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Grace Slick's Festival Memories: Fearing Orgies and Getting Lit

Jefferson Airplane singer recalls her first experiences Monterey, Woodstock and Altamont

Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane performs in Rotterdam.
Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
May 23, 2014 8:50 AM ET

During her tenure in Jefferson Airplane (and later Jefferson Starship and Starship), Grace Slick made history as one of the first women to front a rock & roll band. She also made a different kind of history as one of the few performers to appear at all three of rock's most famous and infamous festivals: the Monterey International Pop Festival, Woodstock and Altamont. (The Airplane even played the very first such gathering, 1967's Fantasy Fair and Magic Mountain Music Festival.)

45 years of festival fashion: look back at everything from Woodstock to EDC

Now 74, Slick left rock & roll in 1989 and has since devoted herself to art; she's painted over 500 pieces, which have been shown in hundreds of exhibits and have fetched as much as $25,000 each. (She'll be displaying and discussing her work at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, where Slick lives, on June 17th.) As this year's festival season gets underway here and in Europe, Slick looks back at the first, often tumultuous era and how she survived it.

Before 1967, there were no rock festivals, so how did you and the Airplane feel when you were asked to play the first couple?
I had gone to some of the jazz festivals at Monterey, so I knew the venue. We were glad to play it. Monterey was so well run and everything pretty much that was offered in the booths was handmade, and you could get to a bathroom within less than nine hours. The entire area in back of the stage was people wandering around. There were drinks and marijuana and blow and whatever else everyone was interested in. Everything worked. 

In terms of the other acts, how eye-opening was Monterey for you?
We had heard all of these people on record, but I'd never seen Ravi Shankar or the Who perform live. We were all on the side of the stage behind the black curtain, and we were just as excited as the audience. Hendrix was doing his hands with the flames like it was some kind of spiritual strange Creole thing, and it was just amazing to watch. Putting your guitar down and setting it on fire, we were like, "Whoa!"

I've always wondered: Did his guitar smell of smoke?
It didn't. The fire wasn't big enough to smell.

And how about the Who?
We didn't know the Who were going to smash things up. The guitar players in our group were cringing, since we didn't have that kind of money [to replace the instruments]. But I thought it was wonderful. I didn't own any of the machinery.

Everyone still talks about Otis Redding.
I'd never seen Otis before either. I thought the stage was going to fall in when he stomped his foot. It I wasn't so much the pressure on the stage, it was the power of his personality and the power of the songs and the togetherness of his band.

So Monterey was a good experience for you, compared to the festivals that came later.
Oh, yeah. We were all excited about Woodstock. We thought it would be an East Coast version of Monterey. In this country, there's a tendency to admire big. Half a million people — ooh! Then Joni [Mitchell] wrote, "We are stardust/we are golden" and all that shit. I love Joni, but I didn't have quite the same take on it — I thought, "This is big but it's real sloppy." We were supposed to go onstage at 9 at night. Helicopters had to come and get us because the roads were so screwed up you couldn't take a car. The helicopter came to the hotel and picked up whatever band was going in a half hour. So we got dropped off around 8:30 and they kept shifting things around. They said, "You can't go on yet." We were onstage all night. I don't remember going to the bathroom or wanting to. We were smoking dope and drinking wine and sitting around. It was a very large stage. Then 10 o'clock came and they'd say, "You're playing in an hour." Then we played at something like 7 in the morning. It was light. You don't play rock & roll at 7 in the morning!

Did you get any sleep?
No. And that's pretty much the only time I've ever been up all night. I don't do all night. I'm not good at it. 

What did you think when you walked out and saw all those people?
It's always good to see the people. I played a lot of festivals in the summer and it was set up for various kinds of performances and they had spotlights that are bolted in place, and they're blinding. I wore a white dress with fringe. I packed it in California and I didn't even think about the weather. I just assumed it would be marvelous. That day [after it rained], I thought, "Christ, I don't have anything else I can wear — this is it!" So I had to keep my feet out of the mud. 

Did you have a sense of Woodstock's cultural impact as it was happening?
We were not aware of how well things were being taken care of or not. I just thought it took an awful long time to get to a bathroom whether you had to pee or throw up. You couldn't move around.  

Did you spend much time hanging out after your set?
No, there was no point in sticking around. The weather was too goofy. I didn't see the Dead the whole time I was there. It was that big and that confusing. In the hotel, a bunch of us were in the lobby and a group called the Band came in the lobby and walked single file all dressed in black. Didn't say anything to anybody and went straight back to the back of the hotel. We were all looking at them, like, "Wow, that's weird! That's not especially friendly!" Boy, they were good, though.

And then came Altamont.
Paul [Kantner] and I went to England to talk to Mick Jagger about Altamont. I was scared because I'd never met Mick before. I thought, "Oh, God, there's going to be some kind of orgy there and I don't do orgies and they're going to think I'm a big prude and it's going to be a party with heroin and all this weird shit I don't do." I walked into Mick's flat and it looked like my parents' home: Oriental rugs, Edwardian furniture, well kept. I was perfectly at home — it really was like visiting my parents. He was in a three-piece suit and served us tea, and we talked about how to put this thing on. When he does business, he does business. He doesn't screw around. He knows how to separate having orgies from doing business.

In theory, given the lineup (Rolling Stones, Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Santana, the Flying Burrito Brothers), Altamont should have been fantastic.
It could have been all right. But the area was not that pretty. California can be ugly and brown and this area was just ugly and brown. And the problem is: it was partially our fault. Paul and I were talking to Jagger about how we'd done a bunch of stuff free in Golden Gate Park and the Hells Angels had been our security. And they never hurt anybody. And they were good at it because people were afraid of them. So we said, "We'll get the Hells Angels to do security," and Jagger didn't know and said OK. But it turned out to not be right. There was speed and alcohol and those two things are God-awful. I would do coke to keep the alcohol going — but not during the day. But I guess it wasn't too early for the Angels. 

The whole day was ugly. I didn't have my contact lenses on. Or maybe I didn't have them at the time. I couldn't see anything. I saw bodies moving vaguely over on my left, which is where Marty [Balin] was, and I went back to the drums and said to Spencer [Dryden], "What the hell is going on?" And he said, "The Angels are kind of beating up Marty." What happened is they were messing with one of our crew. Marty objected and one of the Angels said something back to Marty, and Marty said, "Fuck you," and the guy knocked Marty down while we were singing and said, "You never say fuck you to an Angel" — and Marty said it again! Our crew had to pull Angels off Marty. And I thought, "Well, this is not a very good start to the day." It turned out a guy died. We were leaving in a helicopter when the Stones were playing and Paul was looking out the window and said, "Geez, it looks like somebody got shoved or stabbed down there." And he was right. The guy died. It was not good all the way around.

Did you and the Airplane finish your set?
I think we did, but there's a lot of stuff I don't remember. They said Altamont was the end of an era, which more or less is true. It coincided with the way things rise and fall. Everything does that. Look at the Roman Empire. Sometimes it takes two years, sometimes it takes 500. Everything is born, rises and then dies.

Have you checked out any of the current wave of festivals like Coachella?
No, I don't go to that kind of stuff anymore. Like Danny Glover says in Lethal Weapon, "I'm too old for this shit!" I'm too old for any shit. I hear about Coachella all the time because I live in L.A., so it's on the news. I know there are tons of others around the country. They seem to have learned a couple of things, because I don't hear about people getting killed or people having heart attacks, although I'm sure that'll happen. If you get a lot of people together, the odds are something is going to happen. Chances are people are going to get weird.

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