Psychedelic madness

By Sergio Ariza

In the life of Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence it is difficult to tell the reality apart from the legend, the perspective is lost on someone who played in three of the most important bands of the burgeoning psychedelia, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane, and Moby Grape, yet ended up homeless. Someone who released his first solo album after spending 6 months locked up in a psychiatric hospital and never recorded anything again in spite of being just 23 years of age and having followers like Robert Plant and Tom Waits. His mind was blown before its time but shined enough so that today we can recall it at the height of other damaged luminaries like Syd Barrett and Roy Erickson.

Originally from Canada, Spence found accomodation in California where he made himself a name in the local folk scene. In 1965 he passed a test to be part of a band that was being formed with John Cipollina among others. The band rehearsed in The Matrix, a club run by Marty Balin, who was also forming his own band. When he saw Spence he was amazed, “Skippy was this beautiful kid, all gold and shining, Balin would say later, “I just saw him and said: ‘Hey, man, you’re my drummer.. Spence played the guitar and had never touched the drums in his life. Nevertheless, Balin passed him the sticks and told him to start practising. After just a week he played fluidly and began to rehearse with Balin’s new band. Those in Cipollina’s band ended up becoming Quicksilver Messenger Service, while Balin’s group was none other than Jefferson Airplane. At the time the band comprised Balin on vocals and rhythm guitar, Paul Kantner the same, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, bassman Jack Casady, singer Signe Toly Anderson, and Spence on drums. Together they would record the band’s debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, released on August 15, 1966.    

By that time he had abandoned the band but left an important legacy: the song that opened his debut, Blues From an Airplane, is one of his compositions together with Balin, and he also composed Don’t Slip Away, and, despite being replaced by Spencer Dryden, the band would use one of his songs, My Best Friend, on their 2nd album Surrealistic Pillow, the piece that would serve as an introduction to psychedelic Californian rock. About his departure from the band, there are, as so many times in Spence’s life, several versions. Some say he took a vacation in Mexico with two girls without telling anyone, others that he tired of his role as drummer and wanted to play guitar again. What seems clear is that Spence wanted to widen his role and importance, something he would get in spades on his next adventure, Moby Grape.

The ex-manager of Airplane, Matthew Katz, had been attracted to Spence’s charms so, after he rejected an offer to become the drummer of Buffalo Springfield, he decided to form a band that was around him to compete with Balin’s outfit. Together they decided to look for local talent to create a group in which they were all excellent musicians, with the ability to sing and compose. Spence was clear that he wanted a group with 3 guitars, like Buffalo Springfield, so the rest of the band fell into place, the marvellous guitarist Jerry Miller, who had been with the Frantics and had played with Bobby Fuller, drummer Don Stevenson, who had played with people like Etta James, and Big Mama Thornton, guitarist Peter Lewis, with a style half-way between folk and country and an excellent domain of ‘fingerpickin’’ and to top it off, bassman Bob Mosley with his amazing soulful voice.  

How could it be otherwise, the group was pure dynamite onstage, behind the excellent arrangements by Spence they began to win a legion of followers among the regulars at The Ark, another of the main juke joints of the San Francisco scene. Neil Young and Stephen Stills never missed a performance, and according to Sam Andrew of Big Brother & The Holding Company, they were better than the Beatles. They must have had something when producer David Rubinson, who had gone to The Ark to see The Sparrows (who later would become Steppenwolf), decided to drop everything, move to San Francisco with his family and get them to sign with Columbia Records. Some time later he would remember the intensity of that first performance, “Moby Grape was the best American band I’d ever seen (...) Everyone could sing, but Mosley and Spence were the energy. They were monstrously intense”.  

The expectations for their first album were extremely high, but even then, they did not disappoint. The material was top quality, where everyone contributed songs and shared the main voice. It was one of the great masterpieces of San Francisco psychedelia being, besides, one of the few examples of the day that doesn’t sound anchored to the 60s, serving as the bridge between psychedelia and the return to the roots that would be proposed by bands like The Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Spence was in charge of the majority of the arrangements and penned his name on 3 of the songs Indifference and Omaha, alone, and Someday, together with Miller and Stevenson. The 3 are great compositions but Omaha is the jewel in the crown, a 3-guitar frontal attack, with excellent lead work by Miller on his legendary Beulah (a Gibson L-5 CES from ‘62 that he picked up as homage to Wes Montgomery) accompanied by Spence on his Stratocaster, which Rolling Stone Magazine chose as one of “The 100 best guitar songs of all times. Although you can’t forget other great moments like Hey Grandma, with the explosive lead vocals by Spence, or the delicate 8:05 and Sitting By the Window. But the ‘hype’ flew too high and went against the group, Columbia decided to promote it by releasing 5 singles at the same time. The radio didn’t know which song to put on so just Omaha charted among the top 100, in a disappointing 88th spot for a song that good.      

Even so the album sold well and climbed to #24, making the Grape the new sensation on the scene. But a few bad choices would return to haunt them. In August of ‘67 they were offered a spot in the Monterey Festival but after Katz asked for a million dollars to appear in a film by D.A. Pennebaker, they never appeared in it and on top of it all they had the ungrateful task of opening the festival. Still, they managed to record their performance and years later we are able to enjoy a Spence unleashed with his Gibson 335 singing Hey Grandma. Shortly after, when they negotiated with Electra to disengage from Columbia, they found out that Katz had the rights to the group’s name, a decision that left them with no money in the future.

But things would take an even worse turn when during the recording of their 2nd album Wow/Grape Jam, Spence began hanging out with more than dubious company. The most dangerous was a groupie who called herself a witch and began to concoct all types of drugs for him in black magic rituals. The already unstable Spence started having hallucinations where he saw himself as the antiChrist. In the middle of one of these he grabbed an axe and with just his pajamas on, he hacked into his bandmate Don Stevenson’s room, but fortunately he wasn’t there. Then he went to Miller’s room and started chopping down the door. He was also spared but Spence’s homicidal attack didn’t end there, he hailed a taxi and went to the studio to murder his producer David Rubinson. Miller and Stevenson notified David about this and when he arrived the police was already waiting for him, that same day he was admitted into the psychiatric hospital in Bellevue. It was in April 1968, Spence was about to turn 22 that month and Wow/Grape Jam, the 2nd album by Moby Grape, had just been released some weeks before. Although it was far from the brilliant work on their debut, there were still sparks of inspiration like Spence’s Motorcycle Irene, and Never, a song many see as the inspiration for Since I’ve Been Loving You by Led Zeppelin, something that make sense as Robert Plant was a big fan of the band, and Spence in particular.   

He would be 6 months in Bellevue and the famous photo that they used for the cover of Oar would be taken there. He is seen strongly sedated with torazina smiling in his own world. But despite it all, his months in the hospital were his last creative explosion. After all that had happened to him, it was Rubinson who went to pick him up when he was given leave, Spence told him that he had a head full of ideas for new songs but, not having his guitar with him, he needed one to put them on paper. Rubinson, who still believed in his talent, set him up for a session in Nashville with the sole instruction to the sound engineer, leave the tape running. Later the legend improved history and we have Spence leaving the hospital in his gown, getting on a Harley Davidson and heading to Nashville to begin recording that same day the work he would be most remembered for, Oar.

No matter what condition he was in when he got to Nashville, the fact is that he would give shape to a free, chaotic album, a painful voyage to the dark clouds in his mind beautifully muscled with an intense psychedelic folk. In a three-track recorder, Spence recorded all the instruments and vocals from December 3-12, 1968, and had prepared what is considered his artistic testament, the remembered Oar. The album, which opens with one of his best songs, Little Hands, and which includes other wonders such as War in Peace, where he shows that he was an interesting lead guitarist as well, the lugubrious Weighted Down (The Prison Song) and the strange beauty of All Come to Meet Her Now.

Spence sent the tapes to Rubinson and took off with his family, his mental state never recovered and would spend the next decade in and out of mental institutes. His drug use was on the rise and it is rumoured that in the 70s he overdosed leaving him lying in a morgue as a cadaver until he got up, asked for a glass of water and left. There was also word of a rat that came with him everywhere and who shared his hobby of snorting cocaine, besides his particular habit of telling stories of violent axe-murders...

But back to Oar, Rubinson took the record to Columbia but the company didn’t want to have anything to do with it, but it came on the market, as a special favor, May 19, 1969 without any fanfare. It has the dubious merit of being the worst selling record by the company at the time of release, selling a little more than 1000 copies. But just like Spence’s reputation, its fame grew over time and became a cursed cult work. You can trace its influence on artists like Beck and Tame Impala, but Spence practically didn’t live to see its resurrection. Just when a group of admirers (among them Robert Plant, Tom Waits or Beck himself) recorded a tribute called More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album, Spence fell ill and died on April 16, 1999, two days before turning 53. He had never been lucky and ended his days in poverty, living in a trailer where his ex-band mates from Moby Grape sometimes visiting him.

For so long his head had stopped working completely, it was precisely with Moby Grape he recorded the song where you can see clearly how Spence himself was conscious of his descent into the hell of madness. The song was Seeing, also called Skip’s Song, cut during the Wow sessions and would see light on the band’s 3rd record, Moby Grape ‘69. From here you can see through the window to the darkness inside of him: “Can’t beat a dream of death todayhe sings to the end when he begins to beg “Save Me!” over Miller’s sparkling guitar. It is a pity that his desperate prayer for his own mental health was not answered...