Interview: Grace Slick
jazzwax.com | Apr 29th 2011
Grace Slick was Jefferson Airplane's lead singer. But she was much more than that. In the history of rock, her iconic voice, with its passing-gear force, stinging vibrato and flower-power passion marked a turning point in the music. Last week I interviewed Grace on a range of topics by phone. My Q&A with the San Francisco vocalist, who paved the way for two generations of rock singers, appears in today's Wall Street Journal (or go here).
Before Grace, female pop-rock singers were largely eye-candies—statuesque and poised in the manner of Jackie Kennedy, dressed in glittery mermaid gowns bearing frozen stares and beehive hairdos. And then came San Francisco in 1965. Influenced by the electric blues and Dylan's brand of folk, bands there played a different style of rock. Songs ran long and there were extended solos. Lyrics were rebellious and scornful of materialism and conformity. Akin to Dylan's Like a Rolling Stone, songs eschewed the sunny, formulaic conformity of pop-rock popular in Los Angeles and New York.
Jefferson Airplane was formed in 1965, and its lead singer was Signe Anderson. She had a low, husky voice and recorded on the band's first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, in 1966. When Grace saw the band at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, she realized that singing in a band would be much more exciting than modeling for retailer I. Magnin, which she had been doing and disliked. "Too many clothing changes, too much judgment by clients and not enough art," she told me.
So Grace, her husband Jerry Slick and his brother Darby formed The Great Society. The band gigged in San Francisco, mainly at the Matrix, performing its vibrating brand of folk-rock. Included in their book of songs was Grace's White Rabbit (inspired by Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain) and Darby's Somebody to Love. Soon, The Great Society was appearing at the Fillmore.
And then one day, Anderson gave notice, choosing to move away from San Francisco to raise a family. Grace was up in the balcony watching Jefferson Airplane rehearse when bassist Jack Casady came up and asked if she wanted to join the band. Grace didn't hesitate.
The band's first album was Surrealistic Pillow, and after the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper, the LP blew everything else away in 1967. In fact, Somebody to Love, with Grace's vocal joining Paul Kantner's, is arguably the song that is most identifiable with the late '60s counterculture movement. But thanks to Grace's finger-in-the-chest delivery, Somebody to Love also is the opening salvo of the free-love and feminist movements.
Grace, 71, is one of the few artists who can claim to have appeared at the Big Three—Monterey Pop, Woodstock and Altamont. She also was the oldest female vocalist on a Billboard Hot 100 #1 hit with Starship's We Built This City—in November 1985, shortly after her 46th birthday. She broke her own record in April 1987 at age 47 when Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now topped the chart. Her record stood for 12 years, until Cher, at age 53 in 1999, had a #1 hit with Believe.
Here are the questions and answers that I didn't have room to include in my Wall Street Journal interview today:
Marc Myers: Why did women especially identify with your voice in the late '60s and early '70s?
Grace Slick: I was singing with the force and anger that women were afraid to express at the time. The anger wasn’t aimed at men but at conformity and the rules that applied only to us.
MM: Was folksinger Odetta an early vocal influence?
GS: Only that she had a low voice and I have a low voice. What I truly admired, however, was her big delivery. I can’t sing softly in a high register but I can sing high loud. That ruled out singing lullabies to my daughter China when she was a baby. I would have blown her eardrums out.
MM: When did you realize you were a rock-and-roll sex symbol?
GS: Was I? I always thought I was homely. My legs were short, my hair was frizzy and I had terrible vision. I was just good at putting myself together. And being myself.
MM: What made you so wild?
GS: I’ve always been that way. I have no filter. Think of what it’s like when I’m drunk [laughs]. Which I haven't been in 15 years.
MM: What made the San Francisco rock scene so special in the mid- and late ‘60s?
GS: It was a mash of everything. There was a strong blues tradition there, huge interest in folk, a love of Spanish music—all kinds of things. Jefferson Airplane was a mix. We were blues when Jorma [Kaukonen] was writing, folk with Paul Kantner, and Marty Balin was our love-song writer.
MM: Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead named your most famous album, Surrealistic Pillow, in 1967. What does it mean?
GS: I have no idea. Gerry told one of the guys in the band. It was just a fun combination of words. Maybe it had to do with dreams. It was pleasantly bizarre.
MM: How were Jefferson Airplane songs assembled? They all seem like miniature symphonies.
GS: It depends on how we chose to do it or what the songwriter asked of everyone else. Whoever wrote the song would sing it or show us how they wanted it done. I don’t write music. Jack Casady and Jorma Kaukonen can write, I think. But the rest of us couldn't read it anyway.
MM: How did you work it out?
GS: The composer would write out the lyrics and put the chords where the music changed. Then everyone would do what they felt like, unless the songwriter had something specific in mind.
MM: How did your remember the lyrics?
GS: I know. Paul’s stuff goes on and on and on. Mind you, I can’t remember my name. I can’t blame it on drugs. In school, I couldn’t remember a thing unless I studied the night before. I just couldn’t remember stuff over time. I had intense immediate retention. It’s kind of inconvenient [laughs].
MM: Did you always have a short attention span?
GS: Yes. I think it’s because I’m so excited about everything I experience. One thing is knocking other things out of my head all the time. Or else I’m just stupid and my brain isn’t wired well. I can’t even remember my own songs. I wrote Panda [in 1989], but I have no idea what key it’s in. I can sing the first line but I've forgotten the rest of it. I can remember Paul’s songs better than mine.
MM: Did you ever forget lyrics?
GS: The fear of forgetting lines made me nervous for a while until I realized that the music cued the lyric. I’d stand on stage and think, “I have no idea what the first line is.” I’d say, “Grace, don’t worry about it. After the intro, it will kick in.” And it always did. The only time I forgot a line, Mickey Thomas forgot the same line at the exact same moment in the early '80s when we were with Starship. And he never forgot lyrics. We both looked at each other. Rock and roll is so loud, we just came in where we picked it up and no one noticed.
MM: You know how important you are, don’t you?
GS: Not really. Everybody’s sound changed rock and roll. It’s a big stew that has changed over time. I was just one ingredient.
MM: Yeah, but you’re the first modern rock vocalist.
GS: I suppose so, but it didn’t seem so at the time. There were many female singers in San Francisco. Signe Anderson preceded me in Airplane, Janis [Joplin] was in Big Brother, the Grateful Dead had an occasional female singer, a woman sang with the Charlatans. And Ace of Cups was an all-female band.
MM: Are you still wild?
GS: No. You go through segments of your life. I’m wild in that I’m still very outspoken. But I don’t do physically wild things because I’m 71. I’m opinionated, stubborn and sarcastic. If you don’t like it, you’ve got legs. You can leave.
MM: When was your last acid trip?
GS: A long time ago. LSD was a set and setting drug. We learned a lot about it before we took it. For instance, you don’t take LSD in the middle of Times Square. It will probably scare you. You don’t take it with people who are unsympathetic to it. If you do, there’s going to be a clash and it will be unpleasant.
MM: Where was the ideal place to take it?
GS: Outside around trees and around people who understood what’s going on. And it was best with a guide—someone who isn’t using it. So if there's anyone who’s on LSD who thinks they can fly, you tell them, “Maybe later…but not right now.” You talk them down.
MM: Weren’t you afraid of taking LSD?
GS: No, oddly enough. The guy who first turned me on to acid was a British chemist for an oil company who invented the glue that makes those lane dividers on English streets stick to the ground. He had a ton of money but he didn’t dress like he did. He wore dumb-looking brown cords with suspenders. He had a beautiful face but he was a nerd. He said, "I want you to read all about LSD. Here’s what it does. Here are the possibilities. And here’s what you do when this happens or that happens." He also gave us books of M.C. Escher drawings. He'd say, "You see, this is possible. You can go here." We said, "OK, that’s kind of interesting." So we knew it could get gnarly.
MM: Where did you learn to draw and paint?
GS: I drew all the time as a kid. I always knew I could sort of draw. When I was little, I drew an angel and my parents made a Christmas card out of it. I only do one thing at a time. I have one house, one child, one car and one man at a time. I’m not a good multitasker. Everything has to be one thing at a time, with a tremendous amount of focus.
MM: Was your 1968 rooftop performance in New York copied by the Beatles for Let It Be in 1969?
GS: Yeah, probably. We were the first to disturb an entire neighborhood of office workers on a rooftop [laughs]. We performed two songs, loud, at midday. No one knew where the music was coming from or why. Director Jean-Luc Godard put us up there and filmed us from across the street as well as people looking up. It was way cool until the cops showed up. No one went to jail, though.
MM: You performed at Monterey Pop in 1967 and Woodstock and Altamont in 1969. Which of the three was your favorite?
GS: The best festival for me was Monterey. Woodstock was muddy and Altamont was violent. At Woodstock, the bands couldn’t watch each other perform unless there was a delay on the stage. Everyone had to stay at a hotel nearby. A helicopter picked you up just before you went on and dropped you off to perform. It took you back to the hotel as soon as you were done. There was no place to hang around.
MM: And at Monterey?
GS: We got to see everybody. We had heard records by Jimi Hendrix, Ravi Shankar, the Who and others. But we had never seen many of the acts perform.
MM: You wore white to Woodstock?
GS: [Laughs] I didn’t know the weather was going to be a mess. You buy your clothes before you go on a road trip. The outfit was handmade. I bought it at a store in Fairfax, Calif. We were flown in to the stage for a 9 p.m. appearance. But there was a problem, so we had to sit backstage smoking dope and talking all night. I put something down to keep my white pants clean. We finally went on at 6 a.m., which was a little funky.
MM: At Altamont four months later, you tried to calm the Hells Angels by acting like their mom.
GS: I sang softly, “Easy, easy,” hoping that it would do the trick. But it didn’t. I wasn’t wearing my contacts, so everything was blurry. I don’t think the Hells Angels would have hit me if I had screamed, “Cut that shit out” or I pushed them. You have to get right in people’s faces.
MM: Do you listen to your recordings today?
GS: Mine? No. What for? I already recorded them. I don’t want to waste time. I don’t have a lot of time left, so I don’t want to waste it doing something I’ve already done.
MM: Why did David Crosby call you the Chrome Nun?
GS: It had nothing to do with the two of us. I had never fucked David Crosby. There was a place where I could have, but I didn’t. Paul [Kantner] and I took a seaplane to Crosby’s boat somewhere off the coast of Florida. There were nude blonde girls running around serving, while everyone was walking around without clothes on.
MM: Did you keep your clothes on?
GS: The only reason I didn’t take my clothes off is that all those girls had big boobs, long legs and were tan. I had no boobs, I was white as a sheet and I wasn’t going to be compared to those people.
MM: So where did the name come from?
GS: Crosby got an idea at that point that I was a little bit straighter than he imagined. Chrome is probably the defense mechanism part. Car bumpers were made out of chrome. The nun reference is my not getting into the scene. I never did orgies, not because I didn’t like the idea. I have nothing against them. But I only do one thing at a time. That was multitasking.
MM: You slept with Jim Morrison and nearly shot David Crosby’s head off by mistake. Talk about being at the center of things. Anything else you haven’t discussed that would surprise people?
GS: Not really.
MM: You were a role model for many women in the 70s. Why?
GS: Women don’t have the physical power that you do but we have the weasel power. We have to use our heads to get around you because you use physical power.
MM: You were pretty striking, more so than Janis Joplin.
GS: With Janis, I could have fixed her up. I would have given her laser treatment on her face and taught her to do makeup, and improved her posture. She had a great body.
MM: What group did you listen to earlier on your iPod?
GS: Del Castillo. They sing in Spanish and English. They’re from Austin, Texas. They’re wonderful.
MM: Which of your solo albums is your favorite?
GS: Dreams. I love Manhole, too. But I love the lyrics on Dreams. They’re real honest and come from my own experience. Except the title song. That one wasn’t written by me.
MM: Were the 60s fun?
GS: Oh yeah. Weird stuff went on all the time, particularly if you worked in rock and roll. We got used to it and appreciated that it was going on. I’m so grateful to have lived through that period.
MM: You have a pretty liberated way of looking at things.
GS: At my house, you can wear what you want here and say what you want and do whatever you want. Why not? Why would you tie yourself to somebody else’s idea of what’s right? If people never want to swear, good. That’s their plan. But I hope you got it from yourself and not just because your parents told you that.
MM: You were in an induced coma for two months in 2006?
GS: Yes. All I remember are wild dreams. I dreamed I was in different hospitals. I knew I was sick. But in my coma dream, they sent me to London. Then I was in Wisconsin. I kept going to sleep. My dreams were vivid.
MM: Do you sing your songs around the house?
GS: No. I can’t remember them. Seriously.
MM: Why are you laughing?
GS: You’ll never believe it.
GS: There's a white rabbit on my TV. It’s a bank ad for Easter.
JazzWax tracks: My two favorite Jefferson Airplane albums are Surrealistic Pillow (1967) and Crown of Creation (1968). Both have enormous '60s rock-folk edge. Her solo albums, Dreams and Manhole, are superb vocal outings. And, of course, Starship's We Built This City (1986) and Nothing's Gonna to Stop Us Now are pure '80s rock-pop.
JazzWax cips: Here's Grace Slick's composition, White Rabbit, during a Jefferson Airplane appearance on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1967. This type of singing was brand new to rock at the time. The song was inspired by Miles Davis and Gil Evans' Sketches of Spain, and according to Grace, the White Rabbit represented curiosity...
See Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WANNqr-vcx0
And here's Jean-Luc Godard's One P.M., featuring the Jefferson Airplane on the rooftop of a Manhattan building in November 1968. The Beatles Let It Be on the London rooftop of Apple's studios would follow in 1969.
See Video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XLRX7bZH41g
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