Grace Slick once wrote a song called ”Lather” in which the central character, having just turned 30, asks the musical question ”Is it true that I’m no longer young?” It’s a line that could easily serve as Somebody to Love?‘s subtitle: At 58, Slick — the former singer with ’60s rock band Jefferson Airplane (not to mention its sleeker-sounding ’70s model, Jefferson Starship, as well as the execrable ’80s hack pack, Starship) — is indeed no longer young, and more to the point, no longer relevant to most rock fans.
Slick, bless her pointed little head, has no illusions about her currency in today’s pop world, acknowledging that rock & roll is ”a young person’s game” she’d just as soon sit out. Nor does she harbor an inflated opinion of her overall importance in rock’s cosmography, exhibiting a caustic candor that makes her book miles more appealing than the standard aging rocker’s autobiography. (When a record company fat cat tells the neophyte singer he’s going to make her the next Edith Piaf, she wonders, ”How? By breaking my back?”) Somebody to Love? traces Slick’s evolution from a fairly well-adjusted middle-class Northern California brat to a brassy, promiscuous frontwoman exhorting America’s youth to ”feed your head” on up to her current incarnation as a clean-and-sober survivor of years of alcohol and drug abuse as well as run-ins with the law, most recently in 1994. Wisely rejecting the melodrama that infects so many ex-druggie confessionals, Slick finds humor in the hell of her addiction, giving self-pity a wide berth.
Likewise, she’s refreshingly irreverent about the great god Rock & Roll. There are no paeans to the music’s life-altering impact or its immeasurable artistic and political import here; to Slick, joining a band just seemed a nifty alternative to a straight job, a fun way to ”work for a couple hours a night, hang out with friends, and take lots of drugs whenever you want.” (And you thought it was about tearing down the system and building a better world.)
As enjoyable as such breezy debunking may be, serious fans interested in the actual stories behind Slick’s music may wind up feeling cheated. Aside from the revelation that the 1967 hit ”White Rabbit” was inspired in part by Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Sketches of Spain and that ”Lather” was written for drummer Spencer Dryden, she has little to say about the songwriting process or its attendant epiphanies (odd, considering how pretentious much of her work with the Airplane seems in retrospect). Still, the woman who once titled a solo album Manhole (”to shock the women’s libbers”) dishes enough sex-and-drugs dirt that the short shrift given to the final element in that immortal triumvirate can almost be forgiven. Included in Somebody‘s pages is the skinny on Slick’s heretofore unsuspected one-night stand with the Doors’ Jim Morrison (Jimbo’s jimbrowski was, she reports, ”slightly larger than average”), as well as the truth about the incestuous goings-on in the Airplane’s cockpit (Slick says she slept with every member of the original band except singer Marty Balin and eventually gave birth to a daughter, China, with guitarist Paul Kantner). And in an age where it’s no longer unusual for rock groups to hobnob with presidents, it’s somehow heartening to learn that Slick’s abortive attempt to slip LSD into Richard Nixon’s cup at a White House tea party is more than just another apocryphal countercultural tale.
The book’s punchline, of course, is that Slick is now probably straighter than your mom. All too aware of the inherent pathos of a woman seven years away from senior-citizen status singing ”Up against the wall, motherf—er” in a world where the phrase no longer has resonance, she has been retired from performing since 1990. She now lives a contemplative and, apparently, reasonably happy life, having jury-rigged her own system of practical spirituality. (Would that all musicians could so gracefully surrender the things of youth.) But she’s not ready for the rock & roll nursing home yet. Having escaped membership in that exclusive club that claimed her onetime comrades Joplin, Hendrix, and Morrison, she has somehow snagged the promise of the ’60s: not dope, guns, and sex in the streets, but abundant personal freedom. Sometimes, it seems, that booze-spattered and needle-strewn road of excess really does lead to that proverbial palace of wisdom. B+