They Called Grace Slick of Jefferson Starship the Acid Queen, but Her Real Battle Is with the Bottle
On the day Elvis died, Grace Slick of Jefferson Starship called a friend and rambled incoherently: “If I hadn’t gotten off drinking, I might have been next.” The speculation seems even more chilling in retrospect. Slick, now 38, seems as self-destructive as ever—and drinking is apparently the cause. Since January the Acid Queen of the ’60s rock scene has been arrested twice for drunkenness, and checked into Marin General Hospital for a month trying to dry out. That worked until June, when a case of flu caused her and the Starship to cancel a show in Germany at the last minute. Twelve thousand fans rioted—trashing $200,000 of the septet’s equipment—and the shock waves, says a band member, sent Grace back to the bottle. The next night she turned the concert into a shambles, blowing cues, harassing the rest of the band onstage and putting her finger up the nose of a young German spectator. “At that point we knew it was over,” says guitarist Craig Chaquico. After playing one more concert with rented gear and without Grace, the Starship canceled its remaining 15 summer dates.
It is only surprising that trouble did not strike sooner. Since emerging with Jefferson Airplane (later to metamorphose into the Starship) in 1966, Slick has behaved as if she preferred her mind altered. Marijuana? “I use it when I’m doing music.” Cocaine? “Edison and Freud snorted, so I’m following in a great tradition.” Pills? “If most people could take one, I could handle two or three.” LSD? Well, admits Grace, “I stopped dropping acid for a while after my daughter was born. It’s hard to keep an eye on the kid while you’re hallucinating.” But, though she sang of pharmaceuticals, booze was always with her. “Alcohol goes better with my body chemistry,” says Slick. “I started drinking heavily at 16—anything I could get my hands on. My headmistress thought I was drinking orange juice—actually I was getting smashed on screwdrivers.”
Slick hit bottom when the fractious Airplane broke up in 1973. “I was drinking from the moment I got up until I collapsed at night,” she recollects. Guitarist Paul Kantner, the Starship leader and her lover at the time (they produced a daughter, China, now 7), recalls he once “wrapped her in masking tape when she got drunkenly abusive.” (A bad drinker, she’s known to harangue and flail out at police.) During one period Slick would disappear for days at a time, and she once suffered a concussion when she piled her Aston-Martin into a wall near the Golden Gate Bridge. Admits Grace: “I have blanks in my memory since then.”
Slick successfully swore off liquor for about a year around the time of her 1976 marriage to Starship lighting man Skip Johnson. “Nobody else dared tell me how disgusting I was,” she recalls, “but Skip came right out with it.” Long an apostle of the Jefferson Airplane ethic of promiscuity, Grace says of their relationship: “It took me to the age of 36 to find love.” He was 23. In her sardonic style, she felt compelled to add: “I’ve given more of myself to Skip than to any other man. I’d say that’s around five percent.” But she bought a $70,000 cruiser (mostly for him, because she gets seasick) and a $200,000 house north of San Francisco in posh Mill Valley. She decorated the place in one afternoon with a Macy’s charge card, and turned down Skip’s suggestion that she have a baby and keep house. “That’s not what I’m about now,” says Slick. Then she resumed drinking. “Same old story,” says keyboardist Pete Sears. “She’s such a beautiful person when she’s sober. She’s got all the material things she could possibly want—but that’s not the answer.”
As for the nonmaterial problems, there’s voice trouble. “I’ve had three node operations and have to struggle for the high notes,” Grace admits. “But I can still sing loud and that’s what rock is all about.” More to the point, she hasn’t composed a hit single since the dope paean White Rabbit in 1967. “I don’t write Top 40,” she counters. “My mind is more complex than that.” There have been problems within Star-ship, too, largely because Marty Balin—who is responsible for most of the group’s hits, including the most recent one, Miracles—refuses to sign a contract. This prohibits the band from touring or recording except at his convenience. He complains, in turn, that “Grace ruins my songs onstage with her wild improvisations.”
One easy pop-psych theory is that it all goes back to rebellion against her parents. The Acid Queen’s mother, Virginia Barnett, came from old Puritan stock, but, as a onetime nightclub singer, is thrilled by Grace’s success. Her father, Ivan Wing, a conservative San Francisco investment banker descended from U.S. Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge (1857-61), regarded her act as vulgar and has boycotted it to this day. Grace takes pleasure in beating Dad at his own game: She out-earns him and used to carry around satchels of $100 bills. Years ago she quit the proper Finch College chosen by her folks and divorced her well-heeled first husband, cinematographer Jerry Slick. When Tricia Nixon invited fellow Finch alums to a White House reception in 1970, Grace brought along radical Abbie Hoffman. He was barred at the gate, and they both left—fortunately, because she was supposedly toting 600 micromilligrams of LSD to spike the tea.
Remorse over those bygones plus the German fiasco and a recent heart attack suffered by her father have led Grace to attend sessions of Alcoholics Anonymous—reportedly twice a day. And Chaquico insists Starship will lift off again: “We waited for Marty Balin last year while he was working things out in his life, and we’ll wait for Grace.” But Slick has said she’s “not worried even if my career does go down the tubes. I’d just go back to school.” And then? “I’d like to be a drug counselor—because I know how it feels to be an addict.”