By Sue Kovach Shuman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Grace Slick says she can't remember a lot of things, which is perhaps no surprise given how much she drank and drugged herself into oblivion during her reign as a rock-and-roll queen. But she knows who she is today: "I'm a 67-year-old fat, white-haired, liver-spotted woman."
Of her body, she says, "It's all lumpy stuff with lines."
Ahem. Anything else?
"I think old people are scary," says the former hippie vixen. "They remind you of your own death. People don't like to tell you that."
This is where Grace Slick likes to be: in your face, her blue eyes holding you hostage, unleashing verbal assaults. As lead singer for the Jefferson Airplane in the 1960s and the group it begat in the '70s, Jefferson Starship, she was a voice of countercultural transgression. Now she's an artist holding court at a gallery in a suburban shopping mall, where some 150 people have come to see her paintings and drawings. But mostly it is a chance for them to set their eyes on a legend, the woman who did all those bad things that horrified parents -- and survived.
Polka-dotted teacups are set on a table at the Wentworth Gallery in Fashion Centre at Pentagon City, in a tribute to Slick, whose work revolves around "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," nudes and rock musicians (live ones like Eric Clapton, but more often dead ones like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Jerry Garcia and Janis Joplin).
Near the gallery's entrance, a poster of a young woman stares hard into you, eyes peeking out from under thick brown bangs: It's an iconic 1968 photo of Slick, then about 28, wearing a green Girl Scouts USA shirt.
Today Slick's thick white hair is pulled back in a ponytail that cascades to her waist; she wears silver hoop earrings the diameter of a small yogurt container. She's seated at a black-clothed table; her black-fringed sweater poncho is paired with pencil-cut black jeans; a deep red chenille scarf drapes her shoulders. When she smiles, which isn't often, she is radiant.
Before taking the first of several cigarette breaks, she pops out a false incisor, then shoves it back in.
What happened to her tooth? "It fell out," she barks. "I'm old."
Security guards flanking her, she is escorted outdoors to smoke. She's obviously someone important, but passing shoppers don't seem to know who. But her presence is felt, and when she returns to the gallery, the faithful gather.
* * *
Back in 1970, Grace Slick came to Washington for a very different purpose: a White House reception hosted by Tricia Nixon. The event's organizers weren't aware that her song "Mexico" was a scathing critique of President Richard Nixon's anti-drug policy. Nonetheless, she was denied entrance because she'd brought along Abbie Hoffman, whose name was synonymous with radical. Slick said afterward she would have spiked Nixon's tea with LSD if she'd gotten in.
She was a hero of her generation for such bold provocations. And at Wentworth Gallery on Thursday night they want to hear about her glory days, tidbits about the Summer of Love and Woodstock, her ex-husbands (Jerry Slick and Skip Johnson), and daughter China's father, Paul Kantner. And to share their own memories.
"I saw you in March 1970 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia," management consultant Jamison Hawkins of Alexandria tells her. "It was my first case of rock-and-roll ecstasy."
"I saw you the first time in Atlantic City," chimes in retired accountant Tom Wilson of Arlington. Like others, he is carrying the Airplane's 1967 vinyl LP, "Surrealistic Pillow," hoping for Slick's autograph. (But this isn't an autograph-signing op, unless you purchase art. Sorry.)
Slick doesn't sing anymore, but her songs are still heard on classic rock radio stations. "I'm not a genius, but I don't suck" at songwriting, she says. "White Rabbit" is her most commercially popular song -- and royalties still roll in, which, combined with art sales, is enough to sustain her in a stucco-and-tile house on two acres in Malibu, Calif. She describes the song as "a slap to parents." Very loosely based on Lewis Carroll's works, it's all about drugs.
The White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, hookah-smoking caterpillar and other Carroll characters inhabit many of Slick's artworks. As the gallery music gets louder -- all Grace Slick hits, all night -- people come, see, and some buy. Red dots appear on the corner of sold works.
Slick's art includes acrylics, sketches and scratchboard; they range from $1,200 to $19,000. Art critics have panned her work. In 2000, the Wall Street Journal's David Littlejohn said of Slick's art posted on a Web site, "They're terrible." Slick says she took one art class at the University of Miami (but adds that she went there to party and to date football players).
She creates about 120 pieces a year. And judging from the Pentagon City event, people like what she does.
"I was a member of the psychedelic substance crowd," says John Jacobs, 66, an Arlington artist and writer who buys "Hooka Smoking Caterpillar" for $1,495. He's wearing wore red corduroy trousers, a turquoise paisley jacket and a multicolored top hat. With a psychotherapist, "I had three sessions with LSD," he explains.
The Clements family of Fairfax -- Don and Sara, with daughter Haley, 10 -- buy the print "White Rabbit Remembering the Good Old Days," a giclee (a high-resolution reproduction of the original, produced from digital scans) for $1,525. It will hang in their living room. "I've been a big fan of Grace Slick," Don Clements says.
While autographing their purchase, Slick explains that her father, an investment banker, wore only three-piece suits. "I made that bunny look like my father."
A photographer snaps a shot. "Jesus, I hate having my picture taken," Slick says.
On the wall, the White Rabbit print is accompanied by one of Slick's musings: "If we had a good time, we can look at youthful indiscretions with quiet amusement."
* * *
A year ago, Slick was struggling for life. It wasn't the drugs, or her battles with alcoholism, that nearly did her in. In an interview, she described her case of diverticulitis more colorfully than a doctor might: "It started with lower gut pain and the doctor screwed around with my intestines and sewed me back up." Complications led to two more surgeries and a tracheotomy, and a medically induced coma for two months while she healed. She says she went into rehab and had to learn to walk again. Scott Hann, her manager, says Slick may be making up for lost time; she plans 35 exhibits this year. "She works all the time," he says.
"Who else can pick up a whole new career and now be at the top of their field?" Hann asks.
Has a near-death experience tamed her or made her religious? She says she rises at 4 a.m. and paints. She'll throw on some sweats and sit in her favorite chair, look out at the Pacific Ocean or her lush garden for inspiration.
She philosophizes, formulating her aphorisms. Like: "Old people should be heard but not seen. Young people should be seen, not heard."
And: "You don't stop your life because of some unpleasantness."
And: "Old people are rotting. I'm rotting. You're rotting."
We all will.
Grace Slick will appear at Wentworth Gallery, Tysons Galleria, 1731 M International Dr., McLean, tonight from 6 to 9 and tomorrow from noon to 2 p.m. Call 703-883-0111.