Grace Slick is now in her 80s, but she used to be a rock ‘n’ roll legend in her day and spent four decades in the music industry. In her memoir, Somebody to Love? A Rock and Roll Memoir, she took a humorous journey down memory lane and recounted what life was like during the whole West Coast psychedelic extravaganza. “I shaved my legs, but I talked like a truck driver,” she wrote.
Grace Slick was a bohemian rocker chick who defined a generation. Decades after San Francisco’s mind-expanding music scene in the mid-‘60s, the Monterey, Woodstock, and Altamont poster girl is as candid as ever. Unapologetic, the woman who survived years of psychedelics and multiple arrests now leads a relatively quiet life in Malibu. Luckily for the authorities, Slick left the music business, and she looks back on it fondly with more than just a few memories to share…
The San Francisco hippie rock group that called themselves Jefferson Airplane produced some of the most memorable and definitive songs of the late ‘60s, including White Rabbit, Somebody to Love, and the anti-Vietnam war anthem Volunteers. When the counterculture movement started to die down in the early ‘70s, the band experienced one of the most turbulent group histories ever.
Countless musicians came in and out over the years, many of them leaving with a bitter taste in their mouths, only communicating with ex-bandmates through lawyers. Over time, Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship, which later turned into Starship. Regardless of their name and band member changes, Grace Slick is the name that stands above the rest. And, as it turns out, she wasn’t even the group’s first choice…
Jefferson Airplane is synonymous with the one and only Grace Slick. The singer brought charisma, fun-to-sing-along-to vocals, and a sense of danger to the band’s songs. Just think about the creepy yet fantastic journey through the Alice in Wonderland-referencing White Rabbit, for example. It’s hard to imagine the band getting anywhere without Slick.
And so, it’s worth noting that Slick wasn’t the group’s first singer – nowhere near it. After a 1965 performance in San Francisco, Signe Toly [Anderson] was asked to join the still-forming group by founder Marty Balin. Toly sang lead vocals on Jefferson Airplane’s 1966 debut album. But before the year ended, she was already out of the band (she had just given birth). Sherry Snow (of Blackburn & Snow) was asked to replace her, but she declined. Eventually, Slick got the gig.
Grace Barnett Wing was born on October 30, 1939, in Chicago. She went to a private all-girls school in Palo Alto, attended college in both NYC and Florida, and married a man named Gerald “Jerry” Slick, an aspiring filmmaker. Grace worked as a model at an I. Magnin department store for a few years while she worked on composing her own music.
Slick half-heartedly considered music for a profession, that is, until she saw the band The Matrix. After that, she formed a band with her husband (Grace as vocals, Jerry on drums), Jerry’s brother Darby Slick (on lead guitar), and David Miner (on bass guitar). They called themselves The Great Society.
By 1965, Slick read an article about the newly formed Jefferson Airplane in the San Francisco Chronicle. Meanwhile, her own group made their debut performance and, soon after, Slick composed the psychedelic piece White Rabbit. The original version of the song, which she claims she wrote in one hour, had a much speedier tempo when performed live than the one we know and love.
Regardless, it was still an instant fan favorite. But, with time, Darby Slick took the band down a more Raga-influenced psychedelic path. A year after reading that article about Jefferson Airplane, Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane’s bass player) asked Slick to join his group. According to Slick, she joined the band because it was a lot more professional than hers was.
With Slick now on board, Jefferson Airplane started recording new music, transitioning from folk to psychedelic rock. Slick’s vocals, charisma and beauty aside, she gave Jefferson Airplane their biggest hits. Surrealistic Pillow, her first album with the group, included new recordings of songs from The Great Society, such as White Rabbit and Somebody to Love.
Both tracks became top 10 singles. Before long, Jefferson Airplane became one of the most popular groups in the country. Slick became one of the leading female rock musicians of her time. And she was fearless. In 1968, she performed Crown of Creation on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in “blackface,” ending her performance with a Black Panther fist in the air.
Somebody To Love, which was written by her brother-in-law Darby, was already a Bay Area smash hit. But once adopted by Jefferson Airplane, it became a West Coast anthem. Grace’s White Rabbit confirmed her position as the “Acid Queen of Haight-Ashbury.” But founder Marty Balin was still unsure about her being in the group. He was a true supporter of Signe Toly and wanted her back.
Despite their series of classic songs and albums, the two crept around each other, on stage and off. “Marty was never very communicative, which is odd when you’re singing duets. Maybe he was jealous of me ‘cos I was so fabulous,” Slick later joked. “He’s the only one I never speak to anymore. Jack Casady, Jorma Kaukonen, Paul Kantner – anyone who’s alive is fine. Not Marty. His wife calls me once a year when she’s drunk.”
Slick made her live debut with Jefferson Airplane the day after Toly’s farewell speech to her fans. Many people in the audience wept. But, instead of making an anonymous backstage entrance, Slick went all out. People marveled at her attire – she was wearing a striped silk vest and a hip-hugging mod skirt.
“Clothes were fun, and I had some good stuff. I wore the same clothes on the street as on the stage. I got a lot from thrift shops in the Haight.” Soon, it came time for Slick and the band to perform one of their most famous gigs in history. A few days after they headlined at a free concert in Central Park in August 1969, they hit Woodstock.
Slick referred to their Woodstock performance as the “morning maniac music” slot. When the group was interviewed about Woodstock in 1992, Paul Kantner (guitarist and vocalist) looked back at it with fondness, but Slick had less than rosy memories of the famous concert.
Woodstock might have been this magical, musical, hallucinatory experience for the hundreds of thousands in the crowd, but, for Grace Slick, it was nowhere near as amazing. “Woodstock was fun… If you’re 18 and you don’t care about sitting in the mud,” she stated. She described how she had to stay up all night on a stage with no bathroom, waiting to go on “because something got screwed up.” They were scheduled to go on at 9 p.m. but didn’t hit the stage until 6 a.m. the next morning.
“Rock ‘n’ roll’s weird at six o’clock in the morning,” Slick said. But they did it because they said they would. She also described how she brought a white dress for the concert, “and you can’t run out and buy something else because it’s raining. You’ve got a white dress? Too bad.” Slick explained how they were in a nearby motel, waiting to be summoned to the stage.
Half an hour before they were scheduled to go on (at 9 p.m.), a helicopter came to pick them up and dropped them off backstage. Typically, they would have finished their set, and the helicopter would have taken them back to the motel. But, for Jefferson Airplane, it wasn’t quite as marvelous as it was for all the teenagers in the crowd.
Slick was 29 at the time, and her idea of fun wasn’t having to watch out for a white dress, no bathrooms to use, and performing at six o’clock in the morning. For Slick, Woodstock “was not fun.” But the idea of it “and the idea that we attracted that many people was kind of amazing.” She recalled just how disorganized the entire event was and how the organizers were scrambling.
Discussing how riveting the White Rabbit performance was in particular, and how it still gives people chills, Slick admitted that it gives her chills, too. But not for the same reason. She explained: “It’s because when you have been up all night — and I’m a smoker— if you’ve been up all night smoking, your voice is not spectacular.”
According to writer and scenester Eve Babitz, Slick always thought she was ugly. “I remember she wore a white, Native American Indian outfit at Woodstock, and she hated the photos so much she tried to stop the Airplane footage being used in the film.” While Slick wasn’t such a fan of that special moment in history, others definitely were.
In fact, their Woodstock performance was up there with Hendrix’s version of The Star-Spangled Banner. As they walked on to the stage that early morning of August 17, just after The Who played, Slick looked at the massive crowd in amazement and told them: “You’ve heard the heavy groups, now you will see morning maniac music. Believe me. Yeah, it’s a new dawn.”
So much about the mythology of Woodstock was the drugs. But, surprisingly, the members of Jefferson Airplane didn’t take acid “on purpose because it can really mess with your perception of things. And if it gets too messy, then you screw the song up.” But it wouldn’t be fair to say they never performed on the hallucinogen – they definitely did.
Slick said they made their share of mistakes. One time, after accidentally taking LSD, 15 minutes into their set, they looked at each other and went, “Oh boy. Oops.” According to Slick, that made things a little tricky when it came to delivering the song in the style in which it’s supposed to be delivered. When Slick was supposed to be playing the piano, she suddenly stopped because she wanted to listen to Jack Casady play the bass, forgetting that she was onstage.
Not long after Woodstock, Slick and Kantner were invited to meet Mick Jagger to discuss the upcoming Altamont concert. After a rather formal chat, Altamont was arranged – they were going to support The Rolling Stones. The now infamous Altamont concert in December of 1969, as you know, turned out to be a disaster.
If you ask Slick, she’ll tell you that she knew it was getting ugly when the Hells Angels invaded the stage during Jefferson Airplane’s set. Once Balin told them to get off (in a much more vulgar way, of course), they backed down a bit. But, according to Balin, a bunch of them rushed him with pool cues and he woke up with “boot tattoos” all over his body.
As the group started watching the Stones perform, they had to leave in a hurry. They were in their helicopter, looking down, when Kantner said, “I think they’re beating a man to death down there.” The free Altamont concert notoriously ended in the death of a concert-goer named Meredith Hunter at the hands of the Hells Angels, who were hired as security guards.
According to Slick, it was partially their fault. How so? Well, Jefferson Airplane had previously staged free concerts in San Francisco and used the Hells Angels for security. “And they never hurt anybody,” Slick claimed. “And they were good at it because people were afraid of them.” Mick Jagger liked the idea and signed off on what ended up becoming a fatal suggestion.
Slick stayed married to Jerry Slick until 1971, after which she was with lighting designer Skip Johnson from 1976 to 1994. But it was with Paul Kantner that she had her daughter China, born on January 25, 1971. Slick and Kantner started their relationship while she was still married to Jerry, from 1969 to 1975. Slick, perhaps jokingly, said she joined Jefferson Airplane initially “because I wanted to have an affair with bassist Jack Casady. I love bass players, and he’s the best.”
After a fling with Jack, she had one with drummer Spencer Dryden. As for guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, he was more like a brother to her, especially after he pulled her out of the smoldering wreckage of a car accident near the Golden Gate Bridge.
On May 13, 1971, Slick nearly lost her life. She found herself in a near-fatal car crash after she accidentally slammed her sports car into a wall in a tunnel near San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The accident occurred while she and Kaukonen were drag racing; both were speeding over 100 mph.
Kaukonen claimed that he “saved her life” by pulling her out of the burning car. Slick’s recovery took a few months, which forced Jefferson Airplane to limit their touring commitments. Meanwhile, Slick recorded a rather humorous song for their new album, which was about the incident. It was called Never Argue with a German If You’re Tired or European Song. Yes, really.
If you want a fun little anecdote about Slick and Kantner’s child, then you might enjoy this. In 1971, Slick delivered her and Kantner’s baby girl in San Francisco’s French Hospital. Slick recalled that as she held their newborn, a nurse came into the hospital room, holding a framed certificate that looked like a high school diploma to Slick.
The nurse pointed to an empty line in the document and asked the new mother, “What is your baby’s name?” Slick, who then noticed that the nurse was wearing a crucifix necklace, simply blurted out, “God. We spell it with a small ‘g’ because we want her to be humble.” But it doesn’t end there…
Slick recalled how the nurse, not sure if she was serious, asked her to repeat the name. Slick was obviously kidding, but she confirmed the choice, which the nurse “haltingly” scribbled down. Slick then explained how once the nurse was done filling in the baby’s bold name, she ran over to the telephone.
The nurse called Herb Caen, a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, who actually published Slick’s post-labor joke as fact. And so, her baby’s fake name was thus publicized around the world. But, eventually, word got around that her baby’s actual name was China. China later became a television, theatre and film actress, and is known for being a former MTV VJ.
In a male-dominated landscape, Grace stood out. Sexism just wasn’t on her agenda. She made a point to have as much fun as the guys did. And part of the fun was going to bed with many fellow rock stars. Slick jokes about how she never got to be with Jimi Hendrix and Peter O’Toole. But one rock star she did, indeed, get her hands on was the legendary Jim Morrison.
During the well-known Doors/Jefferson Airplane European tour of 1968, she found herself in Morrison’s bedroom at the Belgravia Hotel. Story has it they romped around, covering each other with strawberries and other fruit courtesy of the hotel. But it was just once, she said with a sigh. “When I left, I said: ‘Call me if you want.’ And he never did. So apparently, I’m a terrible lay.”
Within one year, Hendrix, Joplin, and Morrison – all aged just 27 – died. Joplin and Slick had been friends for a while when they were younger, according to Slick… “before things got ugly.” Looking back on her tragic death, Slick said she doesn’t think anything could have stopped the loss of her former friend, as well as that of Hendrix and Morrison. Slick recalled that Joplin’s death in 1970 prompted Marty Balin to stop using drugs.
After Joplin’s death, Balin quit drugs, and not coincidentally, left the group in 1971. However, he came back by 1975, after the band rebranded themselves and Jefferson Airplane evolved into Jefferson Starship. In 1970, while Jefferson Airplane was on hiatus, Kantner recorded Blows Against the Empire, a concept album.
Blows Against the Empire featured an informal group of musicians centered on Kantner, Slick, Joey Covington, and Casady of Jefferson Airplane. There were also David Crosby and Graham Nash and members of The Grateful Dead credited on the LP as Paul Kantner and “Jefferson Starship,” which marked the first use of the name.
These musicians were informally known as the Planet Earth Rock and Roll Orchestra. On the album, Slick sang about people escaping Earth in a hijacked starship. Between 1974 and 1984, Jefferson Starship released eight gold or platinum-selling studio albums. Later, they evolved into Starship, which was initially a continuation of Jefferson Starship, but then changed its musical direction. Slick was the only former Jefferson Airplane member in the newly-formed Starship.
After Casady and Kaukonen decided to leave Jefferson Airplane, Slick stuck around with Kantner to be involved with Jefferson Starship. Still, she also began a string of solo albums, including Manhole, Dreams, Welcome to the Wrecking Ball! and Software. Manhole featured keyboardist/bassist Pete Sears, who joined Jefferson Starship.
Sears and Slick wrote several early Jefferson Starship songs together, like Hyperdrive and Play On Love. The album Dreams incorporated many ideas she encountered during 12-step program meetings. Unsurprisingly, it was the most personal of her solo albums and was ultimately nominated for a Grammy Award. Fun fact: It was around this time that David Crosby nicknamed Slick “The Chrome Nun.”
Following the Jefferson Airplane reunion in 1989, Slick retired from the music industry at the age of 50. During a 1998 interview with VH1, Slick said the main reason she retired from the business was that “All rock-and-rollers over the age of 50 look stupid and should retire.” (Hey, those were her words.)
Even in 2007, her views hadn’t changed. In an interview, she stated: “You can do jazz, classical, blues, opera, country until you’re 150, but rap and rock and roll are really a way for young people to get that anger out… It’s silly to perform a song that has no relevance to the present or expresses feelings you no longer have.” Despite her retirement, Slick appeared twice with Kantner’s restored version of Jefferson Starship (in 1995 and 2001).
Slick has never been shy about her alcoholism, rehabilitation experiences, and previous use of LSD, marijuana, and other substances. It was during Jefferson Starship’s 1978 European tour that Slick’s alcoholism became a problem for the group. They had to cancel their first performance in Germany because she was too intoxicated. As a result, the audience started a riot.
She performed the following night with the band but was so drunk that she couldn’t sing properly. She even attacked the audience, mocking the country for losing World War II. She was later admitted to a detoxification facility twice, once in the ‘70s and again in the ‘90s with her daughter China.
Slick has been arrested at least four times for what she calls “TUI”s (“talking under the influence”). She also refers to it as a “drunk mouth.” In one incident, a police officer encountered Slick sitting against a tree trunk in the woods of Marin County, California. She was reportedly eating bread, drinking wine, and reading poetry. What could go wrong?
Well, the officer asked her what she was doing, and she gave him a sarcastic response. As a result, she was arrested and put in jail. Another time, in 1994, she was arrested for something a lot worse: assault with a deadly weapon. She allegedly pointed an unloaded gun at a police officer. Slick claimed that the officer entered her property without explanation. So the only reasonable reaction was to aim her gun…
A force of nature, Grace Slick regularly performed live with Jefferson Airplane while under the influence. And, somehow, she made it out alive. Not only that, but Slick was also a superstar. By 1969, Jefferson Airplane was the wealthiest band on the West Coast. But that didn’t stop them from making Volunteers, the then-revolutionary, call-to-arms album.
“We had the most fun making Volunteers,” Slick said. But when it came to starting a revolution, that didn’t happen. “I thought you could change people with media blitzing, books, and knowledge, but you can’t. The only person I can change is me.” The woman has a point. But as high as they were in those days, what goes up must come down – Volunteers flopped as a single.
White Rabbit was known as the first pop song focused on the experience of hallucinogens that managed to score air time on mainstream radio. The two and half minute trance broadcast the hippie ideals of its time. Marty Balin said, “It was timely for the ear. The myth, the idea, the acid.”
It’s well-known that Slick took inspiration from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which is notoriously laced with hallucinogenic nuances. But, believe it or not, if you ask Slick, she will still adamantly deny that the song refers to drugs. For Slick, the 1966 song “is about following your curiosity. The White Rabbit is your curiosity.”
Slick also blamed the song on her “lousy parents” with their “glasses of scotch.” She said how her parents seemed unaware that many books they had read to her and her brother as kids involved drug use as a subtext. The way she sees it, Peter Pan uses fairy dust and can fly, and Dorothy and her friends cut through a poppy field, “get stoned,” and fall asleep.
Slick likes to think of White Rabbit as an invitation for intelligence and education: to “feed your head.” As the story goes, Lewis Carroll did indeed indulge in drugs while he was writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Some believe that he took Laudanum, an opiate-infused drug that was readily available to people in the 1860s.
Slick wrote White Rabbit at her Marin County home in 1966. She bought a small upright piano for a measly $80 at a warehouse in San Francisco – a piano on which she wrote a lot of Jefferson Airplane’s early songs. Slick wrote the piece as she listened to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, which she claims she listened to for 24 hours straight.
White Rabbit’s Spanish beat is also influenced by Ravel’s Bolero. She presented it to her Great Society bandmates, who listened to the three times longer and trippier version. Slick still manages to be synonymous with Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland. Now retired, she runs a one-woman art show, and her most popular works are a series of paintings based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books.
These days, Grace Slick gets up at 4 a.m. every day and starts painting. She paints all kinds of things, some of which won’t surprise you, like portraits of dead rock stars, white rabbits, marijuana plants, and ice-cream- eating kids (which she says is a metaphor for the obesity epidemic).
After retiring from the music business, Slick started painting and drawing. Ever since she was a child, she had a passion for art, long before she pivoted to music. She has painted portraits of fellow 1960s musicians, like Janis Joplin and Jerry Garcia, among others. In 2000, Slick started displaying and selling her artwork, and she attends many of her own art shows across the country.
In 2006, Slick suffered from diverticulitis, a disease that affects your digestive tract. After surgery, she relapsed, requiring another surgery as well as a tracheotomy. She had to be placed in a coma for two months and even had to learn to walk again. In 2010, she co-wrote Edge of Madness with singer Michelle Mangione.
Their goal was to raise money following the BP oil spill. In recent years, Slick has made appearances here and there, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement awards in 2016, and has done numerous radio interviews. But, when asked if she ever has the urge to go back to the stage, she responded, “I usually don’t return to the scene of the crime where we try to go home again, as they say. I usually don’t want to.”
No one in the band was named Jefferson, and they never recorded songs about aviation, so what’s the reason for the name? According to an extensive history of the band from Ohio State University, the meaning of “Jefferson Airplane” is actually unclear. MTV News states the group named itself after San Francisco blues musician Steve Talbot told Jorma Kaukonen of a fictional singer named Blind Thomas Jefferson Airplane.
But then again, the band could also be named after marijuana paraphernalia. For those who don’t know, a “Jefferson Airplane” is a ’60s term for a “roach clip.” And for those who don’t know what that is, it’s a makeshift device that is used to hold a joint, so the smoker doesn’t burn their fingers.
So how did Jefferson Starship morph into the ’80s pop band Starship? Well, it’s because a judge ordered it. Paul Kantner thought they would be “terrible failures trying to write pop songs all the time… the band became more mundane and not quite as challenging and not quite as much of a thing to be proud of.”
But the rest of the group didn’t agree with him. In 1984, Kantner was so horrified by Jefferson Starship’s album Nuclear Furniture that he actually stole the master tapes. He held onto them until he could convince the rest of the band to make a more agreeable final mix. Shortly after, Kantner left the group and took the band name with him. He sued his bandmates to prevent them from ever performing under any name with “Jefferson” in it. Hence, Starship.
Almost as if to make the band’s lineup changes even more complicated, Jefferson Airplane had a reunion in 1989 – while Starship was still an active group. The reunion came about after a 1988 performance in San Francisco by blues band Hot Tuna, with special guest Paul Kantner. But little did Kantner know that the rest of the band had invited Slick to play a song.
According to Slick, it was supposed to be a joke on Kantner. The idea was she would sneak in, stand by the side of the stage, come out and sing White Rabbit. But Paul didn’t get the joke. Rather, he liked it, and so did the audience. That’s how they came up with the idea for a reunion album and tour.