Dispatches | July 12, 2004

For me, it is not an uncommon question upon introduction: “Are you related to Jorma?”

Jorma Kaukonen: the legendary guitarist and member of the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, founding member of Jefferson Airplane and its blues-based spin-off Hot Tuna. The Jorma Kaukonen of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit,” of the psychedelic sounds of the Summer of Love, San Francisco and Woodstock. The Jorma Kaukonen revered by those who know such things for the accomplishment of his finger-picked fretwork and songwriting. Google “Kaukonen” and you’ll scroll through thousands of pages dedicated to Jorma Kaukonen and the bands and music with which he is associated: album and concert reviews, lyrics, set lists, archival recordings, newspaper and magazine features, photos, mp3s and more. Even this bit of trivia: in the final scene of the final episode of “Friends” (you know, the empty apartment, the keys on the counter—admit it, you watched), the curtain falls to the sounds of “Embryonic Journey,” written by Jorma Kaukonen over 35 years ago.

“Are you related to Jorma?”

So this past week, I slipped over to The Blue Note, a venerable music venue here in Columbia, to ask Jorma myself. With Hot Tuna in town to open a new acoustic tour, I figured this would be the best chance I’d ever have to meet the man and answer the question. I’ll spare you the details, the moment of instant familial recognition, the hugs, the weeping, the sharing of pasty recipes and sauna jokes. Yes, we did meet and he was kind and generous. We talked family history, genealogy, our common roots back there in the frozen hinterlands of Finland. And, yes, we decided, we probably are related, although perhaps at the remove of any number of seconds and thirds and generations.

I mention this not in the vein of “My Brush With Fame,” but rather to consider the peculiar circumstances for an artist (or an athlete or a politician, any would-be public figure) who shares the surname of someone with whom a given name is so strongly associated. What is it to be a young writer who happens to be named Hemingway or Salinger? A musician with the last name of Hendrix or Lennon? A politician named Kennedy or Nixon? A preacher named Swaggert or Graham?

As we all know, in the marketplace of products and ideas, a name is a brand. Nike. Clorox. Kellogg’s. Microsoft. When we associate a certain name with a particular product, we expect certain things of it. Certain standards even. These associations may be positive or negative or qualities more complex, but regardless people value the name—the brand—they have built. This is as true of families as it is of corporations. (“Don’t you besmirch our family name!”) And it’s true for authors as well. When the latest novel by Grisham or LaHaye or Morrison or DeLillo is released, those familiar with the author’s name—his or her “brand”—expect certain characteristic qualities to be part of the new work.

Still, a family name is a family name. Your name is your name. These are not things you choose, like the brand name of the widget you have engineered. They are given to you. They are more than just a brand name. But what do you do when your name is his name too? What do you do when your name is Osama and you own a coffeehouse named “Osama’s” in Columbia, Missouri, and then the most famous Osama in the world, the only other Osama most Americans know, renders the name synonymous with terrorism?

As a kid, when I first harbored literary dreams, I worried that my agent or publisher would require me to change my name, to erase my Finnish roots, to adopt a nom de plume, maybe use my mother’s maiden name. Not because of its associations, ethnic or otherwise. No one knows how to spell Kaukonen, he would say. No one knows how to pronounce Kaukonen, he would say. And I had visions of people, my would-be readers, wandering through the aisles of bookstores, searching the shelves for my book. “Does it begin with a C or a K? Is it an O or a U? And isn’t there an L in there somewhere?” They’d wander the aisles too embarrassed to even try to pronounce the name to the bookseller. “I think he’s Swedish,” they’d whisper. “Or Nigerian.” In the end, they would buy books by King and Steele and Fitzgerald, authors with recognizable names, names they could spell and pronounce.

As I sat in The Blue Note on Thursday night, I no longer had such fears. The complications of the name had proved no obstacle for Jorma; they will provide no obstacle for me. And so I thought instead of cross-marketing possibilities: Jorma could sell copies of my book right next to the Jorma for President bumper stickers and the Hot Tuna T-shirts. He could link to my website and I could link to his website. We could tour together and I’d read one of my stories during the intermission between sets. Maybe all those hippies and ex-hippies who have followed him since they were teenagers would think I was his son and would buy the book and read it, seeking biographical correspondences, all those references to Paavo Nurmi and LSD. I could hitch my product to the brand he has built and ride it to fame and fortune.

But then again maybe not.

Maybe I’ll just let him play his music and sell his albums, and I’ll write my books and publish my stories, just try my best not to besmirch the family name.