Kaukonen isn’t afraid to allow himself to be raw and exposed, which makes Been So Long a therapeutic exercise for the author, and a lesson in humble elegance for the rest of us.
September 7, 2018 | by Andrew K. Lau
Been So Long: My Life and Music
By Jorma Kaukonen
St. Martin’s Press, 2018
“You can fool your friends about the way it ends, but you can’t fool yourself…”
So wrote the 27-year-old Jorma Kaukonen in a song entitled “Star Track” for Jefferson Airplane’s dark, cynical 1968 LP, Crown of Creation. Despite his youth, the guitarist couldn’t have created a better summation for his life onward, a life which is perfectly captured in his newly published memoir, Been So Long: My Life and Music. It’s an intimate look into the musician’s career, his music, and battle with addiction that’s punctuated with cars, motorcycles, endless tours, speed skating (!), and difficult relationships, mostly with himself.
With the utilization of his journals and lyrics, this is one of the most honest, heartfelt auto-biographies I’ve read; long on the emotional untangling, short on the blow-by-blow account of Kaukonen’s quiet but no less storied career. So, those looking for the inside dirt on Jefferson Airplane or Hot Tuna will need look elsewhere as Kaukonen has little time or interest to fixate on the minutia. The reader will be advised to take Kaukonen’s former bandmate Grace Slick’s book, Somebody to Love? with a grain of salt because she intentionally fictionalized parts of her past in order to spice up what she thought was an otherwise boring timeline. Makes sense, given her headstrong attitude and love of absurdist humor. Interestingly, Slick wrote the forward to Been So Long and does so with the kind of affection one has for a longtime friend.
Kaukonen, though, is a different person altogether; he is brutally honest and the heartfelt nature of this book may come as the biggest revelation. In the early days, this guy was the rail-thin, wire-haired, speed-freak guitarist knifing out distinctive guitar runs looking serious and mean. By the early 70s, the acoustic blues side-project he started with his musical companion, bassist Jack Casady, turned into a second full-time band. In a few years’ time, they somehow morphed into a rabid blues/metal power trio playing four-hour shows at ridiculous volumes. This constant work began to take its toll and Kaukonen himself began looking worse for wear, his sharp facial structure becoming more severe. And that’s when his story gets really interesting.
Kaukonen’s “book voice” is not too dissimilar from his singing voice: warm, honest, and practical. His remembrances of his mother and father are steeped in a somber fondness, while everything else is filtered through a humorous tone as he seems to be in awe of his tale as much as the reader. Guitarists out there will revel in Kaukonen’s detailed explanation of his technique as it develops along with details about how he acquired his various instruments. Additionally, we’re treated to the stories being certain songs, especially the more obscure titles such as the brilliantly menacing “Trial by Fire” and — at last! — an explanation (or an acknowledgement) of the wonderfully bizarre “Da-Ga Da-Ga” from his 1979 solo LP, Jorma.
Fortunately, the book lacks a typical self-congratulating aspect many Baby Boomers seem to invoke when recounting their lives and experiences. Instead of two, three hundred pages of “Look at all the great stuff I was involved with!” we are instead treated to a “Look at all the messes I made!” One of the blurbs on the back jacket is from David Crosby, whose own penchant for self-aggrandizing is often downright nauseating, but he does hit the nail on the proverbial head by claiming, though vaguely, that Kaukonen comes off as “a regular guy,” which is true. With a private and humble demeanor, Kaukonen runs opposite Crosby; anyone outside of Kaukonen’s inner circle will no doubt be surprised at the struggle he’s been through.
Yes, Kaukonen is an Everyman, wrestling with the same struggles most of us have to deal with: relationships, inner conflicts, making ends meet, starting over after the fall. This is a sincere, almost spiritual look into the meaning of life through music, I can’t stress that enough; that he has been involved with two storied bands of cultural significance is almost an afterthought. This Everyman aura is furthered in the book by the inclusion of journal entries which propels the narrative deeper into personal waters than most musicians’ autobiographies. Kaukonen isn’t afraid to allow himself to be raw and exposed, which makes Been So Long a therapeutic exercise for the author, and a lesson in humble elegance for the rest of us.
Not only has Kaukonen survived, but he’s continued to push himself, tour extensively, release critically acclaimed records, get nominated for a couple of Grammys, as well as run his Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio with his wife, Vanessa, where he extends this almost Zen-like approach to music and life through guitar workshops with other notable musicians. In the book’s afterward, Casady accurately refers to Kaukonen’s writing as having “a solid sense of purpose,” and I think the same could be said for his tenacity. The angry-looking man standing on stage decades ago has been replaced with a healthy looking, relaxed country gentleman; experiences captured in these pages can be seen etched in his distinguished face.
Jorma Kaukonen isn’t a household name, at least not on par with that of some of his peers, but the reader will quickly understand that wasn’t his intent nor is he losing any sleep over it. His expert guitar work and ear for melody have been his stand-by talents, now add to the list this written work. Been So Long gives us an account of how Kaukonen pulled it off, whether this was gained by grace or by accident, it doesn’t matter. After decades of sometimes fooling his friends and maybe fooling himself, Kaukonen is brutally open and honest here. He is a survivor and a gentleman just trying to get along in this world like the rest of us.