I never know what to do with the fact that Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship became Starship—purveyors of “We Built This City,” a “barnacle made of synthesizers and cocaine,” writes GQ, and an honored guest on worst-of lists everywhere. (Also a song co-written by none other than Elton John lyricist Bernie Taupin).
It might seem peevish to get so worked up over how bad “We Built this City” is, if it didn’t derive from the legacy of one of the best bands of the 1960s. Even Grace Slick disavows it. “This is not me,” she says.
Of course, by 1985, all of Slick’s best collaborators—the great Jorma Kaukonen, Jack Cassidy, Paul Kantner, Marty Balen, Spencer Dryden, et al.—had moved on, and it was that volatile collection of musical personalities that made psych rock classics like “Somebody to Love” and the slinky, druggy, Lewis Carroll-inspired bolero “White Rabbit” so essential.
Grace Slick is a great singer and songwriter, but she needed a band as uncannily talented as Jefferson Airplane to fully realize her eccentric vision, such as the acid rock song about drug references in Alice in Wonderland, played in the style of Spanish folk music and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain.
Before she wrote “White Rabbit,” Slick dropped acid and listened to Davis’ jazz/folk/classical experiment “over and over for hours,” she told The Wall Street Journal in 2016. “Sketches of Spain was drilled into my head and came squirting out in various ways as I wrote ‘White Rabbit.’”
No lesser band could have taken this swirl of influences and turned into what the Polyphonic video at the top calls a distillation of the entire era. But “White Rabbit” didn’t always have the perfectly executed intensity we know from 1967’s Surrealistic Pillow and Jefferson Airplane’s commanding performance at Woodstock (above).
In 1965, LSD was still legal. Grace Slick was working, she tells WSJ, “as a couture model at I. Magnin in San Francisco.” Before signing on as the singer for Jefferson Airplane, she formed The Great Society with her then-husband Jerry Slick. She wrote “White Rabbit” for that ensemble and the band first performed it “in early ’66,” she says, “at a dive bar on Broadway in San Francisco.”
Below, you can hear a 6-minute live version of The Great Society’s “White Rabbit.” It’s unrecognizable until Slick starts to sing over four minutes into the song. We are not likely to be reminded of Miles Davis. But when Slick brought “White Rabbit” to Jefferson Airplane, as the Polyphonic video demonstrates, they realized its full potential, references to Sketches of Spain and all.
Recorded in 1966, the single “kicked off” the following year’s Summer of Love, “celebrating the growing psychedelic culture” and freaking out parents, who passionately hated “White Rabbit.” These were the very people Slick wanted to pay attention. “I always felt like a good-looking schoolteacher singing ‘White Rabbit,'” she says. “I sang the words slowly and precisely, so the people who needed to hear them wouldn’t miss the point. But they did.”
Slick’s own parents were a little freaked out when she started her first band, after an interview she gave the San Francisco Chronicle got back to them. “I argued in favor of marijuana and LSD,” she says. “It was painful for them, I’m sure, but I didn’t care whether they minded. Parents were criticizing a generation’s choices while sitting there with their glasses of scotch.” They were also regularly popping pills, although “the ones that mother gives you,” she sang, “don’t do anything at all.”
“To this day,” she says, “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.” And to turn a good song into an instant classic, you need a band like Jefferson Airplane.