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How Grace Slick’s Unique Music Career Led Her to Late Life Wisdom and Art

One glimpse at a photo of Grace Slick from Woodstock 1969 and you’re brought back in time. With her unique ex-model beauty and overall “look,” she captivated the crowds of the infamous festival as she serenaded them with her music from Jefferson Airplane, the psychedelic 60’s rock band notorious for pioneering psychedelic rock across the globe. I wish I was that effortlessly cool… Or maybe I am…

Any live video of Jefferson Airplane’s Woodstock performance solidifies the fact that it was nearly flawlessly executed. But nothing is as it seems, and Woodstock has been glamorized in the media. Slick complained of lack of bathrooms for artists, being sleep (but not drug) deprived, before a dirty early morning performance in a clean, white frock (a recipe for disaster), featuring frizzy, rocker-chic hair. As much as I wish I was alive to attend the most PLUR fest of all time, it came with its caveats.

The 60’s were all about reform and freedom, especially for women’s rights and overall equality. Tits were out at Woodstock. Ladies weren’t adhering to or accepting the caged housewife narrative as their reality. They wanted to experiment, just like men. With the words they spoke, with their actions, and with their sex lives. Grace Slick served as a role model and backed the new-age philosophy that women deserve the rights men have.

As the lead singer for the most popular psychedelic band from San Francisco, many women looked up to her-- for her talent, style, and crude, sailor demeanor. It was edgy, and she was beautiful, and more likely to get away with her debauchery because of her looks. She was not just an object on the shelf to gaze at, yet ironically, she was a model. For public relations professionals, Grace wasn’t necessarily a dream to deal with, but she had general disdain for that blasphemy, so it’s not like it mattered.

Grace’s rockstar mentality was similar to the likes of popular male musicians of the 1960’s. She had sex with whoever she wanted without strings. She put her gold 45 under her toilet seat “for the boys to see.” Young and healthy meant doing [clean, expensive, designer] drugs and partying ‘til dawn… until it caught up with her. Mixing uppers and downers led to Grace’s downward spiral of DUI’s and rehabilitation, catapulting her into the 12-year-sober category, like many other Malibu-based rockstar retirees.

Songs like “White Rabbit,” with Spencer Dryden’s hypnotic snare drum and Jerry Garcia’s clean, soothing electric guitar roaming brookishly throughout and crescendoing alongside Slick’s trademark wails, is a quintessential Jefferson Airplane moment. “White Rabbit” became so important and known that mega-talented modern-day artists like Florence Welch from Florence + The Machine quote their inspiration from it (after listening to the song in her bedroom for the first time and having an epiphany, according to her father). And Grace Slick quotes her inspiration for the Alice in Wonderland drug-themed song from Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain (after listening to it over 50x in a row on LSD), though she originally wrote the lyrics for her prior band, The Great Society, who released a longer version of it independently.

Jefferson Starship banded while Jefferson Airplane was on a tour break. The hodge-podge project consisting of fresh, experimental psychedelic rock (at its prime) consisted of Grateful Dead members like Jerry Garcia (Jefferson Airplane’s self-proclaimed “spiritual guide”) alongside Slick and a few key Jefferson Airplane members. Perhaps too focused on fitting into the “Starship” narrative, especially in their later discography, the band became too niche to idealize, and lacked the “je ne sais quoi” sparkle factor that fell effortlessly into Jefferson Airplane’s lap. If they conformed to their own devices instead of trying to resonate with the typical 80’s sound, they would have exceled.

Grace was disappointed with many songs released under Jefferson Starship. One of her late-career booze and drug induced marathons escalated, leading to her refusal to sing at a show in Germany, after calling the audience Nazis and saluting to Hitler. She was asked to resign after that uncontrollable fiasco, and she did. Three years later, she was called back in to rejoin. Unfortunately for her, that meant sucking up and singing horrific sellout songs like “We Built This City,” an egotistical song emphasizing Airplane’s cultural influence in San Francisco, which she expresses her disdain for every chance she gets, along with plenty of the public, and has since been turned into a meme and featured on The Muppets.

Her problems with succumbing to music and art that she did not feel was authentic in the past clearly foreshadows her passion to paint whatever she wants at her own leisure today. Youthful “beauty” fades, and what truly matters is who your personhood is, at your core. Grace is no stranger to this philosophy and is content with the natural changes her looks have gone through as she climbs the age ladder. Why should she have to look a certain way to make art?

Slick spent so much time rejecting media she didn’t look good in and missed music business opportunities because of it. Looking good is a double-edged sword, and often comes as a package deal with a complex, especially if you don’t know how to cope with your beauty and make it work for you, not against you. Perfectionism kills.

Her art chases after the same themes running through “White Rabbit,” ones from the psychedelic and Alice in Wonderland realms. Death and life are portrayed in a hallucinogenic fashion, paralleling her music, lyrically and aurally.

It seems as if everyone is chasing after the next cosmetic surgery in hopes of looking younger and hotter. Why is our society so obsessed with looking attractive if there is no integrity to back it up? Why is being young so sought after if there is no wisdom associated with it?

As age increases, so does wisdom. Slick was happy to flee the scene of constructed image and beauty and is glad to retreat to the “behind the scenes” artistic endeavor that is painting. She stays ahead of the curve by letting her past shine on its own while paving the way for people to realize that it's not upsetting that they’re no longer young. With age comes Grace and eloquence (pun intended).

Written by Catherine Spohn


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