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 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 slow
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!”(2x)
White Rabbit, a cut from the album Surrealistic Pillow, released in February 1967, was on Top 40 radio as a perfect accompaniment to the Summer of Love, and became San Francisco’s most ubiquitious psychedelic contribution to that season. The Jefferson Airplane had already broken into the Top 10 pop charts through Somebody to Love. White Rabbit didn’t do quite as well, but it lingered in the Top 10 throughout July and August.
Children’s stories were sometimes literary references in psychedelic songs. Donovan had used Knights at the Roundtable tales; the Incredible String Band would soon quote from Winnie the Poo; here, Grace Slick references Alice in Wonderland. John Lennon would reference Lewis Carroll’s Walrus & the Carpenter later in Christmas of 1967. And the Jefferson Airplane would reference Poo themselves during that same Christmas season with the Ballad of You & Me & Pooneil. I believe they found in these storybook sources a sense of whimsy and imaginative freedom that the psychedelic period celebrated. They sometimes found there metaphors for the issues brought up while tripping on LSD.
The lyric distorts Lewis Carroll’s story freely, especially in the final line which is never written in the tale; the dormouse never says it, but it echoes the written signs Alice encounters that tell her EAT ME. By this time, many listeners were wise to the psilocybin mushroom allusion in the lyric, and especially the admonition to FEED YOUR HEAD as applied to eating mushrooms. The censors missed it. For one thing it wasn’t clear what Slick was belting out at the end. One of the internet lyric sheets reports the line as KEEP YOUR HEAD.
White Rabbit endorses the lyric with the slow crescendo of the song, much in the style of Ravel’s Bolero, by which it depicts the onslaught of a slowly accelerating rush. (Grace Slick herself has stated that Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain was inspiration for the tune.) The lyric starts out with a declaration, then becomes dependent on speculation. By the third verse, with an upward change of key, the “if” has become “when”, an anxiety and uncertainty is introduced, suggesting that Alice may not know the answer. This brings a further upward change of key and the certainty that logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead, but also the delivery of advice which has been put off since the beginning. The answer is to eat some more mushrooms. Presumably things will be alright once you’ve surrendered your fears.