The Jefferson Airplane/Hot Tuna guitar great discusses The Legendary Typewriter Tape
Jorma Kaukonen, the man who found fame playing guitar in Jefferson Airplane, came to California to attend college at Santa Clara University.
He was also an aspiring blues musician and an accomplished guitarist in his own right. Shortly after he arrived, he went to a hootnanny at the Folk Theater in San Jose. That’s where he met future blues rock star Janis Joplin and creative lightning struck.
“I was sitting in the back of the club making guitar noises with my friend Steve Talbot,” Kaukonen said, speaking from his home in Southern Ohio. “It was a tiny little storefront thing. It held about 50 people, with an espresso machine drowning out the music. Janis came in alone, walked up to us and said, ‘Do you wanna play with me?’ I said, ‘You bet.’ The first time I heard her sing, I realized I was in the presence of greatness.
“We hit it off. I suspect it was our love for the same kind of music. We were guileless and unpretentious. We didn’t have the public personnas we had later on, so there was no negative superstructure in the way of getting to know somebody. I can’t remember how we stayed in touch, but I had a buddy that would drive me up to San Francisco so I could play with her.
“Just before I graduated, I got a cheap tape recorder. Any time I was playing guitar, I recorded it. Janis had a gig at the Coffee Gallery in San Francisco and came down to rehearse with me. It was one of those unbelievably fortuitous circumstances. I was probably 23 and she was 21. It was an amazing event. We lived in the moment. I never thought about making a record. I just loved to play.”
The recording of that rehearsal was recently released on Omnivore Records as Jorma Kaukonen and Janis Joplin: The Legendary Typewriter Tape 6/26/64 Jorma’s House. There are only six tunes on the album, but every one is a killer, showcasing Joplin’s already impressive vocals and Kaukonen’s ease with bluesy improvisation. “Trouble in Mind” gets an understated treatment. Kaukonen taps his foot and plays short solos, as Joplin’s vocals dance around the lyric. “Long Black Train” opens with Kaukonen’s bluesy bass line, leaving space for Joplin’s vocal improvisations. Joplin gives “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” a wailing, soulful treatment. “Hesitation Blues” showcases the duo’s musical interaction, with Kaukonen’s trills and Joplin’s melismas weaving an entrancing spell.
“We just sat down and played,” Kaukonen said. “We didn’t discuss the arrangements at all. We both felt comfortable in that style, so it was never discussed. I started playing and she started singing. We read each other pretty well and that’s just the way it worked out. Listening to it from this many years down the road, one thing strikes me. We were pretty good and I’m still playing ‘Hesitation Blues’ today, with Hot Tuna. People often ask me if I ever get tired of playing it, but you never get tired of playing a good song and that’s a good one.”
The official release of The Legendary Typewriter Tape is set for December 2nd, but inferior versions of the session have circulated for many years.
“I don’t know how those copies got out,” Kaukonen said, “but I’m sure in some way, I was part of it. It’s just fortunate that somehow the original tape didn’t disappear along the way. Because of our later success, the tape has taken on a larger-than-life reality, but I’m sure we played less than a dozen times together, before our paths diverged. There was no ego involved. We sounded good together. We weren’t planning for anyone to ever listen to [the tape] and never thought consciously about it, but I’m glad it got recorded.”
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