Mrs. Crotchety and I were watching the news the other day. There was a piece about the holiday-makers stranded in Sharm el-Sheik after the recent plane crash in the Sinai. A rankled Englishman was complaining about the delay and lack of information. I noticed he was wearing a Hot Tuna T-shirt and remarked that there was a band with that name. Mrs. Crotchety feigned a little interest, the next news item came on and the incident was filed in my memory under “curious connections” with a use-by date measured in minutes.
On a completely different note, my Track of the Week is White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. It starts with an electric bass rapping out a rhythm reminiscent of Ravel’s Bolero. There’s something bouncing down the path ahead of us, it says, and we must follow. For a bar or two it promises a simple driving rock tune but then there’s a dizzying key shift, up a semitone and back again. We have stumbled, tripped and fallen down a deep, dark rabbit hole.
The drums take up the beat and, as we look around, a psychedelic guitar riff leads us into the vocals.
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small.
And the ones that mother gives you
Don’t do anything at all.
Go ask Alice
When she’s ten feet tall.
We have plunged into Wonderland with Alice. It’s a world in which a caterpillar smokes a hookah; a world where cake makes you small and funny-tasting drinks make you tall. And yet, it is our world, too. A world where mother’s advice seems facile and mind-bending drugs offer excitement, adventure and fun.
The music shifts up again and becomes more urgent. On the chessboard the White Knight is talking backwards and the Red Queen screams “Off with his head!”. The sound crescendos ever larger. Things are getting out of control and there’s a hint of panic in her voice as the singer chants:
Feed your head… Feed your head… Feed your head…
Is she telling us to eat another magic mushroom? Is she telling herself to shake off her trippy haze and start thinking clearly? Or has she already slipped into insanity? We cannot know because here the song comes to its climax and ends leaving all our questions reverberating through our memories.
White Rabbit was written by Grace Slick in 1965 or 1966 before she joined Jefferson Airplane, but it is the Airplane version that is by far the best known. The single, taken from the album Surrealistic Pillow, was released in 1967 and reached number 8 in the US. The UK audience seems to have been almost deaf to both the single and the album although the single did scrape in to the top 100 at number 94 in June 1987. (There was a Jefferson Airplane compilation LP called 2400 Fulton Street released in March 1987, which might explain that 20 year delay.) Crotchety Man says that’s tragic; White Rabbit deserves to be in every music collection that includes psychedelic rock and it rightly has a place in Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Like most rock musicians in the late sixties Grace was well-acquainted with marijuana, LSD and other drugs. She was in rehab for alcoholism “at least twice”. Grace, however, survived her adventures in hippy era Musicland, making records with Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Starship and Starship until 1989 when she retired from the music business.
In her retirement Grace started drawing and painting. Her best-selling artworks are pictures of the white rabbit and portraits of the musicians she knew personally (Janis Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Jimi Hendrix and others). And there’s a connection between Grace Slick and that disgruntled passenger in Sharm el-Sheik airport… Slick’s paintings of former members of Jefferson Airplane, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, were used for the cover of an album called The Best of Hot Tuna.
Now that really is interesting, even to Mrs. Crotchety.