In this offering, I want to run down a few music bios and memoirs I have read and enjoyed recently and to offer caveats about a couple of others. As always, you vote with your dollars and your attention, so be aware that I have my own tastes and prejudices.
The first book I want to mention is Jorma Kaukonen’s memoir Been So Long. Even if he had not been guitarist in Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna, two of the most iconic bands of the sixties and seventies, and even if he had not had a stellar solo career since, Jorma Kaukonen would have had an interesting life. Because his father worked in the diplomatic service, Jorma was widely traveled by the time he was a teenager. His high school years were largely divided between Washington DC, where he played in a band with Jack Casady who later joined Jefferson Airplane at Kaukonen’s behest, and the Philippines, where he rode motor scooters and drank. At Antioch College, Kaukonen began to learn finger picking and became a disciple of Reverend Gary Davis. If you have listened to the first Hot Tuna album, a glance at the songwriting credits will prove that devotion.
Kaukonen is probably best known for his stint with Jefferson Airplane and for forming Hot Tuna, which began as an acoustic blues duo with Jack Casady and evolved into a full on hard rock band in the late 1970s. Kaukonen gives time to all of these endeavors and to his career with and without Hot Tuna through the 80s up till today.
But retelling backstage stories is not the main purpose of this book. Kaukonen is candid about his family history, including the sometimes stormy relationship between his parents and his own distant relationship with his brother Peter (Peter Kaukonen led a trio called Black Kangaroo in the early 70s and is a fine guitarist in his own right). He is also candid about his failures in both his marriages. But when he writes about his love for his wife and his children, you feel the love rising from the page.
Today, Kaukonen maintains a relentless touring schedule as well as running Fur Peace Guitar Camp, a camp he and his wife built where guitarists can come take lessons from and hear some of the finest acoustic musicians in the country. He gives every evidence of being a man who has made peace with his past and looks forward to making the music he loves and playing it for those of us who love to hear it. As an added bonus to Been So Long, one appendix contains the lyrics to many of Kaukonen’s songs. Besides Robert Hunter, Kaukonen is probably the best lyricist to come out of the late 60s San Francisco scene, so this is an added pleasure, especially if you like to sing along. Now you can get the words right. This book gets two thumbs up.
A lot of people who came to jazz at the end of the twentieth century and since have felt that we are mostly listening to the current players plow ground that has long been settled. And every book about jazz seems to reinforce that. Most books purporting to say anything about the jazz scene wave at the so-called Young Lions who came to prominence in the 80s—Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Roberts, Mark Whitfield and many others—and stop there. But jazz has kept moving ahead and Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes: Jazz for a New Century is the first volume I’ve seen dedicated to the newer, younger crop of jazz musicians. Kamasi Washington, Brad Mehldau, Mary Halvorson, Esperanza Spaulding, and many others make appearances here.
Chinen is a veteran jazz writer and listener and he is able to connect these new artists to their artistic roots, some of them like Julius Hemphill and Andrew Hill sadly overlooked today. But Chinen casts a wider gaze—Radiohead, Funkadelic, Snoop Dogg, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix all get mentioned here. It’s important to remember that one of Kamasi Washington’s first high profile gigs was playing on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly and Brad Mehldau often plays tunes by Radiohead or the ethereal English songwriter Nick Drake in his concerts. Today’s jazz artists were not raised on a diet of jazz or classical music exclusively. They grew up listening to hip hop, metal, even country, and their music reflects that.
But it never quite played out like that. Murphy’s blend of rock and witty, literate lyricism never seemed to catch, and Murphy seemed to have little taste for the endless touring required to break a band in the early 70s, especially when he was opening for bands like ZZ Top whose audience was not much interested in songs about Isadora Duncan and sly parodies of growing up in the suburbs. Still it’s hard to explain why songs like “Drive All Night” or “Last of the Rock Stars” never found a place on radio, especially considering some of the drivel that dominated the top 40 in those years. In one telling scene from Just A Story From America, Murphy is told by a record company executive that he needs to write hits. Murphy response is that he thought he was writing hits. A friend of mine once wrote “We get the bands we deserve,” and maybe we didn’t deserve Murphy.
In the 80s, with his music career at a standstill, Murphy went to work as a paralegal but never stopped writing songs. After sobering up in the early 80s, he made the decision to relocate to Paris, where he has lived since the late 80s. Famous names like Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed and Murphy’s fellow Long Islander, Billy Joel, weave in and out of Murphy’s narrative, but Murphy is a charming raconteur who comes across as a guy unbelieving of his own luck whether he is appearing as an extra in a Fellini film, being invited onstage by Bruce Springsteen, or literally bumping into Bob Dylan in a restaurant. In a more poignant moment, Murphy tells of stepping outside a Bruce Springsteen show with his friend Paul Nelson, one of the true fathers of music criticism, and Nelson saying to him, “It could have gone either way.” And maybe in a parallel universe, Elliott Murphy is as famous as Bruce Springsteen, but Murphy doesn’t dwell on what might have been.
Since moving to Paris, Murphy has married and fathered a son, Gaspard, who often plays with and produces his father. He has also lived up to the long ago hype of one record company offered, “He could write a book.” Murphy has, in fact, produced not one book, but three novels, a historical novel called Poetic Justice, that features Walt Whitman, as well as two novels about rock and roll, Marty May and Tramps. He’s also published two collections of poems and two books of short stories. And his most recent album, Prodigal Son, is among his best (my personal recent favorite is his self-titled Elliott Murphy). There has also been a documentary of his life, The Second Act of Elliott Murphy, that you can rent on Amazon Prime or buy from his website. And now he is starring in a soon-to-be-released movie, Broken Poet, with Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, and Marisa Berenson. And somehow, he will find a way to release another album to add to the 40 plus he has on the market already.
Murphy offers no sage wisdom or show biz advice in his memoir, simply his recollection of a career that never turned out quite the way he envisioned but has rewarded his perseverance and dedication to his art. Even if you don’t read his memoir, do yourself a favor and check out Murphy’s music (he has tons of MP3s up at his website www.elliottmurphy.com) . You can thank me later.
* * *
Since Connotation Press will be on hiatus for a while, I just want to thank you and especially Ken Robidoux for indulging me in this column and for not sweating me about my inability to meet deadlines. There are some good shows coming up in my near future (I was gifted a free ticket to see Steve Earle recently and if he comes to your town, go) and I’m sure that by next year I’ll have a rack of new music to talk with you about. In the meantime, be well. Go out and support a local artist. Buy a record by someone you’ve never heard of before. Have some fun.