Spence and the Sad Saga of Moby Grape
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.
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.
Grape (Skip Spence far left)
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
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 onstagethey had a real presence, unlike
some of the other local bandsand put on a dazzling performance.
Many felt that they were the most accomplished band on the scene
musically from the moment they showed up.
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 thatthe old Skip Spence,
described by everyone as a happy-go-lucky, good-time fellow,
disappeared into a dope-induced psychosis.
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
Yet, he touched so many.
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
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.
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
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 othersthe Legendary Grape, the Melvillesconcocted
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
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