The 1967 song ‘White Rabbit’ by Jefferson Airplane is one of those rare numbers that not only defines a genre but a location and time period as well. The cornerstone of psychedelic rock, the track encompassed the flower-power ethos of the Californian counterculture and has remained an LSD drenched classic.
The most defining feature of ‘White Rabbit’ is the bolero rhythm, an aspect that gives it a foreboding feel, as though the LSD you’ve taken is about to take you on a hellish journey of the mind and soul. In some ways, one has always found ‘White Rabbit’ to be sonically representative of the dark side of hippiedom due to its slow-burning pace and surrealist themes that have a discomfort inherent to them.
It was Jefferson Airplane frontwoman and all-around heroine Grace Slick who composed the tune. However, it was not originally written for the iconic psychedelic rock troupe; instead, her previous band, the San Francisco rockers the Great Society. It was actually first performed by the Great Society in early 1966 “at a dive bar on Broadway in San Francisco.”
At the time of writing in late 1965 or early ’66 (the precise date is unknown), LSD was still legal, as the darkness it brought was still yet to be truly uncovered. At that point, alongside playing with her then-husband Jerry Slick in the Great Society, she worked as “a couture model at I. Magnin in San Francisco”, as Slick told WSJ.
Given that LSD was in the ascendancy, as was the hippie movement in general, with San Francisco being its epicentre, this all fed into the song’s inception. In addition to Slick being somewhat of an eccentric, this went some way in informing the song’s trippy feel. This wasn’t all, though, as there are numerous references to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass.
There are many memorable direct nods to Carroll’s narcotic wonderland as Slick mentions Alice, the White Rabbit, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the White Knight, the Red Queen, and the Dormouse. She also mentions changing size after taking pills or drinking an unknown liquid. This genius inclusion of Carroll’s creations augments the song by having lyrics that are intrinsically fantastical, helping listeners to escape the mundanity of life. She has even said that her interpretation of the titular rabbit is representative of “your curiosity”, an apt narrative for the era that was totally defined by experimentation and mind expansion, railing against the established social mores.
Massively inspired by an LSD trip, and Lewis Carroll, Slick wrote the lyrics first and then she created the melody on a red upright piano she had recently purchased for $50, where over ten of the keys were missing. She would later say that “was OK because I could hear in my head the notes that weren’t there”, a brilliant adaptation to her circumstances.
However, returning back to the bolero feel of the song, it was actually jazz pioneer Miles Davis who inspired this critical rhythmic choice. Slick was enamoured with his 1960 album Sketches of Spain, and in particular, his version of Rodrigo’s classic piece Concierto de Aranjuez. Retrospectively, she explained: “Writing weird stuff about Alice backed by a dark Spanish march was in step with what was going on in San Francisco then. We were all trying to get as far away from the expected as possible.”
In 2016, the singer told The Wall Street Journal that immediately before she penned ‘White Rabbit’, she dropped a tab of acid and listened to Davis’ album “over and over for hours”. Clearly, this had a significant effect: “Sketches of Spain was drilled into my head and came squirting out in various ways as I wrote ‘White Rabbit’,” she remembered.
Fast forward to later in 1966, and Slick had made the life-changing move of joining Jefferson Airplane. It was recorded in November 1966 and released in June 1967 as the final single off her first outing with the band, Surrealistic Pillow. It truly “kicked off” 1967’s ‘Summer of Love’ as it was taken as a celebration of “the growing psychedelic culture” that was engulfing the younger generations as the modern era arrived.
On the other hand, the traditional, conservative parents of the western world hated the track. However, Slick was happy with this. These were the people she wanted to listen closely to her lyrics: “I always felt like a good-looking schoolteacher singing ‘White Rabbit,'” she said. “I sang the words slowly and precisely, so the people who needed to hear them wouldn’t miss the point. But they did.”
Slick told the San Francisco Chronicle that to this day, “I don’t think most people realize the song was aimed at parents who drank and told their kids not to do drugs. I felt they were full of crap, but write a good song, you need a few more words than that.”
Who knew that the psychedelic masterpiece, ‘White Rabbit’, was so dense? Inspired by Carroll, Davis, LSD, written on a broken piano and aimed at the hypocrisy of the older generation, wrapped up in two and a half minutes, is a dizzying feat. It shows Slick to be what she is, a genius.’White Rabbit’ is always worth a revisit.
Listen to the fantastical classic, below.