Alexander “Skip” Spence had one of the most golden late ‘60s freak scene resumes that could ever be typed up. If you were a counterculture superstar recruiter of the time and this patchouli-scented cover document crossed your groovy desk you would probably think it was made up.
First off the kid was from Canada, which placed him firmly within the Joni/Neil/Stills “throw on a crusty fringe jacket and light out for the coast, maaaaannn” movement that was so hot at the time. He also landed in San Francisco which, although it’s hard to believe these days considering the tech douche climate, was once an early ‘00s Williamsburg-style utopia of emerging bands and community-minded DIY venues and friends-of-friends’ loft practice spaces. Thirdly young Skip was a straight up naive man-child tiptoeing through life’s tulips, just the sort who would be locked up at 16 today but at the time was celebrated as super far out. “Syd was naturally tripping,” a childhood friend of Syd “Crazy Diamond” Barrett once said. “At that time this was about the hippest attribute one could have.” This is just one of many parallels between Saints Spence and Barrett, and it’s an interesting window into the mindset of the counterculture in 66/67. Lastly but certainly not least, Skip could actually jam. Dude was mean on the drums and even meaner on a guitar, fond of slashing cacophonies that veered more toward future punk than they did The Dead or The Airplane. Toss into the mix a pretty face and a halo of golden hair and you had the perfect band member, primed and ready for the Fillmore and Avalon stages and the psychedelic flyers lining the flower-strewn streets.
With these core attributes it’s no wonder the still-teenage Spence was scooped right up by the bellbottom blues girls and mover-shaker band managers the instant his Beatle boots hit the Haight. The band section of Skip’s resume reads like a acid test dream and would no doubt have qualified him for a step up into the ranks of CSNY or Dead level superstardom…..just as long as nobody bothered checking his references. There he is in an early incarnation of Quicksilver Messenger Service. Next he’s in the Jefferson Airplane, laying down drums on their first record. That’s Skip standing next to future Starship passenger Marty Balin on the cover of …Takes Off:
Skip Spence deep dive researchers will also note that Alexander had a songwriting credit on the Airplane’s monster hit second record, Surrealistic Pillow, you know, the one with “Somebody To Love” on it? The one that’s moved millions of copies? This was the ‘60s equivalent of having a credit on Appetite For Destruction or Dark Side Of The Moon. For all intents and purposes Skip Spence should have been rich. But this isn’t a hard luck story just yet. Sure, Spencey was kicked out of the Airplane for lamming it to Mexico with two chicks and missing a tour, and sure he was booted from the Quicksilver ranks for the same type of behavior, but it isn’t like he didn’t have some mega cool options. The fact that Skip actually turned down Buffalo Springfield’s offer to join them really says a lot about the level he was operating on at the time. By 20-years-of-age he had already streaked through two legendary bands and was about to light up another. Skippy could have quit right there and retired into shining footnote status forevermore.
Ah, Moby Grape. One could argue that there have been bands packed with more talent, but most of the bands on their lists would fall far short. Five members, all ace songwriters and top level singers, three guitars trading off on lead, a variety of disparate influences from jangle folk to revved up garage rock to rollicking country to straight up pop to the psychedelic BEYOND, and enough love beads to strangle six Godzillas. Moby Grape radiated so much possibility it’s a wonder they didn’t cast sparks.
The Mighty Grape didn’t disappoint either. After signing a major deal with Columbia they became one of the most hyped bands in the land. Lavish dollars were rolled out to keep the boys in press and crushed velvets. Their debut album, Moby Grape, is one of the most mind-blowing experiences you will ever treat your ears to. Of special interest is Spence’s immortal “Omaha” which blasts right for the mind’s pleasure centers with a dopamine rush that ruled the airwaves that Summer Of Love. This was Skip’s only Billboard Chart hit, but dear god is it a star-kissed blessing from some better dimension. If this was the only song he’d ever written, he’d still have firmly staked out God Status.
To say that the Moby Grape album rollout was a spectacular disaster would be a spectacular understatement. First there was Columbia’s decision to release nearly all the record’s songs as singles, a sensory overload that blew the circuits of potential listeners before they could really get into the group. Then there was the record release party. Oh, the record release party. What can we say about the Moby Grape opening gala other than that it ended with more than half the band being charged with simultaneously possessing drugs and underage groupies? This isn’t to say The Grape didn’t explode into the national consciousness. Any baby boomer dad’s record collection will have the Moby Grape album in there for sure. It’s just that they did it in their own way, and The Way Of The Grape was just not compatible with music industry norms of the time (or now). Then there was the album cover where Grape member Don Stevenson managed to slyly slip in a middle finger on the washboard he was holding, causing a costly recall/reprint after several days on the market (and creating a classic collector’s item piece of vinyl as well). Columbia Records knew right quick that this was not Poco they were dealing with here.
To see Skip Spence performing with The Grape on the Jerry Douglas show in 1967 is a glorious thing to behold. He looks well put together, his hair chopped into a kind of overgrown Ringo mop and a silk scarf casually tossed over his shoulder, belting out “Hey Grandma” as his legs seem to involuntarily shuffle and gyrate with the beat. The dude is sheer joy in motion, which is interesting and sad considering what was less than a year away from going down.
As The Grape convened in NYC to record their second album (eventually awesomely titled Wow/Grape Jam), to say that things just didn’t seem right with their rising star would be the understatement of the century. Within days of kicking things off in the studio Spence met an older homeless woman on the street outside his hotel who claimed to be a witch. Before long he was spending much of his time with the witch, doing the gods only know what, and was seen less and less in the studio. When his Grape Mates started grumbling to management, the newly crossed-over Skip did the logical thing and headed straight for the studio with an ax. Finding his bandmates gone for the day, the “Omaha” hitmaker turned potential ax murdered stalked them out at their hotel. He had chopped his way through Moby Grape ax-slinger (sorry, I’ll stop) Jerry Miller’s door by the time the NYPD finally showed up and put to rest the possibility of rock’s strangest murder.
There’s been lots of speculation on what turned Moby Grape’s cherubic golden boy into the Jason Vorhees of the hippie movement, most of it of the “his brains were scrambled by acid” or “he was schizophrenic” variety. But here at Niche Appeal we are magical thinkers and would like to believe that poor Mr. Spence did indeed meet an evil witch on the streets of Murray Hill who cast a wicked spell that caused him to take up a weapon and head off to decapitate his bandmates. You can’t prove that we’re wrong, so we will stand by our story.
After doing hard time at Bellevue (three star Yelp rating!) Spence was released into the maw of the now-late ’60s. For some reason Moby Grape wasn’t too cool with having him back in the band, but incredibly Columbia Records kept him on. Imagine this happening today. The lead singer of a rising band tries to KILL THE REST OF THE BAND WITH AN AX and THE RECORD COMPANY SIGNS HIM AGAIN. You just can’t make this kind of shit up. It really happened. Skippy inked a deal for a solo LP, booked a studio in Nashville, and lit out for the south on the motorcycle he’d purchased with his advance.
Is that backstory strange enough for you? No? Ok, let’s get to the album.
Over what must have been seven incredibly trippy-as-all-hell days in Nashville, Skip Spence cut his lone solo LP, Oar, at the same studio where Dylan labored over Blonde On Blonde. Unlike the far more conventional Bobby D who chose to hide behind ace session players for his double album, Skip said fuck it and played everything himself. It is a fact that Skip Spence had never plunked a single note on a bass before Oar. It is also a fact that the bass on Oar is incredible and rhythmically tricky. This is just where Spence’s head was at in 1969. Over those seven days he could do anything.
All of the songs on Oar were composed while locked up in Bellevue’s infamous psych ward. And it certainly shows. But this isn’t to say that the entirety of the record is tainted by cracked-mirror dementia and Thorazine-shuffle pain. The gleeful, mischievous cherub wasn’t all the way gone, as evidenced by the euphoric bounce of opener “Little Hands” which hits like a thousand little pins of sunshine. It’s immediately apparent that Skip’s adventures with witches and axes and electroshock treatments hadn’t diluted his songwriting “chops” one bit, as “Hands” stands as a perfect period piece exhibition of a 1969 rock hit, right down to the little “whoo” he interjects at the end of the verses like thousands of singer dudes in crushed velvet bellbottoms were doing at the time. One can’t help but wonder if the ever-dastardly Spence was trolling them all here. There’s a definite industry insider wink encoded deep in the DNA of this song, and one wonders how Skippy managed to keep up with the radio while locked down on the ward. Then there’s “Margaret/Tiger Rug” which lopes along in a music hall bizarro-realm like what would happen if Syd had knocked out McCartney and fronted the Beatles for the night. Check out how Skip cracks up laughing on the “she has muscles in her eyes” line as if he had surprised himself with the lyric, indicating that he may have in fact been freestyling his lyrics off the dome for this album. It’s a scary thing to consider since it points to a rush of genius so pure and scary it could drive someone, well, insane. But Skip doesn’t sound scared in the least on these types of zany numbers. On “Broken Heart” he pokes fun at the West Coast hippie scene that birthed him, rhyming about a “honey dripping hipster whose bee cannot be bopped” and on “Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin For Yang)” he sings of “zen food”, needing “some yin for my yang” and tosses off one of the best sex lyrics of all time (“I’ll stay by your side during the day, you’ll stay underneath me at night”) as if it was nothing. It’s an interesting fact that many of Spence’s comparatively well adjusted industry peers of the time sounded abject miserable on their recorded works (we’re looking at you, Neil Young) but this alleged dark child radiated waves of joy and fun.
This isn’t to say that some of the songs on Oar aren’t downright terrifying. “Cripple Creek” is one of the most cryptically confusing stream-of-consciousness chemtrails ever streaked across a role of tape. Over a hypnotic goth country shuffle that suggests he may have been listening to John Wesley Harding, Spence gets down to the dirty business of prophet-speak in a way only a truly conflicted artist on the edge of a very real void could. We’ll just let the lyrics rest right here:
A cripple on his deathbed
And the daydream he did ride
All past the streams of fire
On a petal path did glide
He left his wheelchair spinning
Deeper in the mud
In it set his memories
Its body and its blood
An angel came to greet him
By his side she flew
Whispered, as a part of him
What he already knew
His head was spinning freely
And it was plain to see
His burden was himself, he bore
The sight his eyes could see
His death, it died quite easily
Right there, was gone for good
But he couldn’t see his loved one
Like he thought he should
He thought if they were gone, said he
And this cannot be true
The search to find what wasn’t there
Has brought him back to you
Then there’s “Books Of Moses” with its headache-inducing chisel percussion that predicts industrial 20 years before it became a thing. “Weighted Down” is pure sadness on par with Gram Parson’s “A Song For You” or Nico’s “These Days”, with a dejected Spence spinning hyper-poetic cheatin’ woman parables that suggest good old-fashioned heartbreak just may have been the culprit for his slip:
A best friend to your ear of true said I was guilty of sin
Said my being gone was the best thing for you
But the truth, it all comes through for me and my kin
It wasn’t the best thing for me but was the best for him
If it were fleshed out and sheened up bit, a song like “Diana” could be a Peter Gabriel track, romantic and soaring and just universal enough in feel to get hands waving in the stadium seats. As it stands the song is a fascinating blueprint for what The Grape could have morphed into had The Witch never shown up. “All Come To Meet Her” is basically every “hey I’m being serious here” Beck song where he’s not dancing like a robot.
Then there’s the all-time immortal classics. “War In Peace” isn’t only the coolest song title of all time, it has Spence going straight off on that Gibson semi-hollow body, intertwining demented, stunted-note runs like snakes set loose on a hippie free love orgy. Skippy hasn’t allowed himself much room to really let it rip on this relatively calm and watchful record, and he clearly relishes the opportunity over three minutes of gleefully sinister savant histrionics. For my money, goth rock begins and ends with Spence whisper-crooning, “It’s so nice to see you in your red risen dead” as only a man who’s been all the way out could. Eric Clapton had allegedly once made a disparaging comment about Moby Grape, and Spence claps back at the end of the track by savagely deconstructing the “Sunshine Of Your Love” riff, flipping it onto the side of the road as the ashes of the psychedelic movement, and a generation, settle around its burnt husk.
How to even describe album closer “Grey/Afro”? Minimalist? For sure. But also jazzy and complex? Um, hell yea. Just bass and drums? You bet. But really full-sounding? Real full, yes. Is it obtuse and devoid of chorus/verse structure? Yep. But is it also really, really catchy? Real catchy, yes. Does it sound like it started Kraut rock? Why yes it does! And the lo-fi movement? That too, for sure. And maybe even ambient electronica? Maybe, man, maybe. It’s on a track such as this that Alexander Spence has truly moved BEYOND, functioning just out of reach of the stratosphere that mires the rest of us, but still close enough to be recognizable, his words shorn down to shards of prophecy:
Do you know you ask and you shall live
And die then you can turn to sin
The drum patter goes full-tilt tribal, the bass locking in, Skip getting into a groove with himself, spurring up dead-serious proclamations and troubling promises only he had the abandon to keep:
To be sure
I don’t give a damn
Live in a place
And with that Alexander Spence shut down the control board, left the tape with the (probably really confused) studio engineer for delivery to Columbia headquarters, and lit out of Nashville on his bike toward a life of hard times. But he left behind this jewel of a statement, this faded Polaroid of a bespelled individual who could, for just one week in the bleak southern winter at the end of the decade that crushed him, weave sorcery with his fingertips.