Skip Spence and the Sad Saga of Moby Grape

In the summer of 1965, Jefferson Airplane decided to dismiss their first drummer, Jerry Peloquin. That's when a golden boy named Alexander "Skip" Spence came waltzing into the Matrix club and was immediately signed up by Marty Balin, the band's co-founder. Spence had little experience as a drummer but Balin just knew he'd be right for the group. He sent Spence home with a pair of drumsticks and he soon debuted with the band, going on to play on their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Spence wasn't one for staying in one place too long, though, and he took off to Mexico one day with a girlfriend or two, neglecting to tell the band he was going. They decided he wasn't going to work out and Spence was soon replaced by Spencer Dryden, who remained the Airplane's drummer throughout their key years of 1966-70. In the summer of '66, Skip resurfaced with a new band, Moby Grape, this time playing guitar, his first instrument. Everyone agreed that Moby Grape was an astounding band, but confused the Airplane was that they were managed by one Matthew Katz. Katz had also been the Airplane's first manager, and he'd given them nothing but grief. Subsequent lawsuits involving Katz would tie up the court system for a whopping 21 years. Why Skip Spence would choose to continue working with Katz was just one of the many unfortunate mysteries in which his life became tangled during the three-plus decades following his Airplane stay.


With Surrealistic Pillow completed, the Airplane returned home to play Thanksgiving weekend at the Fillmore. The following weekend, they returned to L.A. to play a week of shows at the Whisky, missing a perfect opportunity to witness Moby Grape, the band that Skip Spence had co-founded after his return from Mexico. The Grape had been woodshedding in Marin County for the past few months, working on material. They'd just played their first gig, at California Hall, on November 4th.

Everyone who caught Moby Grape's act agreed instantly that this was one outstanding band. But to the Airplane, the most astonishing thing of all was that, even though Skip Spence was well aware of all the turmoil the Airplane had been through, Moby Grape's manager was Matthew Katz.

Moby Grape (Skip Spence far left)

The Grape's saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad-luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever to emerge from San Francisco. Moby Grape could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, and less.

Katz had helped engineer the band's formation. In addition to Spence, the quintet included two other guitarists: Peter Lewis (the son of actress Loretta Young), who used to play with Spencer Dryden down in L.A. and was most recently working with a band called Peter and the Wolves; and Jerry Miller. Miller and drummer Don Stevenson had played together in a bar band in the Pacific Northwest called the Frantics, and Miller had earlier worked with Bobby Fuller, the Texan rocker who died under mysterious circumstances in the summer of '66 just months after scoring a Top 10 hit with the Sonny Curtis-penned "I Fought The Law."

The Frantics relocated to San Francisco in 1965, where bassist Bob Mosley worked with them briefly. Mosley recommended Miller and Stevenson to fill out the lineup of the proposed new group, which took its moniker from the punch line of a dumb joke, "What's purple and swims in the ocean?"

At first, the rest of the Grape-to-be wasn't sure about working with Spence.

Jerry Miller: He was a little bit too crazy, even then. When we first met him, he looked a little bit crazed. He was one of the first guys I'd seen with ratted hair. And he'd laugh hysterically when he'd get the feeling. But he played excellent rhythm guitar. He did these things where he would muffle the strings. And he did that better than anybody, ever. And when the five of us played together, there was something happening that was undeniable.

Moby Grape was a record company's dream band when they debuted. Their complementary three-guitar lineup produced a thunderous noise, not unlike what Buffalo Springfield was doing down in L.A. Their songs were expertly composed and had both commercial possibilities and the integrity demanded by San Francisco audiences. They looked great onstage–they had a real presence, unlike some of the other local bands–and put on a dazzling performance. Many felt that they were the most accomplished band on the scene musically from the moment they showed up.

Al Kooper: The only San Francisco band that did anything for me was Moby Grape. They adhered to more of a three-minute mentality.

But the Grape was doomed. For starters, they allowed Matthew Katz to retain ownership of their name, precipitating legal battles that continued to tie up the court system clear through to the end of the century and kept the musicians from exploiting their own legacy. And in 1967, upon the release of their first album for Columbia Records, hailed by many critics as one of few perfect debuts in rock history, the Grape was the victim of one of the most misguided marketing efforts in the annals of the music industry: the simultaneous release of nearly all of the songs on the album as A-sides or B-sides of singles. By pitting the five records against one another, Columbia effectively canceled out the possibility of any one of them gaining enough momentum to become a hit. The disaster was compounded by a press party at the Avalon so overblown in its hype quotient (purple flowers everywhere) that Moby Grape never really recovered.

Katz's management style proved consistent with the way he'd managed the Airplane. Jerry Miller says that he remembers the Grape missing a photo session for the high-circulation Look magazine because Matthew had gotten the time of the shoot wrong.

Things got worse. There were busts and a second album generally considered inferior to the first. And then, in 1968, began the downfall of Skippy Spence. Spence had taken to gobbling tabs of acid like Pez, and taking harder drugs, becoming increasingly unreliable and unpredictable. While the band was staying in New York, at the Albert Hotel, Spence chopped away at Stevenson and Miller's hotel room door with a fire axe, and when he failed to find them there, continued on to the studio where the group had been doing some recording.

Producer David Rubinson managed to get the weapon away, but Spence was taken by police, first to the Tombs jail and finally to Bellevue Hospital, where he spent six months undergoing psychiatric care. He was never the same after that–the old Skip Spence, described by everyone as a happy-go-lucky, good-time fellow, disappeared into a dope-induced psychosis.


Skip Spence


Jerry Miller: 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. They were really strange, almost Nazi-ish. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while. Next time we saw him he had cut off his beard, and he had a black leather jacket on, with his chest hanging out, with some chains and just sweating like a son of a gun. I don't know what the hell he got a hold of, man, but it just whacked him. And the next thing I know, he axed my door down in the Albert Hotel. They said at the reception area that this crazy guy had held an axe to the doorman's head.

At the end of 1968, Skip was released, and hopped a Triumph motorcycle pointed toward Nashville, where he recorded the idiosyncratic solo album Oar for Columbia. Although largely ignored in its time, Oar grew in stature as a cult favorite over the years, culminating in the simultaneous 1999 re-release of the album, with bonus tracks appended to it, and a tribute album called More Oar, consisting of new interpretations of the album's songs by contemporary artists such as Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Tom Waits.

But by then, it was too late for Skip Spence. After a near-lifetime as a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, living much of the time in institutions as a ward of the state, only occasionally venturing out to make new music with the former members of Moby Grape, Alexander "Skip" Spence died on April 16th, 1999 in Santa Cruz, California. He was two days shy of his 53rd birthday. Although the official cause of death was lung cancer, Spence had entered the hospital on April 5th with numerous ailments, including pneumonia, hepatitis and congestive heart failure. His lifestyle and years of poverty and neglect had finally caught up to him. Unlike many other casualties of the '60s, Spence neither died young nor had a chance to find his way out. Unlike the advice in the Neil Young song, he both burned out and faded away.

Yet, he touched so many.

Sam Andrew: I went to see the Airplane at the Matrix when they were starting out, and what knocked me out was Skip Spence. He was all I could see the night I went. He was the drummer but he had so much charisma. He was really a great player. He was really driving the band. It was just so complete, such a good sound.

Paul Kantner: He wasn't the preeminent guitar player in Moby Grape, but he probably was responsible for a good 30 to 40 percent of the exuberance of Moby Grape, just him alone. On stage at his height, he was a force to be reckoned with, in terms of joy and participation and passion with what you're doing and connecting it to people out there. He was a really bright star. He came up with beautiful chord changes and the melodies going through them. He had a real knack for that. He was one of the casualties. That didn't happen until he left the Airplane. And then he had troubles with Matthew and Moby Grape and acid and heroin and girlfriends; those things all conspired against him to blow him over the hill.

Miller says that the Grape, when they first formed, was unaware of the problems that the Airplane had had with Katz.

Jerry Miller: Neither Skippy nor Matthew told us that he fell out of favor with them. So it took a while before we found that out that they definitely didn't like the Matthew guy. He had a talent, but he abused the hell out of it. I'm not real pro-Matthew at all. I wouldn't piss in his face if his eyebrows were on fire.

The Grape held on until 1969, recording and performing without Spence and Mosley, who, disgusted with the turn of events, joined the Marines in an effort to get far away from the rock and roll world. Mosley was discharged after nine months, but the Moby Grape saga continued to grow more bizarre and frustrating for the members in subsequent years. In 1970, Katz, who owned the band's name, put together a new Moby Grape consisting of none of the original members. Eventually a court decision sided with Katz on the ownership of both the name and the Grape's recorded catalog, making it virtually impossible at times for the original members to capitalize on the music they had created in the '60s. Even Columbia Records was unable to reissue the Grape's albums, which came out instead on a label set up by Katz.

There would be other Moby Grape recordings and reunions, both under that name and others–the Legendary Grape, the Melvilles–concocted in an effort to circumvent Katz's claims on the group, but for the most part, despite the occasional resurfacing, Moby Grape was sunk almost from the start. Katz spent the better part of the years after the band's original demise in courts fighting appeals and initiating new suits, not just against the Grape but another prominent San Francisco band he managed, It's A Beautiful Day.

Meanwhile, after spending several years in and out of the Grape and other bands, Mosley's life took a downward spiral, and he spent considerable time homeless before coming around again in the late '90s. By that time, not only had Miller, Mosley, Lewis and Stevenson reunited as Moby Grape, they had done so legally, the courts finally deciding in their favor on the name ownership issue.

 

 

 

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