I totally forgot about this 1999 interview until recently. Well, I knew I’d interviewed Grace Slick and vaguely remembered she had complained about her sex life. But there was so much more: her regrets at not sleeping with Jimi Hendrix, Peter O’Toole and Jack Nicholson, her small breasts, her memories of Altamont, ageism in rock ‘n’ roll, her finances, some arch commentary on the death of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and a tirade against biotech firms. None of it was transcribed until 15 years later.
This phoner took place on 20 July, a day before the bodies of Kennedy and his passengers were found in the Atlantic. Grace and I were connected by a VH1 operative so that we could discuss the cable channel’s upcoming special, “The 100 Greatest Women of Rock & Roll.” We both knew it was silly fun, and shared a laugh when I noted that VH1 had drafted the noted rock animal Hillary Clinton for the project.
Grace was No. 20. The list, determined by a survey of “the world’s most influential women,” was headed by Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt, and included the likes of Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline and Karen Carpenter, so the “rock” moniker was a little off.
“If rock ‘n’ roll’s so damn so much fun, how can you be great at it?” Grace asked. “It’s like being great at being a party person … I was pretty much in it because I wanted to have a good time. I am not a dedicated musician, and never was. I love music, and that’s a real good way of making a living. If you’re a hedonistic drug-addict rock ‘n’ roller, that’s fabulous. But ‘great’? I don’t think so (laughs). It just struck me funny. It’s a good reason to have a bunch of programming, though, I guess.”
Here is an edited transcript. (I didn’t include the biotech lecture or detailed discussion about the VH1 list. Email me if you want it.)
DON’T YOU THINK IT’S THE MALE ROCKERS WHO ARE THE ENDANGERED SPECIES RIGHT NOW AND THEY’RE MORE IN NEED OF A SHOW LIKE THIS?
No, it’s like waves in an ocean. Sometimes there’ll be a chunk of women that are taking over for a while, and sometimes there’ll be a chunk of men. At the time, in the ’60s, it was largely men doing rock ‘n’ roll, and it didn’t even occur to me. I just thought I’d do what I do. I’ve a got a loud voice. I’m born for this shit. I’m an arrogant, aggressive loud person. Hey, I fit right in! It didn’t occur to me that women couldn’t do it. For one thing, in San Francisco, there were women in just about every group. The Charlatans had a woman. Grateful Dead had a woman. She wasn’t out front very much but they had a woman. There was an all-woman called the Ace of Cups. Airplane had a woman. Great Society [Slick’s first band] had a woman. There were a lot of women in the groups so it wasn’t that unusual.
WHEN WOMEN ROCKERS GET TOGETHER IS THERE INSTANT COMRADERIE, OR MORE A SENSE OF FRICTION?
I don’t know anymore because I haven’t been in this business for 10 years. I don’t know what kind of stuff goes down between the women now. When I was around in the early ’60s, we just sort of hung out. We saw at each other at jobs, or you’d hang out at parties, or you’d play afterward or something. But it was so new then that there was no competition because there wasn’t any game going on .We just played around San Francisco. So it wasn’t competitive. We were all sort of doing it all together. Then, when the ’70s came you start making a lot of money at it, then you’re on the road so much that there’s no time to be competitive. Janis would be in one town, I’d be in another, Mamas and Papas would be in another town, and Dusty Springfield or whoever. I hardly ever saw anybody because I was always on the road or in L.A. in the recording studio. I didn’t really know that many women very well because I never saw any women. Except the groupies.
OOH, YOU HAD FEMALE GROUPIES?
No, I meant the groupies for the guys.
SO WHAT FEMALE ROLE MODELS IN MUSIC DID YOU HAVE GROWING UP?
Odetta. Because Odetta had the low-end powerful voice and I listened to Joan Baez when I was little, a little bit. But I can’t sing like that, I can’t sing high softly the way she sings. But when I heard Odetta I was about 17 and I thought., “Wow! That’s very interesting.” Because I never heard a women sing like that. Very low-end, very powerful voice. I’d only heard Dinah Shore and Joan Baez and Annette Funicello and Rosemary Clooney and people like that. And they were all high-end and soft. My mother was a singer, high-end and soft.
SO YOU NEVER KNEW ABOUT BESSIE SMITH AND BILLIE HOLIDAY?
Yeah, but that’s more bluesy. Odetta, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard her, but she’s loud. Not abrasive, I just mean she has a real strong voice. Billie Holiday isn’t biting. She didn’t take a chunk out of you. She’s gentle, soft. Odetta takes chunks out of you.
IS THERE A FINE LINE BETWEEN BEING A SEX SYMBOL FOR HORNY GUYS AND MAYBE GIRLS TOO, AND BEING AN EMPOWERED WOMAN WITH HER OWN OPINIONS?
Well, see I didn’t have any tits and I had kinda dark kinky hair. I didn’t think of myself as a sex symbol. I just thought I was a singer. And I thought, “Well, I can put some makeup on my face and look passable.” But I wasn’t aware of that thing going on there until about four years ago when a guy who used to be my lawyer—and still occasionally is but not so much anymore—he said, “Oh yeah. I used to go in and just sit there and drool …” And I said, “Really? You’re kidding me!” So it didn’t occur to me until after I was already out of the business that that was going on.
YOU LOOKED OK TO ME! SO IF YOU KNEW THEN WHAT YOU KNOW NOW, HOW WOULD YOU HAVE DONE THINGS DIFFERENTLY?
I would have had my people get ahold of his people—Peter O’Toole—and fucked his brains out! Jimi Hendrix!
YOU NEVER GOT HIM?
No. People look back on their lives and say, “If only I’d done this, that and the other thing.” I had a great life. I loved it. I’m very grateful for everything that’s come my way because it’s been a lot of fun and very interesting. That’s the only thing I’d do differently is probably nail a couple more guys. It didn’t occur to me that I was any kind of sex symbol at all, and that you can actually do that kind of stuff. You can call somebody’s people. I could have called Peter O’Toole. I could have met him. I didn’t realize I could do that at the time. I could have done it with Jimi Hendrix. I didn’t know that. It just didn’t occur to me that I was able to nail whoever I wanted to.
BUT YOU STILL DID PRETTY WELL, NAILING GUYS?
I think so, yeah. Jack Nicholson, maybe too. That would have been interesting. I pretty much had people within the industry, or within the band. And part of that also is that you really don’t have time. Once you get going on that stuff it’s like a whirlwind, because you’re in a different city every night. Being a movie star is a little more in one place. You’re in one place for four months making a movie, even if it’s a different place every time it’s still one place. So you can bring a girlfriend down, or you can screw somebody’s who’s on the set. But with a rock ‘n’ roll band, once you’ve gone through the whole band, that’s pretty much it! That’s the only people you see. Then I started on the crew and married one of them [Skip Johnson].
WHAT DO YOU DO THESE DAYS FOR YOUR SEXUAL OUTLETS?
Oh, I don’t. I just am hanging out. People always think it’s the woman who wants to settle down when maybe a lot of them do. But I’ve found for the most part, it’s kinda guys who want to. And it’s a possessive thing. So I’m not interested basically in anybody my own age because I’d probably kill them by having too much sex. If they were younger, they don’t want an old woman anyway. So I’d rather transfer the passion from one thing to another. When I’m not busy just nailing the bejesus out of a man, I will transfer that passion to art. And it can be done, because I’ve done it off and on all my life.
SO YOU LIVE A CELIBATE LIFESTYLE NOW?
HOW LONG’S THAT BEEN GOING ON FOR?
Years. About four years.
IT SEEMS LIKE A WASTE.
Not really. I don’t care one way or the other. If somebody comes up that I think, “Oh, I’ve gotta go there,” fine, then I go there. If they don’t, then they don’t.
THIS YEAR IS THE 30TH ANNIVERSARY OF WOODSTOCK, BUT I PREFER TO FOCUS ON THE 30th ANNIVERSARY OF ALTAMONT. DO YOU HAVE ANY SPECIAL MEMORIES FROM THEN?
Altamont, it’s like yin-yang or something—although that’s an inappropriate analogy or metaphor. Altamont’s one of those things where pretty much everything didn’t go right. It was amazing. From almost Day 1, things kept getting turned around. No, you can’t use that area. Or, the Stones won’t be able to make it and we have to fly in from Florida. Everything was off about it. We didn’t know obviously that somebody was going to get killed, but the whole thing was just real kind of yellowy-gray, you know what I mean?
WHEN MARTY BALIN GOT KNOCKED OUT, DID YOU FEAR FOR YOUR LIVES?
No. I didn’t have my contact lenses on for some reason and I didn’t see him get knocked out. I was standing by the drum riser, and I noticed that Spencer [Dryden, the drummer] had almost stopped playing in the middle of the song. I said, “What’s going on?” He said, “One of the Hells Angels just knocked Marty down.” And I went, “What?” (laughs). When you can’t see very well, you can’t follow the sequence of events. There’s too many of our crew. It would have looked very bad for them to trash the whole band, although that’s possible. That would have been an interesting film. It didn’t occur to me that anything other than one on one would happen. I sort of got a little afraid for Paul [Kantner] because Paul usually likes to go in and get into that kind of shit. So I thought, “Paul’s probably gonna get his head busted open too.” But I didn’t think it was like Hells Angels against the Airplane or anything. I just thought it was a one-on-one thing, but that one-on-one thing kept happening repeatedly. That’s the problem. First it was Marty, then it’d be some other guy and then somebody else. And Jagger dressed like the devil couldn’t have been any more (laughs)! It’s too bad, but that kinda stuff happens. You get half a million people together and it’s amazing that more negative stuff doesn’t happen.
WHEN YOU LEFT THE VENUE, DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA ABOUT WHAT HAD HAPPENED?
No, but we were leaning out of the helicopter looking down and Paul said, when we left, “It looks like that guy’s getting killed.” Kinda sarcastically, but I don’t know if that was the actual thing or another fight he was looking at. I remember him saying that.
DID YOU HAVE ANY CONTACT WITH THE STONES AT ALTAMONT?
No, because we left not before they played but maybe in the middle of when they were playing, because we wanted to avoid all the insanity of trying to get out.
DO YOU THINK THAT WAS A MORE APPROPRIATE WAY TO FINISH OFF THE ’60S THAN WOODSTOCK?
It’s one way of finishing it off if you need to write about the ’60s and if you need openings and closings. It’s just another concert in another way that got screwed up. I know there’ve been a number of other groups since then subsequently where huge concert and it goes wrong. They didn’t say that finished off 1974 or 1983. You get a bunch of people together, chances are somebody’s not gonna like somebody. And people get killed, people get stomped, people fall off the stage.
IT’S LIKE PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT THE KENNEDYS AND THE “CURSE.” WELL THERE’S HUNDREDS OF PEOPLE IN THE FAMILY, SO THESE THINGS ARE BOUND TO HAPPEN.
There’s a billion people in that family. It made me nuts because everybody’s going around saying, “He was so good looking.” As if that’s some kind of attribute he built up over the years and did himself. Well, how about all the people who died on the same day that are in their 30s, that are ugly and never had any money and probably didn’t have a very good time? How about them? “He’s so good looking.” What are you talking about? Good looking people shouldn’t die and ugly ones should? It’s so bizarre the way we are and I’m not pointing any fingers cos I probably do that too, that superfluous appreciation.
YOU’RE NOT INVOLVED IN MUSIC AT ALL?
No, I haven’t done that for about 10 years. I don’t like old people on a rock n’ roll stage. I think they’re kinda sad.
I JUST CAME BACK FROM SEEING THE STONES IN EUROPE AND THEY WERE COOL.
Yeah, I mean it’s good. You can always see old tapes or listen to old [music]. It just seems like there are appropriate stages of life and one of them’s not trying to look like you’re 25 when you’re 60 or 50. If you like to play, that’s nice, be a producer. Help some young people to understand their craft better. There’s a lot of producers who are jerking the groups around because they’re company men. So if you don’t like that, then do that. Help them fight the good fight. But the business of leaping around trying to look like you’re 30 or 25 is kinda—.There’s Hollywood Boulevard, you can walk down Hollywood Boulevard and there’ll be these old broads who are about 85 years old and they got bleached blond hair, little cinch belts and spiked heels on because in 1957 they were hot stuff. It’s OK to be old. It’s not fun, but it’s OK. And you look kinda sappy. You look even worse when you’re trying to do stuff like that than you do just looking like whatever your age is. So it’s painful to me, even if they’re good, to watch people imitating themselves when they were younger. It’s sort of like if you were 25 and you went back to the 4th grade and tried to hang out and play jacks, you’d look like a sap!
DO YOU LIVE OFF THE ROYALTIES?
Yeah, well, also Skip Johnson invested my money. He took care of me very well. Instead of spending all my money, it was invested well. I’m not rolling around in money, but I’m fine.
NOTE: Unrelated to the above interview, my book Strange Days: The Adventures of a Grumpy Rock ‘n’ Roll Journalist in Los Angeles has just gone on sale here at Amazon. For more info, go to strangedaysbook.com
Copyright © 1999, 2014 by Dean Goodman. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PASTE THE WHOLE THING