Gary James' Interview With Jack Casady Of
and Hot Tuna
Jack Casaday first gained fame as the bassist for Jefferson Airplane. Along with fellow member
Jorma Kaukonen, they would go on to form Hot Tuna, which is still touring the world. Jack Casaday spoke with us about his life in music.
Q - If I'm Jack Casady and I'm getting up every morning, listening to today's music, I must be thinking what happened to the music revolution of the 1960s that I was a part of? What is this junk that is being served up as music?
A - I would never say anything like that, but obviously you have strong opinions. (laughs)
Q - I guess I do. But, those thoughts never go through your mind?
A - Well, here's the issue: Now, there is so much more music. There is so many more people playing music. There's so much more Internet availability to everyone who aspires to play. Back when we started, you had to get signed by a major label in order to even get into a studio to get equipment. Equipment weighed half a ton and you needed a crew of seven to upkeep it, the reel to reel tape. So, the aspect of getting that far has changed as far as getting good quality recordings for your band. I would have to move over to the question of, an addendum to what you're saying in that bands now, and singers, do not put in the years of journeymanship in clubs like they used to. That's what I think has affected things more. You're seeing singers that are used to singing at home, singing at events and going to record, they can sing very breathy and at very low volume and you can balance all this with the tracks to make it appear that the singer is very strong, but getting out on the road and working 30 shows in 45 days or as we did on the club circuit, you worked every night of the week. I don't think you get your craft work up as much as performing 'live'. That's the big cut-off area. Everybody records soon and early and much younger. I was the youngest guy in the band at 21 when we got a record contract. But I'd been playing for 8 years in clubs, 5 sets a night, 40 (minutes) on, 20 minutes (off) on the club circuit.
Q - You were playing how long, 8 years?
A - I started when I was 15, regularly in clubs.
Q - How did you do that when the drinking age was 18?
A - Well, there's an interesting story about that. Jorma's grand dad was a research scientist and he used what we referred to as a mimeograph machine, a Xerox copy machine. At that time, when you turned 18, my older brother had, he was 4 years older than me, a Draft card. That Draft card you got when you were 18. That had all your information and as you went into school and continued on from high school into college, you got what was known as a Draft Deferment, which was no huge issue as long as there was no current war going, but we had come out of the Korean War and then into the Vietnam War. In any case, at your high school graduation you got a Draft card which was your bonafide that you were a man and also you could be called up to Service. In any case, I copied my older brother's card, whiting out my brother's information and typing in my own and laminated it, which was a new invention back then too. Then, when it required me to go into the clubs, that's what I did. If you look at pictures of me at 15, when Jorma and I had a band together, a high school band, believe me, I looked 15 years old. But anyway, I got away with it. I think when I turned 16 and started playing bass as well as guitar, in 1960, those Summers were full employment and toward the last year of high school I was working full employment and finishing out high school too. Full employment meaning working 6 nights a week in clubs. The club circuit in Washington D.C. and areas up into New Jersey, the Jersey Shore in the Summer time and back though the Country and Western gigs and the clubs you played into Virginia and Maryland were where I made a living at. I moved out of my home just when I turned 18. I got my own apartment. That's what I did. When I went out to California at Jorma's request, we had a conversation about bands and such and he said he just joined a Folk / Rock band a month before called Jefferson Airplane and he asked what I was doing. I said, "I'm going to school, keeping out of the Army and playing nights." I said, "I'm playing bass." He said, "You're playing bass? I didn't know. We could use a bass player." So, I came out. That's how all that began. That was my lucky break. But to get back to your original question, the music, I think conversely I think there is a huge amount of opportunity for people to find unique and inspiring and fabulous music through the Internet, through the access we now have to all the recordings that are slowly being re-issued for posterity. There's a number of people connected with this, the Smithsonian and Library Of Congress, to do that very thing. So nowadays I think kids have a greater opportunity to investigate great music of the past as well as current music being made through blends of access to so may cultures in the land. Everything was very regional back then. The music was pretty according to where you lived in. There were still local 45 (rpm) hits. There were hits by The Beach Boys out on the West Coast that weren't hits on the New Jersey shore. So in many ways things have changed so that a young musician who wants to investigate on his own really has the world at his finger tips. I was fortunate enough to grow up in Washington, D.C. where I'd take the Number 12 bus down to the Library Of Congress and go in and take out recordings done from the '20s and '30s and '40s and be able t listen to those in little booths. They'd give you the 78s and you'd go into a little booth and play great Blues records or Jazz records, not really Jazz, but what's called today World Music. I'd suck in all of that as well as Classical music 'cause I loved Classical music. I'd go to concerts. There was a great cultural exchange program that was put in place by John and Caroline Kennedy when the great Russian Classical musicians would come and visit us, the ballets, orchestras. The next night I might be down at The Shamrock listening to Mac Wiseman and a Bluegrass band. And the night after that I'd be over listening to Ray Charles 1959 do "What'd I Say" and "Yes Indeed" right in front of me with Jackie Wilson and The Coasters and all these great Rhythm And Blues acts. All that stuff is really interesting now because that's now available to the young, aspiring musicians. Then radio is radio. Don't forget, when we turned on the radio back then, if you wanted something a little deeper than Theresa Brewer singing "How Much Is That Doggy In The Window", you had to search for it yourself. You had AM radio. You had hits on that, Pop, commercial hits. You didn't hear Blues on that. You didn't hear Folk music or anything like that. That all luckily came about through FM radio and disc jockeys getting formats. It started out with all night programming where disc jockeys were sort of left alone to do their own programming. If it wasn't for that, I don't think we would nearly have had our popularity 'cause Jefferson Airplane didn't make hit after hit. But we did gain a following through the material released on our albums as a band and we'd get these odd cuts played at night. Then those people would come to your shows and that's how you got a following and fans for your individual playing, and playing as a group as well.
Q - When you were staring out, did you have any aspirations of becoming famous?
A - Absolutely not.
Q - You wanted to just be a working musician.
A - You didn't think of it as either / or. You sound like a journalist now. You're talking in retrospect here. You were supposed to have a real career. You did music on the side. Very few people thought of music as being their career. Nowadays it's legal. Don't forget, I couldn't even major in music unless I played a Classical instrument in college. Now, you can major in bass guitar and guitar if you want. That was unheard of back then. Couldn't do that. You couldn't get a music degree unless you played one of the Classical instruments. Things have changed immensely. And it's also become bonafide. If somebody says they're starting a career in music, it's almost okay. If anything, it's worse now because the emphasis is on being a star. The emphasis is on all of this vocal, the great vocalist and all those programs that are on TV now that emphasize those qualities that are dream-like qualities of making it and hitting it big and doing all of that. I think what's missing is the fact that the craft work within your chosen direction in music is what you work on and hopefully will lead you to some success, but my generation never thought of being a star. Fans think that's what you do because it's already after the fact. That's the first question you asked me, did I dream of being a star?. Absolutely not. What I wanted to do is to be really good on my instrument and the opportunity to play original music didn't come along until I was able to join a band where everybody looked at you and said, "Okay, we're going to write our own material. We're not just going to try and get the gig to cover material in the bar", like I was doing in D.C., to play everybody else's material. You can get to a certain stage playing local bars and maybe your band is the best band playing Ray Charles, but that's all you're going to get because you're not Ray Charles. This was my first opportunity to break away from prescribed patterns of playing and copying other music, was joining the Jefferson Airplane, where people came from such drastic and different backgrounds that we were able to put music together and it turned out differently.
Q - Did you realize there was something special going on in the Bay Area?
A - Well, I got there in the late Summer of '65. It all sort of started in '64, '65. I think that was pretty much the beginning of almost all those bands that formed within the year before, The Grateful Dead, Big Brother And The Holding Company a little later. All those musicians, many of them were Folk musicians working as Folk musicians years before that, that formed into what's called Folk / Rock bands. Once Bob Dylan broke the mold with that and moved into another area that gave, I think, the bonafide to other musicians to do that. Everything was very rigid before. If you were a Folk musician... he (Dylan) got booed of stage by haveing an electric guitar in his band. There's so many things you forget that were so important while it was going on. Later on, it's swept under the rug. It's just a small incident. But while it was happening, it was a big incident. So, bands forming together to write no-holds-barred, for whatever may happen and survive by writing their own music, was something that had never happened before, as well as the business proposition of many of those bands in San Francisco, ours being one of the leaders where everything was shared equally amongst all band members.
Q - When you get off stage today, do people ask you questions and what do they ask you?
A - Well, of course they do. There are young fans that have never seen you before that are at our shows that have heard your stuff through media or their medium and then there are older fans that say, "Hey man, I saw you at Stoneybrook." There are people, and they're curious, and some of it has to do with Jefferson Airplane, and an amazing amount has nothing to do with that. They respect us for the music we've played for 44 years now as Hot Tuna and the fact we still love to do it and it's obvious on stage.