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Grace Slick: The Acid Queen who defined the 1960s

@TomTaylorFO

Grace Wing was born in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, Illinois, but she would make her mark on the other side of America’s great expanse. Her father worked in the suited and booted industry of investment banking and shepherded the family around the United States in search of profits.

By the time she was in her teens, young Americans had started hot-footing around the continent for reasons unclear even unto themselves. The beat generation and most notably Jack Kerouac’s On The Road had inspired a hysterical generational onset of wanderlust. The zeitgeist was changing, and the world became far more bohemian, a place befitting of someone like Grace. In short, there was absolutely no way that she was going to follow her father into finance.

On August 26th, 1961, at the age of 21, she became Grace Slick when she married an aspiring filmmaker named Jerry. Things were going steady in the pleasant marriage of Grace and Jerry. They were enjoying the slowly swelling boon of pop culture and plotting out their way in the world, mindful not to succumb to the pitfalls of their forebearers, but not quite developing a full-on punk attitude just yet. 

Two years into their marriage, the patent for LSD expired. Thereafter, there was a three-year period where acid was legal. This turned out to be quite a big deal for Grace Slick. From that moment on, her life and indeed the whole counterculture movement was accelerated, launching at Roadrunner pace towards some unknown future, perhaps a cliff would befall them, but at least they were getting away from the stilted past.

While the Vietnam War and various assassinations might have stolen the headlines, the retrospective narrative of the sixties now can be defined by two words: swinging and drugs. Far from just the perceived psychotropic hedonism, the era was awash with all kinds of pharmaceuticals. Purple Hearts, for instance, were pills that were a form of the Benzedrine that had been used to perk-up soldiers in World War II, and with a surplus following its resolution, people began popping them like sweets.

This craze of pick-me-up amphetamines and diet pills aplenty weren’t even seen as drugs, at least not in the narcotic sense. They were merely the modern miracle of Western medicines continued progress. If idiocy and hatred had plunged us into the depraved horrors of the war, then technology, progress and pills were going to get us out of it. In fact, your average churchgoing housewife in the late 1950s was full of so many appetite-suppressing amphetamines that if she were busted her street value would make the evening news but fuck me were the houses clean!

Whilst British prime minister Anthony Eden was literally popping so many pills that he can’t be said to have been of sound mind during the Suez Crisis, he went unchallenged, as did everyone else because the pills came with a label. The rising use of psychedelics, however, was met with disdain, judgement and extreme condemnation (outside of the CIA where wild experiments began). As far as Grace Slick was concerned, this was rank hypocrisy. What’s more, it wasn’t just rank hypocrisy that illuminated a divergent drugs policy, it was the sort that shone a spotlight upon the whole perked-up finger-pointing stuffy status quo and Grace Slick wasn’t going to have it!

(Credit: Masayoshi Sukita)

Music was now the medium to make your point known. This was a truth that had been germinating in the coalescing world of culture since Slick’s youth when she first dipped her toe into guitar playing. In 1956, Elvis Presley had gyrated the world into light to such a degree that following his performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, CBS made the decree that hereafter he was only to be filmed from the waist up. 

Meanwhile, in the literary world, Peyton Place by Grace Metalious became the uber-salacious and provocative best-seller that thrust sexual liberation into the living rooms of the masses. Of course, there had been countless precursors to this, but for the first time the movement seemed to be escaping the clutches of niche subcultures and beginning to seed into society at large and when that happens, invariably the demimonde shifts further into the margins while simultaneously the less daring elements of the liberating movement become accepted and engulfed into the mainstream.

With this sort of blue material on most bookshelves now, the beats got even more audacious. At the forefront of this liberation was Greenwich Village. In the early part of the 1960s, ‘the village’ was the hub for something very stirring, give it a name: counterculture. The streets were awash with folk troubadours with copies of Jack Kerouac’s bible to American disenfranchisement, sticking out of the top pockets of gingham shirts as art, culture and forethinking conversation disposed of industry as the mainstay of society in a small concentrated pocket of Manhattan. 

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Then, the evil jazz genius Enoch Light, found a brilliant way of piping the heady zeitgeist of Greenwich Village into the living rooms of the nation to such a faithful degree that it was almost the Real McCoy—he invented stereo sound. These records were changing the world. Less than a hundred years on from the biggest names in music remaining exclusive in grand concert halls, songs were now available for everyone. Old 78 RPMs had infused music with all sorts of eclectic influences and now, 45 RPMs were pushing it towards the youth culture reverie of rock ‘n’ roll.  

In a strange twist of fate, however, the insatiable appetite for music’s first commercial rock stars meant that LPs, which were first invented in 1948, gained popularity. Swapping 45s was all well and good, but nobody wanted to listen to the same Elvis song a thousand times over before school the next morning, they wanted to relish in his whole oeuvre in one steady hit. All of this was gradually unfurling before Slick who witnessed it all from the transitory view of her father’s car and scattered neighbourhood homes. She keenly but tentatively watched on as a travelling outsider, but the Kerouacian point remains, that the spectator sees more of the game. Grace had her finger to the cultural pulse. 

The next swooping change was that these longer records called for more introspection. After a while, kids like Bob Dylan found the many variations of ‘Rock around the Clock’ a little bit endless and vapid. LPs allowed for greater depth and diversity. Suddenly not every song that a commercial artist put to record had to be a radio smash. While it took the Motown hit parade a while to catch on to this notion, the troubadours flocking to Greenwich Village were about to get arty with what you could do on a 42-minute LP. 

Everything culminated in Bob Dylan. He rode the wave of beat introspection, Elvis’ dazzling attitude, the rising tide of rock ‘n’ roll, he glared at the rank hypocrisy of society and stretched it all out over a poetic freewheeling album. Thus, when the already tentatively bohemian Slick filled her head with acid and decided she wasn’t going to take any shit for her tripping either, sat in a bar in America’s newly gay capital of San Francisco and watched a band called Jefferson Airplane play live, she saw her future through a sonic oracle. It was a future that would perfectly define the 1960s as though she herself was a living allegory.

(Credit: Alamy)

She joined a band. The Great Society consisted of Grace and Jerry Slick, Jerry’s brother Darby and David Milner. She started writing songs, one of which was ‘White Rabbit’. “I always felt like a good-looking schoolteacher singing ‘White Rabbit’,” Grace Slick once said, “I sang the words slowly and precisely, so that people who needed to hear them wouldn’t miss the point. But they did.” The analogy of a schoolteacher is, of course, madder than a hermit crab with a mortgage, but there is no doubting that her near-unrivalled chanted incantation-like vocal performance was a bid to get a message across, albeit a madcap surrealist one. Slick’s searing singing performance could haunt an empty house. While she rattles the rafters of thunderclouds, it is the words that emanate out from her that tell the tale of the sixties and the racing melody that prophesied its inevitable demise.

The song might seem as though it came out fully formed, as though it was fashioned in the studio in a violent eruption of sound, but the truth is that it took a long time in the making. Slick had ‘dropped some acid’ in her Californian condo when she plopped the needle into the murky depths of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain record. “[It] was drilled into my head,” Slick explained as she sat there listening to his haunting horn “over hours and hours”, and then it “came squirting out in various ways as I wrote ‘White Rabbit’.”

It was a flop, as was ‘Somebody to Love’, a song that contains a smidgen of the meaning of life itself. But good God, everyone was in a band and everyone was good at it, so what chance did the adrenalised meaning of life have of making itself heard in the crowd where the next Promethean feat was a week away? The Great Society failed to escape the Bay Area. But soon, Jefferson Airplane were looking for a new singer. And boy oh boy if it wasn’t the irony of their “professional manner” that lured Slick to join. The sixties was swinging but it was still a business, and ‘The Airplane’ had the structure to fly Slicks songs to the top. 

1967 was the Summer of Love, but if you were to give it another name you could well call it the Summer of Slick. It was a summer that ‘White Rabbit’ would soundtrack, and a cultural event that the world is still rattling from, as Bob Dylan’s proclamation that the times were changing and those left behind should not criticise what they can’t understand, was finally realised. That summer counterculture announced that it was not some niche fad, but a subversive force. The issue was that it was underpinned by a tailspin of hedonism impossible to sustain, but at this point, the song hadn’t reached its “throw the radio in the bath” peak yet. It was still in its authority-defying maelstrom of a middle eight.

Up until the summer of love, the sixties had journeyed to the precipice, now as Grace Slick explained, it was ready to jump down the rabbit hole, the old pills were out and the new were in: “I identified with Alice [in Wonderland]. I went from the planned, bland ’50s, to the world of being in a rock band without looking back. It was my Alice moment, heading down the hole.” The same can be said of everyone who revelled in the music that the bands produced. The kaleidoscopic colourings of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came to the fore as technology caught up with the times and everything proved rapidly unyielding. Slick welcomed them into her developing work.

This was a generation brought up in the despair of war, or at the very least the depressive rationing era that followed. Therein lies the heart of all ’60s movements, whether that be the beatniks or the black panthers – a singular determination to march to the beat of a different drum and forgo this thing almost in defiance of their forebearers. If the kids of the summer of love were going to fail, then they were going to do so on their own terms, not the banal ones laid out by previous generations.

And fail, they would. The glorious unfulfillable crescendo of ‘White Rabbit’ is the perfect allegory for the era, that sped at 100mph with a tailwind of progress and hope right towards a red light. It was a whirlwind of beauty, teetering on the line between a tragic overture and ecstatic fun, it sounded glorious and by God if the first verse of ‘Somebody to Love’ (“When the truth is found to be lies/And all the joy within you dies/Don’t you want somebody to love?”) didn’t get close to answering the whole thing! But that rattling build-up forecast the delirium for Alice that lay ahead.

Joni Mitchell once said: “[In the 1970s] You watched that high of the hippie thing descend into drug depression. Right after Woodstock, then we went through a decade of basic apathy where my generation sucked its thumb and then just decided to be greedy and pornographic.” What followed the high point of The Summer of Love for Slick was a grim comedown. New ideals borne from the emboldening power of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll soon found themselves dwarfed beneath the gaudy surface of that unholy trinity. 

Slick would succumb to these forces like many others. She appeared on the cover of Teenset Magazine blacked up with the crazy subheading of “Grace Slick and Jimi Hendrix on being black.” Thereafter she ended up in an armed confrontation with the police after they were called to her property following reports that “a drunken woman was firing a shotgun in the house.” An armed stand-off ensued but fortunately, the gun was wrestled away without any casualties.

And perhaps the ultimate acquiescence of the sixties to a glib future and the defining paradigm of her allegorical life is the commercial queasiness of ‘We Built This City’. A track that ironically highlights that the sixties empire had returned into sand, and vanished from the hand of Slick and the likes who once held it aloft so gloriously that it almost seems as fabled as Slick’s life in retrospect. Thank God, we’ve still good the epochal triumphs of Surrealistic Pillow to prove that all of this really did happen.