A FEW MINUTES WITH: Jorma Kaukonen of Hot Tuna
By Don Wilcock
Jorma Kaukonen, who performs with his band Hot Tuna on Sunday (November 20) at The Egg’s Hart Theatre, chuckles about how some people react to his music. “The thing is, ‘Blind Joe Flatbush’ didn’t play the song that way, therefore you suck.”
“All these guys who were purists, none of them ever took me seriously as a musician because I didn’t fillet these subtle nuances the way the masters did. And when I pass my school of thought off to people that study with me, I say, ‘Look, if there’s something I’m doing that you really need to know how to do, and it’s an acoustic guitar, I know what I’m doing. I can show you what’s going on, but I don’t think that’s important. Yeah, you need some techniques in order to be able to play. There’s some stuff you need to know. As far as who you become, take what you need, leave the rest.’”
Kaukonen’s been doing that as an active and innovative musician for more than half a century. He is a significant bridge between the folk, psychedelic rock, blues and Americana scenes, specifically in Hot Tuna and Jefferson Airplane. Not that there aren’t other artists who’ve done the same thing, but none that I know of who have been commercially successful enough to move the needle by influencing public taste in each area as dramatically and in so many genres for as long as Kaukonen.
“Anybody can play anything. I don’t care about all the notes. It’s all about the song. And a lot of these guys are doing all this complicated stuff. It’s more complicated than I can play, and I go, ‘What happened to the song, you know?’ We’ll see how that plays out.”
Born on the east coast, he got a degree from Antioch College, spent time in the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene of the early ’60s, then moved to San Francisco, where he hung out with Janis Joplin when both were still hard-core traditionalist folk singers and pickers. He crossed over into what traditional folkies considered the forbidden zone of psychedelic rock with Jefferson Airplane, the most successful Haight Ashbury band of the mid-’60s at a time when such music was considered heresy to the folk community.
“I (now) live in a very rural area (of central Ohio), and the bluegrass Nazis are here, and I use that metaphor absolutely on purpose. Anything after 1946 – that original Flatt & Scruggs/Bill Monroe thing? – well, that doesn’t channel. They’re just not into it. And to me, ’cause there are a lot of great players and stuff like that, that’s stupid.
“All of these guys can play really well, but my favorite stuff, especially the modern things, is not the fast, swinging-dick stuff. It’s the bluegrass stuff my hard-liner guitar tech guy believes can only be played by people from Appalachia. Tony Rice, who is from California, calls a lot of stuff ‘girlie grass.’ And I just laugh at him. It’s funny. What are ya gonna do?”
While Bob Dylan was electrifying his east coast folk music with The Band in 1965, Kaukonen was not only turning on the world with the culture-shifting, mind-bending Airplane fronted by the outrageous lead singer Grace Slick, but at the same time he formed Hot Tuna, a group that pushed the envelope in dichotomous directions at once. Hot Tuna dipped into the song book of pre-war blues innovators like the Rev. Gary Davis and Willie Johnson for their repertoire, while at the same time kicking out the jams on the volume knob.
In other words, they were speeding backward and forward at dangerous speeds at the same time. I can’t think of another musician who more assiduously threw out the rule books while at the same time satisfying both the stuffy academic folk community and the audacious rock and rollers who were rewriting the handbook of social convention.
Hot Tuna dragged the stuffy Greenwich Village and Harvard Square egghead folkies kicking and screaming into the new paradigm that pronounced they weren’t going to trust anybody over 30. And they did it with a belligerent 120-decibel primal scream that made Dylan’s plugged-in sessions sound like a sewing circle by comparison. And then just to prove their authenticity and a nod to the American cultural heritage of the blues and jug band music, they’d change things up and do an acoustic tour just to confuse the hippies and console the folkies.
“The volume is absolutely part of the music,” says Kaukonen, who will be playing as an electric trio with Hot Tuna this weekend. “I’m practicing in this apartment in New York, and I’ve got this little amp the size of a six-pack of cigarettes and yeah, it’s really great because you get to play, but that’s not what it’s all about. What it’s all about is you standing. You’re feeling this actual visceral sensation that’s provided by some of the volume. Now, we don’t have to play loud. We don’t have to. We have great PAs now, but it’s part of the thing.”
For their entire career, Hot Tuna has played both acoustic and electric gigs. “It’s like apples and oranges. The dynamics are different. It’s a whole different thing, and the trio thing is so much different than a larger band. I love Larry Campbell (who sometimes plays with Electric Tuna) and stuff like that. But as (bass player) Jack (Casady) points out, when we do that with other people, we become a backing band for their songs.
“Now, I’m not speaking for Jack because I would never think of doing that, but what I’m feeling there even though I didn’t pursue this thing is that he feels diluted when we do that, and I like playing with other people, so that’s good. But the trio thing is pure us. It’s the relationship; it’s the dynamic between (drummer) Justin Guib, Jack and myself. We don’t need to rehearse as much because a lot of stuff is just playing off each other. That’s what makes it exciting. And the fewer people you have on stage, the more personal the show gets.”
Jefferson Airplane founder Paul Kantner died in January. “I’d reconnected with Paul a year or so before that, and one of the things is that as you get older, people die, and one sort of accepts that’s the way it is. We knew Paul wasn’t very healthy. He didn’t live a healthy lifestyle, and that was probably waiting in the wings, but when you start to lose friends like that, you know, it’s just another – let me sum it up this way. Before my mother died, one of the things she said to me was, ‘There’s nobody left alive that remembers me when I was a girl.’ Every time one of your friends dies, that’s one less person that remembers you as that young person.”
While the Airplane morphed, sold out to the commercial mainstream and ultimately self-destructed, Kaukonen cleaned up his act and is just as active at age 75 as he was at 25. He’s married, home schools his 10-year-old daughter, and runs the Fur Peace Ranch guitar school in Ohio. He’s writing his memoirs, and when he’s not touring he plays “incidental music” at his restaurant for the lunch crowd.
Of that he says, “My dad was in the service. I spent a lot of time in other places around the world growing up. So, we were in the Philippines. Every time we’d go to the Officer’s Club, there’d be some hapless Filipino playing jazz standards on the piano, and my dad would go up and say, ‘Here’s 20 pesos. Take a break.’
“So, I (told) the people in the restaurant yesterday, ‘I gotta work. Here I am. I’m gonna be playing some music. I don’t care if you talk, but if I was playing a concert I would. You’re eating, I’m playing. Do what you gotta do. Don’t worry about me.’
“Insofar as my relationship to the world, I’m very flexible. Yeah, I grade on a curve. Whatever’s going on, count me in.”