Jacob Berkman is a reporter for JTA and the former editor of the Jewish Standard of New Jersey.
Jefferson Airplane Guitarist Searches for His Jewish Soul
March 9, 2006
Reprinted from the New Jersey Jewish Standard with permission of the author.
Jorma Kaukonen is nine-years sober. He's made it through more than 40 years of hard rock 'n' roll living.
At 65, he seems content. He spends half his time touring the country playing the music he loves to adoring fans. The other half he spends in Ohio at the foot of the Appalachian Mountains, where he and his wife Vanessa operate the Fur Peace Ranch, something of a low-key resort for the guitar enthusiast, where he and an all-star faculty teach guitar in a small group setting.
He's got a baby on the way, and a newfound outlook.
If you don't know the name Jorma Kaukonen, the lead guitarist for Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, you're not alone.
In the pantheon of the rock gods, Jorma (pronounced Yorma) is one of those guitar-playing deities who, while universally respected and revered by his peers, is not a household name.
He's ranked in the top two-thirds of Rolling Stone magazine's list of the best 100 guitar players ever. It was his playing that helped lay the soundtrack for the late '60s and the countercultural revolution. If there is such thing as a rock-and-blues virtuoso, Kaukonen is it. He's been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And he's been nominated for a Grammy. So, if you don't know who he is, it's worth finding out.
But discovering Jorma is not just a job for the rock fan. During the past few years, Jorma has found it a job for himself. He is Jewish, and he is only now starting to discover what that means to him.
If Jorma doesn't sound like a Jewish name, that's because it's not. While his mother, Beatrice Love, was Jewish, his father, Jorma Sr., was a non-Jewish Finn. An FBI, and later a State Department, man, Jorma Sr. spent much of his son's childhood moving the family from exotic location to exotic location. Though their home base was Washington, D.C., where the junior Jorma attended Woodrow Wilson High School, they spent much of Jorma's childhood in places such as the Philippines and Pakistan.
Growing up in Washington, especially, Jorma knew that he was Jewish. It was something that made him an outsider. While the black kids were the obvious outsiders when Woodrow Wilson High School was integrated in 1954, "the people who existed outside the pale were the Jewish kids," he said.
But "Jewish" had no spiritual or religious meaning for him.
At Chanukah, his family would have a menorah and perhaps a dreidel, but that was about it in terms of practice. There was no synagogue attendance. And while he realized later that the foods he ate with his mother's side of the family were all Jewish--"Matzoh was my favorite cracker when I was a kid," he recalled--he didn't recognize anything about himself as Jewish.
What he did realize was that he was a guitar player.
He calls himself a late bloomer because he didn't actually pick up a guitar until he was 15, when a friend taught him some old-timey bluegrass songs and some Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry tunes.
"I wasn't interested in being a guitar player," he told The Jewish Standard. "I just liked singing the songs."
But he fell in love with the instrument. To get his father to pay for his first guitar--a Gibson J-45 that he bought at a music store on M Street in D.C.--he had to learn how to play two songs perfectly.
He learned two by Jimmi "The Newsboy" Brown.
"My father wasn't completely thrilled by the choice of music, but he took me to the guitar shop," he said.
That trip to the guitar shop eventually landed Jorma a gig with the San Francisco band Jefferson Airplane, joining a lineup that included at its peak vocalists Marty Balin, Grace Slick, and Paul Kantner, along with bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden. The band would help write history.
"They were the personification of the whole late '60s revolution. What the Beatles were doing in England, they were the American counterpart," said Jeff Tamarkin. Tamarkin, who literally wrote the book on Jefferson Airplane, Got a Revolution, has covered the Airplane for more than 30 years, and since 1992 has written liner notes for the band's box sets and re-mastered albums. "They were six white people from middle-class backgrounds who were diverse musically and personally. And whatever happened to the baby boomers during the counter culture revolution, happened to them at the same time."
The Airplane was also ahead of whatever was happening. When hippie culture started to form in San Francisco in the mid '60s, it was the Airplane that was the house band at the famed Matrix folk music club, which, before the Fillmore West, was the musical epicenter of psychedelic Haight Ashbury. And when the Fillmore took over, it became a regular headlining act there. It would go on to play Woodstock, Altamont, the Monterey Music Festival, and virtually every other festival of significance between 1967 and 1973.
It also became the first psychedelic band to sign a contract with a major label, when it inked a deal with RCA in 1966.
The group's 1967 album "Surrealistic Pillow"--which hit number three on the Billboard music charts and featured such psychedelic anthems as "White Rabbit," using the Alice in Wonderland story to talk about turning on to drugs and freeing your mind, and "Somebody to Love," which preaches free love--is widely credited with touching off the Summer of Love.
"They spearheaded that whole scene for everyone outside of San Francisco," said Tamarkin, who lives in Hoboken, N.J. "They were the first band from that scene to tour outside of San Francisco, and when people wrote articles about hippies, where they looked was Jefferson Airplane… Jorma was there from day one. He was the original guitarist, and he stayed with them until the bitter end. I don't think there would have been a Jefferson Airplane without him. He had just such a unique sound."
Unlike a lot of the thrashing guitarists out there who have made their names with earsplitting, note-sputtering riffs plucked one string at a time, Jorma is a finger-picker.
In finger-picking, each finger is responsible for one string, and the guitarist uses the fingers to play a melody while the thumb picks its own melody on the guitar's bass strings. The best guitarists can create a duet between the two. Jorma's Rev.-Gary-Davis-inspired picking is an eloquent conversation between six strings.
It made for an innovative lead electric guitar for Jefferson Airplane, a sound that was intricate and hard and loud. And when the Airplane broke up in 1973--and Jorma and the bassist Casady started touring exclusively with the more bluesy, more musical, and less political band Hot Tuna--his guitar got even louder and more intricate.
|After Jefferson Airplane broke up in 1973, Kaukonen (L) and former Airplane bassist Jack Cassady (C) formed the band Hot Tuna. The current incarnation includes the two founding members and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff (R).|
But when Jorma goes acoustic, as he often did with Hot Tuna and on his own, that conversation between strings becomes exquisite.
Watching Jorma as he performed the last stop of a month-long tour with New Jersey mandolin player Barry Mitterhoff for a sold-out crowd of several hundred admirers at Teaneck's Mexicali Blues Sunday night [in May 2006], it's easy to see that he is at the top of his game.
The thumb moves liquidly in quarter-inch lightning steps between the top three strings of his Gibson; his other fingers mambo a melody beneath their sound. Though the waify, tattooed rocker with outrageous red locks who helped Jefferson Airplane take off is replaced by a loafer-wearing incarnation with gray, slicked-back hair, the guitar player is still there, in his prime as a musician.
But he says that he is playing better than he ever has only because he is clear-headed, and he is learning, and because he was able to get clean.
While Airplane vocalists Slick, Balin, and Kantner were the band's most identifiable members, it was Jorma who was the musician's musician, routinely playing with the likes of David Crosby and Jerry Garcia, and it was Jorma who was Janis Joplin's close friend and first guitar player.
Those affiliations, and the affiliations a touring musician tends to make, led him to a pattern of substance abuse that should have killed him.
Jorma does not like to give "drug-or-drunk-a-logues," but abuse was a big part of his life from his late teens until he got sober nine years ago. "It's really a miracle on many levels that I survived it. A lot of my friends on the same path aren't here today," he said.
He's also more in tune with himself these days, as his developing Judaism has given him a balance and a center.
But while many recovering addicts use God and spirituality as a means to get clean, for him it took getting clean to pave the way for God and spirituality.
"Back in the crazy days, when I was abusing stuff, there was no room for spirituality," he said. "I never saw God on LSD or any of that stuff. At some point, when I got clean, I was able to look for my contact with my higher power. When the haze started to clear, I felt I needed that."
Whatever journeys kindred spirits take separately, when those spirits become soulmates, their paths retroactively intertwine. And though Grace Slick's voice is often called "the voice that launched a thousand trips," it was the voice of Jorma's Catholic-born wife, Vanessa Kaukonen, that launched Jorma's Jewish journey.
The Jorma-Vanessa Connection
Vanessa and Jorma found each other in 1988. The condensed version of the story is that Vanessa was working as a civil engineer in Key West, Fla., when an out-of-town "surfer dude, dumb as a bag of rocks," asked her if she wanted to check out a band, Hot Tuna. She'd never heard of the band, but decided to go.
Jorma saw her from onstage and had his road manager invite her backstage after the show. The two hit it off immediately and spent the whole night talking. At some point during the evening, Vanessa told a white lie--that she owned a sailboat--and she suggested that the band come sailing with her. After a night of dancing and drinking, she "crawled home at 5:30 in the morning." When she got there, the phone was already ringing. It was Jorma calling to tell her that the band wanted to take her up on her offer. She had to scramble to find a friend who owned a boat.
She found one, and spent the next 24 hours talking and connecting with Jorma. They discussed life, God, "everything you can imagine," and Jorma was "a complete gentleman," she said. He didn't touch her, aside from one innocent kiss on the elbow.
At the end of their second night together, Jorma invited her back to his hotel room and something clicked. There was a full moon, and Jorma took her to his room's sliding glass windows, which offered a perfect view of the moon--and of a nude beach where Vanessa realized she had sunbathed topless only several hours before Jorma had his road manager invite her backstage, and that the faces she saw peeping at her that day had come from Jorma's room and were those of Hot Tuna.
But it didn't matter. She was already smitten. Jorma kissed her again.
"It was overwhelming," she said of the kiss. "I felt like I was home."
It was the first time she had felt that way. The second came three years ago.
The two were married only several months after they met, and they became very much a rock 'n' roll couple. Vanessa started working for the band, and, like many such couples, both struggled hard with addiction.
Vanessa was also struggling with her own spiritual search. Though she had gone to Catholic schools and had been confirmed a Catholic at 13, she never found solace in the Christian scriptures. She had a strong belief in God, but Catholicism didn't speak to her.
"I wanted to feel it when I would breathe. I wanted it to be that close to me," she said. "But I didn't feel I was getting that."
She didn't feel that she ever really found a spiritual fit until 14 years ago, when she was on tour with Jorma at a show on the West Coast. Jorma's road manager at the time, Ira Silver, was Jewish, as were a number of people in the crowd of friends surrounding the band. Vanessa walked in on him as he was lighting a yahrzeit candle in memory of his mother. He left the candle on the sink in the bathroom, and the two stared at it and talked for several hours about its importance, and about the importance of remembering the dead.
"He was able to share with me the memory of his mother," Vanessa said. "There was something about the flame that just opened up this consciousness that I had not been introduced to. We left that hotel the next day and went to another hotel, another show. But I was moved."
She wanted to explore the religion a little more, but Silver was standoffish, which made Vanessa think that he felt she was simply not bright enough to grasp Judaism. So she went to a Jewish bookstore at a tour stop in Seattle, where she bought an esoteric kabbalistic book that turned out to be way over the head of someone looking for an introduction to Judaism.
"It was about the Judeo-Christian myths and elements of light," she recalled. "I realize today I had no business reading it. I could not understand the text at the time. I felt, 'I really am stupid.'"
For an addict, that is a surefire turn-off, she said. "But a flame had been lit. I just didn't realize it."
She dropped her search for Judaism for more than a decade, turning for a time to a form of Buddhism. During that time, 13 years ago, she also got clean.
Three years ago, after 10 years of sobriety, she and Jorma decided to take a rare vacation and headed for Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. On the way, they stopped at a bookstore in Houston, where Vanessa on a whim bought some beach reading, a book about kabbalah by Michael Berg.
"For whatever reason, I grabbed the book, and I read it before the vacation was over," she said. "It was so simple and beautiful, and there was no talk of the elements of light. I felt it behind my skin, in my bones. I felt the light and felt the warmth of that yahrzeit candle I had discussed with Ira, and I said to Jorma, 'I need to pursue this now. Something has come full circle.'"
Jorma didn't argue, and from there, things just started to come together, Vanessa said.
She started grilling her Jewish friends about Judaism. Among them was Margot Leverett, the founder of and clarinetist for the Klezmer Mountain Boys. Leverett told her that she had converted to Judaism.
"It was the first time that I had heard someone say that," Vanessa said. "I was like, 'You can do that?'"
Those who know Vanessa say that she is beyond driven, and when it came to her interest in Judaism, she wasn't about to waste time. The Kaukonens started exploring, picking up a few books, and attended a friend's Passover seder in Brooklyn. But things really got into gear when Vanessa put in a call to Rabbi Danielle LeShaw, the rabbi at the Hillel of Ohio University, a non-denominational Hillel house that also serves the community around Athens County, Ohio, where the Kaukonens live.
LeShaw said that she was not all that surprised to hear from Vanessa. The Kaukonens are well known in the community and usually give a donation to the Hillel each year, but that year their donation was larger than usual.
Vanessa called her while driving over the Verrazano Bridge.
"Vanessa said, 'I really want to start a conversion with you,'" recalls the rabbi, who was ordained Reconstructionist. "She said, 'I feel it is in my soul, and it is my calling, and I want to study when I get back to Athens.'"
Before the Kaukonens returned, they had a reaffirming moment. Leverett had invited them to see a Klezmer Mountain Boys' show at B'nai Sholom Congregation in Huntington, W.Va. Vanessa said that she was surprised by the show of support for a Jewish band by a community they found in--of all places--West Virginia.
But, "as we were walking up to this temple, I remember admiring the simplicity of the building," said Vanessa. "It was a very beautiful, practical building. The whole thing made sense. The walkway, the stairs, the Star of David. And my knees got really weak as I walked under the Star of David and into the vestibule. Out of nowhere, I started weeping. I looked over at Jorma, and his eyes were watering too. Either I made him cry, or something happened to him, too. I said to him, 'I feel like I am home.' It was the same feeling I had when Jorma kissed me. That was it--that last piece, that thing that was missing."
Jorma remembers the building as incredibly intricate with beautiful stained glass windows. And he remembers the feeling. He was connecting with a past that he never knew.
"All at once, I just felt so right," he said of being in the first synagogue he'd been in since he could remember. "I just felt at home. I felt, 'This is good.' It was very moving. I am an emotional guy when I allow myself to be, and it was emotional. It was as if all of my ancestors were saying, 'Welcome. What took you so long?'"
When they returned to Athens, Rabbi LeShaw, drew up not only a conversion plan for Vanessa but also a reaffirmation program for Jorma. Together they would begin to create their Jewish identity.
She started off by giving them an extensive list of Jewish books, from the Bible to fiction by Jewish authors. She also asked them to start keeping journals of Jewish questions and observations. Above all, she insisted that they become involved in synagogue life.
All of which they did eagerly.
"Vanessa was absolutely obsessed with this stuff," said Jorma.
They read in a matter of months books that LeShaw thought would take them years, and they passed all of their conversion tests easily, she said.
A year and a half ago, they had their conversion and reaffirmation ceremonies. LeShaw convened a bet din made up of members of her synagogue's 125-family community. She had Jorma and Vanessa write spiritual autobiographies, and they used a local lake as a mikvah before going back to shul to hold the Torah and say some prayers.
The Kaukonen's sojourn to Judaism is not a typical ba'al teshuva story of a couple with no Jewish background who find salvation in the teachings and the laws of the venerable religion.
For them it's not about becoming Orthodox or taking on as many practices as possible.
They are still very much trying to figure out where and how Jewishness fits for them.
Of the two, Vanessa says that she is the one who enjoys the practical side of Judaism, especially the holidays.
Tu Bishvat, the new year for trees, for instance, Vanessa finds beautiful and sensible.
"We have been given this life. We are alive and blessed to be working, but what about our surrounding earth? It's winter, but below the earth, life is happening. You are walking on God's creation," she says. "And I love Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It's about looking at yourself at the end of your year and asking, 'What have I done wrong, and how can I live better?'"
She says that Jorma is the more meditative of the two.
He describes a morning last month when he woke up and saw a three-legged fawn. The fawn could have been eaten by dogs, but she wasn't, he says, and that was something of a small miracle. He says that he communicates with God on a daily basis, be it through prayer or something less formal.
He has also been very open about his thoughts on Judaism and his life as something of a born-again Jew. He regularly shares his musings on the online diary on his Website, www.jormakaukonen.com, which gets more than 24,000 visitors per month, according to David Wolff, a partner with Jorma in breakdownway.com, on which Jorma gives online guitar lessons.
Coming to Judaism has also allowed Jorma to connect with people on a new, Jewish plane.
Even though Jorma says that he never thought about Judaism as a religion for himself until the past several years, he has always seemed to surround himself with Jews. In Jefferson Airplane alone, both Jack Casady and Marty Balin have halachically Jewish fathers. Country Joe MacDonald is Jewish. Promoter Bill Graham, who started the Fillmore West and other venues, was a Holocaust survivor. And a large contingent of his lesser-known friends are Jews of all religious stripes.
He says he may have started to think about Judaism in the 1990s, as his parents were aging. In his online journal, he recalls half-heartedly telling his brother Peter around the time of his mother's death that perhaps they would have to start going to shul. But he didn't actually start going until two years ago.
And a lot of those Jews with whom he surrounded himself by happenstance became an extended community.
Wolff, who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side, said that he has had the Kaukonens over for a seder since they started searching, and he has also taken them to Friday night services at the famous Bnai Jeshurun there, to show them the congregation's musical Shabbat service.
And Jack Brandt, a longtime Fur Peace Ranch student turned friend, said that Jorma's e-mails contain more Yiddish phrases than they used to.
But in terms of practice, when Jorma is in Ohio and the Fur Peace Ranch is not in session, the Kaukonens tend to have Shabbat dinner at the Hillel, said Vanessa, though those times are few and far between. They have to do what they can.
When Jorma is on tour, Vanessa still has Shabbat dinner at the Hillel when she can. And when the ranch is in session, she tries not to do any work beyond what she has to on Saturday.
When Jorma is on tour, he usually has a Jewish book or two with him. This past tour, he had a copy of the Etz Chayim Bible so that he could keep up with weekly Torah readings.
And even though he still performs on Friday nights, Vanessa makes sure that the venue has a candle for him or her to light backstage.
But things will be getting a little tighter, especially concerning Friday night dinner, said Vanessa.
The two are in the process of adopting a Chinese baby girl. And when she comes, Jorma will have to be around for Shabbat dinner.
"We will have a Shabbat dinner in our home," Vanessa insists. "Even if Jorma has to go back to the ranch after dinner to teach, it is really important that we do engage in all of the celebrations and remembrances."
The song "Embryonic Journey" could almost be lost on Jefferson Airplane's landmark album "Surrealistic Pillow." Amid lead singer Grace Slick's powerhouse psychedelic anthems there it is, a one-minute, 51-second instrumental piece that came to Jorma in a dream. He plays alone, but his fingers make the sounds of three guitars. The bass-line remains steady, almost disappearing at times. It's a heartbeat. The melody flutters around it up and down, sometimes accentuated by hard strumming but never really venturing too far from the bass. When it tries to stray, the bass follows, drawing the guitar back. The bass is always there, coming into prominence only when needed, only when it makes sense. The two are a natural fit.
And maybe that's the perfect metaphor for Kaukonen's journey to his Jewish roots. They were always there, and they found him when he needed them.
Jorma says that if his grandfather, Ben Levine, hadn't married his grandmother, Vera, an anarchist, he probably would have spent his whole life as an Orthodox Jew. Vera would not let her husband practice or study his faith, Vanessa explains. But when Vera died, Ben went back to practicing Judaism.
"Jorma had all of this history, and it was just lurking behind this veil," says Vanessa. "Though people might say that I am the one who unraveled this, I think it was Jorma who brought me to Judaism. I was surrounded by Jews, and I married one."
Two years ago, he wanted to rediscover some of his roots with a visit to Ellington, Conn. It was there, near the turn of the 20th century, that his maternal grandparents and their family established a tobacco farm, which the family ran until the 1980s, says Jorma's cousin Audrey Brett. Jorma's grandfather and her grandmother, Eda Levine, were brother and sister. And it was there that the Levines, fresh off the boat from the Ukraine, established a Jewish community and helped found an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, for which Kaukonen's great-grandfather Shmuel, a scribe, wrote a Torah, said Brett.
"It was just a handful of Jews that all came at the same time," Brett told the Standard in an interview. "They had Sabbath services in their homes. And my great-grandfather, Jorma's great-grandfather, was a biblical scholar. He wrote all of the rules and regulations for the shul. I only remember a picture of him as an old man with a big white beard. But the shul, it was very Orthodox. And that's what I grew up with."
The community started by establishing a Jewish cemetery in a section of the town's Christian cemetery, said Brett, who is 79. On top of a hill, overlooking a panoramic scene of pastures and countryside, it is where most of the Levine family that made it to Connecticut until her generation is buried.
But while Brett stayed in Connecticut until very recently, when she moved to Rhode Island, Jorma's family--with his grandfather, a Brown University-educated doctor--left the farm for Washington, D.C.
The two never had much contact until two years ago, when Jorma, on tour and at a venue in Fall River, Mass., called Brett and asked her to take him to the cemetery.
Jorma says that he grew up hearing stories about the cemetery; his mother described it as a picturesque and hallowed burial ground and called it the oldest cemetery in the country (which Jorma doubts is true).
He describes it as an old cemetery, a small cemetery, almost in a cornfield. "I just needed to sort of pull the strings of my family together, just so I knew them better," Jorma said. "My grandfather and I never discussed Jewishness. I just wanted to say hello to him, and I did. It was emotional in a positive way. I've never felt disconnected from my family. I just didn't pay any attention to them. All of a sudden when I started this journey, I wanted to establish these connections. When I got there, it just felt natural. It was like saying, 'Hey, here I am.' I had all of these pictures and knew the faces in the pictures, but now they mean something because I'm learning about where they are from."