How Grace Slick Wrote “White Rabbit”: The 1960s Classic Inspired by LSD, Lewis Carroll, Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, and Hypocritical Parents

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to Grace Slick’s Hair-Rais­ing Vocals in the Iso­lat­ed Track for “White Rab­bit” (1967)

Jef­fer­son Air­plane Plays on a New York Rooftop; Jean-Luc Godard Cap­tures It (1968)

Dick Clark Intro­duces Jef­fer­son Air­plane & the Sounds of Psy­che­del­ic San Fran­cis­co to Amer­i­ca: Yes Par­ents, You Should Be Afraid (1967)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

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Comments (3)
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  • Richard Chambers says:

    Did not know this exist­ed. This is gold! Far out man!✌ I can lis­ten to Grace all day

  • Nathan says:

    We Built This City is super catchy and sat­is­fy­ing. Com­bined with the rebel­lious anti-cor­po­rate lyrics, it’s a great song that stands the test of time. Just sayin’

  • Waquoit says:

    This is the 2nd this month I read about an artist dis­avow­ing a big hit. That’s the same thing as say­ing your fans are idiots as far as I’m con­cerned. I’m not a fan of City but I think “You’re The Love” is a nice song; even if the singers dis­agree.

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