Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and Moby Grape all helped weave the tapestry that became known as the “San Francisco sound” in the 60s. Alex “Skip” Spence (known to friends and fans as Skippy) was a common thread running through thoese 3 breakout bands.
While still a guitarist in an early line-up of Quicksilver Messenger Service, Skippy got recruited to play drums for Jefferson Airplane and played on their 1966 debut album. Booted from the band for taking an unannounced vacation to Mexico, he next formed Moby Grape at the behest of manager Matthew Katz.
Moby Grape’s debut album seared the ears of folks like me with blazing triple guitar cross-talk and richly layered harmonies. With the first pressing of the album cover famously featuring drummer Don Stevenson flipping everyone off. A quick second pressing airbrushed that away.
Bought by my brother as soon it came out, I got to know the album well, especially when Scott’s garage band learned some of the tunes, like “Hey, Grandma” and “8:05.”
We eagerly awaited more from Moby Grape. It didn’t take long before we got a double dose of great Grape, both Wow!, a studio album and Grape Jam, live recordings of impromptu studio jams. Once again, both discs blew me away.
Little did I know at the time about the band’s travails making this record.
Recording in New York City at producer David Rubinson’s request, the band failed to capture the same magic they’d cultivated in California, rarely working together in the studio as a band. Living in hotel rooms for months at a time wore them all down as well. Peter Lewis quit at one point to return to California. Jerry Miller described seeing Skippy’s mental health deteriorating:
Skippy changed radically when we were in New York. There were some people there that 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.
Skippy later showed up at the hotel and tried to chop drummer Don Stevenson’s door down with a fire ax, likewise threatening to kill Jerry Miller and Don Rubinson. Hauled off to NYC’s notorious jail, the Tombs, he ended up in Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward for 60 days.
Upon his release, he headed to Nashville and recorded his iconic solo album, Oar.
Legend has him riding away from NYC on a chopper in his hospital gown. Production notes confirm that he recorded the entirety of Oar in just 7 days in December 1968, playing all instruments.
Skippy had intended the tapes to serve as a demo for an album but producer David Rubinson released the raw recordings on May 19, 1969. With little fanfare and no promotional push from Columbia Records, it flopped. Critics at the time mostly hated it but it has since grown to cult status.
Skippy, meanwhile, fell further apart, between his now-diagnosed schizophrenia and heavy drug use, especially heroin and LSD (which had precipitated the fire ax incident). Moby Grape soldiered on, releasing Moby Grape ’69 as a quartet, but including “Seeing,” also known as “Skip’s Song.”
Side note: Schizophrenia is a cruel companion living inside your head and not only did Skip Spence suffer from schizophrenia but so did bandmate Bob Moseley. Absolutely astounding that such a powerful seminal band as Moby Grape featured 2 people with schizophrenia.
Skip Spence lived until 1999, often a ward of the state or destitute and homeless. Periodically, band members, particularly Peter Lewis, would seek him out to help a little. His final appearance with Moby Grape bandmates happened in 1996 in Santa Cruz.
Various artists such as Robert Plant, Tom Waits, and Beck revisited the haunting tunes Skip had written back in the psychiatric ward, recording More Oar: A tribute to the Skip Spence Album in 1999. Though it was released after his death, Skippy did have the chance to hear the recordings before he died.
For what would have been Skip Spence’s 77th birthday, I’ve been listening to some of his tunes today. Here’s a small selection to get you started down a similar rabbit hole:
“My Best Friend” (Jefferson Airplane)
Recorded after Skippy left Jefferson Airplane
but included on “Surrealistic Pillow”
How was Moby Grape connected to Nebraska? They weren’t!
Skippy meant this as “OM_Aha!” — a mantra followed by enlightenment.
One of Skip’s songs from “Wow!”
He also included the very strange “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot” —
to be played back at 78 rpm. I’ll spare you that one (linked).
Seeing (Skip’s Song)
Moby Grape continued to involve Skippy whenever they could
post-“fire ax incident,” so included this tune he’d written on Moby Grape ’69
Not exactly a sing-along but Skip’s contribution
to 1971’s 20 Granite Creek
The opening tune from “Oar”:
“Little hands clapping, children are laughing —
Little hands clapping all over the world.”
Burdened by schizophrenia and years of poor health due to drug addiction and alcoholism, Skippy died just 2 days before his 53rd birthday — he’s been gone now 24 years.
Next spring, the first biography to be written about him, “Weighted Down — the Complicated Story of Skip Spence“will be published. I can’t wait to learn more about this old musical hero of mine. So much incredible music he gave us and still I know so little about his later life. Such is the way with our artists & musicians, I suppose, performing a role, paying their part — and revealing the innermost heart we all share.
So sing a song of Skip Spence — with a pocketful of wry.