Few songs evoke the acid-tinged revelry of the ‘Summer of Love’ quite like ‘White Rabbit’. Released in 1967, the Jefferson Airplane freak-out tapped into the ideals of the hippie subculture with academic precision, quickly becoming an anthem for an entire generation of young people seeking new modes of living, most of which involved taking heaps of hallucinogens. But as frontwoman Grace Slick herself observed, ‘White Rabbit’ was about more than the drugs.
It may come as something of a surprise but ‘White Rabbit wasn’t even a hit on release. Rather, its enduring popularity is down it the way it was adopted by the people who regarded drug use as one of the key tenants of the hippie ideology. With the world in ruins, hippies sought new ways of experiencing reality as a collective unit. They advocated non-violent protest and preached openness and tolerance. Adopting the facets of previous countercultural movements, they practised open sexual relationships and sought spiritual guidance from outside the Judeo-Christian tradition, embracing Buddhism, Hindusim and other Eastern religions. This quest for spiritual Enlightenment incorporated the use of hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD, which were promoted as a way of expanding one’s consciousness.’White Rabbit’ captured all that in under four minutes.
As Airplane bassist Jack Casady once recalled: “It wasn’t actually a big hit, but it was within the culture of the times. It became the signature for the people who were doing the things it had reference to. But does it work on different levels.” For Slick, who penned the track, ‘White Rabbit’ was not simply a song about drugs but the subversion of authority. The singer based the lyrics on Lewis Carroll’s transgressive children’s book Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, which itself includes the occasional reference to drug use. However, the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Caroll’s story is not so much a celebration of drug culture as he is a feature of a landscape that fails to adhere to the logic of the real world, which, in Alice in Wonderland, is synonymous with childhood. Slick seems to have recognised this, using images of “the pill that mother gives you” to comment on the way the individual’s reality is simply the reality they’ve been told to believe in by their parents. So when Slick calls for the young people of America to “feed your head”, she is not just advocating drug use; she is calling for young people to reach out and claim their own reality.
At the same, Slick’s lyrics highlight how ironic the older generation’s dismissal of drug use really is: “In all those children’s stories, you take some kind of chemical and have a great adventure,” she told writer Mark Paytress. “Alice In Wonderland is blatant. Eat me! She gets literally high, too big for the room. Drink me! The caterpillar is sitting on a psychedelic mushroom smoking opium!” Slick wrote the track after taking LSD. During her trip, she listened to Miles Davis’s ‘Sketches of Spain’ and Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ on repeat for 24 hours straight. As a result, the flavour of both tracks became embedded in the fabric of ‘White Rabbit’.
Slick then presented the new offering to her bandmates, the San Franciscan experimental folk outfit the Great Society. According to rhythm guitarist David Minor, the song came at exactly the right time: “When we started working, nobody had anything because I couldn’t write anymore,” he recalls. “I was too busy keeping up with my various jobs. So Grace’s husband Jerry challenged them: ‘What are you gonna do? Let David write all the songs?’ Y’know, ‘Do something!’. So Darby came back with a couple of songs and Grace came back with White Rabbit.”
The track quickly became a staple of the Great Society’s live set. Unfortunately, Darby Slick’s excessive drug and the other internal conflicts plaguing the Great Society made Grace wonder if she was really in the right outfit. At a benefit show at San Francisco’s Fillmore venue, the band appeared on the bill alongside a group called Jefferson Airplane. Jack Casady had already seen Grace sing a few times and desperately wanted her for his band. “I liked Grace’s singing because we wanted a good, aggressive singer for the band,” he recalled. “She had a unique timbre and sound to her voice; Signe [Anderson], who was our first singer, came out of a folk background and had a contralto voice with smooth harmonies. What I like about Grace was the fact she stood right at the end of the stage and made good contact with the audience.”
With a brand new singer, Jefferson Airplane travelled to Sunset and Ivar studios to record ‘White Rabbit’. According to Casady, Airplane were put in “a huge room at RCA where they used to record A Hundred And One Strings. The room was massive, so we basically set up the instrumentation in the middle of this room and played it live onto four-track. It was very simple to record. I just led the song out as a bass part like Bolero, ripping off Ravel. It was all slow and slinky, it gave us the atmosphere we wanted.”
Released in 1967, Surrealistic Pillow, which credited Jerry Garcia as the band’s “musical and spiritual advisor”, soared to the top of the charts, peaking at Number Three on the Us Billboard Hot 100 and establishing Jefferson Airplane as San Francisco’s hottest band. But what about ‘White Rabbit’? Well, according to Casady, the track was very nearly tossed out.”Grace had two songs she brought with her from the Great Society,” he said “But ‘White Rabbit’ was the song we were going to leave off the album because we thought it would never get released, we thought it was going to be censored. It eventually became a big deal because it made it onto the album, then got dispersed into the crowd whenever we played live. Otherwise, it was just a little two-and-half-minute song that was kind of a lark.” Perhaps that’s all the counterculture movement was in the end, a lark; the game of a generation on the cusp of adulthood.