Starship to Sobriety

By Matthew Greenwald 04/02/15

An exclusive interview with Grace Slick and her daughter China Isler, on the old days of active addiction, recovery, and the fact that they both have 17 years sober.

Jefferson Starship
Daughter and Mother Roger Ressmeyer, 1974

Grace Slick, founding member of Jefferson Airplane/Starship, and her daughter China Isler, have a unique story of alcoholism. Their own separate and combined journey to sobriety was indeed a rocky one, but it is definitely a powerful story of strength over adversity. Mother and daughter both have 17 years of sobriety; the story of their family addictions, co-dependency issues, and ongoing recovery resonate with any family dynamic. One recent morning, Grace and China took time to talk exclusively with The Fix about their struggles with addiction and recovery in the backyard of Grace's house in Malibu, overlooking the ocean. Both Grace and China are very funny, thoughtful, precise and open. We all drank Diet Cokes and smoked a lot of cigarettes.

China, what do you remember about your first experience with alcohol?

China: The first time I drank, it was as if everything was cured, in two seconds. I started going to meetings when I was eight, when my mom started going. I loved it, and I loved the people in the program, and funny enough, that was the first time I felt that we'd bonded. Through recovery, we'd found something together, where we spent time together that was focused. So, the point is that when I bottomed out at 15, I knew where to go.

Grace: She called me when she was 15 and said, "Mom, I think I'm an alcoholic," and I was like, "Wow, that's amazing that she could figure that out..." Now, when I was 15, my friend Pamela Wild and I, we went to private school. I drank on weekends, and I wasn't trying to get away from anything, I just liked changing my mind...I drank for the opposite reasons she did—I drank to get nuts. My family life was different, my father loosened up when he drank, he laughed, played piano. He was basically shy, so he opened up. It wasn’t that great for my mom 'cause he fell asleep at about 8:30 (laughs). So, China has a different form of being an alcoholic than I do.

What did you view alcohol and drug use like as a child? It must have been unique.

China: My dad was mainly a pot smoker, and not really doing a lot of anything else from the time I was born. He had done acid and pharmaceutical cocaine, but it was mainly pot when he was home; let me preface this by saying that they weren’t home a lot. That's what I remember the most: spotty periods of them not being around, and then off working. When they were around, he was very present—up with me in the middle of the night with earaches and things like that. Every morning, he would have this beautiful ritual where he'd go with me to the bus stop, and he'd always wait about 40 feet away until I got on the bus. That's one of my favorite childhood memories, because it was based in consistency, and kids really need that. That was one of my best memories with my dad, was that commitment, no matter what was going on.

The look on her face will register with me forever. I don’t mind being an asshole, but I do mind being pathetic.

Grace: In my 20s, I have to say, I had a great time... if you are in your 20s, and you are getting paid to do rock & roll, and we didn't have to do what the kids do now; they really have to work their asses off. We were able to be ourselves. We didn’t have to do anything because the record companies came to us. There was no "rehab" as far as we were concerned; "rehab" was like physical therapy. From my point of view, everyone had different personalities, and you just dealt with it. We were allowed to be ourselves; rock & roll is not a difficult thing to sing, as long as you can get on stage and own it. And that's pretty much the same thing as acting. It was really easy and a whole lot of fun.

Acid was really good because the guy who originally gave it to us was a chemical engineer at Shell Oil, and he told us, before he gave it to us—and he used to make it—he gave us some books to read, one being Doors Of Perception by Huxley, and some M.C. Escher books, and several others, so that we'd be aware when we were coming on. He also told us that we should have a "guide," who didn't take it, so that no one would start thinking that we could fly, and drop out of a building. He also suggested that it was better to be, perhaps outside, in a nice area.

Leary used to call this "Set and Setting."

Grace: Right, set and setting; it was very important. You have to be sort of okay with yourself, because if you're not, acid is going to bring all of that up. So, all that is to say, we learned a bit about it before we did it, and it made a huge difference. So, anyway, we were all okay with ourselves, because here we are in our 20s, getting paid to travel and fuck off, and make rock & roll. So, my 20s were a lot of fun. Cocaine, as far as I was concerned, was okay, only in that it kept the alcohol going longer.

China: I'm a chronic relapser; I think I relapsed four times before this—hopefully—final time. The last time, I was totally clean, and I met a guy who liked weed, a lot. He liked to grow it, and he was super-passionate about it. He was super-sexy, and I fell right into that lifestyle. We lived together for three years and fought constantly. What I didn’t know then, which I know now, is that I have PTSD, and that was starting to surface in my early 20s. So, not just alcoholism, but I was showing symptoms of PTSD.

Part of PTSD and alcoholism is rage, flying off the handle, and being triggered very easily, and the way I used to react in my 20s was 30 times more drastic than the normal person. And I was tormented by what I didn’t know. Part of it, I knew was alcoholism, but it was a pretty severe reaction. Part of it was panic attacks, and that was scary because I didn’t know what it was. I couldn’t control them, and I didn’t know what was happening to me. So, I would just smoke more pot, which is the insanity of addiction, because I get paranoid on pot! And then I just got worse and worse with my behavior and my relationships.

So, at this time, as we're talking about timelines, my mom is starting to drink again. So I was now using, and she was using, (laughter) we’re finally on the same page! (Laughter) I was also in an incredibly toxic relationship and using. I also had some serious surgery at the time as well, and that also triggered some pretty severe PTSD. All this is to say, I was getting pretty itchy for the love of my life, alcohol.

So, I basically planned that I was going to be a Grateful Dead person along with my boyfriend. Smoke a lot of weed, listen to The Dead, have sex and fight a lot. (Laughter)

In 1997, I went to England, I was 27-years-old. I went with my best friend, and I hadn’t drank in five years. I was itchy, itchy, itchy, and finally, I said, "Shannon, I’m going to have a drink," and she said, "No, you're not." You can imagine what happened. (Laughter) I had 10 drinks that night, and I culminated it by being naked on the streets of Liverpool, kissing total strangers! (Laughter) That whole week in England, I drank around the clock. And I mention this because as our readers know, my disease had progressed, and as they say, was doing push-ups. I hadn’t had a drink in five years, and I picked up right where I left off, and was 100 times worse.

Grace: People drink for different reasons. The thing about alcoholism, and Alcoholics Anonymous, is that people drink and use for different reasons, but we are all alcoholics.

China: I got sober for the first time in 1986, I was 15, and I stayed sober until I was 20, in 1991. But I didn't work a program; I was the same, there was no shift. I was dry; I was white-knuckling it, really uncomfortable in my own skin. I went all through high school like that.

Anyway, I went off the wagon, and was drinking for a few months. I moved back to L.A. to work, and I met this really amazing guy who was a fan of my mom, and then became a friend, Vinnie Marino. He had gotten sober when he was very young, and he had an apartment that he was managing down here that was rent-controlled, and very cool. And through this, I got heavily involved in the gay West L.A. recovery scene, which was amazing and wonderful. The meetings were fabulous, and he kind of took me under his wing. He saw that I was a fuckin' mess, and he really helped me. We had a ball, and I stayed sober a couple of years, but again, not doing the steps. So, I went back out, and of course, it got worse.

Grace, I remember reading something where you basically said that you were getting tired of having hangovers...

Grace: Yes, that was part of it. But I think the reason I stopped drinking 17 years ago, for what I assume is going to be the final time, is pride. I was sitting in my sweatpants, and my sagging 57-year-old boobs, no bra, and shaking...I didn’t do "hair of the dog," I just used to ride it out and suffer through it. My friend, who was staying with me, asked if I wanted a Valium, and I said, "No." China came over, and I'm looking pathetic—an old bag who's drunk. The look on her face will register with me forever. I don’t mind being an asshole, but I do mind being pathetic. (Laughter)

Oh my, at 57... I don’t do pathetic. So China calls David Crosby, who I'd done an intervention on 13 years earlier. He came and picked me up and took me to Exodus. While I was there, China used to visit, and bring candles and games and stuff. She liked the place, and she liked the safety of it. Anyway, I knew that she drank, but I didn't know that she was a raging alcoholic. She has a different style, she doesn’t get arrested.

China: I get depressed and weepy; I don’t go out and start yelling at people.

Grace: Yeah, and I'm trouble...and I'm kind of a selfish asshole; and I'm still working on that. It's so common to be "rock & roll, put yourself first and everyone else second," which sounds awful—and it is. But I'm trying to train the mind to go in different directions.

I still do it; it happened last night, and I got reprimanded for it, but I did recognize it—"I'm thinking of me, not you." It's not aimed at anyone; it's just kind of a solo-alcoholic type of deal. All of those things need to be worked on.

China mentioned things turning around really fast when you get sober, and a lot of things do, but if you stay sober for a really long time, there are tons of things that you have to keep addressing. You are indeed a work in progress until you die. You don't reach a pinnacle where you suddenly say, "Ok, I'm cool now!" (Laughter)

China: Staying sober for 17 years, along with the help and guidance of other sober addicts and alcoholics, has revolutionized my thinking and behavior where all of my relationships are concerned. I’m eternally grateful.

Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California. He last wrote about Marianne Faithful.

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Matthew Greenwald is a Los Angeles-based musician and writer. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Mojo/U.K., Analog Planet, Record Collectors/Japan and other outlets, both print and web. He currently writes and records music in a duo with Greg Berg called The Holy Smokes, based out of San Clemente, California.