Mud, no bathrooms and bad trips: Grace Slick looks back on Woodstock
Jefferson Airplane's frontwoman reminisces on the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival
This story was originally published on Aug. 15, 2019
Woodstock might have been a magical, musical, drug-fuelled experience for the hundreds of thousands of young people in the crowd — but for the performers, it was a bit of a mess, says Jefferson Airplane frontwoman Grace Slick.
Aug. 15 marks the beginning of the 50th anniversary of the iconic, three-day music festival that drew 400,000 people to a farm in Bethel, N.Y.
Slick spoke to As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal about what it was like to be there. Here is part of their conversation.
So much of what people heard and saw at Woodstock 50 years ago is why they feel there's magic still around that festival. When you think back, do you think of magic?
The magic of it is I don't think we realized there were that many people paying attention to the changes that were going on, and hopeful that those changes would present themselves physically through legal processes and fun stuff.
Woodstock was fun. If you're 18 and you don't care about sitting in the mud, it's fun.
I heard that you referred to Woodstock [in the book Performance and Popular Music: History, Place and Time] as not amazing but "a bunch of stupid slobs in the mud." Would you still think they were stupid?
I don't think they were stupid. I just think they were young.
In other words, I had to stay up all night on a stage with no bathroom that I can remember, waiting to go on because something got screwed up. We're supposed to go on at 9 and we had to be on the stage until six o'clock in the morning. Now rock 'n' roll's weird at six o'clock in the morning, but we did it because we said we would.
I brought a white dress, and you can't run out and buy something else because it's raining. You've got a white dress? Too bad.
You couldn't see anybody because ... we were in a motel. Half an hour before you're supposed to go on, which for us was about nine o'clock at night, a helicopter comes and picks you up, drops you off backstage, you go up, you play your set, then the helicopter takes you back to the hotel.
For us, it wasn't quite as marvellous as it might be for somebody who's 18 years old. I was 29, so my idea of fun is not having to watch out for a white dress and no bathrooms and playing at six o'clock in the morning.
So Woodstock, personally, was not fun. But the idea of it, and the idea that we attracted that many people, was kind of amazing. But that's all in your head. That's not what actually happened.
I hear it was a pain just to even get into the festival.
It was kind of funny being backstage and they kept saying, "Well, no you can't go on yet."
"Oh hell, give me some cocaine. I guess I'm gonna sleep."
Parts of it there were fun and kind of funny because it was so, by then, screwed up for a number of reasons. They didn't really plan on that weather and they didn't plan on that many people. So they had to scramble, the people who put it on.
Once you did eventually get on stage and start to perform, the White Rabbit performance in particular, it still has such a hold on people who watch. It still gives them chills. Do you remember anything about that performance in particular?
Yes, it was recorded and it gives me chills too. Not for the same reason. It's because when you have been up all night — and I'm a smoker, still am, which is real stupid — but I'm a smoker, so if you've been up all night smoking, your voice is not spectacular.
I mean, I didn't get up with a big bunch of sleep the night before. So your attention span, a bunch of things, are not working as well as they should. So when I hear the performances that we did on various things, whether it's tape or whatever it is, I just think, "Oh God, oh God, that note's about a half a pitch higher, oh Jesus."
Do you care if a younger generation, a new generation, remembers you, remembers that performance, remembers Woodstock and the music you guys made?
They can hear on tape, or whatever is happening now. They can hear a facsimile of it. But it's not real.
The reason why people go to concerts — because they're a pain in the ass and it's expensive — is to have the real experience.
When you go to some kind of a concert like Woodstock was, and you go, "My God, look. That's a half a million people."
I mean, Joni Mitchell got all, you know, sugary about it and said we got to get ourselves back to the garden and we're stardust and we're golden and all that kind of stuff, which is a little bit over the top. But she was remarking on the fact that it was kind of amazing in its size.
But Americans are always blown away by size. We like big, you know. ... Bread used to be about four inches by four inches square. Now, it's about eight inches by three . You can't make a normal sandwich. It's just huge. So you figure, "Oh well, I'll eat that anyway." I mean, because that's all you can get. Unless you make your sandwiches out of an English muffin. Those are fairly small.
So much of the mythology of Woodstock, or the reality of it, was frankly the drugs. You referenced it a couple of minutes ago. What was that like?
We usually did not take acid on purpose because it can really mess with your perception of things. And if it gets too messy, then you screw the song up.
What was it like to perform on it?
Well, we have done that. But those are people like the Dead and us and Janice and everybody, we knew what it was. So we could feel it coming on. And I've done that onstage.
We also made mistakes. Our road manager had a box with about 16 little segments in it and he had different drugs in each of the little segments. And we took what we thought was cocaine — snorting it, not shooting it — snorting it backstage just before we went on. But we took it out of the wrong box, and we took LSD. So about 15 minutes into the set we looked at each other and went, "Oh boy. Oops."
I was supposed be playing the piano at one point and I just stopped playing the piano because I wanted to listen to Jack playing the bass. I really liked his bass playing, so I just stopped playing.
That's the problem with acid is that it's a little tricky for delivering the song in the style it's supposed to be delivered.
So many people love to reminisce about Woodstock whether they were there or not — about the time, about what it meant to them. It doesn't sound like you guys sit around and reminisce about how great it was.
We didn't just get together and go, "Oh man, wasn't that wonderful?" Nobody did that.
It sounds like Neil Young had a pretty similar take to you as well. I can't say a lot of what he said about Woodstock on the air because there's a lot of swearing, but he said it was pretty awful.
Both he and I are scorpios, and so is Joni Mitchell. So I'm surprised that her take on it was so sweet.
Do you ever get the urge to be onstage again to perform?
I usually don't go return to the scene of the crime where we try to go home again, as they say. I usually don't want to.
You lived it to the fullest and then you want to move on.
I've done that. You've got that stupid phrase, "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt." And that's pretty much the way I feel about it.
What gives you joy now?
What are you working on now?
I do pretty consistently Alice In Wonderland stuff because people write to me about that because of White Rabbit. So white rabbit, that's kind of my familiar, which is a name they give to the animal that you choose, witches choose.
Some of them have cats. Some of them have worms. Some of them have lizards. Mine is a white rabbit.
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong and Chloe Shantz-Hilkes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.