Words by Andrew R Fetter
Andrew Fetter has been writing about music for over the last decade and playing in bands for even longer. His latest endeavor is the radio hour, The Noise Kaleidoscope which airs Tuesdays from 4:30-5:30pm ET on 99.1FM WQRT in Indianapolis. On it he covers his personal collection and influences of psych rock from over the last half century, starting with early influences and reaching to it’s modern incarnations. Past episodes are archived online.
As I stated in a previous column (and it’s a belief I’ll defend to the death if need be), if there was a Mount Rushmore for psychedelic music, one face that would have to be there is Grace Slick, the lead singer for Jefferson Airplane. Not only is her voice iconically powerful, but the songs she contributed to Jefferson Airplane are iconic in their own right for having an immense influence on psychedelic music, if not the 60s as a whole. It’s hard to hear “Somebody to Love” and not feel swept up in it. Although, admittedly one could say it’s equally (if not more so) difficult to hear that same voice in Starship’s memorable (for better or worse) 80s anthems “We Built This City” and “Nothings Gonna Stop Us Now”. That aside, her undoubtedly even more influential song is “White Rabbit”, released on Jefferson Airplane’s second (her first since being in the band) album Surrealistic Pillow.
Along with “Somebody To Love”, “White Rabbit” was originally written by Slick during her time in The Great Society (the band she was in prior to joining Jefferson Airplane). The Great Society’s version bears very little resemblance to the version most are familiar with. It’s a 6-minute jazz-inspired jam where the lyrics don’t even start until just past the 4 minute mark. It’s not a bad version of the song, in fact there’s a fast energy to it that almost hints at what would later come with 70s hard rock. However, it doesn’t take the listener on the same ominous journey that the Jefferson Airplane version does. Their take clocks in at 2 and a half minutes. It starts subtly with a marching drum beat, with Jorma Kaukonen’s lead guitar playing almost sitar-like scales. The song slowly builds and builds until the end climax with Slick belting out “Feed Your Head!”. It’ll send chills down your spine the first (and probably 100th) time you hear it.
Lyrically, it’s one of the most well known songs to connect two of the main aspects of the world of psychedelic music: the sound and the substance. Partaking in psychedelic drugs is as much a part of the culture as the music itself. And while you don’t necessarily have to take the drugs to enjoy the music, some would say it certainly does enhance to experience. Starting with the lines, “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”, the lyrics in the song make direct references to Lewis Caroll’s books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, including references to several characters (Alice, the White Rabbit, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the White Knight, the Red Queen, and the Dormouse). And in those references Slick draws the parallels between the imagery in the stories, with her own personal experience with acid.
And in a clever move, Slick also wrote some lyrics as jab or sorts at parents who would obviously strongly discourage their children from taking psychedelic drugs, but gladly read them stories that would have obvious metaphors to those same drugs. Of course Caroll’s works predate 60s drug culture by at least a century, but you’d have to wonder what his reaction would be to the parallels being drawn from his work. And yet the references used in “White Rabbit” were just subtle enough for the song to reach the airwaves, despite public opposition to illicit drug use. In fact, it was one of the first songs to reference drug use that actually made it on the radio. Full disclosure, I had to ask the program director at WQRT if playing it on my own show would be acceptable (it was). And of course there’s the animated Disney adaptation. The references are there in plain sight. You don’t have to look that closely or make any stretch mentally. The “hookah smoking caterpillar” Slick sings about is right there, smoking that hookah. And sure enough Alice eats and drinks substances that alter her state of being. Either the people at Disney were oblivious, didn’t care or left in the parallels intentionally.
As much as “White Rabbit” is associated with metaphors of mind-altering substances, at the crux of the song is the final line “Feed Your Head.” So much of the music of the 60s (and really the culture at large) centered around concepts like peace and love, which were appropriate given our country’s involvement in Vietnam. But more importantly, the notion of freeing and expanding your consciousness (either through music, ideas or yes, drugs) seemed to tie it all together. Altering your thinking allows you to see the world differently, which quite possibly made things seem not so bleak. While not making an actual endorsement of using drugs, maybe that’s a mindset we could start to strive towards given the state of the world now.