Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch”series, where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music and musicians from the 60’s to today. Enjoy the trip!
When Grace Slick wrote “White Rabbit” in late 1965, she never imagined the song would pave the way for psychedelic rock and inspire several generations of lead female rock singers, including Pink, who covers it in the film “Alice Through the Looking Glass.”
This was written by Jefferson Airplane frontwoman Grace Slick, who based the lyrics on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s book Alice In Wonderland (officially Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland). Like many young musicians in San Francisco, Slick did a lot of drugs, and she saw a surfeit of drug references in Carroll’s book, including the pills, the smoking caterpillar, the mushroom, and lots of other images that are pretty trippy. She noticed that many children’s stories involve a substance of some kind that alters reality, and felt it was time to write a song about it.
Slick got the idea for this song after taking LSD and spending hours listening to the Miles Davis album Sketches Of Spain, especially the opening track, “Concierto de Aranjuez.” The Spanish beat she came up with was also influenced by Ravel’s “Bolero.”
Slick wrote this song and performed it when she was in a band called The Great Society with her first husband, Jerry Slick. The Great Society made inroads in the San Francisco music scene, but released just one single, “Somebody To Love” (written by their guitarist, Jerry’s brother Darby Slick), before calling it quits in 1966. Grace moved on to Jefferson Airplane, and the group recorded both “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love” for their first album with her, Surrealistic Pillow. The songs were the breakout hits for the band, with “Somebody To Love” reaching #5 US and “White Rabbit” following at #8.
The Great Society version of “White Rabbit” was released in 1968 on an album called Conspicuous Only In Its Absence (credited to “The Great Society With Grace Slick”), a live recording of a show at The Matrix in San Francisco. This version runs 6:07 and meanders through four minutes of Indian stylings before Slick’s vocals appear. The Airplane rendition is a tight 2:29 with a far more aggressive vocal from Slick.
Grace Slick was raised in a tony suburban household in Palo Alto, California, about 30 miles south of San Francisco. This being the 1950s, women were expected to conform to the norms and aspire to be housewives. Slick identified with Alice; moving to San Francisco and forming a rock band was her “rabbit hole” moment. When she joined Jefferson Airplane, that was another journey down the rabbit hole.
The vocals don’t come in until 28 seconds into this song, but once they do, they don’t abate until the song is finished – there is no guitar solo or other break. This put the focus for those two minutes squarely on Slick, who developed very deliberate stage movements designed to keep her on her feet because she was rather clumsy. Any live improvisation came at the beginning of the song before she started singing.
Slick claimed to Q that the song was aimed not at the young but their parents. She said: “They’d read us all these stories where you’d take some kind of chemical and have a great adventure. Alice in Wonderland is blatant; she gets literally high, too big for the room, while the caterpillar sits on a psychedelic mushroom smoking opium. In the Wizard of Oz, they land in a field of opium poppies, wake up and see this Emerald City. Peter Pan Sprinkle some white dust-cocaine-on your head and you can fly.”
This was one of the defining songs of the 1967 “Summer Of Love.” As young Americans protested the Vietnam War and experimented with drugs, “White Rabbit” often played in the background.
The song begins in F-sharp minor, which Slick chose to suit her voice. The minor chords evoke a darkness and uncertainty as Alice finds herself in a strange world. In the “go ask Alice” part, it shifts to major chords to celebrate her courage and resourcefulness as she finds her way.
The Alice character appealed to Slick because she wasn’t the stereotypical damsel in distress. Alice follows her own path to satisfy her curiosity – even when things get sticky.
Did the band ever get sick of this song? Grace Slick answered this question in a 1976 interview with Melody Maker when she replied: “I can play around with a song on stage without ruining it. We stopped doing ‘White Rabbit’ for a couple of years because we were getting bored with it. I like it again and we included it last year ’cause it was the year of the rabbit.”
The words “white rabbit” never show up in the lyric, but are alluded to in the lines:
And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
In Alice In Wonderland, the first chapter is “Down the Rabbit-Hole.” On the first page, the White Rabbit appears, leading Alice on her adventure. In 1971, Led Zeppelin released “Black Dog,” another song with a color-animal title that doesn’t appear in the lyric.
The Airplane were frequently found giving free concerts around the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. They shared a large house with several musicians during the psychedelic ’60s, often applying for and receiving parade permits to walk the streets. Grace Slick was always a radical thinker, rejecting “daddy’s money.” She once appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour made up in blackface, causing a big controversy.
The line in this song, “go ask Alice,” provided the title of a 1971 book published by an anonymous author. The book was a “diary” of a young girl in the 1960s who had a drug addiction and died. Her name is never given, and the diary is suspected to be fictional despite being promoted as true. The anonymous author is likely Beatrice Sparks, the book’s editor.
According to Slick, there were always people who misinterpreted this song, despite her best efforts to get the lyrics across. In the book Anatomy of a Song, published in 2016, she said: “I always felt like a good-looking schoolteacher singing ‘White Rabbit.’ I’d sing the words slowly and precisely, so the people who needed to hear them wouldn’t miss the point. But they did. To this day, I don’t think most people realize the song was aimed at parents who drank and told their kids not to do drugs. I felt they were full of s–t, but to write a good song, you need a few more words than that.”
This capped off Jefferson Airplane’s set at Woodstock in 1969. They took the stage at 8 a.m. on the second day (or, depending how you look at it, third morning), following a performance by The Who that started at 5 a.m.
According to Grace Slick’s autobiography, the album name came when bandmate Marty Balin played the finished studio tapes to Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, whose first reaction was, “Sounds like a surrealistic pillow.” Slick says that she loves the fact that the phrase Surrealistic Pillow “leaves the interpretation up to the beholder. Asleep or awake on the pillow? Dreaming? Making love? The adjective ‘Surrealistic’ leaves the picture wide open.”
This is used in the stage production The Blue Man Group, and appears on their 2003 album The Complex. Music is a big part of the show, which features three blue guys engaging the audience with a combination of comedy, percussion, and sloppy stunts. They got a lot of attention when they were used in ads for Intel.
Grace Slick wrote this song on an old upright piano she bought for $80. Some of the keys in the upper register were missing, but she didn’t use those anyway.
This song is heard multiple times in the movie The Game with Michael Douglas. It demonstrates the madness Douglas feels as he is being manipulated by forces he can’t control.
In the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, there is a scene where Dr. Gonzo is in a bathtub and this song is playing on a tape player. In an effort to end his life, Gonzo implores Raoul Duke to put the tape player in the tub “When White Rabbit peaks.” Instead of doing as instructed, Duke throws a grapefruit at Gonzo and unplugs the tape player.
This was used as the theme song for a 1973 movie called Go Ask Alice.
On November 7, 1967, the St. Louis radio station made a bold move, switching from an easy listening format to “real rock radio.” The first song they played after the switch was “White Rabbit,” a clear signal that they were aligning themselves with the counterculture. The song was apropos, as they abandoned their reliable conservative audience to go down the rabbit hole, bringing the movement to the midwest.
The format stuck. KSHE became a vital and transgressive voice, breaking new bands, sometimes letting music play for hours on end without interruption, and doing segments devoted entirely to women in rock (their “American Woman” series).
Recalling the song in a 2016 Wall Street Journalinterview, Slick said: “Looking back, I think ‘White Rabbit’ is a very good song… My only complaint is that the lyrics could have been stronger. If I had done it right, more people would have been annoyed.”
Jefferson Airplane: White Rabbit, Album: Surrealistic Pillow (1967)