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Grace Slick Paints Pandas, Aids Fishermen, Recalls Woodstock

American singer/songwriter Grace Slick of psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane, in July 1970. Photographer: McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
American singer/songwriter Grace Slick of psychedelic rock group Jefferson Airplane, in July 1970. Photographer: McCarthy/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Aug. 11 (Bloomberg) -- These days, Grace Slick is painting white rabbits instead of singing about them.

Forty-one years after performing “White Rabbit” at Woodstock with the Jefferson Airplane, Slick spends most of her time painting subjects ranging from pandas to rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin at her home in Malibu, California. Last month, a dozen of her works fetched a total of about $30,000 at San Diego’s Alexander Salazar Fine Art gallery.

Slick, now 70 with snow white hair, hasn’t abandoned music entirely. She just released “The Edge of Madness,” a song whose proceeds will be used to help fishermen affected by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The song, which Slick co-wrote with Michelle Mangione, features more than 20 musicians and singers, including Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers and former Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Kid Ramos.

During a recent phone conversation, Slick was as outspoken and feisty as ever.

Clash: What’s your main memory of Woodstock?

Slick: Woodstock was a mess. We were in our hotel and the roads were clogged, so they sent a helicopter to pick up the band and drop us backstage a half-hour before we were to go on. We got there at 9 p.m. but didn’t play until six the next morning! Things kept getting screwed up.

Hells Angels

Clash: Later that year you also played at Altamont, where a fan was killed by a member of the Hells Angels.

Slick: People say Altamont was the “end of the ‘60s.” It was unfortunate, but at the time we didn’t think of it as signaling anything. The fact that nobody got killed at Woodstock is amazing because that was half a million people. We only had 300,000 at Altamont.

Clash: What about the Monterey festival in 1967, which really paved the way for Woodstock?

Slick: That was my favorite of the three -- much smaller, more manageable. The things sold in the stalls weren’t corporate; it was handmade beads and hippie stuff. In 1967 we hadn’t seen a lot of the other performers yet. I’d heard Jimi Hendrix records, but never seen him live. I had never seen Mamas and the Papas, Ravi Shankar, The Who. We were all standing on the edges of the stage behind little black curtains. We were just as fascinated as the audience.

‘White Rabbit’

Clash: How did “White Rabbit” come about?

Slick: I wrote it on a piano that cost me $50 at a place in San Francisco where they sold used furniture. It was a tiny, 88-key upright, and 10 keys weren’t working. I’m not a great musician, but I had something in mind. How it got so popular is amazing because it’s not rock ‘n’ roll. It is a Spanish march. The music is weird and the lyrics paraphrase “Alice in Wonderland.” And I sort of ripped off “Bolero” too.

Clash: How would you compare painting to writing music?

Slick: The way I paint is similar to rock in that you don’t stand around and say, “Gee, what are they talking about?” Rock is simple, blunt, colorful. Same with my paintings. You don’t stand back and wonder what it is. That’s Jim Morrison, that’s a panda, that’s a scene on the West Coast. It’s not abstract. I don’t want to be precious, hang out in SoHo and talk crap about other people’s stuff. I’m a commercial artist, both in music and art.

Pay Cash

Clash: Your father was an investment banker. How would he have reacted to all these big bonuses and bailouts?

Slick: He was an above-board dude and would just be appalled. There is an attitude that we should be able to have everything. No, you shouldn’t be able to have anything. I’d like a helicopter, but I can’t afford a helicopter, so I don’t buy one. People are buying stuff they can’t afford on credit. I bought my Ford hybrid with cash.

Clash: Did your dad’s views affect your own economic philosophy?

Slick: He was conservative financially, so I didn’t throw money around. He said, “With whatever comes in pay your bills with a third, save a third and then screw around with the last third.” He also told me to buy bonds, not stocks, and California real estate. That’s what I did. I’m not rolling in money, but I’m OK with the paintings I sell and the money I’ve saved.

To see and purchase Slick’s artwork, visit http://www.areaarts.com. “The Edge of Madness” can be downloaded at http://www.grammymuseum.org for $1.49.

(James M. Clash is author of “Forbes to the Limits.” The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

To contact the writer on the story: James M. Clash at jclash@explorers.org

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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