Down the rabbit hole with Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane

Do you ever listen to classic rock on the radio? I sometimes do, in the car, and while I enjoy many of the songs they play, I’ve come to realize it’s only a tiny sliver of the range of classic rock. In a way, it’s kind of like “pop rock that most listeners will keep listening to instead of changing the station.”

So they play the same 5 Pink Floyd songs, the same 6 Billy Joel hits, and maybe the same 7 Led Zeppelin selections, week in and week out.

But as musicians, we want to go deeper. We’re musical explorers, just like the classic rock artists themselves. (The same holds true for many of today’s pop hit-makers too, by the way.)

I found this out in a big way this week with the Jefferson Airplane.

I was only 2 years old in 1966 when the San Francisco rock scene began blossoming, and I never really went back and checked out the Airplane. Sure, I went to a Jefferson Starship concert in 1981, but they were more “commercial pop” by then. And yes, I saw some of the original players in the group Hot Tuna as well, but that was blues-based. And yes, I’ve heard Jefferson Airplane’s commercially-palatable “Somebody To Love” countless times on the same classic rock radio station I referred to above, since it’s just about the only Airplane song they’ll play these days.

But I had never heard much of the original material that took the world by storm – until now.

It started when I listened to Bob Lefsetz interview Grace Slick on his podcast. Here’s the link:

Grace Slick: The Bob Lefsetz Podcast

Bob’s a good interviewer and I was interested in hearing Grace’s story, which, as it turns out, is more interesting and nuanced than I had imagined. I specifically wanted to hear about the transition from Airplane to Starship in order to understand why they played so much pop-type music at the concert I was during my high school days. Well, they didn’t answer that question, but the stuff about the 1960s San Francisco scene was so intriguing that it made me want to listen to a bunch of Jefferson Airplane and learn what I had been missing.

I predicted that it would all sound like “Someone To Love.” Boy – was I wrong!

As you may already know, Jefferson Airplane was among the very first San Francisco rock groups to become famous, and they didn’t compromise to commercial tastes one bit. They were as deep into their own vision as Stravinsky, Charlie Parker, and any visionary in any style of music. Indeed, Grace Slick cites Ravi Shankar and Rachmaninoff as personal favorites of hers, and it’s easy to see why.

Rather than being influenced by pop musicians, she dug down deep like these artists did. Deep inside. And if other people liked it too, so much the better!

Check out the performance of White Rabbit, from the famous Woodstock festival. The band had been up all night, waiting to go onstage, and I was actually shocked by the uncompromising nature of their performance. I can’t even imagine a popular act playing music this idiosyncratic today. No one has the guts, and even if they did, the record companies wouldn’t go near them.

Yet here they were, in the late 1960s, playing this strange mix of marching band drum rhythms, Spanish Phrygian harmonies, snake-like guitar lines, and other-worldly vocals. The title is a reference to the character in Alice In Wonderland who Alice follows down the rabbit hole.

Jefferson Airplane White Rabbit, Live from Woodstock (1969)

As musicians, we all need to go down the rabbit hole in one way or another. We can go deep into the world of harmony, melody, rhythm, musical texture, theory, or in the musical genre of our choosing.

Whether you like the Jefferson Airplane performance or not, I hope we can both be inspired by Grace Slick’s willingness to go “all in” and yes, down the rabbit hole.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


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