Graded on a Curve:
Grace Slick, Manhole

“The horror! The horror!” Mistah Kurtz, Heart of Darkness

Some things just should never have been. Emerson, Lake & Palmer. Foreigner. John and Yoko’s Double Fantasy. And let’s not forget Grace Slick’s 1974 debut solo album, Manhole. From the unfortunate sexual connotations of its title, to its inflated songs odious cover art, Manhole is just that: something you might fall into, and be very frightened until you manage to climb back out. Oh, and it says something, although I don’t know what, that on Manhole’s best cut—and that’s relative—Slick doesn’t even sing.

Don’t get me wrong; Slick sings well, and she’s surrounded herself with everybody who was anybody in San Francisco at that unfortunate juncture in time. Even David Crosby, Grace’s male equivalent, makes a cameo. But you know you’re in trouble when the album’s highlight—or lowlight—is a 15-plus minute opus entitled “Theme From the Movie Manhole,” a movie that never got made and for all I know was a figment of Slick’s acid-fogged imagination.

I’ve never been a big Jefferson Airplane/ Jefferson Starship/ Starship fan, so I’ll admit to having a bias. I like the song “Volunteers” and that’s pretty much it, although I will confess to occasionally listening to Jefferson Starship’s “Miracles” just to guffaw when Marty “I got punched in the nose by a Hell’s Angel” Balin sings, “I had a taste of the real world/ When I went down on you, girl.” But I try to keep an open mind because, well, I’ve seen previous musical prejudices of mine destroyed on multiple occasions, and it’s no fun eating crow.

Anyhoo. Like I say Grace didn’t stray too far from her stable of friends and band mates when it came to making Manhole. The only person missing was Papa John Creach. Everybody else—from the Jefferson Airplane (soon to be Starship) to members of Quicksilver Messenger Service to Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter showed up, although now that I think about it I’m surprised Jerry Garcia wasn’t there too. He should have been there. His pedal steel guitar might have helped.

Commercially, the album was a bust, and it’s not too hard to see why. Opening track “Jay” begins with Peter Kaukonen playing a quiet and pretty figure on acoustic guitar, while Slick plays rhythm guitar. The problem is her vocals, which sound… eerie. And the fact that she multi-tracks her vocals, so that you get a whole chorus of Grace Slicks, doesn’t help. I think we can all agree that one Grace Slick is enough. The “Theme from the Movie Manhole” follows, and it’s far from a complete disaster; more like psychedelic prog. For some reason Slick sings parts of it in Spanish—evidently she employed the studio’s Mexican janitor to do some translating—but the bigger problem is that she engages in some vocal histrionics that go way beyond the call of duty. She hangs onto notes for 10 seconds, warbles, and croons; there’s nothing she won’t do. And it all leads up to the introduction of the London Symphony Orchestra, which ups the song’s histrionics level about 20 notches. The tune has its highlights—most of which involve the young guitarist Craig Chaquico wailing away while the song builds to one of its multiple climaxes—but I find Kaukonen’s Spanish-flavored mandolin insufferable, and the song’s multiple sections irk. I do like the song’s ending, in which multiple voices come in to the accompaniment of a tambourine, followed by more blazing guitar by Chaquico, and if Slick had found a way to tighten up and pare down, this song might—and I stress might—have worked.

I’ll tell you what else might have worked, but didn’t: the banal shuffle of “¿Come Again? Toucan.” Slick is in good voice, and her lyrics are intriguing (I think she’s advocating a return to the womb) but the song is too smooth for its own good, from Chaquico’s insipid guitar licks to its cheesy jazz lite trappings (thanks for nothing, rhythm section), which are as MOR as they come. It’s not until the end, when the band goes weird on your ass, that you can hear what the song might have been. “It’s Only Music” features lyrics by Robert Hunter, and they’re not his best—poor Bob seems to have written himself out with American Beauty and Workingman’s Dead—but the song is serviceable, despite its self-deprecating title. David Freiberg and Kantner handle lead vocals and the melody is pretty, very pretty indeed, while Gary Duncan of Quicksilver Messenger Service plays some cool guitar, Kantner plays organ, and Jack Casady lays down some excellent bass. It really is a hell of a thing; the only song on Grace Slick’s solo album I can stomach is a song that doesn’t feature Grace Slick.

“Better Lying Down” is a bluesy, almost ragtime affair, from Slick’s vocals to the piano work of both Slick and Pete Sears, but Slick over-emotes vocally, in my humble opinion, and what you’re left with sounds like a Broadway version of the blues. Or a contestant on The Voice. Too show-offy, in other words. That said she does have a way with words, that is if you’re not too picky about their meaning: “She can give you some tooth dropping city woman /A hot stop and read fine sugar /All day sucker type /Licking type of San Juan/ Long tongue daddy/ Few people may get up and go, ooh ooh ooh.” Gibberish? Yes. But strangely inspired gibberish. The odds that she wrote them after a 36-hour cocaine binge: 82 percent.

As for album closer “Epic No. 38,” it suffers from a terrible, fatal even, case of over-orchestration; you get the London Symphony Orchestra, synthesizer programming by Pete Grant, some bagpipers (which are the best part of the song), and lots of vocalists, and the effect is overwhelming, a hippie blitzkrieg. Throw in some Middle Eastern intonations by Slick, and a return from the dead that features some fantastic guitar by Chaquico and lots of sawing of violins, and this song has something for everybody but somebody looking for a good song. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not a terrible song—like I say I love the bagpipers, and I wish Slick had stuck with them and dispensed with all of the rest of the overblown hoo-hah. And Chaquico impresses. But I don’t believe the counterculture horseshit that Slick and Kantner spout about an “alien high.” Or their hippie bromide about how “Everybody everywhere in the world must agree/ The time is so ripe for love, love, clear love.” Yeah, right. Guess Dick Nixon and Pol Pot didn’t get the memo.

Slick went on to put out three more solo albums, all of which can be shelved under “Obscure.” I suppose as I critic I should listen to them, but no way am I listening to them. Not in this life. I’m too frightened. I fell down Manhole, and it put the fear of God into me. I’d like to say there’s a song on this LP I’d listen to again, but there isn’t. There are songs that would make me run away screaming, but not one I need ever subject myself to again in this lifetime. And that’s no recommendation. Here’s a recommendation: unless you’re a diehard Grace Slick fanatic, look where you’re walking. You don’t want to fall down an open manhole, this one in particular.


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