I’ll say this for Jorma Kaukonen’s autobiography Been So Long: My Life and Music—of the books on musicians I’ve read over the years, Kaukonen’s is the only one where a passion for speed skating saved the subject of the book from completely succumbing to the ills of drugs and alcohol. Kaukonen admits that he was “pulled back from the brink” when he and his first wife, Margareta, were watching speed skating during the 1972 Winter Olympics. This sudden passion for speed skating, like so many things in Been So Long, is never satisfactorily explained.
Kaukonen is still best known as one of the Jefferson Airplane’s guitar players. The book obviously uses this connection to try to bring readers in, and the cover photo appears to be a picture of the author from the Jefferson Airplane era. I was disappointed to find out that he really didn’t have many insights about his years in the Airplane. Kaukonen—unlike Grace Slick, Marty Balin, and Paul Kantner—was not one of the creative forces behind the band and he admits this. Even so, I’m surprised he didn’t at least have more good stories about the band. He comes off as more of an outsider.
He does have some interesting thoughts on the Altamont concert, which featured the Jefferson Airplane. This disastrous free concert is considered to be the antithesis of Woodstock. If you’re a classic rock fan you’ve certainly heard about the Hell’s Angels murdering a member of the audience in front of the stage while Rolling Stones played on obliviously. While Kaukonen does not try to defend what happened at Altamont, he does believe that Woodstock was also equally disorganized and could have turned into a disaster had a few things gone wrong.
A lot of the book is spent on the band Hot Tuna, a group Kaukonen formed with Jefferson Airplane bass player Jack Casady. Hot Tuna actually started before Jefferson Airplane broke up and is still active today. I’ve never heard Hot Tuna and from what Kaukonen writes they seem to be more of a cult band. This makes Been So Long a book that will probably be most enjoyed by Hot Tuna fans, which is not the kind of audience you’d normally expect for a major press rock biography.