By John Guido, Highlighter staff columnist
My name’s John. This is Liner Notes. A third sentence for this intro was hard to come up with (I’m pretty sure I’ve used this line before. Can you sense the level of quality control I’ve maintained?).
Think of Jefferson Airplane, and you’ll probably think of “White Rabbit.” Scratch that. Think of Jefferson Airplane, and you’ll definitely think of “White Rabbit.” The two are inextricably intertwined. It’s impossible to mention one without bringing up the other: like Simon and Garfunkel, Ben and Jerry, Ted Cruz and the Zodiac Killer (Just look at his cold, dead, beady little eyes). In the case of Jefferson Airplane, “White Rabbit” is the flagship track of sorts for the band, the one around which their image is built on and which serves as a sort of pseudo-symbol for them; their golden arches, their swoosh. Which, if I’m being honest, is why I was hesitant at first to spotlight this track. After all, nearly everybody knows it, and if they don’t, they’ve at least heard it. But, mmmmm, the track is so good and I just couldn’t resist.
Originally recorded by Slick while she was with The Great Society—a band whose lifespan lasted only a single year, yet was still closely associated with the growing acid rock scene in the Bay Area—“White Rabbit” was co-opted by Jefferson Airplane and would go on to become a standard of psychedelic rock. Listening to the track, it’s clear why: there’s the pulsing bass which dominates the track, a throbbing heartbeat upon which the rest of the song is built around; there’s the martial drumroll that gives the song a certain power; there’s the sitar-like, twanging guitar which mirrors Slick’s warbling, beautifully sung notes that steadily climb to a crescendo. All of which combine to create an air of mysticism around the song, and give it a trancelike quality that damn near puts the listener into a state of hypnosis. It’s nearly impossible to not let yourself fall into the song, and watch it envelop you. This on its own would make the track special, but Slick’s clever lyrics add another level of depth to the piece.
While the meaning of the song is no doubt known to most modern audiences, and can be teased out relatively easily, for the time, Grace Slick’s veiled references to drug use were ground-breaking; “White Rabbit” would become one of the first songs to imply drug use and manage to sneak said message past radio censors. That in itself is cool to me—that little tidbit that makes you feel as if you’re listening to a piece of history—but together with the aforementioned trancelike quality of the instrumentals themselves, the imagery of the song lets the listener see the world Slick has created as well as feel it.
To digress a little bit, I’m aware that Jefferson Airplane isn’t the most influential psychedelic rock band, or the one which pushed the genre to its limits and fully explored it. That title probably belongs to another Bay Area band—*cough* Grateful Dead *cough*. But to ignore the contributions they made not only to psychedelic rock, but to rock in general, and to view Jefferson Airplane as a sort of Grateful-Dead-Lite would be a mistake. The work of Jefferson Airplane, and “White Rabbit” in particular, created and inhabit its in own little pocket of the music world: a time capsule that runs on acid trips, counterculture bohemianism, and 60s-era California cool. It not only stands as a great piece of music, but evokes its own sense of imagery and laid-back vibes; it creates its own atmosphere, and is as mood-altering as its subject matter. And if you can’t get behind that, at the very least the song makes up for everything Starship put out.
-Slick’s warbling vocals
-Jack Casaday’s bass, which bucks the traditional supporting role assigned to bass guitar and moves it to the forefront, the very backbone, of the track; somewhat simple, but remarkably melodic and flowing
-The imagery, and the mood the song creates
–The song’s meaning is relatively easy to tease out, and won’t lend itself to being pieced together over multiple listens; not necessarily a bad thing, but I feel obliged to put something here.
“We Will Fall” by The Stooges (similarly hypnotizing, albeit much darker)
“Time of the Season” by The Zombies (more strong bass work and drums)
“You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge (a psychedelic redux of the Motown classic—it’s better than it sounds)