THE FLIGHT LOG OF
GRACE SLICK &
In the 1960’s they sang ‘fly JEFFERSON AIRPLANE,
get you there on time...’ And GRACE SLICK’s flight-plan
with the band took in the Monterey, Woodstock, and
Altamont Festivals, the high – and low points of Hippie-dom.
Then the STARSHIP enterprise boldly took her to new highs –
three American no.1 hit singles with slightly less adventurous, but
monstrously mega-platinum MOR Rock. And it’s all here.
Three decades of the most outrageous Rock Life-Style excesses
...in this interview with ANDREW DARLINGTON
‘years, or maybe centuries from now, someone
will discover that there really was a music of the spheres,
and it will sound not unlike the music the
Airplane plays in the moments of its highest flight...’
(Lillian Roxon - 1969)
Years, and decades – if perhaps not yet centuries later, I’m interviewing Grace Slick. I’d been pre-warned by the publishers of her new book ‘Somebody To Love?’* that she is ‘feisty’. I’d read the previous interviews too. I know her reputation. To Philip Norman (writing in his 1993 biography of ‘The Stones’) Jefferson Airplane were ‘a band of psychedelic chamber musicians fronted by the vengefully beautiful and beady-eyed Grace Slick’. Even then they were a band capable of putting the psychotic into the psychedelic. And even Marty Balin – founder and co-pilot of the Airplane once confided that ‘back in the sixties her nickname was ‘ICE’, you know. Her whole trip is self-destruction’ (‘New Musical Express’ 29th June 1987). While now Danny Sugerman – who wrote the Doors biography ‘No-one Here Gets Out Alive’ (1980, with Jerry Hopkins) and ‘Wonderland Avenue: Tales Of Glamour And Excess’ (1989) claims that in her book ‘Grace has finally lifted up her skirt and given us a view you won’t soon forget... ‘
Born Grace Wing, she’s been the Dark Angel of Rock, the Ice Queen and the Chrome Nun, and her book is a Bliss-O-Rama of Acid Flashback visions and twisted wisdoms. But – pre-warned, I start off gradually by asking what she’s wearing, and where exactly she’s speaking from. Telephone interviews are fine if there’s no other option available, but you miss all kinds of minutia of body language, facial expression, and personal-space ambience. It helps if you can build up some kind of visual impression in your head of what the other end of the line is like. ‘I’m at home. I live in Malibu which is on the... er... Pacific...’ she replies, more evenly now. ‘Yeh. Well, right now I’m standing in front of the fax machine, because the fax-line is running, and looking partially at the ocean which is covered with fog at the moment...’
‘PILLOWS ARE FOR
DREAMING. BUT THIS
ONE ALSO FLIES’
(JEFFERSON AIRPLANE press ad
for ‘SURREALISTIC PILLOW’
– September 1967)
Andrew Darlington: In your book you seem to date the start of your musical career from an incident where – as an early teenager, you go into a record shop with the intention of buying “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens – but wind up listening to Lenny Bruce instead. You write ‘I knew I’d found a soul mate’. And in fact you devote more text-space to describing the effect that Bruce had on you than you do to any musician. And later, of course, you wrote a song for your first band – Great Society (“Father Bruce”), about him.
Grace Slick: Well, Lenny Bruce, Miles Davis, Edvard Grieg (Norwegian composer of the ‘Peer Gynt Suite’) – those people had an impact on me, and DID influence the music. I was watching a recent documentary about a painter who said that he is more influenced by what he’s READ than what he’s SEEN! Which is a very interesting remark. In other words, when he reads, there will be a scene or description of a person that will – er – create or BECOME real in his mind, and he wants to bring that to life visually. So Lenny Bruce influenced the way I speak, and how what I’m saying comes out. That’s very important. Lenny Bruce could have influenced the way an artist DRAWS. Or the way an actor ACTS. Or the way somebody views POLITICS. He was very important to me in how I thought about politics. Which end I wanted to be on. Who I was fighting for, or not. So, Lenny Bruce had a very powerful influence on me, and so he DID influence the music.
You took his attitude? Well yeh, in other words. He brought to light some extreme problems in the so-called marvellous democratic society that we think we have in this country. And instead of just going along thinking you’re fabulous, he brought to light that NO, we aren’t quite as marvellous as we think we are – and HERE’S where the problems are. And he did it with a sense of humour. So that was just irresistible to me.
After working with Great Society around San Francisco clubs you were recruited by Jefferson Airplane, who’d already released an album (‘Jefferson Airplane Takes Off’, September 1966). Before reading your account of the process in the book I’d imagined that you’d perhaps seen Airplane in their first incarnation, when they were fronted by Signe Anderson, and seen her as a rival, a kind of ‘Wow – I could do that!’ Exactly. Yeh. I looked at it (the band) and thought ‘I can do that’ – ‘cos I knew I could carry a tune, I mean, there’s my parents - they used to sing around the house, just for the hell of it. And I know I can more or less carry a tune, so I figured I could probably do that. It just seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time (Jefferson Airplane then consisted of Jorma Kaukonen – lead guitar, Jack Casady – bass, Spencer Dryden (replacing Skip Spence) – drums, Paul Kantner – rhythm guitar, Marty Balin – vocals, and Grace – vocals).
Your first album with Jefferson Airplane – ‘Surrealistic Pillow’ (February 1967), became massive and spawned two American Top Ten singles, “Somebody To Love” (no.5 on the 6th May 1967) and “White Rabbit” (no.8 on the 1st July 1967). What was it like when suddenly Airplane became, not only one of the two biggest bands in America (the other being the Doors), but also the most visible face of the whole new San Francisco ‘Hippie’ scene? Was it scary? I’m sorry – what? I didn’t get the first part of that question. Yes – was it what? Oh no, it wasn’t frightening, because there were about twenty bands at that time, some from Europe – couple from New York, couple from L.A. – and so, there were a bunch of us who were out on the road doing that, and I felt that we were doing it. It wasn’t a matter of narrowing it down to Airplane. I thought it was a generation of people making various remarks through music. It wasn’t like I’m here doing this all alone. It was a whole bunch of us. So – no, it wasn’t frightening, it was kinda fun as far as I can determine.
In Jefferson Airplane Paul Kantner seemed to be delineating the generational aspects of the Hippie dream that the Airplane supposedly represented through confrontational lyrics such as ‘loyalty to their kind, they cannot tolerate our minds, Loyalty to our kind, we cannot tolerate their obstruction’ (“Crown Of Creation”), asserting that – unlike previous generations ‘this generation’s got soul’. At the same time Timothy Leary was writing about the supposed evolution in the psyche which our generation had over the previous generation. Were you suckered by all that? You always seemed to be more into realism. Well – I’ve got a little darker eye. I live more in a... I’m a little bit more sceptical, and cynical than – er – Paul Kantner. Or Leary. I don’t have that ‘let’s all go to the moon together and storm the Capitol and all that kind of stuff’. But it’s not necessarily more healthy that way. I’m not saying that I’m right either, I’m just saying that I happen to view things that way. I’m not going to assume that that flower’s gonna bloom. I wait till it BLOOMS before I get REAL excited. You know what I’m saying? It’s a PROBABILITY, but it’s not absolute. There aren’t ANY absolutes that I’m aware of – except death and taxes, they say. Y’know? – so I just view everything with the attitude that it is POSSIBLE (pronounced ‘PAWSIBLE’). When I went to the White House it was with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek, rather than with any intent of the ‘purest’ nature. I don’t go there with any of that kind of stuff. I don’t know what the hell the ‘purest nature’ is anyway (Grace and Yippie activist Abbie Hoffman were turned away from the East Gate of the White House 24th April 1970, when they tried to attend Trish Nixon’s Garden Party there organised for alumni of Finch College, Grace’s former school. Hoffman later joked to ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine ‘I wouldn’t let Ms Slick go in there alone. I understand they lose a President every three years. It’s a dangerous place’).
When I was a kid delivering newspapers in 1969 I came across the headline ‘CHARLIE MANSON’S HIPPIE DEATH SQUAD MURDERS’ – and I thought ‘No! – Hippies don’t DO that, Hippies are Love ‘n’ Peace’. I was suckered by that Hippie illusion. There aren’t any heroes. Some people do some things very well, but that same person is gonna be hideous in another area, i.e. – Hitler loved his dogs, OK? Jeffrey Dahmer was probably real nice to the mailman or something. There aren’t people who are all good or all bad. And the second you decide somebody’s all BAD – you’re wrong! It just doesn’t work that way. The second you decide somebody’s all GOOD –you’re wrong too. Mother Theresa was fine, she’s out there saving lepers and all that, but she’s HELL as far as business goes. She wanted what she wanted, and by god she’d walk over you to get another hospital in Tangier or wherever (in the April 1981 issue of ‘US’ magazine Grace also commented about Mother Theresa that ‘she’s suppressing the Hitler in her’!). So EVERYBODY is an ass-hole. And EVERYBODY is an angel. You can’t land on either side. Because it just isn’t happening that way.
Were you aware of Hippie-doms ‘darker side’ at the time? Well you see – I didn’t call myself or anybody else a ‘Hippie’. Herb Cohen – a San Francisco columnist made that term up. So that’s it – these are PEOPLE. They’re not HIPPIES, they’re people. And some people are gonna murder people, and some people aren’t. Some HIPPIES are gonna murder people. And murder each other. And some Hippies aren’t. So it’s not a matter of whether or not you’re a Hippie. It’s like, the Catholic Church is not all good. Hideous things were taking place during the Inquisition. And yet at other times there are some Catholics out there saving people. Same thing. Again – it’s 50/50. It’s Yin/Yang. There is no... it’s not just all Yang – it’s Yin and Yang together.
There’s a very good chapter in your book about your very first LSD trip, which was conducted according to Tim Leary’s recommended method – with a non-participating guide. Yeh. It’s a REAL powerful drug. It’s not like just getting kinda loaded on alcohol and putting a lampshade on your head. It’s not an EASY drug to take. If you’re not psychologically in balance... IT – IS – A – ROUGH – DRUG! But if you’re in a good frame of mind – which fortunately I was when I took it, then it’s very exciting and very eye-opening and mind-altering, and all that sort of ... and all those other cliché’s. But what if you’re NOT in psychologically good condition...? It’s best to have somebody with you. People assume they can fly. I mean – and you know, you CAN’T! So you’ve got to have somebody there saying ‘ah – not now, maybe later’ (laughter). So it’s a good idea to be ‘in nature’. Ah – it’s a good idea to have somebody be a guide with you, and it’s also a good idea to take it with somebody else. So that you have a frame of reference.
In your book you talk about recording the Jefferson Airplane albums, and the constant consumption of chemicals that took place while you were in the studio. Do you now accept that perhaps if you had been under greater control – at least in the studio, that the albums might have been in some ways better? Yes. I’ve always wanted... I always wanted to do more practising, so that we knew a song so well that when you go on stage or go into a recording studio, then you can elaborate on it, or improvise or something. But – I was always sort-of jealous of the tightness of Crosby Stills & Nash harmonies. Their harmonies were so beautiful and so pristine. But – on the other hand, our not knowing led to a lot of improvising that would not otherwise have happened. So – either way, it’s OK. If you practice a lot, then you get a really pristine clean sound. And if you don’t practice then you get some... er, interesting improvising. So – either way is OK. It was just, at the time – I thought, I would have liked to have practised a bit more than we did.
Just that it’s the unpredictability and the occasional unevenness of the Airplane albums that makes them artistically fascinating. Oh good. Thank you, I like to hear that (laugh). That makes up for a lot of wanting more practice.
‘GO ASK ALICE. SHE USED
TO KNOW ALL ABOUT DRUGS,
BUT NOW SHE’S DEAD...’
(Press ad for the Corgi Paperback
novel edition of ‘Go Ask Alice’
by ‘Beatrice Sparks’, 1971,
October 1973, 30p)
‘What Is Your Favorite Stripe On The (American) Flag?’ (It’s posed as ‘Question Of The Day’ on the reverse of the ‘Volunteers’ (November 1969) album sleeve. Grace’s answer then was ‘Point that thing somewhere else’.) What’s your answer now? The fourth one. The fourth stripe has always been my favourite.
Any particular reason? Because it’s right about... it’s right there, it’s the fourth one down from – y’know where there’s the square full of stars? I mean not the fourth one down from the top. But the fourth one down from the bottom of that square. That’s the best stripe in the flag (this is all delivered seriously dead-pan. Is this a send-up or what?)
The ‘Volunteers’ album was reviewed as ‘arguably the best rock album 1970 has yet produced, and certainly it’s one of the best things the Airplane have done’ (‘New Musical Express’ - 21st March 1970). Yet following its release Jefferson Airplane fragmented into solo projects... Well – yeah. We couldn’t find Jack and Jorma! They were in one of the Scandinavian countries speed-skating. They got real interested in speed-skating. They were over there, and we had no idea even what country they were in. So Paul and I just sorta started making our own albums – ‘Sunfighter’ (1971) and ‘Baron Von Tollbooth And The Chrome Nun’ (1973) and some solo-album type things. Until we figured out where we wanted to go from there. And then Paul sort-of got into forming Jefferson Starship on the kind-of next-step deal. He had an album called ‘Blows Against The Empire’ (1971) that went very popular. It talked about going off in a starship – so he called it ‘Jefferson Starship’. But we literally didn’t know where Jack and Jorma were. So we were (laughs) just kinda waiting around, and we got bored waiting.
It’s generally accepted that those solo projects – including Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen’s spin-off band Hot Tuna, weakened the integrity of Airplane. Was that something that was inevitably bound to happen, given the diversity of talent within the Airplane tribe’s irregular alliance? When you say ‘inevitable’ it depends on a lot of different things. In other words – the Rolling Stones are still together. And who knows why? But they are. There’s a variety of reasons for that. It might be the genetic make-up of each member of the group, or it might be what happened two weeks ago – who knows? Who knows why groups break up? You know – who knows why they’re still together? Who knows why marriages break up? And yet others stay together. It’s the same dance. The same scenario.
Grace married Jerry Slick when she was twenty-one, but sexual honesty was as much a part of the ‘Hippie Dream’ as recreational or spiritual drug-use. And Grace’s book describes her sexual encounters with Spencer Dryden, Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, and – of course, Paul Kantner with whom she had a child. All of which occurred while she was still technically married to Jerry! While ‘The Observer’ newspaper recently carried a further excerpt from her book – one that claims ‘I regret not getting Jimi Hendrix into bed, and not getting Peter O’Toole’, in their ‘Quotes of the Week’ column alongside all the portentous pronouncements of politicians. Alright. Ah – Ha-ha...
Do you feel that when you work in close proximity with people, in an office, a factory, or as you did in your sexual relationships with various members of the Airplane – a Rock band, that sexual intrigue is inevitably likely to result. And for a band on tour, sharing a double room tends to save on expenses! Yeah – sure they do. It’s like Pat Benatar married her guitar player. And there was everybody in Fleetwood Mac doing it. And the Mamas & Papas – generally that happens. It’s hard not to love people, I think. I think it’s a very good thing to love people. It’s too bad we have that possessiveness that we do. THAT’S what gets us into trouble. But loving people you work with is wonderful. It’s a whole hell of a lot better than hating them! But possessiveness – generally, will get in the way. People are very possessive. But apart from that – ah, the loving of the people you’re with is fun. Fun. Interesting. A way of connecting, y’know?
Virtually the only member of the band you didn’t ‘sexually connect’ with was Marty Balin. And in your book he comes across as a very enigmatic figure. He is enigmatic. I think he’ll even cop to it. Some days he’ll be delighted with the world, y’know – ‘I felt wonderful and I walked on the beach blah-blah-blah’, and then the next day he’ll be gone. And we’d say ‘well, what happened?’ He wouldn’t show up. ‘Well – I had to walk on the beach’ or ‘I had to go...’, I mean, you – I, just never knew what was happening there. But he’s fascinating. It’s fascinating to see somebody move like a child. Children can move very quickly from one emotion to another. And he’s very much like a child in that he can move quickly from one frame of mind into another.
One product of that period of solo projects I always enjoyed was your ‘Sunfighter’ (November 1971) album (released as by ‘Grace Slick & Paul Kantner’). You’ve described on a number of occasions how you came to write “White Rabbit”. And in your book you explore the history behind your song “Lather”. But what is ‘Sunfighter’s opening track – “Silver Spoon”, all about? Ah – “Silver Spoon”? That’s not, is that the... is the other line ‘cannibal soup’? Yes? Well that was – we were living in Bolinas at the time which is, there was a kind of a... a lot of Hippies around there. And I was getting hammered by that kinda deal because you gotta make your own bread, you gotta be a vegetarian, and you gotta do... so I was annoyed with that. You shouldn’t shave your armpits, don’t wear any make-up – you gotta be REAL. And I thought ‘fuck all that shit’. I wanna hear, and I wanna do what I wanna do. So I wrote a song that was purposely kind-of disgusting. Just to shock those people. Usually I was interested in shocking or making fun of the Right Wing. In this particular case I was trying to shock the Hippies, because... they were talking about not eating meat, and being pure and all that kind of stuff, and I just thought ‘Oh Christ’, everybody’s 50/50. You’re going around thinking you’re pure? You’ve got your head up your ass! So I wrote the song because at some point you could be faced with the decision to eat your brother! In this country there were some people coming across from the East Coast to the West Coast – and they got stuck for months in a blizzard. I believe it was in the Donner Pass in Colorado (they were pioneers in 1846), and they were there some months – they couldn’t get out, too much snow. People were dying. Pretty soon they ran out of food ‘cos there was no way to get in, no way to get out. Because they were stuck in the blizzard. So they had to eat the people who’d died. And they were called the ‘Donner Party’. So I was sorta making a song...
‘...what if you were starving to death, and all you had to eat....’ (quote from “Silver Spoon”) ? ...that’s right. What would you do? Yes – what WOULD you do? In certain circumstances you do things that you ordinarily would not. And is that wrong? The guy’s dead! Who cares? It’s just food. Everything on this planet depends upon – we KILL to eat. You may be killing a broccoli. But you’re killing. The problem with eating meat now is that it is not sudden, it’s brutal, it’s a long process of putting these animals into pens and shooting them full of drugs, and they get so insane from confinement that they sometimes even bite themselves to death. I mean – that’s torture. But if you have to eat something – you go kill a broccoli, or you go kill a whatever. I was just objecting to their flat-out statement that ‘this is wrong, that’s wrong’ – who knows? You may have to eat your SISTER at some point. WAKE UP!
‘Frank Zappa once said –
I believe, that today’s
revolutionary is tomorrow’s
boring old fart. Grace
Slick may be living proof
of that axiom on record...’
(journalist Sandy Robertson
writing in ‘Sounds’ 10th May 1980)
As early as May 1968 ‘IT (International Times)’ had warned ‘Grace is at her best when she is at her least slick’. And later in your career, when you do become more controlled and more digitally perfect – around the time of your successes with the Starship troupers in the eighties, you become more commercially accomplished, but less artistically interesting. Well – yeah, but there was a lot of fear... there was a fear around money. The people in Starship had families, and, in other words, people didn’t want to experiment with weirdo songs. Because they were afraid they wouldn’t sell. They were afraid. There was a lot of fear in that. Now – it was a commercial band, and Starship actually sold more... I mean, had more no.1 singles and all that kind of stuff, than Airplane ever had. So – it was a commercial band. And we had played our instruments or sung long enough to know what we were doing. So it was relatively easy to go into a recording studio and make a song. But I don’t think they were quite as interesting. I prefer, for myself – to go, ‘I’ll write the song that I sing. Paul writes his thing, Suzi – you write this, Freida, Joe – y’know, whatever’. So, I like it when the bands write their own songs. I really was not all that fond of singing somebody else’s song. I mean – there was a song that went to no.1, it was called “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”, and it was written by Diane Warren. And I like her – as a person. She’s very funny. Very bright. Loves writing. She stays in her little studio and writes all day long – sixteen hours a day. She’s amazing. And I like her. But “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now”? I don’t believe that. That comes from Diane. A truck will stop you in five seconds flat. I DON’T BELIEVE that nothing’s gonna stop you! I’m cynical. I think that there is a great possibility that this romance is not gonna last more’n six months. So, I would not have written a love song in that way. So I’m basically singing something I don’t believe. And I don’t like that. It’s a good song. But not for me, ‘cos I don’t believe it. Somebody who believes that ought to sing it. That’s what’s important. So I don’t think I’m right or Diane’s wrong or any of that kind of stuff, I just think that somebody who believes those words ought to be singing them.
Diane Warren has written lots of MOR hit songs. Well – I was amazed, ‘cos I just saw it on TV the other night somewhere, that she can write for anybody. She has written for Rock bands too, and she also writes for – er... but I’m not just talking about her necessarily... there was another no.1 song we had which was “We Built This City On Rock ‘n’ Roll”. Everybody assumes we were talking about San Francisco. It was not written by us. It was not written about San Francisco. It was written by a British guy – Bernie Taupin, about L.A.! So – you see what I mean? It’s a good song. But it doesn’t have anything to do with me. He was talking about - there was a grey time in the early Seventies when cops were closing clubs or something – I couldn’t give a shit! That’s not gonna last long. I couldn’t give a shit whether they close the clubs in L.A. OK – so they close the Clubs. They’re gonna re-open them all in a month anyway. Everybody needs Clubs. So – y’know, I’m singing songs that I really don’t care about, and lyrics I don’t believe in. And I think that’s a mistake. You shouldn’t do that. I had fun during the Eighties. It was OK. I can DO it. It’s not like I CAN’T do it. I’m a professional in the sense that I’ve been doing it over a long time, but I would prefer to sing songs where I know the lyric, I know what I’m talking about because I WROTE it.
So your current activities are restricted to book-signings and promotions for your autobiography. Ah – well, I certainly did meet a lot of people, ‘cos we did book-signings over here in the book stores. So I ran into a whole hell of a lot of people in New York, San Francisco, Toronto – places like that. And it was very interesting. But in this country its already been released some time ago, so I’ve already done it here. Only now it’s being released in Britain – or the UK, or whatever you like to be called.
Didn’t that promotion give you a renewed taste for interfacing with an audience, and perhaps give you an appetite for doing something like an MTV Unplugged? I don’t DO that now. I haven’t been in a Rock ‘n’ Roll band for ten years. And I don’t even think about it. In other words it’s a little bit anachronistic. It’s just... I’m not there. So, it’s a little odd. It’s sort-of like going around representing an airline company when you don’t fly anymore – it’s like ‘huh, what am I doing here?’ It was interesting. Almost anything is interesting if you get the right frame of mind. But no – I don’t like old people doing Rock ‘n’ Roll. I think it’s kind-of pathetic. Yeah, I’m sure that if people – if the person whose doing it likes to do it, then that’s fine. It’s just that I think – I feel SAPPY!!!, at age 59, singing ‘UP AGAINST THE WALL MOTHER-FUCKERS!’ (quoting a line from the ‘Volunteers’ track “We Can Be Together”) . It’s STOOOO-PID. Or – as a non-practising alcoholic, singing ‘feed your head’ – it’s not pertinent. Now, if I were to write an album of songs talking about the way I feel and am right now, it would be rude to an audience, because they want to hear – understandably, ‘why don’t you play “White Rabbit”, why don’t you play dada-dada-dada’. I don’t want to DO that. And you can’t do that to an audience – you can’t go out and say ‘I’m not gonna SING that...’ (in bratty little girl voice). Well then – don’t sing. So I don’t.
Nevertheless, this opportunity of speaking to you has been a peak experience for me – and I for one look forward to seeing you on stage again – in some format, in the not-too-distant future. Thank you for the thought. I’ve enjoyed talking to you. I may talk to you again. Bye Bye.
‘Slick was the only other female
singer of her generation (with
Nico) not ensnared by the
sixties and seventies stereotypes of
virgins, whores and Earth Mothers..
Grace Slick was never a ‘Chick’...’
(Journalist Bill Graham writing
in ‘Hot Press’ July 1987)
*‘SOMEBODY TO LOVE?’ by GRACE SLICK with ANDREA GAGAN (VIRGIN PUBL – £16.99 – ISBN 1-85227-738-6)
Original tape of this interview featured on:
‘ZINE-ON-A-TAPE 2000: ANDY SAVAGE C90’
(UK -July 1999 & Jan 2000)