Friday, September 27, 2013

Hippies vs. Punks: Skip Spence and Moby Grape

The story of Skip Spence and Moby Grape has it all -- a great psychedelic name, a scheming manager (Matthew Katz), drug abuse, violence, insanity, a stint in the psychiatric ward, robust creativity, and superb music. Skip and the band rose like a rocket and fell from the firmament as fast as lightning.

Spence was a founder and guitarist of Moby Grape. He had been the drummer on Jefferson Airplane's first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (1966), as well as a member of an early iteration of Quicksilver Messenger Service.

I was originally attracted to the band as a source for a Hippies vs. Punks post when I saw that they opened the historic Mantra-Rock Dance, the event that introduced the Hare Krishnas, a.k.a., the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) to the West Coast "Flower Power" scene. The Mantra-Rock Dance was held at Chet HelmsAvalon Ballroom on Sunday night, January 29, 1967 -- the beginning of what would later be seen as the year of the Hippie; the more famous Human Be-In had taken place a couple of weeks earlier.

Star Beatnik poet Allen Ginsberg, the man who coined the term "Flower Power," helped organize and MC'd the Mantra-Rock Dance in order to introduce ISKCON founder Swami Bhaktivedanta to Haight-Ashbury. Moby Grape, a band much sought after at the time by the record labels, made a big splash that night, not only kicking things off but also joining Ginsberg, Swami Bhaktivedanta, and the members of Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company in leading the ballroom audience in two hours of chanting and dancing.

When I stray from my temporal confines -- what I have designated as the years 1975 through 1979 -- of Hippies vs. Punks one of the things that I like to do is select a band from the undercard of a rock festival or important show from either Hippie or Punk era and immerse myself in its music during the work week. In this case, and towards the goal of furthering our understanding of the "San Francisco Sound," without which the Hippie does not exist, I have submerged myself over the last two weeks in the first two Moby Grape albums -- Moby Grape (1967) and Wow/Grape Jam (1968), as well as the post-acid meltdown record of founding member Alexander "Skip" Spence, Oar (1969).

The eponymous Moby Grape was released on June 6, 1967 shortly before the band performed at what would later be hyped as the blast-off event to the Hippie "Summer of Love" -- the Monterey Pop Festival. The album peaked in September at #24 on the Billboard 200 chart. It's a highly-regarded record. For instance, it outpolls QSM's Happy Trails (1969), which I consider to be much better, in the Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Albums of All Time ranking. Christgau gives it an enthusiastic A-minus. I found Moby Grape, having listened to it repeatedly, to be more akin to the Los Angeles Whiskey a Go Go music of Buffalo Springfield (another three-guitar band) than the psychedelic ballroom sound of San Francisco bands Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead and Big Brother and the Holding Company. In addition to plenty of twangy guitar and a go-go dancing backbeat, Moby Grape features a fulsome holy sententious, non-ironic male vocal style, something for the most part no longer acceptable. Now we like our male lead singers fragile, obscure, exhausted. We will accept a diffident Jesus Christ pose, but not a Charlton Hestonesque Moses.

I prefer the next Moby Grape recording, the double LP, Wow/Grape Jam. Where the first record was recorded in Los Angeles, Wow/Grape Jam was mostly recorded in New York City because producer David Rubinson wanted to be with his family. This necessitated the band moving back East to live out of hotel rooms for many months. It took its toll. If you're a West Coast boy coming to New York City for the first time to live, it will fuck you up. I can speak from experience. There's nothing to prepare you for the energy, the density, the easy availability of women and drugs, and the constant drinking. It fucked up Skip Spence. 

It was during the band's stay in New York while Wow/Grape Jam was being produced that Spence disappeared with a woman after a Moby Grape show at Fillmore East. When he reappeared he was transformed, drug crazed. The story is a famous one. Skip took a fire ax to drummer Don Stevenson's hotel room door, attempting to kill him in order to save him from himself. He held the ax to the hotel doorman's head. The police were called and Spence was taken to jail. From there he spent six months pumped full of Thorazine in the psychiatric ward of Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital.

What makes Wow/Grape Jam sound so great is that it manages to capture this intensity, this craziness -- the bigness, the energy -- of what the Hippies were wrestling with during the counterculture apex years of 1967-1968. The era of the rock 'n' roll musician as a grand artistic visionary -- an oracle, a synthesizer of the present age -- is long gone. But listen to the string and horn arrangements of Wow or the super studio jams of Grape Jam and you get a sense of the huge scale and  high confidence the Hippies were trading in.

And that's what makes Skip Spence's only solo album, Oar -- an album on which Spence plays all the instruments and was made with a three-track recorder -- stand out. It's the exact opposite. In an age of bombastic grandiosity it prefigures by more than three decades the "small ball" genre of Downer Folk that is one of the hallmarks of our current End Times.

The story, apparently apocryphal, is that once he was released from Bellevue Hospital, Spence, wearing pajamas, jumped on a motorcycle and drove non-stop to Nashville where he recorded Oar in seven days at the Columbia Records studio.

The album was released in spring of 1969. It ended up being, at that time, the lowest-selling album in the history of Columbia Records. It was removed from the Columbia catalog within a year. The Hippies, flocking to any and all rock festivals like Woodstock and Altamont and movie theaters to see Easy Rider, could not fathom the depths that Oar presented.

The easiest way to think of it is in terms of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding (1967), another album that confounded the Hippies, and, appropriately, a recording made in the same Nashville studio one year prior to Oar. In many places, such as "Cripple Creek" and "Broken Heart," Oar sounds identical to John Wesley Harding:

But it isn't Dylan's Biblical world that Spence inhabits. Oar is an irreligious, drug-damaged, Bizarro-world version of John Wesley Harding, one that accurately predicted our present constricted -- owing to our loss of free time -- sense of space (constricted to the point of miniaturization). We're working longer hours for less money. Everything has been monetized. Public parks require an admission fee. Churches stand vacant. Our commons no longer exist. It's a brutal, nihilistic world. Skip Spence captured it 44 years ago.

In 2009, Beck lovingly devoted one of his Record Club sessions to Oar. Check it out. You'll come away appreciating Skip Spence even more.

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