Thursday, June 19, 2014

Thoughts From Grace Slick on Grace Slick At The Grammy

What a magnificent opportunity to see and hear the legendary Jefferson Airplane singer, Grace Slick, as she reminisced on her life and career as a major figurehead of the 1960s rock and roll youth/protest movement at The Grammy Museum on Tuesday night (June 17). I attended this event with Azalia Snail of LoveyDove, who managed to get a picture with Grace (at right). And I want to thank my friend Adam Valentin Villanueva for getting us in.

The woman is smart, bold, funny and unfiltered. Her mind, at 74, appears as sharp as it always was, with that withering sense of humor intact. No wonder she was always my favorite rock star. She shied away from no subject and was forthcoming on any topic. Her embrace of the free-thought life-style of the hippie era, her place and stature in the band, her thoughts on her contemporary musicians, her battles with alcohol. Nothing was out of bounds.

Moderated by Scott Goldman, he was prepared with many insightful questions after bringing Grace to the stage. She strode up from the side, long white hair flowing, and stood before the audience as they cheered and applauded. She looked healthy, strong and very happy and with the same striking blue eyes. Asked about her earliest interest in the arts, she confessed that she started drawing at a very early age, maybe 3. While listening to her mother, who had been a semi-professional singer before marriage and motherhood got in the way, go around the house singing "I'll be with you in apple blossom time" she developed an interest in singing. She sang a lot in school, so there was a background in voice there.

She recounted the many moves her family embarked upon, moving from Chicago, to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco all before she was 6. How she was a blonde overweight kid until about 13,  when she became tall and thin and auburn haired. She jokes that she's back to being blonde and overweight. After high school she took off for New York City before beginning higher education at Finch College in Florida. A call from a friend urging her to come to San Francisco came after that, and the rest is history.

Her early career with Jefferson Airplane was in the heady first days of the Haight-Ashbury scene and all the bands played together and became one big community until major label interest zeroed in on the ever-more-famous San Francisco scene. The Airplane was the first to be signed, and it was RCA who took the chance on one of these hippie/acid rock bands. Followed almost immediately by The Grateful Dead to Warner Bros., Big Brother and the Holding Company to Columbia, Steve Miller Band to Capitol. All the major labels wanted a piece of the pie, but once that happened they were sent out on the road so often they lost touch with each other and the sense of community was gone.

She covered the years with the band with fascinating tidbits about what piqued her interest as a songwriter. which was the fact that finally they could tackle subject more diverse than just "Oooh, my boyfriend/girlfriend left me" She loved the expanding social and cultural concerns that lyrics were finally able to address. Decrying The Beatles early career: "Christ, you guys are 24 years old and you want to hold somebody's hand?! defined my own exact opinion of their early empty pop songs. "After they took LSD that all changed," she said. The opinion that their music became much more complex and interesting, post acid, is a viewpoint I always held and certainly think it is now pretty universally accepted.

While on tour in Europe with The Doors, each headlining every other gig, they were in Amsterdam and people would come up to them offering drugs. Grace said "Thanks I'll save them for later, whereas Jim Morrison would sit right down on the sidewalk and do them all up. He treated his body as one giant pharmaceutical experiment."

When The Who were their alternating act on another tour, Roger Daltry walked over to the edge of the stage one night and kicked all eight monitor off the stage because, Grace confessed, the sound technology back then was frequently terrible. "They would hiss, pop, crackle and never sounded like your real voice coming back at you." I remember that, after seeing Jefferson Airplane at the Music Hall in Boston in October, 1969 and April 1970, my ears were still ringing more than a day after.

Scott asked her what she thought made her and Janis Joplin so successful and her answer was simple: "We were doing what we really wanted to do." And I will add: and because they were so damned good at what they did.

Of her contemporaries, she identified David Crosby as, really, the one she has remained close to, and I immediately thought of their great voices together on songs like "Triad" from Crown of Creation. Citing the Monterey Pop Festival as the best of all the festivals, she recalled the astonishment of seeing artists like Ravi Shankar and The Who. Jefferson Airplane also played Woodstock and Altamont, the only band to play all three.

She said that no one is making good music anymore, but I suspect she has not been exposed to a lot that is not in the mainstream, where her opinion would certainly be valid. I thought to myself, "if only she could be listening to what I hear every night I go out to the clubs, some of which is so rooted in style and substance to the sixties. She does say she still likes The Rolling Stones and thinks Steve Perry is the best rock and roll singer of all time, (to some audible disagreement from the audience) just to test our preconceptions.

It was just great to hear her wit again. Some nuggets:

She is driven crazy by Celine Dion's chest pounding while singing: "Dear, we know where your heart is."

She admitted she really developed a strong self confidence by the age of 25. That would be just about the time she joined the Airplane. Believes that the RCA recording studio on Sunset was the best studio they ever recorded in. Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing At Baxters were recorded there.

She had choice words for the music she was forced to sing in the last days of a band now called Starship. "We Built This City". "Really?" she said, "What city?, There's no city built on rock and roll. San Francisco was built on gold and trade." Hastening her retirement in 1989.

She began expressing herself through painting not long after that... and has never stopped. She recalled that, during her childhood, her father had a hobby as a stamp collector, and she would notice that occasionally he become so involved in the process of fastening the stamps to the pages he would forget to breathe and suddenly gasp a small, sudden intake of air. As if the lungs were becoming desperate. She experiences the same sensation when painting. Becoming so lost in the singular focus of the act that breathing seems a break in the concentration. I have to admit I know this sensation.

The evening was over as quickly as it began, and I was floating on air, just to have been in the room. It was great to see that her built-in bullshit detector is still 'laser point' accurate. She told an amusing story related to her artwork and I think it goes like this: Her first subjects were animals because they
were comforting and made her feel good. Particularly as she was in a relationship with a bi-polar partner, which was making life difficult.

Eventually they evolved into her first Alice in Wonderland-themed paintings of the White Rabbit, and at an exhibit someone came up to her to try to find out the hidden meaning, or what her intentions were, or what was he not seeing, and she deadpanned in a flat voice "It's a bunny."


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