Listen, my friends…TURN IT UP!
Today would have been Alex “Skip” Spence‘s 75th birthday — had he survived this long.
He died in 1999, two days short of his 53rd birthday but not before he left a lasting legacy in song.
Like most folks, I first met Skippy via the Moby Grape (1967) album. Later, I would learn of his prior musical wanderings as guitarist in an early line-up of Quicksilver Messenger Service and drummer on the first Jefferson Airplane album.
That first Moby Grape album blew me — and pretty much everyone — away. To this day, it’s regarded as one of the best rock albums ever. Featuring fiery triple guitar cross-talk with strong harmonies from 5 voices atop a rocking rhythm section, Moby Grape quickly crested the wave of the San Francisco psychedelic scene. And nearly as quickly crashed.
“The Grape’s saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever to emerge from San Francisco. Moby Grape could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, and less.”Music historian Jeff Tamarkin
Initial fiascoes aside, the band headed to the studio to record their second album.
But how do you follow up a nearly perfect debut album?
With a lot of studio wizardry and added production elements. Rather than spending all day rehearsing as a band, as they had prior to their first outing, the band recorded in the more traditional manner: separately laying down tracks with orchestration and effects added later.
Wow! (1968) reflected a changing sensibility in how the Grape recorded, and the final tracks reflected the changes. Grape Jam, released as part of the same package, counterbalanced the over-produced air of the main album with a refreshing set of studio jams, simple and direct.
Recording in New York proved a challenge, though. Peter Lewis explained, “We had to do (the album) in New York because the producer wanted to be with his family. So we had to leave our families and spend months at a time in hotel rooms in New York City.”
Spending months far from home wore on everybody in the band. eventually, Peter Lewis quit and headed back to California. Jerry Miller later said, “Skippy changed radically when we were in New York. There were some people there who were into harder drugs and a harder lifestyle, and some very weird shit. And so he kind of flew off with those people. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while.”
Then Skippy tried to chop down Don Stevenson’s hotel door with a fire axe. And Jerry Miller’s. He threatened several other people with the axe, including the hotel doorman and their producer. He was arrested and taken away to the infamous Tombs jail and later transferred him to Bellevue Hospital — where he stayed for the next 6 months after being diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Legend has it he left directly from Bellevue in his hospital gown on a motorcycle, headed straight to Nashville to record songs he wrote while hospitalized. Legend exaggerates a bit — about the gown.
Oar was recorded over 7 days in December 1968. Skippy intended it as a demo of the songs to be more fully produced into an eventual album, but producer David Rubinson released the raw recordings.
Unfortunately, the label failed to promote the album and it became the lowest-selling album in the label’s history. In less than a year, it was deleted from their catalog.
Me, I missed Oar at the time of the release. I vaguely recall hearing about it but I never heard anyone talk about it or play it. Now, of course, it’s considered a classic. I wonder what might it have sounded like if Skip’s songs had gotten the full production work-up he’d envisioned.
Meanwhile, the band went back into the studio, home in California this time, to record Moby Grape ’69, dropping the studio gimmicks and hearkening back to the clarity of the first album.
“We made Moby Grape ’69, in an attempt to rebound from the Wow album, which was over-produced. And it’s a cool album. Although we could have rehearsed it a little more, we still believed in it.
But I think we were waiting for Skippy to come back, and he never did.”Peter Lewis
The band did include Skippy on MG ’69 by completing a song, “Seeing,” also known as “Skip’s Song” that he had originally written and recorded during the sessions for Wow! That original recording was included as a bonus cut as part of a re-release in 2007.
Less than a year later, the band released Truly Fine Citizen (1969), a truly puzzling album for some of us fans. Now minus both Skip and Bob Moseley (who abruptly quit the band to join the Marines — only to be discharged after a diagnosis of, um, schizophrenia…sound familiar?), the remaining members of the band recorded it in Nashville.
The whole thing sounded unlike what folks were probably expecting from the Grape. One critic panned it quite dismissively, saying “…what should have been America’s greatest rock group gasps its last. Quite mediocre…”
In truth, it was done under contractual duress as their last album for Columbia. About half of the songs were most likely co-written by Don Stevenson and Jerry Miller, but are credited instead to their road manager, Tim Dell’Ara,. They resorted to this odd subterfuge to keep the rights & royalties out of the financial clutches of their first manager, Matthew Katz, with whom they had begun a lengthy legal dispute over the rights to their own material —even their name, Moby Grape.
Once again, the band kept Skippy in mind by including a song he co-wrote with Jerry Miller, “Tongue-Tied.”
I’ll admit that while I like several songs from TCF, this album kinda signaled the beginning of the end of me following Moby Grape. Even the band seemed to agree and basically disappeared for a couple of years.
20 Granite Creek seemed to pop up out of nowhere in 1971. On a different label now, with both Skip and Bob back on board, it sorta felt like it came out of nowhere, too. Here was the original line-up with their original producer, emerging on the other side of all the shit they’d been through.
The album drew some attention from devoted fans, but only received mixed reviews and disappointing sales. A few live shows in support of the release did not go well, either, described by some who saw them as “disastrous.” One critic complained the album was “marred by kotos” (a stringed instrument considered the national instrument of China), referring most directly to Skip’s sole songwriting contribution, an instrumental piece aptly titled “Chinese Song.”
Me, I liked the album, but this definitely ended the grape trail for me. Keep in mind that as a kid growing up in Houston, Texas, my full acquaintance with Moby Grape remained limited to records. Those first 2 Moby Grape albums, I didn’t even have to buy myself — my brother, Scott, turned me on to those. His garage bands played both “Omaha” and “8:05.” By the time Moby Grape ’69 came out, though, I was buying my own. But I never saw them perform live.
And I didn’t know about any of the later attempts to reunite the band. While I wasn’t looking, though, band members did perform together repeatedly in different line-ups under fake names ranging from Mosley Grape, Legendary Grape, Maby Grope, Fine Wine, to The Melvilles due to their continued contractual entanglements with Katz. I missed Moby Grape ’84 entirely — didn’t even hear about it until years later.
Skippy struggled with drug addiction and alcoholism and schizophrenia all the rest of his life. It essentially curtailed his creative output. He still played music and formed a couple of bands along the way, none ever attaining any real notice.
In February 1987, Skippy joined his former bandmates, again performing as Moby Grape for a couple of shows in the Bay Area, along with other vintage SF rockers. The band went on tour briefly afterwards, but without Skippy. He’d quit the band one final time.
in 1989, the Melvilles (Lewis-Mosley-Stevenson-Miller with Dan Anderson on rhythm guitar) put out a limited-release cassette called Legendary Grape. Legendary, indeed, as only 500 copies were made originally, making it quite the rarity. A 2003 CD re-release added more songs. True to form, the band included a song by Skip that he had originally recorded in 1972.
They would only play together one more time in 1996 on a couple of Skip’s songs, “Sailing,” (Peter Lewis 2017 recording here) and “J.P.P. McStep B. Blues,” originally written for Jefferson Airplane in 1966 (included on Surrealistic Pillow).
Many tales of Skippy’s wanderings and meanderings through the years are out there. I have no interest in sharing any of those here. He made many attempts to get going again and got a lot of help from his Grape bandmates, especially Peter Lewis, but schizophrenia does not make for an easy life.
Skippy’s final known recording was commissioned in 1996 for a planned X-Files soundtrack album (Songs in the Key of X), but the song wasn’t included in that release.
“Land of the Sun” finally saw the light of day as a bonus track on the 1999 tribute album, More Oar, where artists such as Tom Waits and Beck and Robert Plant covered Skippy’s opus. Recorded to help defray the mounting medical bills as he lay dying, it shows the recognition of his enormous impact on the music of our day. Though it was released posthumously, he did get to hear it before he died. I’d like to think it made him smile.
Skippy’s songs sure have made me smile a lot through the years. Thanks, old friend — sorry you had to suffer so to raise so many smiles for us. I’ll close out my tiny tribute here with another song Skippy wrote that was later recorded by a band after he left.
Never knew Skippy wrote this one. But then again, Skippy was full of surprises.