Tiara of Creation
Tiara of Creation
A Q&A with Joanne Lediger
Of Reverend Jefferson
By Geoff Gehman
Joanne Lediger was 14 when Grace Slick became her rock ‘n’ roll queen. The brand-new high schooler pretty much crowned Jefferson Airplane’s co-pilot as a musical pilot. Slick had everything that Lediger craved: a soaring, rallying, thrilling voice; a knack for smart lyrics and smart-ass comments; a ballsy attitude of I-can-do-anything-I-want-and-what-the-fuck. Who else, after all, could sing “White Rabbit” in a Girl Scout outfit and come off as surreal and sexy?
Slick still inspires Lediger, a full-time graphic designer and a part-time singer. She shadows Slick’s vocals in Reverend Jefferson, a two-year-old band that plays kick-ass versions of the Airplane’s kick-ass cosmic rock and psychedelic blues. On March 28 she’ll make the Mauch Chunk Opera House shake with her vaulting, banking, lasering voice as Rev Jeff performs tunes from the Airplane’s vaunted live albums “Bless Its Pointed Little Head” (1969) and “Thirty Seconds Over Winterland” (1973). Lediger and her comrades will tear into everything from “Somebody to Love” to “Feel So Good,” “Plastic Fantastic Lover” to “3/5th of a Mile in 10 Seconds.” Lediger has a particularly soft spot for “Crown of Creation,” which made her swear that Slick was pretty damned slick.
Below, in a conversation from her home in Pearl River, N.Y., Lediger discusses her role as a psychedelic singer who designs psychedelic concert posters, her fondness for the Summer of Love era and her non-fondness for Slick’s too-slick Airplane spinoffs.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: The first song that had such an impact on me was “Black Peter” from the Grateful Dead. I connected it to the death of my uncle when I was 15. He was big into big-band music, which he listened to on reel-to-reel tapes. But I’m sure he would have appreciated “Black Peter” [where a dying man asks to be surrounded by loved ones and peace]. I had a profound moment of realization listening to the bridge: “See here how everything lead up to this day/And it’s just like every other day that’s ever been.” That raw emotion just ripped my heart out. It helped me sense that while my uncle’s death was huge to us, it was nothing really new to the universe.
The lyrics are so perfect, just like a lot of Robert Hunter’s lyrics. I love the blues feel of that tune. You can almost feel Jerry Garcia’s guitar and the melody; you can almost feel the heat and the fever. I also love Jerry’s voice; people don’t give him the credit he deserves as a vocalist. It’s not an easy song to sing. I’ve tried it myself; it takes work.
Q: When did you first realize that Grace Slick was the bomb?
A: I was 14 and going from junior high school into high school when I heard “Crown of Creation” and it just laid me out. Grace’s singing just put a charge through me. I totally connected to her conviction. Everybody else was going crazy over Janis Joplin, but I was saying, no, this girl [Slick] is the one for me. Nothing against Janis—she’s a legend. I just loved Grace’s sarcasm, the fact that she was very smart and anything but a shrinking violet. She just embodied everything I wanted to be.
Q: Your vocal role models include Slick’s flag-carrying San Francisco rock, Aretha Franklin’s volcanic Detroit soul and Gillian Welch‘s bony, spooky Appalachiana. That’s a crazy wide range.
A: I admire Irish singers, too, especially Mary Black and Cara Dillon. Aretha was one of the big ones for me; she definitely floored me. Actually, there’s a funny story about how I heard of Gillian Welch. It was probably the late ’80s and I went to this bluegrass festival in upstate New York where I heard Tim O’Brien and his sister Mollie perform this great song called “Orphan Girl.” It was written by Welch and it was on the only album she had put out at the time. I remember seeing the album on the kitchen table of my mother’s house, where I was living at the time. To this day I don’t know where the album came from, and to this day “Orphan Girl” still has such an important effect on me. I’d say that Gillian’s songs and the best Airplane songs are among my all-time favorites.
Q: Did you have a vocal mentor, someone who taught you the practical and the transcendental, the nuts and the lightning bolts?
A: Mary Saunders, who was my next-door neighbor. My mother gave her son piano lessons and Mary gave me vocal lessons for five years; it was a nice barter. Mary was considered “the bad girl” by other vocal instructors. She recommended scooping,: which not recommended by classical teachers. What I really liked is that she would teach me what I wanted to learn. I’d study arias and work on my vocal chops so that we could do what I wanted at the end of lessons. I remember bringing her the Jerry Garcia-Robert Hunter songbook and reading her the lyrics to “High Time,” “Ship of Fools,” “Ripple.” Oh, and “Wharf Rat”–that was a big one; she loved that. I remember she’d read the lyrics out loud to herself to try to soak up the meaning: “A dime.” Pause. “For a cup of coffee.” I thought it was fun and tried not to laugh [laughs].
Mary became a very, very dear friend. And she was crazy about Garcia and Hunter by the time she was done with me. I like to think I brought something to her table.
Q: What are the things from the Jefferson Airplane’s ‘60s heyday that you wish you could have experienced? I would have died and gone to heaven if I had attended just one gig at the Fillmore East. As a graphic designer, I bet you would have had a blast in the middle of all those psychedelic concert posters.
A: I just love those posters. The designers were free to experiment; back then, nothing had to be a certain way. I try to achieve some of that freedom in Photoshop for the posters I design [for Reverend Jefferson and other bands]. I do a bit of hand work, too, since most of the original posters were done by hand. To have played at the Fillmores [East and West] with my posters on the walls would have been heaven.
Q: Do you also dig the funky fashions of the Summer of Love era? You have to tell me about those groovy pants you’re wearing in those YouTube videos taken last year during a Reverend Jefferson show at B.B. King’s blues club in Manhattan.
A: I love those pants; I found them on eBay. They’re huge, stretchy bellbottoms. I try not to trip over them; I’m not the most graceful person [laughs].
Q: One of the tricks and traps of a tribute band is appearing authentic without appearing anally, ridiculously authentic. How vintage do you want, or need, your Slick slot to be?
A: I’m definitely not trying to look like Grace, although I have some of her taste in clothes. I try to wear something that looks authentic, with a little bit of her spirit. [Tribute] bands can get a little too authentic when they’re recreating specific shows specifically, right down to the mistakes. Certain Dead bands do that and I think that’s taking it a little too far. [In Reverend Jefferson] we take it far, but not too far. John [Cassano] does have the type of Epiphone bass that Jack Casady played in the Airplane. But it’s more for sound reasons than look.
You know, a friend of mine has suggested that I dye my hair black like Grace’s used to be. That’s not for me. Although I wouldn’t turn down that Girl Scout outfit she wore. I’d have to lose a couple of pounds to wear that one [laughs]. To wear that one you have to be pretty brazen—or a whole lot younger.
Q: Is there anything you don’t like about Grace?
A: I think drinking was her worst enemy. I think that was her Kryptonite. And all that crappy commercial Jefferson Starship/Starship stuff she did–okay, let’s move that one up to the top of what I don’t like about her. I remember telling people how much I loved her and they’d sing me [the Starship hit] “We Built This City” and I’d tell them: No no no, you don’t understand–she really was good! It’s possible that this person singing this terrible song was actually incredible. Jefferson Starship and Starship just stopped it for me. Once she sold out, that was the end.
Q: Is there one question you’re dying to ask Grace?
A: I know she’s involved in fine art and painting. I just wonder if she has any desire to play music in public. I’d ask her if she’d like to get back to playing old Airplane songs, this time in a lower key and acoustic. Or if she’d like to write more songs; she was such an amazing writer. I can see why she wouldn’t want to perform again. I know her stand that older people shouldn’t play rock and roll; she’s described them jumping into the air, holding their flab [laughs].
And then I’d say: “Hey, do you want to do something with me?” When I was in my early teens I was on a mission that one day I was going to get [the Airplane members] back together. Obviously, when you grow up you realize why people have their reasons for not getting back together.
Q: Slick and Paul Kantner, the Airplane’s co-founder/guitarist/songwriter, named their daughter China, which is a little easier on the ears and nerves than Slick’s original name of god, lower case. So, Joanne, if you had a daughter, would you burden her with such moony, loony, flower-power names?
A: No! [laughs]. If I had a daughter, I’d name her Annabelle after the title of a Gillian Welch song. I did help my friend Jeannie come up with a funny name for her unborn son. We came up with Warren Peace [i.e., War and Peace] because his father was a big fan of Tolstoy [i.e., author of the novel “War and Peace”]. They ended up calling him Alec, something a little more practical.
Joanne Lediger: The Scoop
She has a full-time gig as a graphic designer for a TV news station in Yonkers, N.Y.
Jefferson Airplane songs she wants in the Reverend Jefferson repertoire include “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon,” “Hey Frederick” and “Greasy Heart”—all Grace Slick showcases. “Greasy Heart,” by the way, was her introduction to the Airplane. She discovered it on the album “Crown of Creation,” which she bought for a quarter at a church tag sale.
Her favorite live albums include Derek and the Dominos’ “Live at the Fillmore,” the Who’s “Live at Leeds” and the Grateful Dead’s “Live/Dead.”
Her favorite album covers include Jefferson Airplane’s “Long John Silver,” Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Cream’s “Disraeli Gears.”
She ate dinner with Airplane bassist Jack Casady and vocalist Terry Reid, who passed up chances to sing lead in Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Led Zeppelin because he wanted to strengthen his solo career.
Once upon a time she wished that Reverend Jefferson was called Fat Angel, after the title of a Donovan song that references Jefferson Airplane and was covered by the Airplane. She reconsidered her wish after her drummer suggested that spectators might yell “fat angel” at her, referencing her tendency “to gain weight from time to time.” She does, however, love to sing “Fat Angel.” And she likes the name Reverend Jefferson, which references blues guitarist Rev. Gary Davis, a favorite of Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He shares Joanne Lediger’s fondness for the Jefferson Airplane songs “Volunteers,” “Crown of Creation” and “3/5ths of a Mile in 10 Seconds.” He’s pretty sure she doesn’t share his fondness for the Jefferson Starship songs “Miracles,” “Fast Buck Freddie” and “Runaway.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.