Been So Long

Been So Long: My Life and Music
By Jorma Kaukonen
[St. Martin’s Press]

“Being a touring musician is not for everyone. It’s not even for every musician,” says Jorma Kaukonen in his new autobiography. For over 50 years, guitarist Jorma Kaukonen has been on the road. First with his local teenage Washington DC bands, then with Jefferson Airplane and since 1969 with Jack Casady in Hot Tuna. So far this year he’s visited Georgia twice. At 77 years old he’s still constantly on the road and already has several 2019 dates booked. His life has been filled with rich rewards and the consequences of poor choices. His autobiography Been So Long: My Life and Music is a sweeping span of a life well lived and should be a cornerstone to any library, personal or public, that deals with American history, musical history or a range of disparate perspectives on human nature.

Music, cars and guitars…what every kids wants. Oh yes…and girls. Been So Long is filled will all these with, music clearly being the most important. “Music seemed to me the reward for being alive,” Jorma points out. An early story backing up rockabilly singer Jimmy Clanton relates. “We got a job backing Jimmy in West Virginia and on the way there we were stopped for speeding in Warrenton, VA,” Jorma writes. “In those days, the cops in these small towns took you right to the magistrate’s office. In this case, it was the judge’s home. He put on his robe and sat behind a mahogany table. The fine was around $75. Whatever it was, we didn’t have it. We barely had gas money. Fortunately [our band member] had two guitars and we left one with the judge in lieu of bond. We drove off to the gig. We did our thing, backed Jimmy up on his hits, got back in the car… the judge was still awake so we stopped off, paid the speeding fine with the money we earned, ransomed the guitar, and drove back to DC.”

As is often the case, college sweetened Jorma’s musical palette. “The two records I had were Reverend Gary Davis’s Harlem Street Singer on Prestige Bluesville, and Davis and Pink Anderson’s Gospel, Blues and Street Songs on Riverside,” he writes. “I also had Brownie McGee’s ten-inch Folkways LP. Today, we have such rich material readily available, but in those days it was limited and you had to be in the know to find it.” Concurrently he was meeting other guitarists and his skills were improving. “In any case, I sounded like me,” he writes, “and for better or worse, that’s as good as it’s going to get.” He continues, “The guitar has always told me what to do, and my love for the instrument has always allowed me to listen.”

His eight-year tenure with Jefferson Airplane, his most famous job and the one that has allowed him a career at all, gets its due share of attention. Jorma claims he was never a hippie…although he partook in their tastemaking behavior. “As for the band, we still had no name,” he tells. “Lots of ridiculous names were bandied about. Finally when I couldn’t take it anymore I said, ‘You want a stupid name? Howzabout this…’Jefferson Airplane?’ It was one of those rare moments when everyone in the band agreed, and that was that. I think it was the only band meeting that ever allowed me to come away smiling.” Many musicians are namechecked…hipster cult figure Skip Spence was an original member of JA. “Had his powers of concentration equaled his talent, Skip could have done anything,” Jorma recalls.

His honesty forces an honest tale, including his drug misbehavior and debauchery. He did have a rough period but has been sober for over 20 years. “My life has not always been kind or gentle, but most of my crises have been self-inflicted,” he shares. “If you’re not living a life of lies, you never have to remember to keep your stories straight.”

Guitars, cars and gigs are all chronicled, with many of the most important ones getting special mention, and Jorma’s humor shines throughout. “The stage at Woodstock had a rotating platform on it,” he recalls, “which would have been great had it worked.” Every guitar he’s owned seems to get mentioned specifically his 1958 Gibson J-50, the “Embryonic Journey guitar,” and the specs for his signature Martin M-30 take up three pages! In 1972 Hot Tuna played loudly in DC’s Constitution Hall. A little too loudly as they were forbidden to return. Decades later his son’s high school graduation took place in the same Hall. “Hot Tuna was banned from playing that venue back in the seventies,” he reports. “I returned incognito.”

Jorma acknowledges a blessed life and his tale shares his bounty, including a whole appendix of lyrics, with the reader. His future plans include more of the same. “To sit with my guitar onstage and tell my story to an audience that is actually listening is an amazingly fulfilling experience.” He concludes, “So when someone asks me if I ever think of retiring I always say, ‘why, so I can spend more time playing the guitar?’”