“If I Wasn’t Grace Slick, I’d Be Dead”
When I told Grace Slick that Paul Kantner, her former band mate and father of her daughter, China, is getting ready to go out on tour with a group billed as The Jefferson Starship, and that tickets are currently on sale at venues across the country, who knew? Well, apparently, not Grace.
Despite Slick being best known for her time spent as a vocalist in the Jefferson Airplane and The Jefferson Starship, and her unfortunately all too few solo releases, it has been years since she has performed. In the meantime, Slick has stayed intensely busy, devoting herself to various projects, most notably, her artwork. Songs like “White Rabbit” and “Volunteers” will long remain enduring classics that helped define a generation, long after the impending matter at hand of the upcoming tour is settled. With so much else going on in her life these days, the big question is now, So How Do You Feel, Grace? What is it like, This Other Side Of Life? Here, the voice that launched a thousand trips talks about her art and her life, as well as a few other subjects on her mind. When talking to Grace, her strikingly beautiful eyes still have that fiery intensity, and when she looks at you, she has a focus that makes you believe for an instant that she could convince you to fall back into that deep hole, and spend time in that place where Cheshire Cats talk, and White Rabbits carry a fans and a pair of gloves.
When you painted your portrait of Jimi Hendrix titled “Kiss The Sky,” were you reflecting on him, or thinking about him?
A little bit, but I didn’t know him that well. I only just sort of met him briefly. I didn’t know Hendrix that well. So when people say, “When you get old, is there anything you regret not doing?” Because I’ve always told young kids, “Go for it. Do everything. Try not to kill yourself, but do as much as you possibly can.” Because it’s really a drag to sit around when you’re old, and think, “Ah, gee, I never went to France.” Go to France. Life is very short, you’ve got to pack it all in there. I wanted the kid, the job, the whole thing, so that’s what I did. The things I wish I did do that I did not do, were screw Jimi Hendrix, and ride a horse. Horseback riding seems really neat to me, never did that. And I never hung out with, well, you’re much younger, but my age group, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed, Richard Burton, and Peter O’Toole, they were all a bunch of raconteurs. They were very good storytellers, and they were drunks. Now, I’m a drunk, so when I was in my twenties, I didn’t realize I could have my people call their people (laughs). You know, that kind of thing? I didn’t realize they’d probably think it was fun. And I regret not being able to hang out with them. But there aren’t too many regrets, because I did pretty much what I wanted to do. So now, as an old person, I don’t have these huge regrets. Mine are fairly minor. They have to do with drinking and screwing, so that’s not all that important (laughs).
Nah, Grace, I’d say you’ve done quite well for yourself.
I did say what I thought about politics, I did go where I wanted to go, see the countries I wanted to see, I’ve been to Spain. I’ve not been to Russia, but my parents went, and they told me the Russians are similar to us, oddly enough. One good thing about television is that you have a lot of people with money who have real good cameras, going around to all these countries. You haven’t been there? Great. Turn on The History Channel or The Discovery Channel. So we’re lucky in that way. If you lived in the 1800’s, you don’t know anything, but what someone else tells you about it. They had no pictures really.
I wanted to bring up something else about your portrait, “Kiss The Sky.” The texture of the turquoise hanging on Jimi’s neck, and the way you textured his hair was really amazing.
Yeah, sometimes I do that. If you have an Afro, I’ll make it actually lumpy. It saves time. Now, I’m seventy years old. People ask me why I don’t paint oils. It takes too long. Cleaning brushes in linseed oil, and it takes six months to really dry, and all this. I don’t have that kind of time. I work with acrylic. It’s water based. You can clean it under water. If you spill it on yourself, you just throw it in the washing machine. It takes about two days to dry, so that’s my kind of deal. I don’t want to wait around for it. And it looks like oil, so who cares?
Do you feel your paintings help preserve history, or present an alternative view to history?
Well, it might preserve some of the attitudes of my generation. So does (Stanley) Mouse and (Alton) Kelley, Andy Warhol, and Peter Max. Whether you like it or not, Keith Haring is going to represent certain attitudes of a generation. So in that sense, yeah, I guess.
Your art provides an alternative way, so to speak, of seeing “Through The Looking Glass,” looking at the Sixties.
Well, taking acid allows you to see there are many ways of seeing, feeling, and thinking, other than the one you came in with. In other words, it’s not rigid. That’s the Republican deal. One of the deals is people who have taken acid generally don’t turn into Republicans. Not always, there are always a few. One of the Chicago Seven guys came out a Wall Street guy, Jerry Rubin. He became a stockbroker, I think it was. But most people who have taken acid tend to see that you don’t have to have a rigid existence. So that’s where that helped broaden your idea of how things are. In other words, we see a certain way. I could get everybody in a room to look at this air conditioner, and it’s cream colored, and everyone would agree on that, because that’s the way we’re set up. But if you put a different chemical in there, maybe we’re not set up like that. If I take acid, that goddamn air conditioner could be blue. It changes how you see even. I mean, the only thing alcohol does, is it fucks up your vision, so you have to close one eye to see on the freeway and stuff, but it does not give you the information that we are just a bunch of chemicals operating. And those chemicals can operate all different kinds of ways. So not just the air conditioner, but the philosophy that you came in with, and that you’re aware of, and used to, the religion, the philosophy, the training you’ve had, question it. Always question it, because it doesn’t have to be that way. It can be any goddamn way you want it to be.
You become more conscious that there is another consciousness.
Many other consciousnesses. So you can run it any way you want to run it.
The colors you use on a lot of your works are really bright colors.
I think I came in with a rock and roll personality. The pictures are simple. You don’t stand back and wonder what it is.
It’s direct. It’s in your face. I like primaries, primary colors. So it’s the same thing as rock and roll. It’s simple, it’s cartoony. It’s in your face, and other people will paint other ways, which is good. Because there isn’t one way of looking at it. I like that Keith Haring does his shit one way, Jackson Pollock does his shit the other way. When he first came out, I thought, “The guy’s a guy throwing a bunch of paint on a canvas. That’s ridiculous.” But then I watched how he does it. How he stands back, and then I looked at his stuff even more, and the painting is also about balance, construction, perspective. It’s not just about, “Oh, I recognize that. That’s Jesus.” Or “I recognize that. That’s Ronald Reagan.” I can do that, but that’s not the only way of expressing yourself. Like you say, “Jackson Pollack, I want you to do Ronald Reagan.” And he’ll do this bunch of splots on paper that to him represent how Ronald Reagan exists in his artistic mind. Now, it’s hard for most people to understand, because it looks like a whole bunch of blobs. But for him, and for other people who appreciate his art, that is a representation. It is a construction of color that appeals to them, it says something. Now most abstract art does not mean anything to me. It looks like some really interesting wallpaper or drapery for a very modern loft (laughs). But that’s just me. And I don’t say that abstract art is wrong. I’m saying that for me, I don’t like oysters. A lot of people do. I don’t think they’re bad because they don’t like oysters. They’re just different. Same with Hitler. These people are different from you. They’re not bad. You can go around and not like Jews. You don’t have to do anything about it. Then don’t hang out with Jews if you don’t like them. If you don’t like Norwegian people, don’t hang out with them. You don’t have to bomb them, you know (laughs)?
“Volunteers Of America,” can you talk about that, the song “Volunteers?”
“Volunteers Of America” actually doesn’t mean anything. It was something Marty Balin, lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane, and Paul Kantner put together. Now Paul is very political, Marty isn’t. Marty writes love songs. That’s one of the things I liked about the group. We had several different forums. Mine was kind of sarcastic social humor. Paul is spaceman political, Marty wrote love songs, and Jack and Jorma were blues. So it’s like a smorgasbord. You get one of our records, and it’s all different shit. “Volunteers Of Americas” was a print on the side of a truck that Marty saw. He was looking out the window, and a truck went by. It said “Volunteers Of America” on it. I believe it’s something like Salvation Army. I don’t know what it is, but it’s a Salvation Army type deal. But he liked that. He ran it around his head, “Volunteers Of America. That’s interesting.” So he had the repeated line, “Volunteers Of America,” and Paul put more political shit into the lyric. So it isn’t as deep as everybody thinks it is (laughs). It’s something Marty saw on a truck (laughs).
So people then projected that meaning into it.
Yeah. But Paul gave it semi-political lyrics that have to do with the Sixties, or at that time.
I had bought your album Manhole album when it first came out.
I think was back in ’73. It had a self-portrait of you on the cover, and the wording on it, “Child type odd art.” Was that a harbinger of things to come? Did you know at the time that was what your life would eventually lead up to?
No, I just started drawing when I was about three years old. I would draw an angel, and my parents would make a Christmas card out of it. They would have copies of it made into Christmas cards. So I knew I could draw, more or less. I’ve done it off and on. But mostly I’ve do one thing at a time. I’m not very good at multi-tasking. Most people aren’t, but they think they are. The mind is really better when you’re really focused on one thing. So I would occasionally draw an album cover, or liner inserts on the inside. But Jerry Garcia used to take his paints on the road. That would make me crazy.
There are artists who do, like Ronnie (Wood). I have something that you probably also have a copy of. I have the F.B.I. file here on the Jefferson Airplane.
I had sent in this FOIA request, back in 2003. As you know, apparently the feds were not amused by your relationship with the Yippies, or specifically Abbie (Hoffman).
In the file, F.B.I. headquarters domestic “intelligence” (their word, not mine) alerted the secret service, military intelligence and local law enforcement about your presence in various cities, particularly in Cleveland and Cincinnati.
We got arrested almost every time we went to Ohio (laughs).
Yeah, after the Kent State massacre. You are specifically mentioned by name in the file, which is actually quite unusual, because according to the FBI’s own policy, and the FOIA/PA laws, the privacy laws, usually living peoples’ names are redacted from the files and public view, due to the privacy laws. Of all the people in the Airplane, J. Edgar Hoover’s henchmen were more worried about you than they were about any other member of the group. The F.B.I. labels their teletypes about you as being, quote “urgent.”
The FBI warns warns their agents that you’re the same person as your maiden name, Grace Wing.
They make note in your F.B.I. file that you attended Finch College from 1957 to ‘58. I should tell you that my editor’s wife, Kimberly, went to Finch in the ‘70s, and like you, she also escaped to Florida in the midst of that.
(Grace laughs upon hearing this.) Well, that F.B.I. thing, that is apparently why they stopped me from going into the White House. Because I was invited. Patricia Nixon got a list of all the alumni of Finch College, or anybody that had ever gone there. I’m not really an alumni, because I didn’t graduate. I went to Miami the next year. But she got a list of all the girls. The school was small enough where they could do that, and she invited them to a tea. I got the invitation in the mail. “Grace Wing, we cordially invite you to a tea…Tricia Nixon at the White House. And I thought, “Oh, yeah, I think Tricky Dick needs a little acid.” So I took Abbie with me, because they said you could come with your husband, or whatever. We tried to (laughs) straighten Abbie out, so he’d look kind of normal and stuff.
He’s got curly hair, so we tried to slick it back. He looked like a mafia hit man.
Yeah, he used to call his hair a “Jew fro.”
Yeah, he had a Jew fro, and we tried to flatten that out. That didn’t work. But we went, and we were standing in line in front of the White House, with all these women from Finch College. Security came up to me and said, “You can’t go in,” and I said, “But I’ve got an invitation.” They said, “Yes, but you’re a security risk.” They didn’t even talk to Abbie! (Grace exclaims this, sounding utterly flabbergasted.) And I’m going, “What the fuck?!” You know? So they were right. They didn’t know why, but they were right, because I had six hundred micrograms of powdered acid in my pocket. And I also had a very long little fingernail, for snorting coke. And what I was going to do, because of Finch College, I know what formal tea is. You stand at a formal tea, you don’t sit at a formal tea. There’s a very long table, with probably tea at one end, in a long silver urn, and coffee at the other, and there’s somebody who’s serving. Usually the people who are serving, oddly enough, are your friends. So I don’t know if Tricia would have done it that way, but she probably would have had White House staff do it. But I knew what the set-up was going to be. Entertainers gesture a lot, we’re flamboyant, and I could just gesture over Richard Nixon’s teacup, and drop the acid in. It (L.S.D.) is tasteless. And forty-five minutes later, he would have been wandering around being crazy. What I didn’t know is that he was nuts anyway. He’d wander around and talk to the pictures and shit. So they would have thought, “Okay, he’s really gone over the edge now,” and they’d have had to take him to Langley, and all that kind of stuff. But the idea of it amused us anyway, even if we didn’t get in. It didn’t matter. He got himself out, because he was, you know, not right in the head.
That’s amazing, though, that they thought you were more dangerous than Abbie.
Well, on that day, they were right. Abbie wasn’t going to do it. Abbie just wanted to go in, and see the White House. Abbie just wanted to go with me, because we thought it was funny, because we were obviously not Richard Nixon people. We just thought it was amusing.