Grace Slick: Still Sassy After All These Years

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By Kathleen Herd Masser

If Grace Slick were the art critic, instead of the artist, she would describe her work as “elaborate cartoons. She draws like she sings: blunt and loud.”

Accordingly, Slick has not gone quietly from being an icon of the ‘60s – as lead singer of the Jefferson Airplane and later Jefferson Starship – to being in a woman in her sixties. Her conversation is bawdy and raucous and brutally candid. Her art is filled with images of rock and roll legends, and white rabbits.

But she laughs at the notion of hidden psychological references lurking below the brushstrokes. His Mistress’s Voice, for example, is simply “a take-off on commercials.” (Slick was signed to the RCA Victor label, whose logo was a dog with its ear to an old Victrola.)

She does, however, acknowledge a connection to Lewis Carroll’s classic story.

“My life went like that. I was born in the year of the rabbit. When I was a child in Hemet, the man next door had about 40 white rabbits. He was raising them to sell for fur coats, but I didn’t know that.”

And, “The song [White Rabbit] has come in handy for mortgage payments for 35 years or so, and I have rabbits on my property. Bunnies with little cottontails.”

“I’ve got a rabbit thing going on,” she concludes. “I don’t question it, I just go with it.”
 

“In Alice in Wonderland,” Slick explains, “the rabbit represents Alice’s curiosity, so she follows it everywhere. There’s no Prince Charming. If you think some guy’s gonna save your ass, you’re crazy. It’s wonderful to live with some guy, to have kids, but they’re not going to save you. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. A lot of it is genetic imperative, and a lot of it is training you get rid of or encourage.

“I’ve been very lucky. My parents encouraged what I wanted to do. I had a great job, obviously. I have great job now. They’re both age appropriate. I’ve had a very, very good life.”

“It’s true,” she continues. “A lot of people have what kids now call issues. Our generation, the only reason you’d go to a psychiatrist was if you were stone fucking crazy. We didn’t do therapists. It didn’t occur to anybody.”

Slick has done therapists, albeit under court order after several drunk driving episodes. “When I drink, I act like a jerk. Never with acid or marijuana. Alcohol is the one that gets me in trouble.”

In the sessions, “I’d tell them there was absolutely no reason for me to be there, that the only person who’s ever hurt me is me and I know that. I’m the only one who will screw myself up.”

Ironically, her worst drug experience came 25 years ago from “a prescription drug I took for back pain and damn near died. They had to jam a wet towel down my throat because my system had dried up.”

Slick has no desire to reprise her rock and roll days, but does admit to her need for a creative outlet.

“Any of the arts. I really don’t care. If they say ‘I’m sorry, you can’t draw anymore,’ I’ll be a set designer. If they tell me I can’t be a set designer, I’ll be a character actor. And if they say ‘sorry, you can’t act,’ well, any of the arts is fine. But doing nothing is not fine. If you’re 65 and not doing anything, basically you’re just taking up space. And I’m taking up two acres in Malibu. To justify my existence, I should do something positive and interactive. I don’t do computers. I don’t do machinery. The only machinery I use is a car and light switches.”

Any of the arts, yes, but only in single file, please.

“I do one thing at a time. One man, one house, one car, one child. I don’t multitask. I either listen to music or I’m drawing. Music is too important to me to do something else along with it. It pulls my attention. And drawing pulls my attention. I’m real intense and I like to concentrate on one thing at a time.”

Except smoking. “I can smoke and drive at the same time. I can even smoke and eat at the same time. I’ve smoked since I was 15, but there doesn’t seem to be any damage. Maybe it’s all the singing -- my lungs got 25 years of serious exercise. I don’t stop anything unless it hurts.”

Slick just finished a pencil drawing and acrylic portrait of Mick Jagger. She’s pleased with them, but not with all of her work.

“There’s one I hate that people seem to like. It’s a crude drawing of Janis Joplin,” she says, explaining, “crude is my description for big chunks of paint, slashes, not well defined. I’ve done other crude stuff I do like. My taste is not right or wrong; it’s just my taste.”

Most of Slick’s portraits feature her contemporaries – Joplin, Jim Morrison, Ronnie Wood, Pete Townsend – and adeptly but subtly probe their nuances, much as her music chiseled into the depths of a complex generation. Her renderings of Jerry Garcia are perhaps the most insightful.

“He was really intelligent, very funny, and he listened when you talked. What I do with dead people is get a whole bunch of books so I get the bone structure right, then I impose my idea of who they are onto the eyes. The eyes are very important. Most pictures of Jerry made him look stupid, because drugs make the eyes screwed up. The man I know was very bright and would look right at you. Most people can’t do that. They get uncomfortable. It’s too intense.”

Slick has no problem looking people, or the world, in the eye. “It keeps them off guard.”

Of the still-among-us subjects she has depicted, “Pete is the only one who’s responded. He said it’s the best picture anybody’s ever done of him. That may or may not be true.”

One self-portrait stands out as particularly unflattering.

“That’s an old one. I was drunk when I drew that. I’m being honest. I did not look good. That doesn’t mean you’re not a good person. It just means you’re rotting.”

In a matter of days, Slick will celebrate two birthdays. “I’ll be 65 and 7, four days apart.” Seven represents the number of years she’s been sober, after finding other ways to feed her head.

“Being alive, for starters. And being aware. Trying to be aware of what’s going on around you as much as possible, especially when you’re as arrogant and egotistical as I am. Listening when people talk.”

What else? “Books, lots of books. I just finished a wonderful book called Samaritan, by Richard Price. And crossword puzzles. That’s what I do for entertainment.”

To nourish her soul, Slick focuses on “being conscious of the spirit and how that impacts everything. It’s like a boomerang. You pretty much get back what you give.”

 
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