blues” in the mid-1950s; he also studied under classical guitarist Sophocles Papas, who taught him, among other things, the virtue of regularly tuning his instrument. Soon enough he was playing local clubs with friend Jack Casady (assisted by fake IDs) and reveling in the fact that he had found what became a lifelong passion. “Music,” he writes, “seemed to me to be the reward for being alive.” BEEN SO LONG: MY LIFE IN MUSIC By Jorma Kaukonen St. Martin’s, 354 pages, $29.99 Newsletter Sign-up From an early age he was an interesting mix of tradition and innovation—an enthusiastic participant in his high-school Junior ROTC program and supporter of Ike over Adlai Stevenson in the 1952 election but also a free spirit fully adaptable to 1960s California, where he moved to attend Jesuit-run Santa Clara University and found an evolving youth and music culture that might have sent the ROTC brass scurrying for their foxholes. There he played coffee-house gigs with Janis Joplin before heading north to San Francisco and joining the Airplane (Mr. Casady came from D.C. to play bass). He was on his way, and while he would share stages at Woodstock, Monterey and Altamont with Hendrix, the Who, Otis Redding and the Rolling Stones, his journey would also take him to places he didn’t suspect were on the itinerary. To the horror of ghosts everywhere, Mr. Kaukonen has written his own book and scribbles pretty well for a guitar player. His prose is friendly, direct and wryly humorous. “Musicians,” he notes, “complain about two things—having a gig, and not having a gig.” He also recalls that not everyone was awed by the Airplane. An early critic wrote that the band had “all the delicacy and finesse of a mule team knocking down a picket fence.” But what do critics know? The band scored significant hits, including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” a psychedelic heist of the “Alice in Wonderland” story featuring Mr. Kaukonen’s haunting guitar line and an exhortation to “feed your head.” That latter advice, which had nothing to do with traditional foodstuffs, drew the scorn of the political class and other adult types, but the music definitely fed the young band’s bank account, allowing the purchase of creature comforts, including a communal mansion across the street from Golden Gate Park, deep in the heart of Hippieland. Fans of that era will find many delights in Mr. Kaukonen’s recollections, some of which challenge the idea that hippie eminences were all about peace, love and tofu. He writes of one day being overtaken by a withering stench and racing to the mansion’s kitchen, where he found LSD magnate Owsley Stanley roasting various cow parts. Stanley, Mr. Kaukonen explains, ate only meat, insisting that “vegetables are what food eats.” Mr. Kaukonen also throws some cold Kool-Aid on the notion that San Francisco musicians shared the lifestyle of their fans—flowers in the hair, dirt on the feet and very little dough in the pockets. “My colleagues and I were not hippies; we were also affluent and most of our problems were upper-class, first world ones.” Those problems arrived in force a bit down the road. Initially Mr. Kaukonen, like many a young buck enjoying fame and a growing fortune, made a mission of avoiding the twin terrors of sobriety and monogamy. He was pretty good at it. “It’s funny to think that my life could have been so completely ruled by mood-altering substances,” he writes, “but at the time it would never have occurred to me that there might be another way to live.” He wasn’t alone, of course. He recalls bumping into Jerry Garcia one day as the Grateful Dead guitarist smoked a significant “gob” of heroin. “I’ve got it under control,” he assured Mr. Kaukonen. Both would join the sizable horde that eventually discovered that the White Rabbit and other Pied Pipers of bliss eventually had to be paid. Monogamy took a similar beating, despite Mr. Kaukonen’s somewhat traditional view of marriage. “No woman of mine is going to have to work,” he announced after marrying his first wife (before his musical ascent), and while there was mutual infidelity the couple stuck together through good times and bad, and there were plenty of the latter. Mr. Kaukonen describes a state of near-terminal matrimony, with hospital visits to close head wounds and an incident in which the missus tried to stab him in the back with a broken bottle while he was erecting a Christmas tree. Matrimonial mayhem, he adds, was something of a family tradition. His parents maintained a stormy relationship for some 60 years. Mr. Kaukonen called it quits after 20, packing up his van one day and driving away. Another tradition, in rock memoirs at least, is the rehab section—which often leaves readers feeling that they’ve just been involved in a hit-and-run sympathy grope. Mr. Kaukonen mercifully spares readers from excessive detail. “There is no need for a drunkalogue here,” he writes. “There is nothing new in my story.” He provides a basic overview: In the mid-1990s he decided it was time to head in for repairs. “Jorma,” a counselor told him, “you’re going to have to change everything but your name!” He was definitely treading new ground. Sobriety and monogamy were now the highest ideals, pursued with passion if not perfection. A son born outside his second marriage likely heated things up on the home front, but his second wife, Vanessa, hung with him and played a central part in creating the Fur Peace Ranch in rural Ohio, where musicians pay $1,500 for a weekend of instruction by Mr. Kaukonen and his musical pals, along with gourmet eats from a kitchen overseen by Mrs. Kaukonen. Along the way, the couple adopted a child and the old buck grew wiser: “If life is designed to humble us in the face of time, there is joy in that humility.” All told, a pretty nice second act. Mr. Kaukonen, whose impressive body of work includes a dozen solo albums, sings a deeply domestic tune these days. “You think playing Woodstock was an adventure?” he asks near the book’s end. “Think about homeschooling your kid.” But his star still wanders. Now 77, he and Mr. Casady tour constantly. He has also pursued a deeper connection with his family’s ancestral Judaism and continues to entertain views that his ROTC instructors might admire. He recalls watching a New Mexico sunset when Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” came on the radio. “Corny? Maybe. Extremely moving? You bet.” Somewhere, one suspects, a rabbit grinds its teeth. .