::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Great Tunes: Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"

It’s the scene from Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas” (1972) that skyrocketed Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” to one of the greatest psychedelic rock songs ever recorded.

Thompson, tripping on a bad combination of LSD, cocaine, mescaline, and alcohol, stumbles into the torched hotel room of his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, who is submerged in a hot bath. He orders Thompson to throw his tape deck into the tub at the peak of “White Rabbit.”
“’White Rabbit.’ I need rising sound… And when it comes to that fantastic note where the rabbit bites its own head off, I want you to throw that fuckin’ radio into the tub with me!”

Thompson refuses, but Dr. Gonzo threatens to kill him if he doesn’t. So as lead singer Grace Slick and the Jefferson Airplane build “White Rabbit” to its crescendo and Dr. Gonzo screams for death by electrocution, Thompson throws a grapefruit in the water instead.

Do bad drug trips get any more twisted than that?

“White Rabbit” was first written in 1965 when Slick was the lead singer of The Great Society. The song was one of the reasons why Jefferson Airplane recruited her as its new lead singer to replace Signe Toly Anderson, who left the band after having her first child.

The song first appeared on vinyl in 1967 on Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic Pillow” album. The song juxtaposes characters from Lewis Carroll’s children’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) with the hallucinatory experiences of an acid trip.

“White Rabbit” builds to a rising crescendo and adds elements of Spanish music, a snapping snare drum, and a driving electric guitar to create its own hallucinatory experience. It’s hard not to listen to “White Rabbit” and Grace’s trippy lyrics without a powerful urge to reach for the water bong.

Most of the lyrics get Carroll’s characters wrong (The White Knight, for example, does not talk backwards and the Dormouse never says “Feed your head”), but it doesn’t really matter. In fact, it adds another layer to the mystical feel of the number.

Because “White Rabbit” interpreted Carroll’s classic in a completely new way – infusing it with 1960s hippie messages and suddenly all of these innocent and vibrant characters have darker shades and that hookah-smoking caterpillar becomes damn suspicious. Because he is smoking from a hookah and sitting on a fucking mushroom.

Then there is Slick herself. She looks like a college honor student with her puppy dog eyes and librarian good looks (she was a model before she was a singer). But underneath those American girl looks was a rebel -- a free spirit. You didn't know what Slick would do next. Hell, she wanted to spike U.S. President Richard Nixon's tea with LSD. She brings
that shimmering tension to the vocals of "White Rabbit."

The song has had incredible influence and according to the music site All Music, “White Rabbit” has been covered by more than 100 bands, including the gothic punk band the Damned and jazz musician George Benson.

But the song has had more than just musical influence – it’s a full-blown cultural phenomenon. Listening to “White Rabbit” is like stepping into a time machine back to the 1960s and stirs up striking visuals of the time: Woodstock, round sunglasses, hippies without shirts, headbands, and mood rings.

“White Rabbit” has been featured on the Simpsons – three times. It was featured in Oliver Stones’ “Platoon” and been written about by Stephen King. Blue Man Group has done a cover. It inspired the book “Go Ask Alice.” It’s in video games and was played on “The Sopranos.” It’s everywhere.

What do you think Morpheus was referring to when he said to Neo in “The Matrix”: “You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes”? It certainly wasn’t Lewis Carroll.
Morpheus is talking about “White Rabbit.”

The Lyrics:

One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you

Don't do anything at all

Go ask Alice

When she's ten feet tall

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall

Tell them a hookah smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call

Recall Alice

When she was just small

When men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go

And you've just had some kind of mushroom

And your mind is moving slow

Go ask Alice

I think she'll know

When logic and proportion

Have fallen sloppy dead

And the White Knight is talking backwards

And the Red Queen's "off with her head!"

Remember what the dormouse said;

"Feed your head!

“Feed your head!”

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