Grace Slick, Art Song Pioneer

grace

Yes, THAT Grace Slick, the irrepressible 77-year-old threatened the other day with a “death sentence” by the pastor who preached at Donald Trump’s inauguration for her “sin” of donating royalties to LGBT charities.

But “art song pioneer”? Really??? Yes, definitely – provided one can accept my positing that art song should never be defined as the exclusive province of classical composers.

This fall will bring the 50th anniversary of the release of Jefferson Airplane’s After Bathing at Baxter’s – a suitable excuse to show some love for Slick’s pair of extraordinary songs on that album. While Baxter’s is justly considered one of psychedelic rock’s defining milestones, Slick’s “Two Heads” and “Rejoyce” stand apart from the other tracks, occupying timeless outsider territory that transcends the unique musical-lyrical idiom fashioned by San Francisco’s leading band of that turbulent era. The two pieces form not only the high-water mark of Slick’s all-too-brief compositional creativity, but can arguably be labeled the most outstanding examples of late ‘60s rock being transmuted into the more expansive universe of art song.

Nearly making the cut is Slick’s earlier “White Rabbit,” with its bolero rhythm and startling dynamic build. (Roy Orbison’s 1961 pop masterpiece “Running Scared” is its rarely-noted precursor.) “White Rabbit,” unfortunately, became so overfamiliar in the culture as to be regarded a caricature of hippiedom’s excesses. This remains the wrong reading. The references to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and the hallucinations called forth by psychedelic drugs were poetically handled and totally apt to the zeitgeist.

Those who already know Slick’s songs on Baxter’s will find reinvestigation worthwhile, as her amazing lyrics (see below) were not included with the original LP.

“Two Heads” is a powerful slice of pure surrealism, its texts left wide open to multiple interpretations. Musically, the song bears few resemblances to rock; the instrumentation is stripped down and stark, the dominant instrument neither guitar, bass nor drums, but what sounds like an electric harpsichord or perhaps an early version of the Hohner Clavinet. The structure is comprised of two distinct verse elements and lacks a chorus, though the second half of each verse functions as one. The rhythm of the first half is a sort of modified march, a perfect minor-mode setting for Slick’s terse, tense and dense lyrics. The second half is a gently rolling ride with only an implied rhythm (arpeggiated keyboard figures underpinned by a moving bass line). This creates a welcome major-key feeling of release before the song snaps back into its grim minor march.

Slick’s declamatory and highly expressive singing is all, riveting the listener’s attention despite the elusiveness of the lyrics. In the last 44 seconds she splits off into an abstract, double-tracked vocal that deconstructs and virtually demolishes the song in this-is-the-way-the-world-ends fashion. After this stunning outburst, one of the most striking in the kaleidoscopic galaxy of 1960s rock, “Two Heads” ends with a soft, upward moan and spent gurgles from the instruments.

The deconstruction and demolishing seem to me the key to understanding – or at least appreciating — what has come earlier in the lyrics. Grotesque Dali- and Picasso-like images abound throughout “Two Heads,” along with evocations of alienation, dysfunction, hypocrisy, despair, ennui, violence. The piece is surely a nightmare parable of American materialism and all its destructive contradictions — a favorite Slick topic. That’s what I’ve always taken away from the final verse, which seems to be contrasting inner city misery (is the “comb like an axe” a reference to an Afro Pick?) with suburban bedroom obsessions prior to Slick’s defiant vow that “no child of mine” should live in such a corrupted world. The first two verses appear to address private psychological material lurking in the human personality which underlies the corruption she references.

Whether or not my guesses are correct, “Two Heads” is a tour de force that has never lost its punch.

“Rejoyce” is even more astonishing — not only in its well-chosen appropriation and adaptation of materials from the famed author’s Ulysses, but in its largely jazz-derived music. Slick herself plays piano, accompanied by Jefferson Airplane’s terrific bassist Jack Casady, drummer Spencer Dryden and a handful of L.A. studio musicians, one of whom (believed to be Gene Cipriano) plays a beautiful, snake charmer-like oboe solo. I can think of no precedent in the rock canon for this eerie and very poetic track. The truth is, it’s not rock — but a strain of art song that could have sprung only from the time and place it did.

What is sometimes forgotten about the ‘60s pop music milieu is its astonishing level of stylistic cross-pollination. The curiousity and openmindedness of the players involved has never been faintly approached since. As with the Byrds and the Doors, there wasn’t a single experienced rocker in Jefferson Airplane’s ranks. The band’s primary influences were folk, jazz, blues, classical, the leading rock competitors of the time and even soul music. Prior to Slick’s replacing of the wonderful Signe Anderson in late 1966, the group had already perfected a new and highly original form of folk-rock, displayed magnificently on its debut album Takes Off. In less than a year, the music had morphed into the wild experimental stew offered up on Baxter’s.

The four-minute-long “Rejoyce” could only have been written by someone with wide-ranging and unusually refined taste (in literature as well as music) and the determination to create an exceptional piece without regard to commerciality or the baseline level of musical understanding to be found in the average rock fan. Not surprisingly, “Rejoyce” was received initially with as much puzzlement as awe.

It begins with an ominous piano arpeggio under which Casady places a downward chromatic bass glissando. The message is unspoken but clear: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Slick’s vocal entrance – “Chemical change, like a laser beam … “ – is the song’s sole psychedelic touch. What follows is an immaculately structured composition with cannily conceived dynamics and musical elements that include the “jazz waltz” idiom, Mideastern modality, Spanish rhythms, the harmonic world of Gil Evans and a type of dramatic expression encountered only in art song or cabaret of a high artistic level.

But “Rejoyce” is no pastiche; its music is strong and integrated. Slick’s singing and lyrics carry it the rest of the way to greatness. Stream of consciousness is her medium of choice in the text, beginning with the afterglow of sex: “Smiling in my room, you know you’ll be inside of my mind soon.” But this, the only contented moment in the song, is quickly swept away by a lament in 6/8 for the position of the free-thinking individual in a conformist society: “There are so many of you. White shirt and tie … wedding ring.”

This brief section ushers in Slick’s clever borrowing of the Ulysses characters – Leopold and Molly Bloom, “Blazes” Boylan and Stephen Dedalus – for an 86-second episode bisected by a piano riff in 7/4 and the hypnotic oboe solo. The lyrics again touch on alienation (“Mulligan stew for Bloom, the only Jew in the room”), sexual longing and frustration (“Molly’s gone to Blazes, Boylan’s crotch amazes”), before climaxing on the fierce couplet “War’s good business so give your son, and I’d rather have my country die for me.” The latter is Slick’s paraphrase of a Dedalus retort to the menacing English Private Carr in the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses.

This is followed by another unusual instrumental break utilizing odd meters before the “there are so many of you” motif reappears (this time explicitly referencing American society). The music gathers momentum and existential despair (“All you want to do is live … but somehow”), punctuated by woodwind chords, until finally finishing with the near-inconsolable pathos of “It all falls apart” and a hanging, unresolved tone cluster.

The level of inspiration and sophistication displayed by Slick in “Rejoyce” has been matched only a handful of times in the history of rock.

Do have a listen to these two songs – and marvel anew (or for the first time):
“Two Heads” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G4FtfZ1WuTA
“Rejoyce” — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lscRNsyEzs4

TWO HEADS

You want two heads on your body,
and you’ve got two mirrors in your hand.
Priests are made of brick with gold crosses on a stick
and your nose is too small for this land.

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
Inside your head is your town,
inside your room your jail,
inside your mouth the elephant’s trunk and booze,
the only key to your bail.

Two heads can be put together,
and you can fill both your feet with sand.
No one will know you’ve gutted your mind,
but what will you do with your bloody hands?

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
Your lions are fighting with chairs,
your arms are incredibly fat;
your women are tired of dying alive
— if you’ve had any women at that.

Wearing your comb like an axe in your head
and listening for signs of life.
Children are sucking on stone and lead
and chasing their hoops with a knife.

(Reflections from a door of a green Volkswagen … )
New breasts and jewels for the girl,
keep them polished and shining;
put a lock on her belly at night, sweet life,
for no child of mine.

REJOYCE

Chemical change, like a laser beam
You’ve shattered the warning amber light
Make me warm
Let me see you moving everything over
Smiling in my room
You know you’ll be inside of my mind soon.

There are so many of you.
White shirt and tie, white shirt and tie,
White shirt and tie, wedding ring, wedding ring.

Mulligan stew for Bloom,
The only Jew in the room
Saxon’s sick on the holy dregs
And they’re constant getting throw-up on his leg.

Molly’s gone to Blazes,
Boylan’s crotch amazes
Any woman whose husband sleeps with his head
All buried down at the foot of his bed.

I’ve got his arm
I’ve got his arm
I’ve had it for weeks
I’ve got his arm

Stephen won’t give his arm
To no Gold Star Mother’s farm;
War’s good business so give your son
And I’d rather have my country die for me.

There are so many of you.
Sell your mother for a Hershey bar
Grow up looking like a car.
There are …
All you want to do is live
All you want to do is live
But somehow
It all
Falls
Apart

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