Nearly 40 years since the release of Jefferson Airplane’s psychedelic breakthrough album “Surrealistic Pillow,” Grace Slick is still searching the rabbit hole. Through three incarnations of the original “Airplane,” a brief foray in biological research fraud and her current endeavor as a painter, the singer walks to her own beat — the beat of curiosity, the beat of her White Rabbit.
The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way, and then dipped suddenly down, so suddenly that Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.
FOR THOSE WHO WATCHED the free-sprit 1960s rise to a crest, Jefferson Airplane was a lead contributor to the amplitude of San Francisco’s “Summer of Love” in 1967. Slick, a model-turned-songwriter for the band The Great Society, joined Airplane in 1966, bringing with her two original compositions, “White Rabbit” and the generation defining “Someone To Love.” With the LSD-inspired albums “Surrealistic Pillow” and “After Bathing At Baxter’s” book-ending the year, the group became the first acid-rockers out of the San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood to make the national stage, validating the experimental music and thrusting Slick into cult status. A defining moment in retrospect, Slick was just an 18-year-old looking for new experiences in the proverbial world of sex, drugs and rock-and-roll. Slick still recalls with laughter the time she took LSD, locked herself in a room, and listened to Miles Davis’ “Sketches of Spain” for 24 hours.
“The story of ‘Alice In Wonderland’ mirrors my own journey,” said Slick, while working on a new painting in her Malibu home. “She was from Victorian England and goes down the rabbit hole – she literally gets high on five drugs. I go from the very straight 1950s into the '60s. There is no Prince Charming, Alice saves her own ass.”
“I think the White Rabbit is Alice’s curiosity — he is always just a step ahead of her,” Slick continued. “It’s dangerous. But it’s not what you did that you regret — it’s what you don’t do.”
Over the next 30 years, Slick would continue her musical career as Airplane morphed into two other incarnations — Jefferson Starship, and by the 1980s, just Starship — making it big with the hit “We Built This City.” For a woman who became a cultural icon — a face and voice of the "The Beautiful People" — Slick puts little stock in fame, often pointing out her failed solo albums and poking fun at a number of her hits.
“’We Built This City’ is the dumbest song I’ve ever heard,” Slick joked. “It was written by a British guy about clubs closing in LA and sung by a San Francisco band. There isn’t any city built on rock-and-roll for starters. They pre-date the music.”
Alice thought she might as well wait, as she had nothing else to do, and perhaps after all it might tell her something worth hearing. For some minutes it puffed away without speaking; but at last it unfolded its arms, took the hookah out of its mouth again, and said “So you think you’re changed, do you?”
SPEAKING WITH SLICK is an exercise. For an aged-scenester who socialized with just about anyone worth mentioning in the history of rock, stories are not hard to come by. The 67-year-old candidly jumps topics, remembering details of acid parties, drunken violence, conspiracy theories — all with an air of grandmotherly advice. On occasion she’ll pause to apologize for dead-end tangents. But despite juggling multiple topics, she admits her inability to multitask, which is why the artist waited until after the break-up of Starship to put paint to canvas — something she was first introduced to at the age of four.
“I started painting at the age of three or four but I only do one thing at a time,” she said. “It makes me crazy to do more than one thing at a time — one car, one house, one kid. I don’t like orgies because I don’t know whose leg is whose.”
Over the years, Slick has devised a system of note cards to help her organize her thoughts and ideas. Similar to the process she once used for writing music, Slick now puts it to use for her paintings. Writing an idea down on the note card, Slick says that she will add to the idea until it is something of workable quality.
“If I’m drawing I’ll have it blown-up large and put copy paper behind it and do the outline,” she said. “It’s the same with music. You start with an idea, lets say ‘Oatmeal’, and you write it down. Then I will elaborate on that — it’s a buildup, it’s not a blank anything, it’s just observing stuff, it comes to you. They talk about writer’s block but I have too many ideas.”
While Slick claims to only devote energy on one thing at a time, she said that during her years with Airplane, she often made sketches or used her talent to aid in the design of album art.
“I used to draw pen and paper sketches of David Crosby for album inserts,” she said. “I knew I could draw so I took classes that were either easy or interesting.”
Around 1994, Slick began drawing animals and hanging them around her house. Urged by her friends and family to consider art as a new profession, Slick landed an agent and began painting full time — which now, she says, consumes most of her time.
While Slick does some work with abstracts, most of her popular art is inspired by icons from rock-n-roll history, some that venture through the looking glass.
Her painting “White Rabbit in Wonderland 3000” features an array of notable faces, including Paul McCartney and John Lennon as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum and the acid doling Timothy Leary as the Mad Hatter — all of which are characters Alice passes while chasing the white rabbit towards what looks like the San Francisco Bay. Slick has also painted a number of portraits including those of Jerry Garcia, Eric Clapton, Jim Morrison, Bob Marley and Bob Dylan.
“Those are largely requested by my agent,” said Slick. “I thought it was too cute. Rock-n-roll draws rock-n-roll. I realized that these people were multifaceted so it became interesting.”
Even more, Slick found that in a time when many rock icons passed away at early ages, she was able to immortalize on canvas the magnetic characteristics of these now legendary people.
Of her favorite musicians to draw, Slick most enjoys painting the one she never had.
“Hendrix represents as an individual the 1960s,” she said. “The way he played, dressed, the flamboyance.”
OUTSIDE OF ROCK-N-ROLL, Slick finds inspiration almost everywhere she turns. While speaking, she took a break from her most recent painting of a scene she witnessed on television news that morning.
“Right now it is a stark image that I saw on television of three strange lights,” she described. “It’s black with three lights, palm trees and a haze. That was just the news and I thought, ‘wow, that’s cool.’ That’s what I’ll be doing today.”
“Stuff is all around and it comes into you,” she continued. “I’ll be painting and not everything is marvelous — but it’s quite interesting to do something you didn’t know you could do.”