A collection of posts about the strange, the unusual, the experimental and the odd in a variety of musical genres.I came to Moby Grape quite late in the scheme of things, certainly way after their most active period (1966-69). I was initially drawn to them via a couple of ways. Firstly their slight geographical and cultural association with Love, whom I'd already admired by the early 1990s. Secondly, like Love's leader Arthur Lee, I'd been reading about Alexander 'Skip' Spence as a psychologically/psychedelically damaged artist, spoken about in the same kind of articles that also mention Syd Barrett, Peter Green and Roky Erickson in similar light.
Alexander Spence- “Oar”
Alexander Spence- “Oar”
Admittedly I was drawn to investigate these artists having a naively romantic notion about the 'mad genius'. As my own knowledge about and empathy towards mental illness evolved I appreciated these musician more than just 'crazy' people that made music, but people that made music who happened to have a mental illness. Their illnesses somewhat informed or 'filtered' their music making it quite unique and that in itself is what made it appealing ultimately. There is a 'realness' to this music. There is no real pretence here, a lot of the constructed facade is dropped due to the need to work hard to be at least somewhat coherent, coherent in the context of popular musics' norms and conventions.
Skip Spence was one of five very talented musicians and writers in Moby Grape, a group that were associated with the burgeoning 'psychedelic' scene on the West Coast of the USA.
Generally speaking though, I found them a little too “sunshine pop” for my tastes. It's very well constructed pop, with a bit of an edge. But within the context of the psychedelic scene, with groups like Love and with Texans 13th Floor Elevators and The Red Krayola, they were quite light.
That is, with the exception of Spence's material. His music had a somewhat whimsical, bawdy and occasionally darker feel to it. The track 'Seeing', particularly in it's early demo form as 'Skip's Song' (available on the “Vintage: The Very Best Of Moby Grape” compilation from 1993 was my gateway to Skip's more transcendent musical moments.
As the story goes
Spence began doing acid and hanging out with a woman supposedly steeped in black magic. Whilst working on their second album in New York, Spence attempted to attack his Grape band mates with a fire axe. He was apprehended and spent 6 months incarcerated in a mental health facility.
He emerged and drove immediately to Nashville to record is solo album 'Oar'. And it was truly a solo album, he played, drums (having been an early drummer for Jefferson Airplane), bass, guitar and performed vocals himself. Spence's fragile state, combined with the slightly disjointed feel that doing all the instruments oneself, created a somewhat queazy, slow moving, delirious and singular vision. There is a country twang to a lot of the record, perhaps due to the location it was recorded in. You'll also hear some electric folk, early blues and the more psychedelic end of rock. But it's really none and all of those things at once. These are evocations of a troubled soul with a broken voice, attempting to enjoy life, love, sex and freedom, yet displaying evidence of having been denied of all these things.
Key songs; the poppy opener 'Little Hands', the radio-play theatrics of 'Book Of Moses', the ribald 'Dixie Peach Pomade (Yin For Yang)' – supposedly the masturbatory lubricant of choice for inmates of Bellevue Hospital and the closing 9 minute epic free droney piece 'Grey/Afro'.
And following the sessions for this album (which did garner some other available outtakes) that was pretty much it for Skip as a solo artist. He contributed a couple of tracks to later Grape albums. He also released the fantastic 1999 single 'All My Life (I Love You)'/'Land Of The Sun', the latter track originally recorded in 1996 for the X-Files spinoff compilation 'Songs In The Key Of X', but ultimately rejected. That same year he passed away after many years of mental health issues, drug abuse and homelessness, just shy of 53 years. I'd recommend checking out the Sundazed Records reissue with the outtakes tacked onto the end and some excellent liner notes and informative essay material that delves further into creation of this fascinating record.
Despite the above 'Oar' tracks being personal standouts for me, it really is a body of work, created in just 6 days, almost like his life, or at least his sanity depended on it.
1. Little Hands
2. Cripple Creek
4. Margaret/Tiger Rug
5. Weighted Down (The Prison Song)
6. War in Peace
7. Broken Heart
8. All Come to Meet Her
9. Books of Moses
10. Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin for Yang)
11. Lawrence of Euphoria