Thursday, October 30, 2008

Grace Slick @ 69

Grace Slick, self portrait.
Somewhere in California, I suppose, Grace Slick is celebrating her 69th birthday today -- and if she's not, because she has it in that fool head of hers that old people don't look good when they're making music or having fun, well... I'll celebrate for her.
I first saw and heard Grace singing "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit" on radio and television a bit earlier in life, when Jefferson Airplane's SURREALISTIC PILLOW album was climbing the charts, but they didn't become my favorite band until I saw them play live on National Public Television in two hour specials that aired in 1970. Those two shows, "San Francisco Rock: A Night at the Family Dog" and "Go Ride the Music", were released on DVD this year to little notice but, after decades of having to contend with bleary, jittery dupes, these clean and steady presentations (with remixed 5.1 mono sound) are godsends. These shows don't just represent the ground zero of my nearly lifelong love affair with Jefferson Airplane; they embody the moment I became obsessed with live music recordings -- savoring the ways in which live performance differs from studio recordings. As good as their studio albums were and are, live performance was everything to Jefferson Airplane. Witness this sample from "A Night at the Family Dog" -- where I also fell in love with Jack Casady's electric bass.
The way Grace Slick presided over Jefferson Airplane's initial media blitzkrieg, with her soaring contralto painting powerful Cassandra-like visions of the drug-amplified mind, I had assumed that she was the band's lead singer. In fact, she had replaced the group's initial female vocalist, Signe Anderson, who had been granted only one solo number and generally sang backup. Grace left her initial band, The Great Society, to join the Airplane and brought with her the two numbers she proceeded to make world-famous with them. Marty Balin, the group's mellow-voiced founder and actual lead singer, can be seen in footage of these early TV appearances huddled over an electric piano he's not playing, looking like the odd man out. Marty's persona as a singer was romantic and persuasive, almost feminine, and Grace complemented him with rock's first non-melodic female voice, whose value lay in its conveyance of a power that went beyond masculine into something nearer the prophetic or the godly. Finding herself the unwitting focal point in a band she'd just joined, Grace was sensitive to Marty's feelings and refused to allow either of her original contributions to the follow-up album, AFTER BATHING AT BAXTER'S, to go out as the A-sides of their next singles. As a result, Jefferson Airplane stopped being a singles band overnight and became one of the first true avatars of AOR (album oriented rock).
In addition to being beautiful, smart, sassy, sexy and a distinctive vocalist, Grace was one of the most original songwriters of her time: "Rejoyce" reduced Joyce's ULYSSES to a four minute song, "Eskimo Blue Day" and her remarkable live vocal improv on "Bear Melt" were impressionistic ecology, and "Hey Fredrick" and "Across the Board" are two of the most unflinching songs about sex ever recorded. She's underrated as a keyboardist and still generally an unknown quantity as a guitarist, though I've heard a tape of her playing acoustic guitar that proved her at least as adept at the instrument as the Airplane's rhythm guitarist Paul Kantner -- the father of her only child, former MTV veejay China Kantner. But, in a band also featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, the last thing the Airplane needed was another guitarist.

My favorite photo of Grace, circa 1969, from the inner sleeve of Paul Kantner's BLOWS AGAINST THE EMPIRE album.

Over the years, I've done my best to celebrate my love for Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane in some tangible form -- I've finished the work but haven't been able to share it with the public as yet. Last year, I wrote an entire book about Jefferson Airplane's 1968 album CROWN OF CREATION that I hoped Continuum Press would publish in their "33 & 1/3" series; to date, they haven't. (They will start considering new submissions within the coming weeks and I will try, try again.) Before that, I wrote a four-hour script entitled JEFFERSON AIRPLANE: LOVE & HAIGHT, which told the band's entire story with founder Marty Balin as its protagonist and Grace Slick as its accidental antagonist. When more than a year passed without interest from anyone, I took my agent's advice and rewrote the script as a regular feature focusing on Grace. I had lots of ideas for people who could play Grace, ranging from Leelee Sobieski to Pink to Sarah Silverman, but the word that came back after all my troubles is that Grace and the Airplane weren't sufficiently well-known to have a movie made about them.

Excuse me? We're talking about the band that headlined at Woodstock and supported the Rolling Stones at Altamont, the band that Ed Sullivan and LIFE Magazine called "the top rock group in America." Grace herself was ranked #20 on VH1's 100 GREATEST WOMEN OF ROCK 'N' ROLL special. We're also talking about an industry that has made TV-movies about bands like Sweetwater and The Monkees. But be that as it may.

In honor of Grace's birthday, I've decided to post -- for the first time anywhere -- the first five pages of my unproduced Grace Slick biopic screenplay. Maybe someday we'll all be able to see the rest. In the meantime, enjoy.

Caption: San Francisco, 1946.

Two little, dimpled hands carefully place a 78 rpm record on an RCA Victrola turntable and lower the heavy needle onto its spinning grooves.

Cue: “Three Little Maids from School Are We” from THE MIKADO, by Gilbert & Sullivan (any version dating from the period).

CLOSE SHOT of an ornate, black, Spanish-style fan fluttering. As the words of the song emerge from the crackles of the worn recording, the fan lowers to reveal the face of a plump little GIRL, six or seven years old, covered in heavy Geisha-style makeup which she has obviously applied herself. This is the YOUNG GRACE SLICK.

YOUNG GRACE (pantomiming)
Three little maids from school are we,
Pert as a school-girl well can be,
Filled to the brim with girlish glee,
Three little maids from school!

Her middle-class MOTHER and FATHER sit on the living room couch, looking more dumb-struck than entertained.

The little girl is wearing a fox stole and one of her mother’s dresses, which drags along the ground as she moves in a child’s version of grown-up choreography.

YOUNG GRACE (cont’d, pantomiming)
Everything is a source of fun!
Nobody’s safe, we care for none!
Life is a joke that’s just begun!
Three little maids from school!

Caption: Palo Alto High School, 1954.
Three 13 YEAR OLD GIRLS are carrying their books to class. Two of the girls are cute, blonde and shapely, but the third is dark-haired, moody, flat-chested and pudgy.

He’s in my chemistry class! Talk about chemistry! Isn’t he the dreamiest?
I wish he’d asked me to the dance before Darryl did.
How about you, Gracie?
Don't call me that. I hate that.
Okay, but who’s taking you to the prom?
Jack Shit.
You mean nobody asked you?
Nobody sees blonde hair and big boobs when they look at me. What’s left? Funny knees and a smart mouth?
You don’t have to be blonde or have... a womanly figure to get a boy, Gracie.
TEENAGE GRACE(irritated)
Oh, yeah?
No. You just need to make... an impression.
SCHOOL MAID #1 bats her eyes at a passing BOY, who crashes into an open locker door.
Cue: “Greasy Heart” by Jefferson Airplane.
A distorted sting of electric guitar grows in volume, sounding larger and larger until...

The adult GRACE SLICK is seen performing “Greasy Heart” onstage with JEFFERSON AIRPLANE.
She is dressed in an elegant, pearly white, silk pantsuit with loose sleeves and neckline, low white pumps. Her classically simple apparel offers minimal distraction from her long dark hair, icy blue eyes and porcelain Nordic features. She’s like a haute couture model, but scary as well; she’s like the 1960s prototype of a Goth punk.
Periodically throughout the song, Grace’s wardrobe changes.
Lady, you keep asking why he likes you
How come?
Now she’s wearing a Girl Scout’s uniform...
Wonder why he wants more
If he’s just had some
Now a nun’s habit, wielding a crucifix...
Boys, she’s got more to play with
In the way of... toys

Now a loose-woven, see-through black net blouse with pockets over her nipples, complemented by a black leather miniskirt and thigh-high leather boots...
Lady’s eyes go off and on
With a finger full of glue
Her lips are torn apart
Her face in come-to-me-tattoo
Now she’s performing with black makeup covering every exposed inch of her skin. She thrusts a fist into the air in a Black Power salute...
Creamy suntan color that
When she
Now she’s in Adolph Hitler drag, a little square mustache cut out of black paper stuck on under her nose...
Paper dresses catch on fire!
And you lose her in the haze
With wicked alacrity, she makes a warning “Sieg heil!” gesture to her audience, cautioning them...
Don't ever change people
Even if you can!

The stage is now covered in orange smoke. Grace emerges from the fog dressed in “Bride of Frankenstein” mode. Her hair is jagged, spiky, like an aurora of electricity. Her hands, moving mechanically, scratch at the air like robo-claws.
You’re your own best toy
To play with
Remote control hands
Made for each other

As before, a CLOSE SHOT of an elaborate Japanese fan, which drops to reveal the adult Grace in full Geisha makeup and apparel.

Made in Japan!
Woman with a greasy heart
Auto-matic man
Don't ever change people!
Your face will hit the fan

She whacks the side of her powdered face with the fan, and we return to the white pantsuit:
Don't... ever change people
Even if you can!
Don't change before the empire falls


As the song continues, Grace (circa 1972) is laughing and drinking from a bottle of Jack Daniels while speeding down Lombard Street in San Francisco, where it turns into Doyle Drive in the vicinity of the Golden Gate Bridge. She must be going over 100 miles per hour.

You'll laugh so hard
You'll crack the walls
Grace loses control of the vehicle, which spins and crashes into a wall as the last word hangs in the air, resonating.

Grace today. Anybody want to buy a painting?

Jefferson Airplane's manager Bill Thompson read my script (which was informed by my own research, as well as Jeff Tamarkin's fine book GOT A REVOLUTION! THE TURBULENT FLIGHT OF JEFFERSON AIRPLANE) and told me it was pretty accurate. For now, though, it's in a drawer.

Grace, whose tongue-in-cheek song "Silver Spoon" once extolled the joys of carnivorous living (including cannibalism), is today a practicing vegan. A previously unreleased recording called "Surprise Surprise," featuring her, appears on the new Jefferson Starship release JEFFERSON'S TREE OF LIBERTY, but she has been retired from music for many years and now devotes her time to painting. I like the pretty storybook quality of her art, but it doesn't begin to compare to the cutting edge brilliance of her voice or the songs she wrote. Grace says that she continues to write and record songs at home on the piano for her own amusement, and I hope to hear some of them someday. There have been reports of health problems in recent years, but she continues to appear at gallery shows to promote her art. For now, I'm simply glad that she's still with us and that the possibility of new work from her still exists.

Happy Birthday, Grace. You made an impression.

Tomorrow: Some Halloween thoughts on one of Grace's greatest stylistic descendants... Siouxsie Sioux.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous4:22 PM

    Grace Slick... The 1st lady of Rock. Then and now, an amazing woman.


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