Grace Slick hates it.
I didn’t like it when it was released, when they inserted the name of every local city for radio stations, but all these years later…it kind of cracks me up, anthemic rock, with exuberant vocals.
But the band didn’t write it.
So I’m just back from the Malibu hills, where I was talking with Grace Slick. You know, the untamable woman who was the sexual zenith of rock and roll, an icon of her era.
She doesn’t look like that anymore. But the personality…it remains intact. Opinionated and direct, if you close your eyes it’s forty years ago.
Not that Grace is trying to hide her age, she’ll be eighty in the fall. And although she had some plastic surgery way back when, in her forties, saying it was necessary if you were on stage, she has let her body age, and at first you’re shocked, but then you’re mesmerized, it’s her! What was it like being in that body all those years ago?
Actually, Grace doesn’t want to talk about it. She thinks none of the songs she wrote were perfect and at times she was so inebriated, she can’t remember. But she lived it, it’s all about being in the moment, having fun, and she did. Grace said if you’re talented and having fun, go for it. But you’ve got to be persistent, there can be no gaps in your resume, you’ve got to pursue your goal.
And after “Red Octopus,” which she considers Marty’s album, even though I LOVE “Play On Love,” Grace stayed with the outfit as Marty and Paul faded away and…
She didn’t like singing other people’s songs. It’s not like being in a band, living it together, having experiences…
And that’s another thing, the band did own that three-story Victorian, but they did not all live in it together, maybe Paul Kantner slept upstairs for six months in between relationships, but really it was for business. And despite the reputation, the band was all business. Constantly on the road. And then…
It was the Starship and they sang this song.
So Grace starts going on a rant. THERE’S NO CITY BUILT ON ROCK AND ROLL! AS A MATTER OF FACT, ALL THE CITIES PRE-DATE ROCK AND ROLL!
It’s like she’s sitting in the audience, she agreed with “Rolling Stone,” which called “We Built This City” the worst track of the eighties, or something like that.
And Grace is testifying, what do the words mean? Who can relate to them?
And then she reveals the nugget, the essence, the lyrics were written by Bernie Taupin, about the closure of bars in Los Angeles…you know, which was BUILT ON ROCK AND ROLL!
Whew, I never knew that!
And then Grace starts saying how that was stupid. Because bars are driven by people, and if nobody goes, they go out of business, but if the desire is strong enough, they’ll grow again, it’s kinda like Whac-A-Mole, the town elders/police are against them, but the people are for them.
I’m sitting in Grace’s house overlooking the ocean. She doesn’t hate L.A. She says her generation, OUR generation, was built on the movies, and they were all made in Southern California. She likes to talk on the phone, she doesn’t send e-mail, she uses her iPad as an encyclopedia, and her eyes bug out as she says what a great encyclopedia it is! We lament the passage of all those music clubs/bars, but is today’s generation demanding them?
You know what Chris Rock says, men surrender, they get married because they don’t want to be the oldest person in the bar. And I can relate to that as in I never go to a bar anymore, and it’s not just because I don’t drink, I can stay at home and interact, and old people are into lifestyle, being taken care of.
But I’d go to a music club to see name talent. That’s what brought me to the Whisky, the Roxy and the Troubadour way back when. But then the clubs all had seats, you contemplated the music, as opposed to it being an assault. Today you go to a club and it’s all about you, the audience. The music is not the draw, but the ability to interact with each other. People will pay to hear bands, but they’ve got to have a name, pub-crawling to see developing acts is dead, as dead as most of the places they used to play!
So Grace says Bernie’s a great lyricist, she respects him, but not on this one.
So she quit.
Nobody quits a good thing anymore, they’re too into the MONEY!
And “We Built This City” went to number one, it was a hit all over the world. But it was still dreck.
Ain’t that interesting in an era where if it makes money, it’s good.
But hearing the backstory, from someone who was there, who’s not into self-mythologizing…THAT’S PRICELESS!
Mickey Thomas Responds
Subject: We Built This City
A Different Point of View
I don’t engage in debates over the validity of “We Built This City” or any of my work. It’s not my nature and I don’t really see the point of it, but there comes a moment when enough is enough.
It bothers me to read revisionist history by people trying to protect their own agendas. The main criticism of “We Built This City” didn’t really start until 15 years after the release. We all know where the gist of that came from. I’m someone who was also “THERE” when it all went down. So let me ask you a question…”Does anybody out there really think that Grace Slick would sing a song that she absolutely hated?”…… That’s what I thought you were thinking. I spent seven of the best years of my career recording and touring with Grace. Many long hours in the studio and on the tour bus. We enjoyed many fascinating conversations…A lot of highs and a few lows. I think I know her pretty well and I think the world of Grace.
I brought in the demo of “City” to present it to the STARSHIP band. (Not Jefferson Starship BTW) I was attracted by the lyrics of the song. I loved the imagery and interpretive nature of Bernie’s words. I felt it was a protest song but not really in an angry sense, it impressed me more as a feeling of lost innocence. I discussed my thoughts on what “City” meant in the lyrics with the band. It was never about a real city to me. It was an allegory for any collection of people anywhere who came together to express themselves through the power of music. It was both a celebration of rock and roll and a protest against those who try and tame it. I never for a moment thought that anyone would think that I was actually singing about concrete and steel or bricks and mortar. I was actually thinking about Woodstock when I was recording this song. The “We” in the lyric to me always signified a collective we. The artist and the audience singing together as one.
The song then went through an evolution in the studio. The big anthemic chorus was added. This always represented a double-edged sword for me. I knew that it was the “hook” that would give the song the most commercial appeal, but I was always afraid that it might obscure the dark underbelly of the verse lyrics. Therefore; the element that assured the song’s success also provided the fodder for all the naysayers. I realize that “We Built This City” became the poster child for a lot of what was happening in music at that time that angered some folks. The technology invading the process and sanding down the rough edges of rock. For me it was like getting a new set of toys to play with, new tools to work with, a new pallet to paint with. We were just going through a new period of music. The “Knee Deep in the Hoopla” LP didn’t mean I would never sing “Jane” or “Find Your Way Back” or “Fooled Around and Fell in Love’ again. I realize some of the vitriol associated with “We Built This City” can be attributed to the transformation of the band….from the romanticized 60’s to the big business music of the 80’s. But hey….. that’s a whole other subject I won’t delve into at the moment.
The question for me is this: Why can’t a sophisticated listener enjoy both aspects of the song simultaneously? Why not sing along with the gleeful chorus while still appreciating the protestation of the verses. They are not mutually exclusive…Paradox anyone? The night “We Built This City” went to number one, I spoke to Bernie Taupin on the phone. I asked him a question, “Bernie, now more than ever people are going to ask me… what does Marconi plays the mamba mean?” He instantly replied, “I have no fucking idea mate, but it sounds good doesn’t it?” Aha!… Sound over sensibility!
Sometimes late at night after more than a little chardonnay, I can envision angry arboreal reptiles emerging from the radio speakers and slithering away into the night, looking for the ship of fools that’s crawling through your schools. I had no idea that “City” would be such a big hit…hell I never even thought of it as a single. I am very happy for the pleasure that “City” brought, and continues to bring, to people all over the world. In my not so humble opinion, something that universal is hardly dreck. Be careful when you jump on the bandwagon…it might hurt when you fall off.
Peace and love,