For today’s featured song, I wanted to do something a little off the wall. I present to you White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane. I think it is one of the strangest and most unusual songs ever written. I think this song, more than any other sums up the late 60’s.
There has been a lot of confusion as to what the lyrics of this song are trying to say. The references are to Alice in Wonderland, but it goes deeper than that. This is not a song directly about Alice in Wonderland. At the time this song was released, everything was very censored. If the lyrics were literally stated, the song would have never been released on the radio and it would have never been heard. No, the lyrics are a result of symbolism. The Alice theme is representing something else, but what?
A very common thought is that this song is about using drugs and getting high. That is a very easy conclusion to make, especially considering the large amount of drug use when this song came out. It is an easy connection to make. Alice is the drug user. The white rabbit is the drug dealer or maybe one of the drugs itself like cocaine. The mushrooms, well that kind of speaks for itself doesn’t it? Despite all of this, I don’t think this song is about drugs at all. What?
I think the thing being symbolized in this song was the Vietnam War and protesting the war. That was a very controversial subject at the time as well and could not easily be spoken openly about. Hence the symbolism. Let me explain my reasoning.
One pill makes you larger……. This set of lyrics refers to the choice between protesting (making you a big person) versus joining the war (making you a small, ie insignificant person), and adding that your parents can do nothing to help you make the choice. Go ask Alice when she’s ten feet tall refers to not fitting in and being disruptive as Alice does when she grows large in the book.
If you go chasing rabbits……….. this set of lyrics refers to getting drafted, a hookah-smoking caterpillar refers to a tank. The caterpillar, ie tank has given you THE call not a call, and at the time THE call most definitely refers to getting drafted. Go ask Alice when she was just small refers to the small pill choice and how much danger Alice was in when she was small.
When the men on the chessboard get up and tell you where to go… this set of lyrics refers to when the military (chess pieces, ie knights, pawns etc. are military pieces) tells you to go to Vietnam (where to go at the time) and your mind is moving low refers to not knowing what to do.
Call Alice I think she’ll know: When logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead… this set of lyrics is specifically about the Vietnam War. It is referring to the large amount of men killed in the war (sloppy swamp setting) the white knight is talking backwards (he doesn’t talk backwards in the book) refers the United states army stating that it’s coming to the rescue not making sense, ie talking backwards, and the red queen refers to the communist who are killing all our men (off there heads)
This next line is a little confusing until you read the “who stole the tarts chapter” the line is remember what the dormouse said. This is confusing because it is referencing the Mad Hatter. The Mad Hatter is on the witness stand and faces execution if he can’t “remember what the dormouse said.” As a result he runs away before the queen of Hearts, ie the red queen has a chance to chop of his head.
Feed your head is not what the dormouse said. It’s telling you to educate yourself. You feed your head by learning. Said twice for emphasis. The last line is pleading with the listener to LEARN!LEARN!!
This song had to be written with symbolism, as it was telling people to dodge the draft.
Any thoughts on that interpretation of the song?
This song can really mean just about anything you want it to. That is the beauty of symbolism and songs like this. They are wide open to interpretation.
Getting past the lyrics, you find a very haunting melody, that just screams the psychadellic-era. The first time I was ever exposed to the song was in the movie the Game starring Michael Douglas. The song was intended to represent the madness going on in his head. What a great song to do that with.
This song is just fantastic. It is one of those time capsule songs that represents a certain frame of time that will never be seen again. We can remember that time through the song and what a better song to remember it with. I hope you enjoy this song as much as I do.
Official music video of the song.
Live version from the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.
Live version from Woodstock in 1969.
Cover version of the song by Gillian Welch. This is amazing!
Cover version of the song by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals.
“White Rabbit” is a song from Jefferson Airplane‘s 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow. It was released as a single and became the band’s second top ten success, peaking at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was ranked #478 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, #75 on Rate Your Music‘s Top Singles of All Time, and appears on The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.
“White Rabbit” was written by Grace Slick while she was still with The Great Society. When that band broke up in 1966, Slick was invited to join Jefferson Airplane to replace their departed female singer Signe Toly Anderson, who left the band with the birth of her child. The first album Slick recorded with Jefferson Airplane was Surrealistic Pillow, and Slick provided two songs from her previous group: her own “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love”, written by Darby Slick and recorded under the title “Someone to Love” by The Great Society. Both songs became breakout successes for Jefferson Airplane and have ever since been associated with that band.
One of Grace Slick‘s earliest songs, written during either late 1965 or early 1966, uses imagery found in the fantasy works of Lewis Carroll: 1865’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its 1871 sequel Through the Looking-Glass, such as changing size after taking pills or drinking an unknown liquid. It is commonly thought that these are also references to the hallucinatory effects of psychedelic drugs, such as LSD and psilocybin mushrooms. Characters referenced include Alice, the hookah-smoking caterpillar, the White Knight, the Red Queen, and the Dormouse.
For Slick and others in the 1960s, drugs were a part of mind-expanding and social experimentation. With its enigmatic lyrics, “White Rabbit” became one of the first songs to sneak drug references past censors on the radio. Even Marty Balin, Slick’s eventual rival in Jefferson Airplane, regarded the song as a “masterpiece”. In interviews, Slick has related that Alice in Wonderland was often read to her as a child and remained a vivid memory into her adult years.
Set to a crescendo similar to that of Ravel’s famous Boléro, as used in the Miles Davis and Gil Evans album Sketches of Spain, the music combined with the song’s lyrics strongly suggests the sensory distortions experienced with hallucinogens, and the song was later used in pop culture to imply or accompany just such a state.
While the Red Queen and the White Knight are both mentioned in the song, the references differ from Lewis Carroll’s original text, wherein the White Knight does not talk backwards and it is the Queen of Hearts, not the Red Queen, who says “Off with her head!”
The last lines of the song are: “Remember what the Dormouse said. Feed your head. Feed your head.” Although commonly interpreted as quoting the Dormouse, the lines may instead refer to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter XI: “Who Stole the Tarts”, wherein a very nervous Mad Hatter is called to testify:
‘But what did the Dormouse say?’ one of the jury asked.
‘That I can’t remember’, said the Hatter.
The song was covered in the following years:
- 1967 – by the jazz guitarist Gábor Szabó and The California Dreamers
- 1967 – by the Quebec girl band Les Intrigantes (french cover La Justice)
- 1971 – by the jazz guitarist George Benson
- 1980 – by the punk band The Last Words
- 1980 – by the punk / gothic rock band The Damned
- 1981 – by the post punk band The Mo-Dettes in a Peel Session
- 1985 – by the punk band The Zarkons (Formerly known as The Alley Cats)
- 1987 – by the heavy metal band Sanctuary
- 1987 – by the heavy metal band Lizzy Borden
- 1987 – by the synth-pop band Act
- 1987 – by the Avant–garde jazz classical band Durutti Column
- 1989 – by the hardcore punk band Slapshot
- 1989 – by the comedy rock band The Frogs
- 1990 – by the house music duo David Diebold and Kim Cataluna
- 1995 – by The Murmurs (MCA Records)
- 1995 – by Mephisto Walz
- 1996 – by the Icelandic singer-songwriter Emilíana Torrini, later used in the soundtrack for 2011 film Sucker Punch
- 1996 – by the Norwegian heavy metal band In the Woods… for their White Rabbit EP and later (2000) included in their Three Times Seven on a Pilgrimage album
- 1996 – by the American Black Metal band Wind of the Black Mountains (albeit slightly altered and renamed ‘Black Goat’) on their Sing Thou Unholy Servants album
- 1997 – by Born for Bliss
- 1998 – by June Tabor on album On Air
- 1998 – by Ed & Denyze Alleyne-Johnson
- 1999 – by the Cincinnati-based Gothic/Garage Rock band Stop the Car for their final album Crash, after having featured the song regularly in their live set lists since the 1980s
- 2001 – by the industrial band Collide. A remix version appears in the ending credits of the 2007 film, Resident Evil: Extinction
- 2002 – by Sleater-Kinney at the Majestic Theater in Detroit, Michigan
- 2002 – by Enon for Don’t Know When I’ll Be Back Again VVA Benefit Compilation
- 2003 – by the performance art / experimental rock group Blue Man Group with vocals by Esthero
- 2003 – by June Tabor and the Oysterband
- 2004 – by My Morning Jacket
- 2005 – by Shakespears Sister for The Best of Shakespears Sister, and later Songs from the Red Room
- 2006 – remixed by the psychedelic trance act Fuzzion as Little Girl on the album Black Magic.
- 2006 – by the Brechtian punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls at the Bonnaroo Music Festival
- 2006 – by The Cadets Drum and Bugle Corps in their show Volume 2: Through the Looking Glass
- 2006 – by Lana Lane for Gemini album.
- 2007 – by Stan Ridgway as an encore song during his summer tour celebrating the 25th anniversary of Wall of Voodoo’s album Call of the West.
- 2007 – by Patti Smith on her cover album Twelve.
- 2007 – by The Vincent Black Shadow at the Warped Tour, later recorded in the studio for the 2008 EP “Head In A Box”
- 2007 – by Trinidad & Tobago rock band, Rango Tango.
- 2007 – by The Crüxshadows on their Birthday EP.
- 2008 – by The Spectacles at the Bowery Ballroom
- 2008 – by Alternative band The Smashing Pumpkins as a tease in Heavy Metal Machine.
- 2009 – by Russian rock-musician Nike Borzov in the soundtrack for his audio-book “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (Russian translation of Hunter S. Thompson‘s novel) as “Black Rabbit” and “Funky Rabbit”.
- 2010 – by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals on the Alice in Wonderland soundtrack “Almost Alice“.
- 2010 — by The Indecent on their debut album Her Screwed Up Head.
- 2011 – by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, performing live on the NPR show “Fresh Air“
- 2011 – by Australian group Floating Me, as a part of their live sets (fans voted on the band’s Facebook page for a song for them to cover).
- 2011 – by Emilíana Torrini on the soundtrack Sucker Punch
- 2012 – by Ladyhawke for Triple J’s Like a Version segment. Later included on the compilation album.
- 2013 – by British alternative band The Danse Society for their “Scarey Tales” album.
“White Rabbit” has been used in numerous films and television shows.
- A line in the song, Go Ask Alice, was used as the title of a 1971 book about drug addiction by Beatrice Sparks that was adapted two years later into an ABC Movie of the Week.
- The song is played twice during season 1, episode 7 of The Sopranos, “Down Neck“: first while Tony Soprano takes his Prozac and remembers his childhood, and again over the end credits.
- The Battlefield: Vietnam main menu song consists of the bass line of White Rabbit, with voice tracks of Lyndon B. Johnson and Hanoi Hannah.
- The song is featured on the soundtrack to the 2008 video game Shaun White Snowboarding.
- The song is played throughout a trailer for the video game Lost Odyssey.
- Played during season 5, episode 1 of American Dad! (“In Country…Club“).
- The song is used twice in the movie The Game (1997), once when Nicholas Van Orten (Michael Douglas) comes home to find his home vandalized with graffiti, and after the movie when the end credits are rolling.
- In the 1998 film, and in the book that the film is based on, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the climax of the song is played when Dr. Gonzo (Benicio del Toro) is sitting in a water-filled bathtub and attempts to bring the tape player that’s playing the song in with him, as he wants to “hear” the song better.
- The song is used in season 10, episode 6 of The Simpsons (“D’oh-in in the Wind“) during a montage of Springfielders drinking hallucinogenic vegetable juice produced by Homer.
- The song is used in the 1986 Academy Award-winning film Platoon during a scene when a group of soldiers bond while taking hallucinogenic drugs.
- In season 2, episode 7 of Futurama (“A Head in the Polls“), Richard Nixon‘s head sings the last line of the song while strumming a guitar and promptly declares, “I’m meeting you halfway, you stupid hippies.”
- The song is heard in the background of an episode in Everybody Hates Chris
- The song is heard in the Brian Jones biopic Stoned (2005) when Jones ingests LSD for the first time.
- In the series Supernatural, the song is played in an episode called “Hunted”.
- The song is used in the first season of Warehouse 13 in the episode, “Duped” as Alice returns to destroy a mirror.
- The song is in the 1998 film “Hideous Kinky” based on the autobiographical novel by Esther Freud from 1992.
- It is hypothesized that the song was used as inspiration for the Wonderland characters in the ABC series Once Upon a Time. Jefferson is the name of the Mad Hatter and his daughter is named Grace.
by Grace Slick
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
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
When she was just small
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
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