Obituary: SKIP SPENCE

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The Independent Culture
SKIP SPENCE, a founding member of Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, personified the lost genius of the psychedelic Sixties. A pivotal figure on the San Francisco scene, Spence's free spirit extended down the years; he named the Doobie Brothers and influenced Led Zeppelin, REM and Beck along the way.

He was born Alexander Spence in Canada in 1946, and was given a guitar by his parents at the age of 10. A precocious talent, he also played the drum in his school band, a skill which would come in handy when, having moved to California in the mid-Sixties, he dived into the burgeoning hippie scene of the Bay Area.

Spence had already been approached to join Quicksilver Messenger Service as a guitarist when he bumped into the singer Marty Balin at the Matrix, a San Francisco club also used as a rehearsal room. Dissatisfied with the drummer Jerry Peloquin, who was only in so the group could use his apartment in Haight Ashbury, the frontman offered the drumming stool to Spence, who looked the part. Spence jumped at the chance and joined a Jefferson Airplane line-up which also featured the guitarists Paul Kantner and Jorma Kaukonen and singer Signe Toly Anderson. "It's No Secret", the Airplane's first single, was released in February 1966, just as Jack Casady replaced the original bassist Bob Harvey.

Spence stayed with the Airplane for over a year and contributed several songs (notably "Blues From An Airplane") to their debut album, entitled Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, eventually issued by RCA Records later that year. Further personnel changes saw Anderson quit to have children and Grace Slick, formerly lead vocalist with the Great Society, take over, bringing with her "White Rabbit" and "Somebody To Love", two seminal compositions which became the Airplane's first hits and true flower-power anthems.

By the time these million-selling singles reached the US Top Ten in 1967, Spence, who felt his songwriting was being eclipsed by the other members' (though his "My Best Friend" was included on Surrealistic Pillow, the group's second album), had stopped attending rehearsals and was dismissed in favour of Spencer Dryden. At the same time, the Jefferson Airplane switched their management to a local concert promoter Bill Graham, leaving Matthew Katz in the lurch.

Katz kept Spence on his books and hatched a plan to form a band around him in San Francisco. He asked the guitarist Peter Lewis and bassist Bob Mosley to come up from Los Angeles to see if they fitted in. Adding a drummer, Don Stevenson, and guitarist, Jerry Miller, the group, Moby Grape, started to rehearse and instantly found a distinctive sound, blending three guitar parts, vocal harmonies and distinctive compositions of all five members, with Spence often at the helm. "Skippy was always `high' on this other level," said Peter Lewis in the sleeve notes to a 1993 compilation, Vintage: The Very Best of Moby Grape. He recalled:

His mind was always churning with stuff. It was hard for him to sit and talk. He didn't deal in words but in ideas. He was the most unique songwriter I'd ever heard. Like in "Indifference" on the first album, the way he changed keys right in the middle of the song. Skippy was definitely not copying anybody I'd ever heard. Yet it always came out great.

The name Moby Grape reflected the crazy times. According to Jerry Miller,

Skip and Bob (Mosley) went out to have a little lunch and they came back laughing like crazy with a name for the band. They were thinking of this joke: what's purple and swims in the ocean? So they came back in and said: Moby Grape, we'll just be Moby Grape. That's how it happened. We all laughed and got along with that pretty good. Our manager liked Bentley Escort because it related to Jefferson Airplane and Strawberry Alarm Clock but we hated that one. Moby Grape sounded good and it was made up by the band. Skippy appeared to be crazy but he was crazy like a fox. He was a full- on Aries, laughing all the time.

After two months of solid rehearsals in Sausalito, the group played the Fillmore in San Francisco in November 1966 and instantly started a bidding war between record companies. "When I first saw them play," remembers David Rubinson, the A&R man who won the battle and signed the group to Columbia, "I knew this was a band that could go around the country, around the world and really kill!" Sam Andrews, guitarist with Big Brother and the Holding Company (featuring Janis Joplin) was full of praise too. "You guys are better than the Beatles," he told Lewis.

Indeed, the quintet's debut album, simply entitled Moby Grape, remains a classic of its time, worthy of inclusion alongside The Beatles' Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Love's Forever Changes, also released in 1967. Unfortunately, an over-eager record company and inept manager conspired to oversell the group with a lavish launch in June at the Avalon Ballroom during which thousands of purple orchids fell from the ceiling. The next day, Miller, Lewis and Spence were found in Marin County with three under-age girls and duly arrested, though charges were later dropped.

Columbia also simultaneously issued five singles from the album when they should have been concentrating on the stunning "Omaha", a Spence composition which nevertheless crept into the Top 100. Moby Grape reached No 24 on the LP charts (though drummer Don Stevenson's raised finger had to be erased from the sleeve). " `Omaha' was pure Spence energy," declared David Rubinson later:

He was the maniacal core of the band, the guy who would say fuck it, let's do it anyway. He was an idiot savant. He couldn't add a column or figures, couldn't pay a check in a restaurant. But he saw things in a clear light. He could see through immediately to the truth of what was going on.

The truth was that the five members didn't get on. "Six months after we met, we were rock stars. That was horrible," admitted Lewis. Later that year, following abortive sessions in Los Angeles, the group were sent to New York to complete Wow, the follow-up album, which made the Top Twenty. The relocation seemed to have pushed Spence, who consumed psychedelic drugs at an alarming rate, over the edge. Considering that the singer had howled "Save me, save me!" when recording a demo of "Seeing", the others should have seen the writing on the wall. One day in 1968, Spence went looking for them with an axe. He was jailed and committed to the Bellevue Hospital for six months.

The four remaining musicians attempted to carry on, even touring the UK, despite becoming embroiled in a dispute with Katz, who claimed all rights to the Moby Grape name and put together a bogus version of the band which played the ill-fated 1969 Altamont gig. The legal dispute would rumble on for years; the original group members attempting to reform even resorted to calling themselves Maby Grope or Legendary Grape.

Following his discharge from hospital in 1968, Spence went to Nashville and in four days recorded the dark and whimsical Oar, a truly solo album on which he played every single instrument. Over the years, this record gained something of a cult following and, after its reissue on CD in 1993, was even the subject of a "Buried Treasure" feature in Mojo magazine. By then, Spence had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and had been in and out of mental institutions for most of the Seventies and Eighties. Sometimes, he managed to rejoin his former cohorts but, more usually, he would contribute the odd track to one of their albums before disappearing again.

Spence wrote some music for an episode of the revived television series The Twilight Zone and the X-Files film, but neither score was used. He struggled on with various illnesses and, before his death, heard More Oar, a tribute album assembled by the likes of Tom Waits, Robert Plant, Wilco, and Michael Stipe of REM. It will be issued in July.

Alexander Lee "Skip" Spence, singer, songwriter, guitarist, drummer: born Windsor, Ontario 18 April 1946; married (three sons, one daughter); died Santa Cruz, California 16 April 1999.

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