Still in flight

Jefferson Airplane’s guitarist Jorma Kaukonen will have a smooth landing in Tel Aviv with his long-time roots band Hot Tuna.

Hot Tuna 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hot Tuna 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In a circuitous manner, the state of Israel can be credited with the formation of the seminal 1960s rock legends the Jefferson Airplane. When a young folk and blues guitarist Jorma Kaukonen left his Washington, DC, home and headed out to San Francisco to attend Santa Clara University in the mid-1960s, he fell into a hootenanny scene that included such future stars as Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia.
As The Beatles’ influence spread, and they all started picking up electric guitars and letting their hair grow, the already virtuoso Kaukonen was approached in 1965 by some would-be rockers, Paul Kantner and Marty Balin, who asked him if he wanted to play guitar in their fledgling band. Caught by the rock & roll bug, Kaukonen accepted the offer and set out to buy his first electric guitar, using the only money he had to his name.
“My first Jefferson Airplane electric guitar was bought with cashed-in Israel Bonds. My grandmother, who was an Russian immigrant to the United States, was an ardent Zionist, and every year, she would give me a $100 bond. When I joined the Airplane, I withdrew something like $500, which was a lot of money back then, and bought a Rickenbacker,” chuckled the 69-year-old Kaukonen, speaking on the phone recently from his home on a rural farm in Ohio.
Kaukonen invited an old high school friend, Jack Casady, to join the band as bassist, and the rest, as they say, is history. The Airplane emerged as one of the most celebrated bands of the San Francisco scene, epitomizing the counter-culture ethos with its flowing, hippie appearance and loud, psychedelic-tinged rock music.
When film makers want to portray the turbulent Vietnam/ civil rights/free love era, more often than not, they’ll turn to The Airplane’s oeuvre including “Volunteers,” “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” sung by their siren-like vocalist Grace Slick to provide the tumultuous soundtrack.
But even at the height of his accomplishments and fame with the Airplane at the dawn of the 1970s, Kaukonen was also eager to get back to his folk and blues roots.
So, in one of the first rock & roll spinoffs, he and Jack Casady formed Hot Tuna to provide a rootsy, low volume outlet to the electric craziness that permeated their “day job” career with their mother ship.
Forty years later, the Airplane, which broke up in the early 1970s and morphed into the more commercially successful but artistically inferior Jefferson Starship, is just a fond memory. But Kaukonen and Hot Tuna are still vital, working entities – touring and recording with only sporadic gaps in the ensuing decades.
AND NOW, 45 years after using his Israel Bonds money to make rock & roll history, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 1996 inductee Kaukonen is going to repay his debt by making his Israel debut with Hot Tuna on December 22 at Reading 3.
“I’m very excited about coming to Israel for the first time,” said Kaukonen with a relaxed, slightly Southern drawl which hinted at his upbringing close to Virginia.
While he wasn’t raised as a practicing Jew, he was aware that he was different from his friends from an early age.
“Because my dad was in the State Department and was away a lot of the time, my mother and I spent a lot of time with my grandparents. And even though they weren’t observant in the home, the culture and the food was absolutely Jewish,” he said.
“My background of family picnics or going to the beach was totally different than that of my friends, and I didn’t know why. So I was definitely raised in a Jewish cultural atmosphere if not a religious one.”
In another twist of fate, Kaukonen, whose Judaism sat dormant for much of his life, experienced a spiritual renewal of sorts when his wife, Vanessa, decided to convert to Judaism six years ago.
“She was raised Catholic but this woman was born to be Jewish,” said Kaukonen. “Everyone who meets her says so. Before she converted, we were in a restaurant in New York with a friend who just happens to be Jewish.
We got a table, and Vanessa came in and right away said, ‘Oh no, that’s too small, we can’t sit there.
Give us a different table.’ My friend turned to me and said, ‘I’ve never seen a non- Jewish woman do that!’” While the American Jewish cultural touch points may be intact, the Kaukonens’ commitment to Judaism run deeper, to the extent that they gave their daughter, now four and a half, the name Israel.
“I had never really practiced Judaism myself, so of course, I got involved with Vanessa in the Jewish community.
I went along for the ride for with a lot of it, and we studied Hebrew together even though I haven’t kept up with it as much as I did five years ago,” said Kaukonen.
“When I was talking to my rabbi about my learning something about my cultural and religious heritage, one of her questions was ‘why?’ And I said, there’s two reasons, one because my wife is so interested in it and I want to be able to take that journey with her. But the other one is I always felt comfortable in a Jewish milieu.
I’ve always felt at home with Jews, and I look forward to having that feeling in Israel as well,” he said, adding that the family was planning to spend five days in the country around the show.
When he’s not touring or recording with Hot Tuna, or performing solo shows, Kaukonen and his wife spend their time on their 125 acres in the Appalachian foothills of Southeastern Ohio operating Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch Guitar Camp Since it opened in 1998, thousands of musicians whose skills range from basic to highly accomplished gather for weekends of master instruction offered by Kaukonen and other celebrity instructors who stop by the center’s 200-seat performance hall, like David Bromberg, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman.
“It’s a great place for people to get away from their daily work,” said Kaukonen. “It’s mostly adults with time and the money to spend on themselves, and during the four-day sessions, there’s nothing to do but make music, talk bout the music you play, and eat the great food we have.”
Kaukonen added that all levels of players are welcome, but that he personally doesn’t take on the beginners’ class.
“I take too much for granted with them. I forget to teach them little things like how to tune the guitar,” he said.
KAUKONEN HAS no such problem with his musical partner of 53 years, Casady, the anchor of Hot Tuna who’s considered to be one of the most original and melodic bass players of the rock era. Despite their familiarity with each other, Kaukonen said that his friend still has the capacity to constantly surprise him with his musical innovation.
“When I do my thing, I have building blocks I can move around so things aren’t always the same,” explained Kaukonen.
“But Jack has this rare talent. When he does a solo, you never know what he’s going to come up with. He has a creative instinct, almost an insight into a parallel universe, that’s just unbelievable. And that’s exciting for me and for the rest of the guys in the band. If there’s a spot in a song for improvisation, it’s not like ‘oh yeah, here’s that solo again’, it’s something magical that takes place.”
While Kaukonen’s 70th birthday will be officially celebrated during his stay in Israel, he launched his birthday month with two star-studded Hot Tuna shows on December 3 and 4 at New York’s Beacon Theater. Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, Allman Brothers Band bassist Oteil Burbridge, and singer/songwriter Steve Earle joined the band a show of songs that spanned the guitarist’s storied career.
“Jack and I certainly felt all the fire from the old days coming out of our fingers,” Kaukonen wrote on his blog.
“Well, I don’t want to gush too much, but we sure got to play some great songs with great people. After the show downstairs they broke out the cake they presented me on stage and it tasted just as good as it looked.”
Earlier, Kaukonen told The Jerusalem Post that he’s grateful for being in such a good place as he approaches his 70th year.
“I don’t know if you can print this, but I’m just glad I can still wipe my ass by myself,” he chortled. “On a more serious note, it feel great. So many of my contemporaries are gone, as are some of my younger buddies.
I’m so very fortunate I have strong genetics in my family and I can still do all this stuff. I’m a lucky guy.”
Riding high on a recent acoustic, solo album, River of Time, Kaukonen is currently recording Hot Tuna’s first studio album in many years at Levon Helm’s Woodstock, NY-area studio, with noted Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell producing.
Despite an ill-advised 1989 reunion album, the legacy of the Jefferson Airplane is one that Kaukonen takes great pride in. And he doesn’t shy away from identifying with it. Besides Casady, he retains an ongoing relationship with vocalist Marty Balin, which last year resulted in another, more organic mini-reunion.
“We were playing in Florida near where Marty lives on the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, so we called him up, and he came to the show and we performed “Volunteers,” said Kaukonen.
“I’m absolutely proud of the Airplane, it’s a part of American history. I’m not given to listen to my older work much, but the Airplane has very long legs and the back catalogue is used for movies sometimes. And when I’m called up to listen to something, my first reaction is always the same. ‘Wow! We were pretty good!”