Jefferson Airplane and the Psychedelic 1960s

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Interview by Jas Obrecht, by permission of author

The man who gave Jefferson Airplane its name recounts the psychedelic Sixties and describes his guitar approach on “Somebody to Love,” “Embryonic Journey,” etc

An Interview with Jorma Kaukonen

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Jefferson Airplane in 1967.

Image: Esoteric Knave

During the 1960s Jorma Kaukonen helped pioneer psychedelic music. His electrifying guitar playing on Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow – especially on the Top-10 single “Somebody to Love”– became part of the soundtrack of the Summer of Love era and helped define the San Francisco sound. Guitarists also revere Jorma for another track on that album: His beautiful acoustic instrumental “Embryonic Journey” introduced a generation of fingerpickers to dropped-D tuning and inspired many people – myself included – to buy their first guitars.

Kaukonen originally played country blues and folk. He took up electric guitar in 1965 after forming a band with Paul Kantner, Marty Balin, Signe Anderson, and Skip Spence. Jorma christened the lineup Jefferson Airplane and brought in his pal Jack Casady to play bass. The group made its debut on August 13, playing the opening night at the Matrix. Two months later, they played San Francisco’s first important rock and roll “dance concert,” appearing with the Charlatans and Great Society at Longshoreman’s Hall. The band’s debut album, 1966’s folk-rock-oriented Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, featured original vocalist Signe Anderson. Grace Slick, formerly of Great Society, replaced Signe on 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow. This album was quickly followed by the more experimental After Bathing at Baxter’s. Jefferson Airplane released a half-dozen more albums before disbanding circa 1972. By then Kaukonen and Casady were devoting most of their time to their side band, Hot Tuna, which had issued its self-titled debut album two years earlier. Since then, Jorma has continued to work with Hot Tuna and as a solo artist.

After I moved to San Francisco in 1978, the first musician I interviewed was Jorma Kaukonen, who instantly put me at ease. We’ve done many interviews over the years, including the one below from November 1996. At the time, I was working on Guitar Player’s “Psychedelia” cover story, and Country Joe McDonald, Barry “The Fish” Melton, Bob Weir, Sam Andrew, and Jorma were my go-to guys for information about the San Francisco scene. When we spoke, Jorma was living in southern Ohio and setting up his Fur Peace Ranch guitar camp; more about that at the end of the interview.

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Concert poster, Feb. 19, 1966.


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Jorma Kaukonen, late 1960s.

Image courtesy of Groovy Gabby

Barry Melton recently told me that the 1960s music scene in San Francisco could have happened without the rise of psychedelic drugs.

I think there is some truth in that, but it wouldn’t have been called psychedelic music then. Of course, psychedelic music has very little to do with psychedelic drugs today – or in my circle it does! I don’t know. I think there’s some truth in what he says. Obviously, I’ve certainly done my share of substances over the years, and it has made me a lot of what I am today, even though I don’t do anything today. Sometimes I think I’d be in the same place, but I really don’t know. That’s a good point. Let’s think about it as this conversation goes on.

Who were the earliest psychedelic San Francisco bands to record?

Ooh, truly psychedelic? Because I don’t think the first Airplane album was psychedelic. Hmm.

Some feel the first recording is the Country Joe and The Fish EP with “Bass Strings” and “Section 43.”

I think there’s some truth in that. Yeah. In my opinion today, the psychedelic Jefferson Airplane album would be Baxter’s, just because of a lot of the jamming. You know, we were getting into the technology, we were learning how to play electric instruments in the style that became our sort of benchmark. That’s the first album where I personally – and I think Jack too – really started to stretch out.

In a very short period, you went from playing acoustic folk and country blues to raging psychedelic music. What happened?

Well, there was a lot of synchronicity there – and opportunity. All of a sudden I went from being an acoustic guitar player to learning how to play the electric guitar. I was given the opportunity for on-the-job training. And the spirit and everything was pretty much left up to us – you could play what you wanted to. Like, for example, there’s a moderately psychedelic solo on “Somebody to Love.” And people say, “How did you figure that out?” And my answer is, “I didn’t know any better.” You know, I really couldn’t figure out how to do a lot of the stuff that I’d heard people like Mike Bloomfield do because I didn’t play that way. And I just dicked around until that came out. And that’s really what it is. Later on, I sort of refined what it was, but there was a lot of accidental creativity that happened because nobody was there to say, “Here’s a three-minute song. Here’s what you’ve got to do: You have to do an intro and an outro and a solo.” We just did what we wanted to do.

When did massive volume come in? By Baxter’s, you were playing through four Fender Twin amps, right?

Jorma Kaukonen, 1968; Photo:  Esoteric Knave
Yeah, yeah. We escalated quickly. Well, of course now with the technology of electric guitars being the way it is, you can get all that overdriven stuff at acoustic volumes. But in those days, it was before all the master volumes and fuzz boxes and all that stuff. Well, they had fuzz boxes, but they really sucked. And in order to do it, you had to use volume. And also, if you’ll recall back then, the P.A.’s in venues were slim to none, so they could barely handle the vocal and some of the drums. Everything else was pretty much up to the instrumentalists. So it was just a necessity.

I notice that on many of the early psychedelic guitar recordings, there’s very little finger vibrato a la B.B. King or the other bluesmen.

Right.

Is that because people hadn’t seen B.B. play? What was the deal there?

Well, I think it’s just a technical thing. Because that is something I always did – use finger vibrato.

But you were kind of a lone wolf in that area.

Right. You know, I think it’s just pretty much who we learned from. Maybe they didn’t see B.B. or Buddy [Guy] or a lot of these other guys. Or maybe it was just too much work – and I don’t mean that in a negative sense. One of the things I like about the guitar is there’s a lot of different ways to do things. I just started out doing it because I really liked that kind of a sound, even using a lot of it in my acoustic playing. I remember we played a show at some club in Boston, the name of which slips me at the moment. I think it was before Surrealistic Pillow even, because Signe was still in the band. Some guy was at the gig, probably some local honcho, and he was giving me shit for using so much finger vibrato. And I just thought, “Who is this fucking guy?” I mean, that was just the sound that I liked. And I did – I used it on everything! [Laughs.]

What do you think screwed up the San Francisco scene?

Hmm. What do you mean by “screwed up the scene”?

I’ve been hearing from other musicians that by the time Jefferson Airplane was on the cover of Life in 1968, it was over. The spirit was gone.

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Yeah. I think in some respects it’s just the nature of the beast. We all got a little bit older, and the thing that we were doing that was so much fun, which was playing music for a living, became a career. Then you no longer have a lot of time at a gig to let somebody come in and jam with you for an hour. I don’t think it’s so much that people thought, “Hey, I’m doing my show,” but it’s like you just didn’t have the time to do that kind of interaction. And I think egos got involved and stuff like that. It is my impression, from the vantage point of thirty years later, to think that this is just the way things are. It’s really tough to keep an artist community together. It requires a lot of work, and I don’t think any of us really put that kind of work in because we were a bunch of young guys. I can only talk about myself. I’ve never been poor, because I’m not from a poor family. But you went pretty much from living in a one-room apartment to being able to buy almost anything you wanted. And it’s kind of hard to keep focused on what it was that made you get that opportunity. And I consider myself to be lucky to have survived some of those excesses. I was just thinking today, actually, that because I don’t have that kind of cash flow anymore, I really appreciate when I get a chunk of money I can do something with. Like, we’re just putting up a new barn, and I think, “Wow, this is really great!” Back then I might have just bought something expensive and silly and let it rust in the backyard or something. A lot of it had to do with immature attitudes and not having focus on how cool the scene really was.

Bob Weir mentioned that one big change was when people quit dancing and started staring at the musicians.

Yeah. Yeah, there is that. I didn’t think about that. That’s a good point.

And then the musicians became icons and holy men to some people.

Right, right. That is a good point. And I think that certainly is nonsense, because we’re just musicians.

During the psychedelic era, did you have favorite musicians on the scene?

Yeah, sure. One of my favorite ones in the beginning was Bloomfield, like if you recall that Butterfield East-West album. I really liked Elvin Bishop a lot. You know, I wasn’t looking at psychedelic music so much per se, although I realize I probably got some of that out of it. But I loved Buddy Guy. I still love all these blues players, because I think the essence of my playing in psychedelic music is from the blues genre.

Is it fair to say that Moby Grape and Sons of Champlin came on the scene later?

Oh, boy. I don’t know when Moby Grape came on. Somewhat later, but it couldn’t have been that much because by the time we were into the ’70s, it was almost all over. No, Moby Grape was pretty early, because Skip [Spence] was our first drummer. He dropped out, and the next thing you know within a year or so he was in Moby Grape. So it depends on what you mean by later. And the Sons of Champlin, I don’t remember when they came in.

What is Skip up to these days? Is he still a street person in San Jose?

That’s what I hear.

And I heard that [Moby Grape’s] Bob Mosley is living under bridges in San Diego.

Good grief!

But Barry Melton is a public defender in Ukiah.

You gotta love that, don’t ya?

Man, I ever get busted up there, I hope he’s my lawyer!

There you go! Well, I hope you don’t get busted anywhere.

Is it true that Jefferson Airplane headlined at the first San Francisco Dance Concert at Longshoreman’s Hall?

We did.

That was October ’65?

Yes, it was. It was around Halloween.

What kind of music were you playing at the time?

It would have been pretty much like the stuff on Takes Off.

More folky kind of music?

Right.

Jefferson Airplane was a sensation at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, but how did the band go over the year before at the Monterey Jazz Festival?

That was still with Signe. You know, it’s so long ago, it’s hard for me to remember. I know that Leonard Feather gave us a scathing review. One of his quotes was “about as subtle as a mule kicking down a picket fence,” which we took out of context and used for an RCA ad.

Did your spending part of your youth living in Pakistan influence your playing?

I think in the beginning it did, plus the fact that I’ve listened to a lot of ethnic music. And the fact that I didn’t really know how to play the electric guitar. So I was really open to adapting a lot of stuff. The solo on “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit” and a lot of the stuff on Baxter’s were really pretty much coming out of world music being assumed into my own little world.

Years ago, you told me that your favorite Jefferson Airplane record was Bless Its Pointed Little Head.

Correct.

Does that hold true today?

Pretty much. Actually, I was thinking of that and Baxter’s. That’s funny, how you listen to things and you pick stuff out. I recently rediscovered Surrealistic Pillow, and I think it’s a really good album, and even Takes Off. But I think the essence of what the Airplane did is to be found in Pointed Head.

What did Jerry Garcia play on Surrealistic Pillow?

He played some guitar on “Coming Back to Me,” and I think he played rhythm guitar on something else. Basically, he was a producer.

How did that come about?

None of us had really been in a band before, and we really wanted to learn how to do that. And Jerry, of course, had been in bands for years and that’s pretty much what his deal was. It says “spiritual advisor” [in the album’s credits], but he’s really a producer.

Before the Airplane, you were playing country blues and folk with Janis Joplin.

Mm-hmm.

I read something about Ken Kesey plugged you into a tape delay back then.

Actually what happened was when Paul [Kantner] asked me to audition for what was to become the Jefferson Airplane, I came up when Kesey was there, and he had an Echoplex or something like that. I plugged the guitar into it, and it wigged me out.

You liked the sound?

I just kind of liked all that electronic stuff. It set the stage for the excesses to come.

At one time you were playing with an Ampeg Scrambler?

Yes, my favorite fuzztone. I still have one.

That was on Baxter’s?

Yeah, it started on Baxter’s, and I used that until I quit playing with the Airplane.

Did you use the Gibson ES-345 on Surrealistic Pillow?

Yes, I did. Wait a minute, man – waaaiiitt a minute. Ah, actually I might have just gotten it, but what I was using on Surrealistic Pillow is a Guild Thunderbird. Yeah, a Guild Thunderbird. I think that I really started using the 345 on Baxter’s.

And the front pickup was for a wah-wah pedal?

Yeah, on the 345. The front pickup was the wah-wah channel, and the neck pickup was the fuzztone channel.

Those were fairly new devices at that time.

Yes, they were.

Because I don’t think you had any devices on the first record.

No.

Aside from the Janis Joplin “typewriter” tape, are there recordings that predate those first Jefferson Airplane albums?

There’s some tapes around, but I don’t think so, no.

What are you up to these days?

Let’s see. I have a Christmas album that’s coming out on Relix, and it’s coincidentally called Jorma’s Christmas. Actually, I have a little studio here and it’s my first home project. It really came out well. It’s got some original tunes as well as “What Child Is This,” which is “Greensleeves,” “Silent Night,” and a Harry Belafonte song called “Baby Boy.” I’m getting ready to do a Hot Tuna tour and two more instructional videos for Happy Traum.

The first two you did are great.

Oh, thanks, man. Thanks. I love instructional videos – I think they’re great. I’ve got quite a few of them. And then I hope after the first of the year to record another Hot Tuna album and another Jorma record. And we’re working on getting this guitar camp rolling, finally. We’ve applied for the government grants. The studio, my first building on the property, is up and running, and I’m recording projects there. Life is pretty good!


Epilogue

I am happy to report that Jorma realized his dream of creating a “ranch that grows guitar players” in Meigs County, Ohio. Today, Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch offers a wide array of opportunities for guitarists of all levels, including workshops, concerts, jam sessions, online lessons, even facilities for extended stays. For details, as well as Jorma CDs and updates, check out his website at furpeaceranch.