Grace Slick: First Lady of Acid Rock
Grace . . . in your face!
Grace Slick was one of the forerunners of San Francisco's acid rock sound, which became nationally famous during the so-called Summer of Love in 1967. Thereafter, Grace would become the quintessential rock ‘n' roll chick, living, traveling and partying with her family, that is, the boys in the band, who, one after the other, became her lovers.
Grace Slick (Grace Barnett Wing at birth) had what she called Leave It to Beaver-type parents, because they had no idea what an iconoclastic pain-in-the-butt their daughter would become the following decade. But, before puberty, Grace was blonde and pudgy and wanted to be like actress Betty Grable, who exemplified the apple pie and cheesecake attributes of the 1940s and ‘50s.
In the early 1950s, when Grace was a teenager, her parents moved the family from Highland Park, Illinois to Palo Alto, California. Grace considered her family a WASP (white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant) caricature of family life in America, that is, they had two of everything - two children, a two-car garage, a two-story house, etc.
After graduating high school in 1957, Grace enrolled at Finch College in New York. Finch was a finishing school for girls from affluent families. While at school, Grace would sometimes sing bawdy tunes while playing the guitar (she also played piano).
In 1961, Grace Wing married Jerry Slick in a traditional church wedding. From then on she used the name Grace Slick.
In 1965, Grace and husband Jerry went to The Matrix, a hip San Francisco music venue, and saw the Jefferson Airplane, a local folk-influenced, acid rock band. Soon, Grace and Jerry wanted to start their own group. Eventually they and four others, including Grace's brother-in-law Darby Slick, formed The Great Society. (The title is a facetious reference to President Lyndon Johnson's nickname for the U.S. population.)
Guitar player/songwriter Darby Slick wrote a song for the group entitled "Somebody to Love." This wasn't a conventional love song; it said if you want to be loved, you need to find somebody to love. Here's an excerpt: "Don't you want somebody to love? Don't you need somebody to love? Wouldn't you love somebody to love? You better find somebody to love."
Except where noted, all quotes in this article come from the autobiography Somebody to Love? by Grace Slick and Andrea Cagan published in 1998.
In the middle 1960s, many people in the San Francisco Bay Area were taking hallucinogenic drugs. Grace's first psychedelic high came from taking peyote (mescaline). She wrote, "I've learned that, like mutating viruses, psychedelic drugs such as peyote or LSD seem to match their performance to an individual's makeup. The risk varies depending on a person's emotional, physical, and spiritual state." Be that as it may, Grace said she really enjoyed the experience and wanted to do it again.
In Barbara Rowe's book Grace Slick: The Biography published in 1980, Grace described her reaction to the psychedelic experience: "I gained a clear perception of who I was not. I began to sense that the transient nature of events extended far beyond the ego and focused on the recognition that taking oneself seriously was nothing but a cosmic joke. Once you realize how illusory man's concepts of his own importance are, you can no longer take the goals, achievements and pecking order of society seriously. It doesn't make any difference whether you win one of the crowns or sleep on the street: these are all just different costumes on one soul. Assuming that through material achievement you can improve your level in the cosmos is like assuming that a particle of sand can become any more than a particle of sand when it resides in the wall of a sandcastle. Anything you happen to collect stays here when you go. There are no armored cars in a funeral procession."
In late 1966, The Great Society disbanded and then, shortly thereafter, singer Signe Anderson left the Jefferson Airplane, and then almost immediately Grace replaced her in the Airplane.
Grace's first studio album with the Jefferson Airplane was Surrealistic Pillow, which the band recorded while staying in Los Angeles. One night while staying at the Tropicana Motel on Santa Monica Boulevard, they saw Jim Morrison of the Doors on a nearby balcony. Morrison was nude, down on all fours and howling like a wolf. Basically, the band members avoided this crazy, drunken fellow. Grace said she found Morrison's "performance" both fascinating and frightening.
Besides singing on Surrealistic Pillow, Grace wrote the words to "White Rabbit," a song about the drug hypocrisy of the older generation. She also brought along "Somebody to Love" from her prior band. (She sang the lead on both songs.) These numbers became the biggest hits of the album, which rose to number three on Billboard's album chart and stayed on the chart for over a year. One critic described Grace's voice as a "ferocious contralto."
Regarding personal matters, Grace's marriage to Jerry Slick didn't legally end until 1971, but the union was essentially over by 1967. Staying within the band, Grace first had an affair with bassist Jack Casady. About this arrangement, Grace wrote, "When you're in a band, you see more of your fellow band members than you do your blood family, so it stands to reason that I would end up honing in on the guys I sang next to night after night. During my Great Society and Airplane/Starship years, it seemed like I was married to seven people at once."
After Casady, Grace hooked up with Spencer Dryden, the Airplane's drummer. Judging from what Grace wrote in her autobiography, she always made the first amorous move with her band mates.
Grace had many friends in the current San Francisco rock scene, including a particularly good friendship with blues singer Janis Joplin. About Joplin, she wrote, "Janis knew more than I did about ‘how it was,' but she lacked enough armor for the inevitable hassles. She was open and spontaneous enough to get her heart trampled with a regularity that took me thirty years to experience or understand."
Particularly in the early stages of her singing career, Grace had a penchant for outspoken moments, on or off the stage. One night, while using a cordless microphone for the first time, Grace told a rich-looking audience at the Whitney Museum: "Hello, you fools. You got Rembrandts on the mantel and a Rolls in the garage, but your old man still wouldn't know a clitoris from a junk bond if you had the guts to show him your twat in the first place."
Grace admitted in her autobiography that her behavior that night was probably fueled by indulgence in chemical substances or just plain old alcohol. "Without alcohol," she wrote, "I'd be richer by two million dollars that went to pay lawyer's fees. What an interesting ride it's been, folks."
The Jefferson Airplane was one of many San Francisco bands that played at the Monterey International Pop Festival in June 1967. Grace wrote that it was the only music festival she went to that was perfect in every way.
The Airplane also played at Woodstock. The band was one of only a few that actually got paid for the gig because their manager insisted on payment before the performance. Six hundred thousand dollars in bad checks were subsequently distributed to the other bands. About the event, she penned, "So much of Woodstock's appeal was the chance to simply come together and touch what we knew had already taken birth. It was something that had formed from the energy of the invisible collective consciousness. It was shades of Huxley, Leary, the surrealists, Gertrude Stein, Kafka - the inexhaustible list of artists who'd encouraged multiple levels of observation. It was our turn. We were ready to breathe, ready to celebrate change."
Then the Airplane played at the so-called Altamont bummer concert later that year. "Woodstock was unruly," she wrote, "but Altamont was reigning chaos." Fellow singer Marty Balin was knocked out when struck in the head while tussling with Hell's Angels who had been hired to provide "security," though Grace didn't specifically mention Balin's injury in her book.
After recording the their third album, After Bathing at Baxter's, the Airplane toured Europe with the Doors. About Jim Morrison, the Doors' lead singer, Grace wrote, "I was always fascinated by the way he seemed to go from one side of his brain to the other, ignoring all the synapses in between. It was just like his lyric, ‘break on through to the other side.' And beautiful? He looked like a rabid Johnny Depp, perfectly formed and possessed by abstraction." Grace called Morrison Mr. Non Sequitur, because his responses to her questions nearly always seemed disjointed or just plain weird.
In an encounter started by Grace, she and Morrison made love in a hotel room. After it was over, Morrison asked, "Why wouldn't you come back?" To which she replied, "Only if I'm asked." Grace said he never asked.
The only movie Grace appeared in was called One American Movie. The film shows the band playing a set atop a midtown Manhattan skyscraper; included are a series of interviews. Of course, the cops show up and stop the high-level fun. The movie opened in a Berkeley art house in December 1969. (Does the movie Let It Be come to mind?)
As mentioned before, Grace kept most of her love life among the members of the band. This time she picked guitarist Paul Kantner. Along the way, Grace told Kantner she wanted to have his baby.
About this time, Grace was invited to tea at the White House, essentially because Tricia Nixon (President Nixon's daughter) had also attended Finch College. Grace arrived with political activist Abbie Hoffman, whom she called her bodyguard. Grace came to the affair with the intent of "dosing" Tricky Dick Nixon, as she called him, with a hit of LSD. Since the guards wouldn't let Hoffman in, Grace left without attempting her "trick."
Over the years, the Jefferson Airplane were involved in multiple busts, involving drugs or otherwise. In Dallas, Texas, Grace was arrested for yelling fuck while on stage. (She said somebody had recorded her.)
Into the 1970s and Beyond
On January 24, 1971 Grace gave birth to a girl, her name China Kantner. Later that year, Grace and Paul made an album together entitled Sunfighter.
Grace had an affair with every member of the original Airplane except singer Marty Balin. “Exactly why we didn’t make the final connection, I don’t know,” she noted. “He might have thought I was a jerk. At any rate, we both maintained enough of a distance that singing together sometimes felt like a competitive sport.”
In 1974, the Jefferson Airplane broke up and became the Jefferson Starship. (Some band members had also formed the side group Hot Tuna.) “In retrospect,” Grace wrote, “Jefferson Airplane’s breakup was not so much anyone’s fault, as it was simply the end of an era.”
Around then, Grace became enamored of the Jefferson’s Starship lighting director, Skip Johnson, who was 12 years younger than Grace. Months later, Skip asked Grace to marry him, and she quickly accepted.
Grace married her second husband in November 1976. Of the old band mates, only Paul Kantner and Marty Balin didn’t attend the ceremony.
Apparently Grace’s second marriage didn’t compel her to “change her act.” At a concert in Frankfurt, Germany in 1978, Grace donned some Nazi-like attire, got drunk and went on stage. At one point during the act, Grace stuck her fingers up the nose of some guy sitting in the front row. She also sang a great deal of sexually explicit lyrics. And, miffed about Germany’s role in World War Two, Grace kept asking the audience, “Who won the war?”
Shortly thereafter, Grace was kicked out of Jefferson Starship (but rejoined the group in 1981.)
Grace kept getting into trouble with alcohol. A few times she was arrested for being drunk in public. Essentially she was mouthing off to the cops investigating her drunkenness. In such situations, Grace called herself “Gun Mouth Grace.”
Eventually threatened with losing her driver’s license, the California Highway Patrol ordered Grace to attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Grace went to some meetings, liked the concept and kept going. At one point, she also went through drug rehabilitation, the “Fidget Farm,” as she called it, because people often shook as they related their personal incidents and tragedies.
While at the Fidget Farm, Grace wrote the songs for Dreams, the second of four solo albums, none of which sold very well. About these albums, she wrote, “My solo albums were each like a half-finished puzzle; they represented only the beginning of a full picture. Simply put, they were inadequate and incomplete.”
By the middle 1980s, Jefferson Starship became Starship, and only Grace Slick was left from the old Jefferson Airplane. This new group relied primarily on material from other songwriters who wrote such Top 40 hits as “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now,” “We Built This City,” and “Sara.” All of these were pop tunes; the acid rock was long gone. At this point, Grace called herself “sober, smiling and selling out.”
In 1987, Skip Johnson left Grace for a much younger woman. But they all continued going to the same AA meetings! However, Grace and Skip kept living together for another six years.
At the end of the 1980s, the original members of the Jefferson Airplane reunited for a tour. Only drummer Spencer Dryden didn’t go because of illness. Mellow now, everybody got along and didn’t do drugs or get busted. Grace noted, “Did we scream about government stupidity? No. Too lazy? Too old? Too numb? Or just defeated? Who knows? We were a nifty little rehash that reminded boomers of how it sounded when they didn’t have to take Metamucil to get it out and get it on.”
By 1990 Grace Slick’s singing career was mostly over. Instead, she played “Butt Bongo” on The Howard Stern Show. She wrote, “I just like Howard and thought it would be an amusing experience.”
Perhaps the reason Grace quit performing in bands is because she thinks old people shouldn’t perform rock ‘n’ roll, especially hard rock. No gramps with amps for Grace Slick. Be that as it may, Grace occasionally performed with a reconstituted version of Jefferson Starship in the 1990s. She also did a little studio work.
These days, Grace draws and paints. Examples of her work can be found in her autobiography as well as on the Internet.
At the end of her book, she concluded, “Will I go back into the music business? Not unless Mark Isham (musician/composer) calls up and says he has a title track that requires a singer with the vocal range of a four-ton frog.”
Grace Slick is now 80 years young!
© 2008 Kelley Marks