You’re in for a treat in this interview with a true rock icon, as he provides his take on a number of teamwork related issues.
Jorma Kaukonen is an icon in the music industry, from his time as lead guitarist for the Jefferson Airplane back in the 1960s, to when he later formed Hot Tuna with Airplane bassist, Jack Casady. He and Hot Tuna have continued to tour since then.
Jorma also has had a very successful solo career. Including his most recent album, Ain’t in No Hurry, which is a great CD. If you haven’t got it, you ought to run out and get it, because every song on it is terrific.
For the past 18 years, Jorma and his wife, Vanessa, have run the Fur Peace Ranch in Pomeroy, Ohio, where students of all ages and walks of life receive intensive (4 days at a time) instruction on guitar, bass guitar, drums, etc.
I thought it would be good to get Jorma’s perspective about teamwork in the music world. In the conclusion of this 3-Part interview, Jorma talks about creativity, the power of purpose, and the importance of passion.
Terry: What do you do, if anything, to stimulate your creativity?
Jorma: Well, that’s a good question. I like to listen to singer-songwriters. I get stimulated by other people’s writing. I like to read. Sometimes I go through more creative periods than others. If I get an idea, like that in my dreams thing, I try not to let that get away from me.
Even if you think, “Yeah, that’s cool. I’ll remember that.” I guarantee you won’t. It’ll be gone like it never existed. Even if you remember a couple of the words or a couple of the lyrics, it’ll never come back again. Whenever something tickles my creative bone, I try to jump on it immediately and not turn back.
Terry: I take it that you take time to reflect, to think creatively.
Jorma: Absolutely. The other thing is that for whatever reason, word association works for me. I’m not just writing nonsense. I like the E. E. Cummings’ spirit. I can see that sometimes he was just chasing sounds. Because he was a colorful guy. It sounds to me, from reading his stuff that he sat down and started to write, “Okay. Here’s where we’re going to go,” and telling stories.
That’s the other thing too. If you think about Ain’t In No Hurry as an album, I wrote 4 of the songs. The other ones, I got from other places. What’s up with that? For me, a set in an evening, it’s like a song. It’s like a story. It has a beginning, and middle and an end.
An album, the same thing. Everything that I do is telling a story in some way. Do other people hear it like that? I don’t know. Who’s to say? That’s how I think of it.
A thing that’s sort of an obscure Carter Family song, Sweet Fern. Why the heck did you do that? Well, because in 1960, I lived in New York and I was in sort of an old, tiny band. This gal named Linda Fuchs, she used to sing that song. That song has been burned in my consciousness for the last 55 years. It’s just part of my story and I need to say it again.
I’m from the Washington D.C. Area. My folks, when we were into folk music, we went up into the West Virginia Hills to folk festivals in the 50′s and all this stuff. Even though I’m not a hillbilly, even though I live in the hillbilly country now. My heart is close to that stuff. That’s part of my story so there it is.
Terry: Sweet Fern is a great song. I love Teresa’s background vocals on that, the beautiful harmony.
Jorma: Oh, she’s so great.
Terry: Another song that you wrote on the album, Bar Room Crystal Ball, is for me the most, mysterious one, with a dark edge. I mean, it’s got references to having “fallen,” and “sawdust,” and “the pistol’s roar.” Can you shed some light on that?
Jorma: Okay. I’m a recovering alcoholic. I’ve been sober for a number of 24-hour periods. It doesn’t matter how many, but for a number. When I wrote that song, I knew that I had a problem with alcohol.
I hadn’t known there was a solution to it because I didn’t know anything about the disease of alcoholism then. All I knew was the sawdust on the floor, hanging out in bars. But I was coming to the solution of sobriety, and that’s the story I was telling.
Now, as a writer, I don’t demand of my listeners that they understand everything that I say.
If somebody gets something out of a song, whatever you get out of it, that’s a good thing. If it moves my listener emotionally in some way, that’s a blessing for me. Great. Then, I’m a success as a writer.
Now, why did we choose to do that song again? The answer was I’ve always liked the song. It was written as an acoustic song. The Hot Tuna version of course is very electric. I just wanted to do it as I had originally written it, as an acoustic song.
Here’s a teamwork thing. Jack plays base on that song on the original electric version. When we got ready to put the base part down for the acoustic version on the current CD, we could’ve used Larry or my friend, Myron, because both of them play base. We went, “You know? There’s only one person that can play base on this song, and that’s Jack Casady.”
I called Jack up. I told him, “Jack, listen. I’m rerecording our song, Bar Room Crystal Ball. I’d be honored if you’d play base for me.” He goes, “Well, Jorma, I think that sort of blurs the lines between Jorma’s solo album and Hot Tuna.” He went on and on like that. I let him talk for about 8 and a half minutes. Then I said, “Jack, I played on your album.” He went, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Terry: Getting back to public speaking, another thing I emphasize is you need to get there beforehand and you need to check everything out. You need to make sure that the room is set up the way you want. You need to check the audio stuff, the lighting.
All of that so that when you get up there to give your speech you’re not worried about those other things. As you said, things are always going to go wrong. The more comfortable you are with all of that, the better your speech is going to be. How do you feel about that?
Jorma: That makes a lot of sense from my perspective. My buddy, John Hammond, great blues musician years ago. We were the Antioch College together in ’59. When I went and moved out to California, I was going to college. John was already a full-time professional musician.
One of the things he told me, which I have adopted as my own, is, “When you’re going to go to a gig, get there early. Stake your turf out in the dressing room. Even if you’re the low man on the totem pole, it’s your room. Make yourself comfortable.” I do that all the time.
A lot of players that are in the same place in life that I am, but they show up at the last minute for sound check. That’s not me. I go in with the crew. I get to go in with them, and I get to know the crew that’s working there. I get to know the dressing room and hospitality people. I’ve done that for years. If I don’t get to do it, I’m uncomfortable.
Terry: I find in many of your songs themes of the power of purpose, and spirituality. Going back to the early days of Hot Tuna, I think of Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning. Or even before that, with the Airplane, a song like Good Shepherd. Or from your current album, Ain’t In No Hurry, a great song by Woody Guthrie, Suffer the Little Children.
There’s obviously a Christian, Gospel component to these songs. How important is spirituality and purpose to you?
Jorma: The answer is, obviously at this point of my life I’m able to look at things in what I would like to think as a more comprehensive view. It’s always been important to me. Why? That’s a good question. I mean, why did I love Reverend Gary Davis [author of Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning] so much? One of the reasons obviously is because what a great singer and guitar player he was. There was more to him than that.
Listen, I’m a Jewish kid. What am I doing with all these Christian gospel songs? I talked to David Bromberg about this too. There’s a bunch of us guys that just love that music. I think it has to do with the spiritual component. I think it’s always been important. Did I seriously think about conscious contact with some sort of a spiritual higher power? No, I didn’t, but I think that it was there in the back of my mind.
I honestly believe that that part of my life is what has helped me to survive and to be the man that I am today. I do think about it today. I didn’t always think about it. It was a gift. It was like, “Hey! You’re going to love this kind of stuff.” Now, there’s a big difference to me between spirituality and religion. As we say in AA-speak, “Religion is for people who are afraid of hell; spirituality is for those of us who have been there, and don’t want to go back.”
That’s kind of the way that I look at it. You’ve gotta have a purpose, as a person, or a band, or whatever. I do know there’s a higher power in this universe and it’s not me. That’s the most important thing.
Just today, I’m sitting in my truck, I’m talking to you. I’m about to trade in a 4-wheeler and get one that we’re going to need at the ranch. I’m trading a toy in for something that’s actually usable. It’s a beautiful day. I was able to have breakfast with my daughter this morning. I talked to my son in Virginia. How good does it have to get?
A lot of this stuff, I look at it as I’ve made some good decisions in the last 19 years but I’m getting help along the way. That’s a good thing. I’m okay with that.
Terry: I believe that whatever you do, but especially in public speaking, you have to have passion. On the Jefferson Airplane song, If You Feel, from the Crown of Creation album, I’ve always felt that your wah-wah playing on that song ranks with Hendrix on All Along the Watch Tower. Your use of wah-wah had a certain passion, or energy, to it. What can you tell me about that?
Jorma: It’s extremely flattering to use Hendrix and me in the same breath. If You Feel is a great song. The guy that I first heard play the wah-wah that set me on fire with it, was Clapton with Cream.
When the Airplane played, when we were at the peak of our form, we were all extremely passionate about what we did. We rehearsed relentlessly. When we were good, we played on fire. There’s something about that wah-wah thing. I just recently broke out my wah-wah again. I haven’t found my zone with the wah-wah again, not with the way I’m playing today. I’m working on it because I like it.
Because to me I didn’t just move my foot to do the wah-wah. It’s also my legs. My whole body moved and the foot moved. That made the wah-wah happen. I was incredibly passionately involved with the music. That was intense stuff for me.
I hadn’t used the wah-wah peddle a while, and recently asked my tech guy, Myron, to set it up. I had to tell him, “It’s too close to the pedal board. I need room to do what I still do.” Because it’s my whole body working, not just my foot on the pedal. That’s a direct connection with my musical soul. That wah-wah business, that was passion.
Terry: Well, my last question gets back to your latest album, Ain’t In No Hurry, which is a great album. I urge all my readers to go out and get it because they’ll be blown away by it. If there was 1 message that you wanted people to get from this CD, what would it be?
Jorma: I guess, count your blessings and enjoy every moment above ground. As Bill Kirchen says, in one of his songs, “Every day when you get up and you put your elbows down and don’t touch wood is a good day.”
Questions for you: What do you do to stimulate creativity? How effective are you at displaying passion and energy when speaking publicly?
Note: Thanks to Jorma Kaukonen for being so generous with his time during this interview. Don’t forget to buy Ain’t in No Hurry, because it really is a great album.