Jorma Kaukonen on Woodstock, Altamont and His First Toke

Jorma Kaukonen with Jefferson Airplane

With the passing of Marty Balin on Sept. 28, that leaves just three original members of Jefferson Airplane: singer Grace Slick, bassist Jack Cassady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, whose autobiography, Been So Long: My Life & Music, was released by St. Martin's Press on Aug. 28.

In the book, Kaukoken has one lengthy passage about Balin, who co-founded the San Francisco group with Paul Kantner in 1965:

"Marty Balin had been a professional musician for a number of years. By the time we met, he had already been in and out of record deals and had paid a lot of dues. He had a pretty good vision of what he wanted and how to go about getting it. Marty is an intense and very private individual. He always kept a lot of shade on himself and I always found him to be a tough read. I didn't know much about the music he made in the past. I did know, however, that he possessed one of the best male voices of my time. He was also always looking ahead. He could see a place for us in the galaxy of stars that already graced the scene. It was just a matter of time.

"The creativity that Marty brought to the table was different from anything I had encountered. First of all, his songs rested on his voice, not his guitar. He gave me an important lesson that I try to teach my students today. It is always about the song! You can geek out and get under the skin of instrumentation and arrangements, and to be sure they are important. But without a song, they are nothing! Marty brought songs to the table everyday."

Drugs were a major part of the band's lifestyle. Kaukonen recalls when his wife was busted:

"In our room, we had a hookah that was about four feet tall. There was pot and pot cleaning gear and rolling gear as well as a tackle box with pills in the little compartments. If someone came knocking on the door, there was no way to hide any of this stuff... We got rat finked. Paul and I were out somewhere when the police came to our room an arrested Margareta."

Jorma: "There is only one Woodstock and that's that... This was a happening of cosmic proportions."

The first time he smoked pot was in 1962: 

"I remember sitting cross-legged on the floor of that apartment (on Waller St. in San Francisco) as the pot was cleaned and the joints ceremoniously rolled. I had asthma as a kid, so even when I pretended to smoke cigarettes when I was young, I didn't inhale. It took me a moment to get with the process of inhalng smoke and holding it in that getting high requires... I began to hear things in a different way and there was a sense of communion amongst all of us who partook. In a very real way, it was the sharing of a sacrament."

Jefferson Airplane famously played a morning set on the last day of the Woodstock festival in 1969. They were supposed to go on 12 hours earlier.

"Woodstock is one of those amazing occurrences that could not be planned and could never be re-enacted," Kaukonen writes. "In a way, in those three days we were all accidental tourists in a parallel universe whose portal opened unbidden and closed just as mysteriously, living a vivid memory. There were other festivals in that time, some bigger than Woodstock, but there is only one Woodstock and that's that... This was a happening of cosmic proportions. I can still remember thinking when I got back to San Francisco it was all like a dream. I found myself wondering what just happened in New York."

Less than four months later, the Airplane played the Altamont Festival in Northern California where a fan was killed by marauding Hells Angels. "What happened to us us there was documented in the film Gimme Shelter," the guitarist explains. "In my imperfect replay, we started our set and at some point Marty got into it with one of the Angels and was punched in the face. Paul and Grace had things to say to the crowd, and Jack and (drummer) Spencer (Dryden) and I just played on until the conflict finally got to us and we got pushed into the drum set, and in that moment our Altamont set was truly over. As I was leaving the stage I realized that things were only going to get worse... In my opinion what happened at Altamont was a perfect storm of incompetence, fate and unrealistic expectations."

Kaukonen is currently on tour with Hot Tuna, the side-project band he started with Casady in 1969. 


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Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.