What makes a song come hurtling back up from the depths of the memory? Just occasionally, something that defined a time in your life – a few hours, a week, a month – but that you haven’t given a second thought to for years, decades, rears up from the past with all its old power. The response, the feelings, the connection you made with that particular piece of music, with its potent combination of voice, lyric, melody – above all, the ‘sound’ it made in your life – clout you with all of their original force. It’s extraordinary, like travelling in time.
I don’t know what made me search for Grace Slick’s “Dreams” on YouTube the other day. It was a random, almost unthinking act. A bit of displacement therapy to postpone some mundane task. But the great thing is that I did it. And ever since, the song has been playing on a continuous loop in my head. I was astonished and touched by its familiarity, the words returning effortlessly to mind after three decades, those epic cadences just as thrilling, and Slick’s fascinating, textured, contralto resonating through an apocolyptic yet compelling vision of the terrors of the night.
“Dreams” was the title track of Slick’s 1980 solo album. I remember the first time I heard it on BBC Radio 1 – how much more adventurous its playlist was in those days! – and how completely enthralled I was by its symphonic qualities, and by Slick’s blistering vocal attack. At that stage – and for a long time afterwards – I knew nothing about her, that pedigree steeped in the legendary psychedelia of Jefferson Airplane in its various guises. I just knew that this was a voice that commanded attention, that was hypnotic in the way it charged on with something that sounded like controlled rage, almost fighting with the majestic beauty of the song’s arrangement. At least, looking back, I think that’s what I thought. Only probably less specifically. I was only 18, after all. I just knew what I liked, and there wasn’t a lot of it about in those days.
Fortunately, “Dreams” got a plenty of airplay, none of which helped to make the song a hit, although it meant I got to hear it a lot. I suppose that gives it cult status today, because it obviously has a lot of fans out there. Sean Delaney’s lyrics paint a wonderfully lurid picture of the sinister parade that storms, tantalises, disturbs and ravages sleep. I now understand, of course, that the album was at heart a concept project that explored the AA 12-step programmes, Slick having recently emerged from a prolonged stay in rehab.
“To be honest, doing solo albums scared the shit out of me; making music was no longer fun, it was nerve-wracking pressure,” she wrote in her absorbing 1998 autobiography, Somebody to Love? “For someone who couldn’t handle a quarter cup of coffee without wondering where the quaaludes were, working solo was just a couple of steps short of flinging myself off a 150-foot diving board.”
The really odd thing is that I’ve only heard the rest of the album in the last few days. The song “Dreams” was always enough in the completeness of the story, the vision it rolled out. But when I found the video on YouTube (a word about that: it’s very much of its time! Slick looks hard and big-haired, her eyes demonic in a Myra Hindley-ish way, but she is still riveting, a performance artist through and through. The Dolly Parton wig is a stroke of genius) and found myself transported back – not to an actual experience but to a sense of my teenaged self – I wanted to know more about the album. A search for MP3 downloads was fruitless. So it was off to Amazon.
In her book, Slick points out that her solo albums didn’t sell. That she didn’t tour on the back of them, which was a mistake. Well, Grace, thanks to a Japanese import and a rather silly amount of money, Dreams just notched up another royalty and I hope you get it. Because it’s a marvellous album, an explosion of musical references that’s surely overdue for a release. It’s gone straight onto my smartphone and I’m just letting the stories it tells play out on the commute, building a complex picture around a song that’s come back into my life like an old friend.
I know that there was much more to Slick’s music than this, and I’ve since discovered the wonders of “Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”, and the unique contribution that arresting voice made to a seminal period in rock history. And even the commercial hits of Starship – Slick has since made no secret of her lack of interest in them – have the ability to generate a nostalgia for the 1980s, powered by her unmistakable vocals.
Grace Slick at 70: a successful artist with the presence of a tribal elder
She stopped performing at 49, believing that rock stars over 50 should stop inflicting their ageing presence on an audience. That’s a shame because from the sound of it, she could still knock seven bells out of her iconic numbers – including “Dreams”. Today, she is a successful artist, renowned for her work in acrylic, particularly studies of her rock star contemporaries, many of whom didn’t have her resilience and instinct for self-preservation. In interviews she appears a wise elder of the global tribe: fiercely intelligent, plain-spoken, as uncompromising as ever, warm, compassionate and very funny, a mane of white hair pulled tightly back so that her interrogator gets the full benefit of that frank, experience-laden gaze. More power to her. And huge thanks for “Dreams”.