In the pantheon of classic rock musicians, there are three bassists who've rightfully attained god-like status: the Beatles' Paul McCartney, Cream's Jack Bruce and Jefferson Airplane's Jack Casady. And of the three, Casady has proven the most dedicated to his instrument of choice.
With San Francisco's seminal psychedelic band, Casady took traditional walking bass patterns into unexplored realms, crafting intricately improvised melodies with impeccable taste. In addition to his recordings with Jefferson Airplane, he also appears on albums by artists ranging from Roky Erickson to Jimi Hendrix.
When Casady and guitarist Jorma Kaukonen left the Airplane in the early '70s to focus on their more blues-based Hot Tuna side project, their music became more earthbound but no less technically stunning. Fiercely dedicated to live performance, they've pretty much been out on tour ever since.
Look up Hot Tuna on an online subscription service like Mog, and you'll find no fewer than 50 live albums. Yet for the last 20 years, the band has remained conspicuously absent from the recording studio.
Until now, that is. Recorded at Levon Helm's Woodstock studio and released in April on Red House, Steady As She Goes finds Kaukonen's vocals and songwriting in fine form (especially on "Mourning Interrupted" and "Second Chances"), while Casady's bass lines are flawlessly in-the-pocket yet sublimely expansive at all the right moments.
Famously stoic onstage, Casady will barely utter five words, even during his and Jorma's acoustic sets. But offstage, it's an entirely different story.
Indy: I understand that, growing up in D.C., you used to go to the Library of Congress to listen to old records. Did you know that they've just put up 10,000 vintage recordings that you can stream online?
JC: I heard about that, but I haven't had a chance to go on the site. Both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian are now putting stuff online, which is fantastic. In my day, I took the Number 12 bus from northwest Washington, where I lived, down to K Street and walked on over. You'd sign in, and then you could sign out records and go into a little booth and put it on the turntable and play it.
Indy: How old were you at the time?
JC: Oh listen, I guess I was 12.
Indy: Weren't you supposed to be playing Little League or something at that age?
JC: Well you know, it depends on what your interests are. I mean, yeah, the general populace was doing things like that. But you know, I had rheumatic fever when I was 7 years old and was in the hospital for almost a year. And I come from a doctor family, so my father was a dentist and my uncle was a doctor, and they got me into an early program that tested penicillin in 1953 on heart patients. And so they got me into this trial program out in Maryland, where they gave half the kids penicillin and half the kids got nothing. And I was lucky to be among the ones that got penicillin. I think my parents had pull there.
So to make a long story short, I wasn't allowed to play sports for years afterwards, you know, or do anything really strenuous. I don't know whether they would approach it the same way today, but it was an experimental drug back then. So I found my interest in other areas, in reading and music.
Indy: So that worked out well.
JC: It did indeed.
Indy: You went through such a fertile time artistically with Jefferson Airplane, but you and Jorma left before their hit-record period as Jefferson Starship. Was that a weird experience for you, to see where folks went on from there commercially and artistically?
JC: Well no, I mean the commercial has always been there. I mean, don't forget, if we [Jefferson Airplane] hadn't sold any records at all, RCA would have dropped us like a hot potato. The music industry has always been there, and they've always wanted to sell records. Believe me, the artists want to as well.
And I certainly have more of a perspective now than I did then, when it was going on. So, you know, for what we wanted to do at the time, we felt that Jefferson Airplane had run its course by the early '70s. And in 1972, Jorma and I concentrated on Hot Tuna, and Paul [Kantner] went off to start the Starship and got great success with it.
Indy:, These days, you and Jorma still tour constantly, but this is your first Hot Tuna album in 20 years. Why now?
JC: Well, uh, don't you think it's about time?
Indy: Even sooner would have been fine with me.
JC: Yeah, I hear you. There's a variety of reasons. We haven't stopped playing as a live act — we certainly recorded and released a lot of live albums — but when it came to the studio, we were waiting for the right time and the right opportunity.
I think [producer/multi-instrumentalist] Larry Campbell was one of the catalysts. When Jorma and I were discussing doing a new album, he'd just done a solo album with Larry. Jorma said, "I think he would fit right into Tuna World and be able to help us out." And it certainly worked out that way just fine.
I think Jorma has reached new levels in his singing approach — he's singing really, really well — and I think this album gave him a lot of different opportunities to draw from different parts of his life and put it out there. "Second Chances" is a wonderful song by Jorma about things that are near and dear to his heart. And "Children of Zion," which we harvest from the great Reverend Gary Davis catalog — I think that's one of the greatest songs on the album.
Indy: I was listening to Reverend Gary Davis' early recordings the other night, and that song "I Belong to the Band" is just so amazing.
JC: Absolutely. And you know, there's always been a place, I think, for the spiritual song in Hot Tuna. It's a way to contemplate other things besides the life of the musician on the road, or — as in the Jefferson Airplane days — the hoopla that goes along with a certain amount of fame. So I think you always want to throw that anchor out and remind yourself what's really important.
Because at the end of the night, after a show, you walk out the stage door and the other people walk out the front door and everybody picks up their life, you know? So those things are important to us.
Indy: You've also got Teresa Williams singing on this album. Do you hear any echoes of [Jefferson Airplane's] Grace Slick at all?
JC: Well, the only other singer Jorma's ever sung with is Grace Slick, so I guess you can't help that. Personally, I don't hear her trying to sound like Grace Slick, by any means. She's got that natural, authentic Appalachian sound and phrasing, which comes from who she is and how she grew up. So that's kinda of what I hear. But the Grace Slick thing, yeah, for those who want to hear that, I'm sure that they'll hear that.
Indy: I did want to ask you one last question. Before we started this interview, I wasn't sure you were going to want to talk much. Why are you so quiet onstage?
JC: Well stage is not the place to do it. Onstage, I play my bass guitar.