Adrift from the Starship and Out on Her Own, Grace Slick Is Hitting the Road for Her Album
Yet even as her fame became legend, Slick was haunted by the sense that she could not measure up. She found comfort for a time in booze, drugs and promiscuity, then seemed caught up in a frenzy of self-destructiveness. A more fragile woman might not have survived, but Slick is a survivor. Now, at 40, the Acid Queen may have struck a truce with her demons.
Her first solo album, Dreams, featuring five of her own songs, was released two weeks ago, she has embarked on a nine-city promotional tour, and she is the subject of Barbara Rowes' Grace Slick: The Biography, recently published by Doubleday. Split since 1978 from the Airplane, reconstituted as the Jefferson Starship, she is experiencing the pleasures and terrors of performing alone. "No matter how big or soft or warm your bed is, you still have to get out of it," she says. "Being in a rock'n'roll band was like being in a Sherman tank. Nothing got to you. You were surrounded and protected by men. With a solo album, you're more or less taking your clothes off and asking, 'What do you think?' "
Not long ago Slick would never have considered taking the risk. Briefly, after leaving the Starship, she elected to bury herself in her housework. "I said when I made my exit that I was going before they had to put me in a nuthouse," she told writer Rowes. "I wanted to be able to change instead of perpetuating this lunatic I had created." Five months later, however, domesticity had lost its appeal. "I was beginning to go crazy," says Slick, "so I started thinking about what to do. I wasn't going to start my own band, and I wasn't going to play Caesars Palace with a line of sequined dancers behind me. The album wasn't easy for me, and a lot of people aren't going to like it, but I would have turned into Silly Putty if I hadn't done it."
Meanwhile the Starship's latest LP, Freedom at Point Zero, rose briefly into the Top 10. Even so, guitarist Paul Kantner, Grace's former lover and father of her 9-year-old daughter, China, isn't entirely reconciled to her absence. "There is great value in having a woman in the band. There's tension—the sexual thing," he says. "I haven't seriously tried to find a replacement. I want to leave room for Grace to come back." But for now, at least, Slick is in no mood to look backward. "The problem with hanging on to the '60s," she says, "is that everyone thought they would go on forever.'
A lineal descendant of Massachusetts Bay Puritans, Grace Barnett Wing was born in Chicago on Halloween eve and grew up in Palo Alto, Calif. Her father, Ivan, was an investment banker; her mother, Virginia, an ex-nightclub singer. "As a child," says her mother, "Grace always had something going for herself. When she was 6 or 7 she listened to a lot of classical music, and she was always dressing up in costume and entertaining her friends. They thought she was weird." The kids may have considered their suspicions confirmed when little Grace, dressed as a cowgirl, bounded onstage after a May Day parade and trilled the song of her choice—Silent Night. "She nearly brought the house down," remembers Virginia, "but she didn't smile once. It was what she felt like doing. That's the way she is—different."
Grace started piano lessons at 7 and four years later received a guitar. "She used to lock herself in her room and sing Greensleeves," her mother recalls. "Finally the lady next door said, 'Why don't you get that child voice training?' I said I didn't think she was trainable in anything." Later, an indifferent student at the exclusive Castilleja School for girls, Grace began lacing her orange juice with vodka for kicks. In 1957 she enrolled at Finch College in New York, and a year later transferred to the University of Miami to study art. That too failed to take, and by 1959 she was back in California, where she later found work as a model. Then her mother introduced her to Jerry Slick, a wealthy neighbor's son and an incipient rebel. Within a month after they first held hands, Grace proposed and Jerry said yes. "I really just wanted to live with him," she said later, "but it would have killed my mother."
Self-conscious refugees from their middle-class backgrounds, the Slicks settled in San Francisco, where Jerry studied cinematography and Grace sat home singing along to Bob Dylan records and accompanying herself on guitar. Soon they drifted into the counterculture, befriending musicians and experimenting with drugs. Before long their bathroom was outfitted with two medicine cabinets—one for hallucinogens, the other for straight pharmaceuticals. "I was always afraid," cracks Grace, "that I'd get the mescaline mixed up with the mouthwash." Infatuated with fresh strains of rock, she spent her evenings prowling the clubs. "Living with Grace was like having a direct line to Wolfman Jack," recalls Jerry. "The only thing she could talk about was the bands and their different styles. One morning I gave her the newspaper and asked her to refocus."
Instead Grace, Jerry and his brother Darby formed the Great Society, a group of their own. Then Kantner caught their act and arranged for Grace to make her move to the Airplane. Grace's first concerts with the group were electric. "Grace was like a roaring, old-time blues-based jazz singer," recalls critic Philip Elwood. "There was excitement in her voice, and she was erotic. The feeling she aroused was not 'Gee, that's a nice song.' It was more like 'Man, get a load of that!' " The Great Society folded, Jerry went back to his moviemaking, and Grace followed her new band to L.A. to lay tracks for its second album, Surrealistic Pillow. Propelled by Grace's White Rabbit and her slashing, slam-bang vocalizing of Darby Slick's Somebody to Love, the LP sold two million copies and made the Airplane the flagship San Francisco band of the '60s.
In the meantime rock impresario Bill Graham had booked the Airplane into a withering coast-to-coast schedule. As the pressures mounted, Grace's behavior reached new highs of recklessness. She squandered a fortune as fast as she earned it. She dropped acid and swilled Dom Perignon with Kahlua chasers. She staggered into rehearsals, and stripped off her blouse at a concert in the rain. Sometimes she was funny; more often she merely seemed desperate. "I've always been afraid," she says, "that people might find out I'm boring. I have an almost nervous habit of having to make things happen." Adds a friend: "Grace has a need to satisfy the public's image of her. She created a myth and then found herself unable to transcend it."
Her marriage by that time was coming apart. "It just seemed inconceivable to me not to be attracted to other men after I got married," she explained. "I never thought that monogamy was a natural condition for everyone." Her extramarital strayings were frequent—and tolerated. She lived for a while with Airplane drummer Spencer Dryden. She moved in with Kantner and almost offhandedly chose him to be the father of her child. "I figured Paul and I were so opposite in every respect that we would create an interesting individual," she explains. Jerry Slick divorced her after she became pregnant.
Five months after China was born, Grace nearly killed herself, piling her Mercedes-Benz into a cement wall during an alcohol-inspired drag race. Unfortunately, the shock did not prove to be salutary. During the '70s Slick's habitual sarcasm degenerated into scabrous attacks on all who offended her. Overweight and in debt, she caused many of the quarrels that broke up the band. Then, when the Airplane regrouped as the Starship, she met Skip Johnson, 13 years her junior, who did the group's lighting. They were married in 1976, but Grace was still unstrung. She was arrested twice for drunkenness and triggered a riot in Wiesbaden, West Germany when the Starship had to cancel a concert. "Finally," she says, "I decided I had to cut back on my drinking. What was happening was that I'd have 10 minutes of feeling good and then I'd black out. Next day I'd be wondering why it wasn't fun anymore. Skip is the only person who said to me face to face: 'You are not handling alcohol well and you ought to stop it.' I was sick enough then to be proud of the way I was acting."
Today, at home in suburban Mill Valley, Calif., Slick rises at 6 a.m. to make breakfast and drive China to school, then returns to the meticulous tidiness of the $200,000 nest she has feathered. She is surrounded by an oddball domestic menagerie consisting of two cats (Toad Lips and Fred of Philadelphia), six finches, a parrot and a cockatiel named Cheeks. She reads, latch-hooks a Miss Piggy rug for her daughter, scribbles musical inspirations in a small spiral notebook. Later she may speed to the bakery for a quick fix of her favorite Black Forest cake.
Yet despite her homage to middle-class domesticity, there remains a sense that Grace is not fully housebroken. In person a fresh-faced colleen, she has the look of a quirky witch on her album cover, and the truth may be still more elusive. Her mother, for one, thinks her little girl has finally grown up. "We didn't like the way she was living before," admits Virginia Wing, "but I always felt certain she would get over the wild stuff—and she has." Grace agrees, and regards the approach of middle age philosophically. "I'm not Cheryl Tiegs, so I don't have to worry about losing anything," she adds. "Mainly I make music, and you can do that until you drop dead."