Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit…Drug Reference Week

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all

I want to thank everyone for reading and commenting this week. I’m going to continue this for one more day and we will wrap it up tomorrow. Thanks Again!

This song was on the great album Surrealistic Pillow released in 1967. The intro is around 28 seconds before Slick starts singing. It’s well worth the wait…this song IS the sixties encapsulated in two minutes and thirty-two seconds.

Grace Slick got the idea for this song after taking LSD and  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.”

She based the lyrics on Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s book Alice In Wonderland (officially Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

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”, before calling it quits in 1966.

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”).

Grace Slick moved on to Jefferson Airplane, and the group recorded both “White Rabbit” and “Somebody To Love.” The songs were the breakout hits for the band, with “Somebody To Love” reaching #5 US and “White Rabbit” peaked at #8 in the Billboard 100 and #1 in Canada in 1967.

Grace Slick: “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.”

 

From Songfacts

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.

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.

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 Journal interview, 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.”

The UK version of the album didn’t include this track.

This was used in the first episode of Stranger Things, “The Vanishing Of Will Byers.” It plays as Eleven flees Benny’s diner.

White Rabbit

One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don’t do anything at all

Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits, and you know you’re going to fall
Tell ’em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call

And call Alice, when she was just small

When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom, and your mind is moving low

Go ask Alice, I think she’ll know

When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the red queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head, feed your head

Author: badfinger20 (Max)

Power Pop fan, Baseball fan, old movie and tv show fan... and a songwriter, bass and guitar player.

35 thoughts on “Jefferson Airplane – White Rabbit…Drug Reference Week”

  1. Probably the most iconic drug song, I’ve never really cared for it. I actually prefer The Great Society version. Grace Slick is a very powerful singer. She’s a good singer, but I would say she’s more powerful than good. From everything I’ve read about her, she’s a real jerk. Saw Jefferson Starship in concert–probably 85 or 86–man!, fantastic sound! Great concert.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed – it seemed tailor made for the ’60s, but besides absinthe and perhaps opium (that smoking caterpillar seemed a bit drowsy, didn’t he?) what was there back then which would have altered his consciousness so much?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Mushrooms maybe because were around and they were known to have that effect. The Indians used them at times…but he did have chronic migraines also so it could have been opium.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. That would have been interesting to see. How times have changed…no way in the sixties would you have seen someone lead in a sing-a-long in Las Vegas with this song…. Sinatra does White Rabbit!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a cool song. I didn’t realize she wrote it about drinking parents. Wow.

    I just listened to The Great Society’s version. GAWD. It has a 4 1/2 minute intro with a Clarinet or Tenor sax or a Trumpet. I can’t tell. It has that “Arabian” sound much like “Pink Elephants” from Dumbo. I’ll stick with Airplane’s version.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. There are some long ones I do like…but mostly Mr. Power Pop here likes them to say what they mean and get on with it….the Beatles are an example…for the most part 3-4 minute songs.
        The Ramones…Boom and they are done.

        Like

      2. What a busy week I had this week! This weekend should be slower…be thinking and email some more media suggestions

        Like

  3. Nice psychedelic tune! In December 2016, I actually saw Jefferson Starship in New Brunswick (not far from my house), who were playing with Blue Öyster Cult. The latter band and reasonable ticket prices were the main reason I saw that show.

    Jefferson Starship included a bunch of Airplane covers in their set, including “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”. I thought lead vocalist Cathy Richardson did a great job, especially on these Airplane tunes. Apparently, Grace Slick has praised her singing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That is a band…the Airplane that I want to listen to more. I know this album really well but I would like to hear some of their other sixties albums.
      That San Fransico scene went around the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This post almost slipped by before I saw it. The song is a masterpiece, imo. Grace had a gift.

    Your drug song series made me think, there’s a group of songs that seem to obviously be about drugs, but the songwriter insists they aren’t. Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, 25 or 6 to 4, etc. I’m not saying one way or the other…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes she did have a gift. I’ve been saying…I know this album but I don’t know much about the Airplane’s other albums…I want to start listening to more.

      Yes you are right…With Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds…I think it goes both ways. I do believe John about the title because I think he would have been the first to say it was named after the drug… but…I think without LSD it probably would not have been written the way it was….I do think the song was influenced by it…just not named after it…but I could be wrong.

      Yea I believe 25 or 6 to 4 could have been because of the 6 to 4 being slang for LSD.

      Like

      1. That’s the thing. Because the writer of those songs denied the drugs reference, each is left open for discussion. debate and speculation. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, or a question that needs to be definitively answered. It sort of makes them more intriguing.

        I didn’t know that about 6 to 4 being an LSD reference. Interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes I agree with what you said… What it meant was if you took LSD at 6pm the effects would not wear off til 4am

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  5. I wish I could do this song justice with my feelings about it – express them, but I can’t really put it into words. A drug song, yes, but more than that. I associate it with a particular time in my life that ‘felt’ rather mystical, even though it was probably not! As for what triggered the imagery of the Alice in Wonderland story in Lewis Carroll’s mind, probably opium as it doesn’t just cause sleepiness, or he may have mixed it with alcohol or – if he had migraines, even a migraine can cause hallucinations. Or – he might just have had a very vivid imagination!! I remember some artwork I did in my mid-teens, and I’d never taken any drugs at all, and people always thought I’d been off my head on acid when I did them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yea he had a very good imagination if that was the case and it could have been.
      It sounds like you have a vivid imagination as well. During my teens I had people think I was smoking pot all of the time…I didn’t but people thought I did. Being different as a teen is not always a good thing but I enjoyed it.

      Liked by 1 person

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