Why is this interesting? - The White Rabbit Edition

On songwriting, inspiration, and becoming iconic

Colin here. A fun, recurring thought experiment of mine is what it would be like to be present at the creation of something that becomes massively iconic. Sitting on a sofa during a studio session while Fleetwood Mac were recording Gold Dust Woman. Or in the mixing room while Kylie was polishing Can’t Get You Out of My Head. Or being present at the creation of the infamous Nokia tone, which at the time of peak saturation, was one of the most familiar sounds in the world. Every one of these sessions has an interesting backstory but what is most interesting is the people creating at the time have no idea of what their song is about to become.

Some things grow so big as to personify a moment in time completely. When you think about the rise of psychedelic culture in the ’60s, there a few songs that rush forward (Hendrix, etc) to represent the entire zeitgeist. Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit is obviously near the top of the list: something that personifies a mood and has transcended an actual moment in time into something bigger. 

So with a lot of interest, I read the excellent backstory recently featured in the FT about the writing of the song:

One day in 1963, Grace Slick, a model who worked in a San Francisco department store, took the fashionable psychedelic drug LSD and listened to Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain “about 50 times without stopping”, by her own account.

She particularly loved “Concierto de Aranjuez” which accounts for virtually the whole of the first side. It’s the trumpeter’s take on the mournful second movement of the work of the same name by Spanish composer Joaquín Rodrigo.

Slick, born in 1939, the same year that Rodrigo wrote the concerto, found Davis’s interpretation “hypnotic”. Two years later, when she was composing the music for some Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland-inspired lyrics she had written, “Sketches of Spain was drilled into my head and came squirting out in various ways.”

I would have never guessed Sketches of Spain was an inspiration to the writing of this song, but in the distance, perhaps some rudiments in the percussion in the backdrop might have planted the seed? There’s a ton of incredible detail in the piece, from what the bass line was inspired by, to some clever post-rationalization about the line “feed your head.” Slick would later claim that “Feed your head” was intended “as an endorsement of the value of education, not simply as a rallying cry for hippies wigging out on psychedelics.”

Why is this interesting? 

Doing deep forensics on a song leads you down a few rabbit holes of your own. For instance, listening to the isolated vocals from the track actually makes you realize the underlying pure talent, separated from the familiar elements. 

Susan Doran, who runs Living Archives, uploaded the isolated vocals and remarked in the piece about how it taps into a vein for a lot of people. Not surprisingly, there are thousands of comments, and they get pretty deep. People share stories of where they first heard the track and other recollections. Doran recounts: “There is something about the song, and Grace Slick's delivery, that seems to resonate with people as otherworldly or transcendent. It’s the most frequent theme reflected in listener feedback.”

Oddly, the song had its first cultural liftoff on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in May 1967, of all places, before reaching number 8 on the US charts. And if you can dissociate yourself from the connotations today, a lot of that initial popularity was based on a wink and a nudge, as the lyrics were described as “enigmatic” and cited as one of the first songs to sneak drug references past censors on the radio. 

But over time, through years, repetition, movie soundtracks, and even meme culture, the song became something much bigger than what Slick described as a call “to follow your curiosity” into something seemingly immortal and a perfect time capsule of a moment. (CJN

Album of the Day: 

Here’s a full stream of Sketches of Spain, in the event you want to squint and catch some of the thread that inspired Slick to write what she did. 

Quick Links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

Why is this interesting? is a daily email from Noah Brier & Colin Nagy (and friends!) about interesting things. If you’ve enjoyed this edition, please consider forwarding it to a friend. If you’re reading it for the first time, consider subscribing (it’s free!).