By Mike Greenblatt
Volunteers, the fifth Jefferson Airplane album and the last with the classic lineup of vocalists Grace Slick, Paul Kanter, Marty Balin with lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassist Jack Casady and drummer Spencer Dryden, sounds as vital today, 50 years on, as it did when it was released in 1969.
“We were an interesting beast of a band,” says Jorma today. “We were a pop band but not really. We weaponized our talent organically, we were angry, and it came out. We didn’t really play well with others. The label kept trying to censor Paul, Jack and Grace but those three held fast.
“The fact that we finally got to record at home in San Francisco in Wally Heider’s great studio, after doing our albums in Los Angeles, was big for us. It let friends like Jerry Garcia, Stephen Stills, David Crosby and Nicky Hopkins be on the album. As the songs took shape, personalities started to emerge. We wanted to motivate people politically. And we didn’t separate ourselves from our audience. We were them and they were us.” Keying in on themes of revolution and the environment, the album had gargantuan psychedelic jams (like the 8:26 “Hey Fredrick”) as well as what they used to call “hippie country” like “The Farm” and centuries-old folk music (“Good Shepherd”).
Vocalist Grace Slick permitted Goldmine a rare interview for the occasion.
GOLDMINE: It’s an honor to speak with you, Grace. How are you?
GRACE SLICK: OK, for 80. But I tend to forget stuff.
GM: When I originally bought Volunteers in 1969 when I was 18, I remember thinking, “Damn, they made this music specifically for people to listen to while stoned!”
GS:I thought the same way about Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and Gil Evans. I once took some acid and listened to that album for 24 hours straight. It was literally burned into my brain!
GM: You’re of that first generation of larger-then-life ‘60s rock stars who us fans loved so much because we knew you were real. You lived it. It wasn’t an act. You epitomized everything we teenaged boys loved about the counter-culture, which, of course, included politics, fashion, attitude and, uh, sex-drugs-rock and roll. Volunteers is such a political album!
GS: It depends on whose songs you’re listening to. Paul (Kantner) and I wrote most of the politically-aimed songs. Jack (Casady) and Jorma (Kaukonen) were more interested in blues and R&B instead of taking down Nixon.
GM: You and Kantner also raised environmental concerns in co-writing “Eskimo Blue Day.”
GS: There were people talking about ecology in 1969, just not mainstream people. The mainstream people were too busy making money off trees and oil while playing footsie with the Middle East. I always thought that was stupid. They’ve got a whole ‘nother culture there, so why not just leave them the hell alone and they’ll leave us the hell alone.
GM: I think I already know the answer to this question but have you mellowed with age?
GS: (laughs) No! I’m just as much against this president as I was against Nixon. In fact, Trump would be hilarious if he just wasn’t in The White House where he clearly does not belong. I don’t cry, but when he was elected President of the United States? I thought about all the people who started this country like Jefferson, Washington and Hamilton, and, yeah, I started crying. The Founding Fathers would be absolutely horrified at this buffoon.
GM: I think I first fell in love with you when you dropped the F-Bomb on national television during a 1969 performance on The Dick Cavett Show.
GS: Yeah, well, it needed to be said. There’s so much sh*t going on now and then—that people don’t hear you unless you have 95,000 balloons on your head. They just don’t. So you have to do something to grab their attention. Advertisers know that! Hey, I know this:I was an advertising guinea pig for a while before I was a singer because I had no usable skills. They put you in a room with three different brands of tin foil and no lights. Then they flash a light in your eye for a split second and you’re supposed to identify which box of tin foil you remember. Now they know from your answer which colors and designs catch your eye so that’s what they’ll use in the grocery stores. It’s a subtle form of mind control. All advertising is.
GM: I found it ironic that in listening to Volunteers on Spotify, I had to put up with Toyota commercials.
GS: (laughs) Perfect!
GM: Volunteers sounds as fresh, valid and, most importantly, vital in 2019 as it did in 1969, whereas a lot of the music I loved then sounds dated now. Not Volunteers. Why?
GS: Just lucky I guess. One more thing about advertising. Bill Maher said, “Never underestimate the stupidity of the American public.” Everybody wrote him off and got all pissed off about it. But he’s right! How did we get Trump for president if we aren’t stupid? My ex-husband, who I still love and who still comes around to hang out, calls everybody “stoops.” He isn’t being mean. It’s funny but sarcastic because it’s too close to the truth. What they also should do is take away the electoral college. But that’s another interview.
GM:Volunteers is a super-session of sorts with Jerry Garcia, David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Nicky Hopkins. How’d you get all these other people on it?
GS: Today there’s 850,000 rappers, right? In the ’60s, there weren’t that many musicians and we all kinda knew each other. Then we got to really know each other. Especially in San Francisco. We’d all attend each other’s recording sessions. I’d go in and listen whenever the Grateful Dead were in the studio. I think I might’ve mentioned to Garcia—who was always an amiable joker, always high, everybody loved him — to sit in with us. “Hey, why don’t you put a nice steel guitar riff to ‘The Farm’ and make it sound country?” And he did. I remember once, I went in and listened to Heart record and one of the Wilsons asked me to sing back-up. So I did.
GM: I gotta ask...and I’ve waited decades to ask you this. You were invited to the Nixon White House. Were you really going to dose the president with LSD or is that an urban myth?
GS: Yeah, I certainly was, indeed, but I never got the chance. (First Daughter) Tricia Nixon went to Finch College about 10 years after I did. Finch was so small, so unimportant, all you learned there was how to use the right fork and get a Princeton boy. So what she did was invite everybody within the last 10 years or so who went to Finch to a White House tea. I get an engraved invite in the mail to a Grace Wing, which is my maiden name. It says on there I could bring my husband. Man, I looked at that invitation and immediately smiled to myself because I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I called up (political agitator) Abbie Hoffman and he was glad to go with me. So Abbie and I are in line at The White House. We’re about to go through security. They did not recognize Abbie. The security guard came up to me, though, and told me he was sorry but he couldn’t let me in. I said, “Why not? I’ve got an invitation!” He said, “I’m sorry, ma’am, but you’re a security risk.” I found out later I was on some kind of FBI list as was everyone in Jefferson Airplane. Gee, I wonder why.
“We are all outlaws in the eyes of America/
In order to survive we steal cheat lie forge hide and deal/
We’re obscene lawless hideous
dangerous dirty violent and young/
We are forces of chaos and anarchy/
Everything they say we are, we are,
and we are very proud of ourselves/
Up against the wall, motherf**ker!”
— “We Can Be Together”
(the opening track of Volunteers)
GS: So I’m standing at the entrance to The White House being confronted by a security goon and I’ve got 600 hits of LSD in my pocket along with some cocaine. I fully intended to slip some acid into the tea. Hey, I knew all about formal teas because I went to Finch and had to learn something! I kept my fingernails long just to be able to dip into the cocaine. So I knew what was going to happen when I went in. You don’t sit, you stand and you talk with your tea cup in your hand. Acid is tasteless. So I was going to gesture while talking to Nixon and slip that LSD right in his tea. Guilty as charged. It would’ve been easy. The acid would’ve gone right in his cup. I hid it within my long fingernail. It turns out it didn’t matter because they never let me in when they realized who I was. We did get quite a chuckle out of thinking about what might have happened. (laughs) He would’ve been wandering around talking about the walls melting. He went nuts at the end anyway.
I’ve always thought dosing someone with LSD was kind of mean, especially if the person you’re dosing isn’t right in the head like Nixon or (TV host) Art Linkletter’s daughter who was sent right over the edge. She was alone, took some acid, and killed herself by jumping off a roof. She had issues. You’re supposed to have a guide when you take acid, one person who is straight so they can make sure you don’t think you’re Superman and jump off a roof.
GM: In 1968, my good friend Kenny was tripping when he either jumped, fell or was pushed off the roof of our apartment house. I’ll never forget it. He was 16. We get home after harboring an underaged runaway and taking her to the bus station so she could go home and we saw all these cops. We thought they were after us.
GS: We had this girl named Danna who was always straight while we were loaded. Hell, we used to dose each other! There’d be like three bands backstage at the Fillmore West and you’d have to be real careful if there’s an open bottle of Coca Cola. Acid’s a powerful drug! You had to have someone there who wasn’t loaded. Musicians were constantly going around and slipping stuff into any open bottle of half-finished soda. But we all knew what acid was and we knew damn well somebody’s going to get us. I’ll never forget the time one night our tour manager had a clear plastic little box that had sections in it. One section was for cocaine. One section was for LSD. One section was for uppers. One section was for downers. So we’re waiting in the wings to go on and took what we thought was cocaine. If you snort cocaine, it’s not going to make you crazy. But it was acid. About 15 minutes into the set, we all looked at each other and went, “Oh boy, wrong section.” But if you know acid, and you know what it is and you’ve had it before and you’re with other people, it’s not that big of a deal. But if you just nail somebody who doesn’t know what’s happening, they think they’re going crazy.
GM: You sang “Crown Of Creation” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in 1968 in blackface and gave the Black Power salute. In ’68, that was a totally outrageous thing to do. You were obviously showing your solidarity with American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos who famously gave the Black Power salute when accepting their medals at the 1968 Olympic games in Mexico City.
GS: The Smothers Brothers were very cool to let us do a lot of stuff. I didn’t even know I was going to do that until I went backstage and there were all these little flat makeup pellets of color for your face. They were normal facial colors for whites, special ones for red-heads, all the way to almost black. And the thing is, it didn’t look like blackface on me. It just made me look East Indian because my features are wrong for looking like a black person. I distinctly remember being backstage before the performance, seeing all these colors and smiling to myself knowing I was going to do that. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that’s definitely going to be happening!” It was so much more fun at that time because most of the programs were loose and if they asked you on, they knew what they were getting.
GM: Volunteers is such a pioneering album in so many ways. You even do an early incarnation of what they used to call hippie country music.
GS: Well, it’s American music. I love Waylon Jennings.
GM: I thought Jorma wrote “Good Shepherd.” I only learned it was a folk song from the 1800s years later.
GS: Jorma arranged it. I thought he wrote it too for about two minutes until he told me where he got it. He and Jack were always more inclined towards folk music and blues whereas Paul would write 14-minute songs about going to the moon.
GM: Paul (Kantner) wrote “Wooden Ships” with Crosby and Stills. I love the Volunteers version.
GS: Paul knew Crosby way before from all the folk stuff they were both into. I met Crosby through Paul. In fact, it was Crosby who finally helped me get sober in the ’90s. My daughter called him and he came right away and got me in rehab. He shows up in the back of a limo, picks me up, and takes me to Exodus, a place here, and it worked. I haven’t done drugs since. But back when I was doing a lot of acid, set and setting were important. You don’t take acid in the middle of Harlem, for instance. You take it out in the mountains or the prairie. Too many people collected in one place is not a good place for acid. Then again, if you know what you’re doing, and you know the drug and its capabilities, you might be alright. I couldn’t take acid now. I’d turn on the news and probably kill myself.
GM: I took the brown acid at Woodstock and it was fine.
GS: People always ask me what I thought of my Woodstock experience. And I always say, “You’re not going to like what I have to say.” For me, personally, there wasn’t much positive about it. You’re in a motel. The helicopter comes to get you half an hour before you’re supposed to go on, takes you backstage, drops you off, waits for your set to be over, then takes you back to the motel. You don’t see anybody. You just go, you work, and then you go back. But we were supposed to go on 9:00 at night. Helicopter comes at 8:35, drops us off, but there’s all kinds of technical problems. We’re standing around onstage in the wings watching other bands. It turned into all night. By the time we got on, it was the next morning. That’s not fun. Somebody just handed me a copy of our set on vinyl last week. I’m not going to listen to it. We were up all night. Rock and roll isn’t supposed to be played at 7:00 in the morning. That’s just rude. I have no intentions of listening to our Woodstock set because all I’ll think is, “Oh geez, I’m singing sharp, I’m singing flat, it’s not loud enough here, it’s too loud there. The band is playing too fast for this song, too slow for that song.” I’d just be tearing it apart. I have no intention of ever listening to it.
GM: Do you think one of the main strengths of the band was the chemistry of three lead vocalists?
GS: I don’t know about that. I was complaining to Crosby once and told him, “Gee, I wish we’d practice the way you guys did so our vocals would be tighter.” Because ours were always so loose. Marty was all over the place. I was all over the place. Paul was really all over the place singing in his particular way instead of syncing it up. David said to me, “Yeah, but that was part of why we enjoyed your kind of sound.” Nice of him, sure, but the truth is we never practiced enough. Nobody was strong enough to say, “Look, we’re all coming in at different times!” I know I certainly wasn’t. I was too much of pussy to put my foot down.
GM: The inter-band chemistry must have been unique for you as a woman in a band with all men.
GS: Everybody always says that but that doesn’t make too much sense for me. So what? Female singers have always been a fact of life. I mean, women, for instance, haven’t always been Supreme Court judges. Now THAT’S impressive. But women have been singers for as long as we’ve had throats.
GM: Yeah, but guys go on the road, offstage they talk about sexual stuff. You being a woman, did they have to curtail their escapades in front of you? Wasn’t it awkward?
GS: No, I did it all too. I did the same thing they did plus I did everybody in the band except Marty. He didn���t seem particularly interested in me. And I’m not going to jump on somebody who doesn’t want any! I was always under the impression that my behavior with my bandmates was just, uh, being friendly. Sex can be like going to the movies. Entertainment for a day. Or it can be very deep and spiritual. Or it can be revenge. As I say, I just thought it was being friendly. I liked Jack. I liked Jorma. I liked Spencer. And I certainly liked Paul. So, therefore...(laughs).
GM: You retired comparatively early from rock and roll, your creativity flowering in other artful areas like painting. What led to that decision?
GS: Rock and roll is a young person’s game. I still do interviews, though. Magazines need them. Labels need them to help catalog sales. Somebody will invariably call management to ask me to comment on how hummingbirds don’t live very long. Okay, fine, I’ll talk about that. I don’t like posing for pictures anymore, though.
GM: Volunteers was the Jefferson Airplane pinnacle. It was all downhill from there. Do you concur?
GS: Yeah, pretty much. You’re probably right. It was the end of an explosion. It was the last with that lineup. I liked the album I did with Paul, though, Blows Against the Empire.
GM: So what’s next for you?
GS: Well, not a hell of a lot at 80. You don’t make a lot of plans at that age. I ain’t gonna be around much longer, I know that. So I just keep painting. Right now I’m painting a triptych called “God’s Selfies” of different races; an Asian, a black guy and a white guy. Just their heads. No hair, eyes, nose or mouth.
GM: Do you think about mortality?
GS: Yes. And I never used to and but now I do. I don’t necessarily think about dying. I think about my will, giving a chunk of money to the wrong people because they’ll just spend it all. I think of the house, and how it has to be sold by my accountant, not by some banker. I don’t want to be buried. I don’t want to take up any space in the land. We don’t have enough land left anyway. Cremation’s the way to go. But make sure they come and get my body out right away because you smell terrible when you die and you wind up peeing and sh*tting all over yourself. And your face looks pushed back so horribly so I think of who’s going to find me.