Sunday, 2 March 2008

"White Rabbit" by Jefferson Airplane

Recently Jeremy posted a mashup of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" with all too fitting clips from the classic Star Trek on his blog Popped Culture. Since then I have not been able to get the song out of my head. I must confess, it is one of my favourite songs of all time. It is also one of the most interesting songs from the Sixties. Here I must state that while it is one of my favourite songs and its subject matter is obviously drug oriented, I by no means intend to condone drug use through the discussion of this song.

"White Rabbit" was written by Grace Slick either in late 1965 or early 1966. It was first performed by The Great Society, the band of which Slick was a member at the time, in 1966. It was largely on the strength of that song that Jefferson Airplane asked Slick to join them as them. The song was recorded for Jefferson Airplane's debut album Surrealistic Pillow, released in 1967. It was released as their sixth single and was their second hit, following their remake of The Great Society's "Somebody to Love."White Rabbit" went all the way to #8 on Billboard's Hot 100. It would later be covered by everyone from George Benson to The Damned to Patti Smith.

As its title demonstrates, "White Rabbit" is inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll, drawing parallels between Carroll's works and the hallucinatory effects of LSD and similar drugs.According to the official Jefferson Airplane biography of Grace Slick, the song "...was intended as a slap toward parents who read their children stories such as Alice in Wonderland (in which Alice uses several drug-like substances in order to change herself) and then wondered why their children grew up to do drugs." As will be seen below, the song includes incidents from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass in which Alice ingests various substances. In addition to the White Rabbit, many of the characters from two books are mentioned in the song as well--the caterpillar, the White Knight,the Red Queen, and, of course, Alice. Below I will analyse the lyrics, stanza by stanza.

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

The reference to the pill which make you larger and the pill which makes you small is drawn from Chapters One and Two of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, although the allusion is somewhat inaccurate. It was not pills that made Alice change in size. Instead, in Chapter One "Down the Rabbit Hole," Alice ingests a liquid labelled "Drink Me" which causes her to shrink. She then eats a cake labelled "Eat Me," which she discovers in Chapter Two "The Pool of Tears" had made her grow. Of course,the reference to pills is perfectly in keeping with Slick drawing parallels to Lewis Carroll's works and the Sixties drug culture. The lines to "And the ones that mother gives you/Don't do anything at all" would appear to be a reference not to Caroll, but instead to placebos. A placebo is any preparation which has no demonstrable effect on the human body, but has therapeutic benefit merely through the power of suggestion. The Fifties (most notably Henry Knowles Beecher's 1955 study) into the Sixties saw a good number of studies into the "placebo effect."

And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you're going to fall
Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call Alice when she was just small

The first two lines refer to the first chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is in this chapter that Alice sees the White Rabbit (in waistcoat and carrying a pocket watch, no less) and falls after him down a hole. The hookah-smoking caterpillar first appears in Chapter Four of the same book.and plays the central role in Chapter Five, in which he tries to advise Alice. The final line may be a reference to either Chapter One (in which Alice shrinks) or to Chapter Four (in which she shrinks again).

When the 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 low
Go ask Alice, I think she'll know

With this stanza "White Rabbit" shifts from allusions to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland to allusions from Through the Looking-Glass. The chess pieces make their first appearance in Chapter One of that book.By Chapter Two she has become one of the White Queen's pawns. Throughout the book she receives direction from the various chess pieces. "And you've just had some kind of mushroom" would appear to be a reference to both psilocybin mushrooms (commonly called "magic mushrooms") and an incident in Chapter Five of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Having shrunk once more, Alice eats a mushroom and returns to normal size. This seems curious coming as it does before the line "And your mind is moving low," as eating the mushroom returns Alice to some sense of normality. It could be that "your mind is moving low" is unrelated to the reference to the mushroom, instead referring to the effects of various drugs, as well as to yet other incidents in both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. In Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Alice is warned drop down on the ground to avoid a confrontation with the Queen of Heats. At the end of Chapter Eight in Through the Looking-Glass Alice throws herself down upon the lawn, whereupon she discovers she is wearing a golden crown (finally achieving her goal of becoming a queen).

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

The lines "When logic and proportion/Have fallen sloppy dead" would appear to be a reference to two different things. It is most obviously a reference to psychoactive drugs, which can alter both one's sense of proportion and have an often adverse effect on one's sense of logic. It is also yet another reference to Lewis Carroll. Carroll worked in the genre of literary nonsense, in which language and logic are often stood on their heads. This is particularly true in his works dealing with Alice, in which he often toyed with logic. Of course, the reference to proportion clearly harks back to Alice's often changing size.

Here it must be pointed out that in no point in Through the Looking-Glass does the White Knight actually talks backwards. That having been said, the line could be a reference to Chapter Eight, in which the White Knight rescues Alice from the Red Knight and escorts Alice to her next destination. The White Knight is exceedingly clumsy and keeps falling off his horse. At one point the White Knight falls head first into a ditch. Alice asks him, "How can you go on talking so quietly, head downwards?" The White Knight replies, "What does it matter where my body happens to be? My mind goes on working all the same. In fact, the more head downwards I am, the more I keep inventing new things."

As to the line "the Red Queen's off with her head," this does not appear to be a reference to the Red Queen in Through the Looking-Glass, who at no point offs her own head or anyone else's, but instead to the Queen of Hearts of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In the book the Queen of Hearts is foul tempered and her most common order is "Off with their heads." She even demands that Alice be beheaded. Of course, the line could have a double meaning. "the Red Queen's off with her head" could indicate she is off thinking. Or, given the song's subject matter, it could indicate she is tripping on some drug.

Here it must be pointed out that the lines "Remember what the dormouse said" and "Feed your head, feed your head" are probably unrelated despite coming one after the other. The Dormouse is one of the attendees of the Mad Hatter's tea party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. In his first appearance he is being used as cushion by the Hatter and the March Hare. Much of what he says, including a story about three girls who live on treacle, would seem to have much meaning with regards to the song "White Rabbit." The line perhaps then refers to the Mad Hatter's questioning in the trial which unfolds in Chapter Eleven "Who Stole the Tarts," On the witness stand, the Mad Hatter is asked by one of the jury, "But what did the Dormouse say?" The Mad Hatter replies, "That I can't remember." The King of Hearts then threatens to have the Hatter executed if he can't remember. The Mad Hatter only saves himself by stating that he is a very poor man. The line could be a reference to the effects of drugs on memory, or perhaps a warning about such. As to the line "Feed your head, feed your head," given the era when the song was written, and the fact that Grace Slick did use psychoactive drugs at the time, it is perhaps encouraging people to experiment with drugs. Then again, it could also be a warning not to become forgetful as the Mad Hatter was and to keep one's mind active.

One the surface, "White Rabbit" would appear to be a song advocating drug use. Indeed, in making the comparison between Lewis Carroll's works and the effects of psychoactive drugs, it would seem to be encouraging their use. That having been said, I have often thought the song could also be interpreted as discouraging the use of psychoactive drugs, whether Grace Slick meant it as such or not. From the very beginning the song emphasises the mind altering effects of such drugs, "One pill makes you larger/And one pill makes you small." These effects become more extreme as the song proceeds. From growing and shrinking to encounters with white rabbits and hookah-smoking caterpillars, the song moves to chessmen telling one where to go. By the last stanza it would almost seem to be describing a bum trip. Logic and proportion have lost all meaning. The White Knight is talking backwards, perhaps indicating reality has lost all coherence. And worst yet, the Red Queen is apparently demanding decapitations. The growing sense of menace in the song is only amplified by its music, which is a gradually rising crescendo. As the song progresses, the music's volume grows and with it so does this impending sense of things gone awry, particularly when combined with the lyrics. Given that the lyrics seem to grow darker and more menacing with each stanza, as does the music, I would think that in the end the song would in the end cause people to stay as far away from psychoactive drugs as possible!

Here it must be noted that while today it is commonly assumed that Lewis Carroll frequently used psychoactive drugs, and in the drug culture of the Sixties it was practically taken for granted, there is no evidence that he ever did. In fact, in Victorian England psychoactive drugs would not be exceedingly common. I seriously doubt the average Englishman of the time knew of psilocybin mushrooms. LSD would not be invented for around another seventy years. Opium was certainly known at the time. In fact, a common painkiller of the time was laudanum, essentially an alcoholic tincture of opium. Carroll most likely did use laudanum from time to time, Perhaps he even used it for something other than medicinal purposes. But there is no real evidence that he used it frequently or that it influenced his writing. While many assume that the hookah-smoking caterpillar may hint that Carroll smoked marijuana, it must be pointed out that there is no evidence for this. Indeed, most likely the caterpillar was smoking nothing worse than tobacco. While many in the Sixties may have thought they had a kindred spirit in Lewis Carroll, it is very doubtful that he used psychoactive drugs beyond possibly laudanum. And given the era, it seems likely that he might not have even approved of such.

"White Rabbit" would become one of those songs most identified with the Sixties and the drug culture that existed at the time. Its lyrics would provide the title for the 1971 young adult novel Go Ask Alice. It would also be referenced in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Stephen King's Insominia, It has appeared in the movies Platoon and The Game (where it provides a sense of menace in one of the scenes of psychological harassment upon Michael Douglas's character). The song has been utilised in TV shows ranging from The Simpsons to The Sopranos. There can be little doubt that it was one of the most influential songs of its era.

Here again, I want to stress that in no way is the discussion of this song intended as an endorsement of or condoning of the use of psychoactive drugs.


d. chedwick bryant said...

I never knew the history of that song--this was an interesting read. Although I'm too young to have participated in all that "summer of Love" feeding of the head, it is interesting--the song still holds up today with so many "Alices" being the shrinks who lovingly & easily give out psychotropic drugs to young people to try to "fix their heads" -- as they get depressed or anxious in HS.

Jeremy Barker said...

A fantastic analysis, as always. I'm glad the video gave you a chance to indulge in your favorite song.

Could the line "And your mind is moving low" just be a juxtaposition of being high on drugs, assuming the song was attempting to sneak drug references past censors?

Mercurie said...

I think you could be right about the line "And your mind is moving low" simply being a juxtaposition of being high on drugs...yet another means of sneaking in a drug reference.

Ralph said...

Grace Slick said this in a 1998 interview:

''You either evolve or you don't,'' she says flatly. ''I don't like old people on a rock-and-roll stage. I think they look pathetic, me included. And the fact that I represent an era means I can't just go out there and do all new stuff. They would all say, 'Sing ''White Rabbit,'' ' and I'd say no? That's rude. But can you see me singing 'Feed your head' as a practicing nonalcoholic? It doesn't make sense now.''

In those days the word "head" evoked "pothead". So one might say, "He's a big head," to imply that a person used a lot of marijuana. The usage of these terms was sparse and variable in Berkeley, where I lived within a year or two of the song's composition. So I can't be absolutely certain, but I think "your head" meant "your high," that is, your current degree of inebriation. Ms. Slick seems to extend that meaning to include alcoholic inebriation, perhaps implicitly referring to alcohol used in combination with marijuana or psychedelics.

Thus I believe "feed your head" would have meant "keep increasing your high." And that explains why she says the lyric no longer makes sense.