"I got into this business to have fun, and I'm not having fun," pronounced Jorma Kaukonen twenty years ago, explaining his decision to bail out of the Jefferson Airplane. Kaukonen's jump caught few Airplane insiders by surprise; his waning enthusiasm for the band roughly paralleled the rising popularity of his own project, Hot Tuna, which he had formed in 1970 with Airplane bassist and long-time friend Jack Casady.
The Airplane's flight was as spectacular as it was turbulent. Kaukonen, the son of a member of the U.S. Foreign Service, had been traveling extensively, semi-settling in the Bay Area in the early Sixties, studying at Santa Clara University and playing in a succession of jazz, blues, and folk bands. In 1965 Airplane co-founder Paul Kantner invited Kaukonen to join the fledgling rock outfit Kantner was putting together with Marty Balin. Kaukonen, in turn, recommended his pal Casady, who was still living in Washington, D.C., where he and Kaukonen had attended high school together. Casady promptly packed his bags and headed for Cali.
By early '65 the band was mixing original tunes with cover material, and word of their innovative and eclectic repertoire spread quickly. A showstopping performance at the Fillmore West propelled the band to the forefront of the exploding Bay Area music scene, and it was almost a foregone conclusion when Time labeled Jefferson Airplane the leading purveyors of "the San Francisco Sound," which the magazine further described as "a cheerful synthesis of Beatles and blues, folk and country, liberally sprinkled with Indian raga." Record companies, gutsy as always, initially shied away from 'Frisco bands because of their symbiotic relationship with the notorious "drug culture," but the Airplane, whose motto regarding drugs (and hallucinogens in particular) was "Just say yes," became so huge so fast that the men with the cigars had no choice but to sign them up, thereby opening the floodgates for psychedelic rock. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The Jefferson Airplane played both Woodstock and Altamont, and while they were never as popular as the Beatles or the Stones, more baby boomers remember what the dormouse said because of repeated listening to "White Rabbit" than from reading the fantasies of Lewis Carroll. Later they would become the first major band of the rock era to prominently incorporate the word "motherfucker" into the chorus of one of their songs ("Volunteers").
Kaukonen, whose spiky, hallucinatory lead guitar work was perhaps the most recognizable component of the Airplane's sound, became one of the most emulated rock guitarists of the era, a player whose judicious use of feedback and distortion (remember the fuzz pedal?) taught a much-needed lesson to all the Hendrix wanna-bes who abused those gimmicks in order to hide their basic lack of talent. Live audiences were often too stoned to notice, but Kaukonen's performance on vinyl left no doubt that his playing was the real deal. In a 1968 Jazz & Pop review, music critic Frank Kofsky enthused that, "Jorma makes it sound as though there were several different solo voices on the track rather than a single one.... He is one of the few American rock guitarists who can be ranked as a peer of Cream's Eric Clapton."
Shortly after playing Woodstock with the Airplane, Kaukonen and Casady launched a satellite project they named Hot Shit. Not surprisingly, RCA was less than enamored of the moniker. After changing their handle to Hot Tuna, the band recorded an eponymous live album featuring harmonica player Will Scarlett, with Kaukonen on acoustic guitar. For their second album, 1971's acclaimed First Pull Up -- Then Down, Kaukonen got louder and more electric, and violinist Papa John Creach was added to the Tuna casserole.
After ejecting from the Airplane in 1972, Kaukonen lavished all of his energy on Hot Tuna. The band became known as "difficult" because, despite modest record sales, they insisted on headlining and playing two-hour-plus gigs. The group went on hiatus shortly after the release of 1979's Final Vinyl. The separation was not a permanent one, however. The fish re-formed in the early Eighties, and began making appearances as both "acoustic Tuna" and "electric Tuna." Kaukonen's playing, once feedback-drenched rock, tended more and more toward clean, acoustic folk and blues, and forays into steel guitar and dobro supplemented his distinctive style.
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The tail end of the Greed Decade found Kaukonen kicking back on his southeastern Ohio farm with his wife Vanessa, adding to his prodigious tattoo collection (his back and a high percentage of his arms are covered with them), by turns touring solo, with a full-blown Hot Tuna configuration, or as a duo with recent (he joined in '83) Tuna addition singer/songwriter Michael Falzarano. In late 1990 Hot Tuna released an album, Pair a Dice Found, which curried favor with critics in spite of an ill-advised cover of Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction." Kaukonen's treatments of Mose Allison's "Parchman Farm" and Jesse Fuller's "San Francisco Bay Blues" merited special attention for his inspired, quirky phrasing. A new album, due out this fall, and featuring guest appearances by Bob Weir and Maria Muldaur, is already in the can.
Bearing in mind his initial reason for ditching the Airplane, it would seem that the only question that remains to be answered is, "Jorma, are you having fun yet?"
JORMA KAUKONEN with Natural Causes performs at 9:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Stephen Talkhouse, 616 Collins Ave, Miami Beach, 531-7557. Admission costs $15 and $20.