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Alexander "Skip" Spence - Oar (1969)



Alexander Lee "Skip" Spence (April 18, 1946 – April 16, 1999) was a musician and singer-songwriter best known for his work with Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape and as a solo artist. His career was plagued by drug addictions coupled with mental health problems, and he has been described by a biographer as a man who "neither died young nor had a chance to find his way out." During his tenure in the public eye, he had a profound impact on the outsider music and psych-folk genres.

Alexander "Skip" Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada in 1946. His father was a machinist. The family relocated to San Jose, California in the late 1950s, based on his father finding work in the aircraft industry. Spence was a guitarist in an early line-up of Quicksilver Messenger Service before Marty Balin recruited him to be the drummer for Jefferson Airplane.

After one album with Jefferson Airplane, their debut Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, he left to co-found Moby Grape, once again as a guitarist. It was with Moby Grape that Spence found his greatest musical fame, writing among other songs, "Omaha", from Moby Grape's first album (1967) --a song identified in 2008 by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of the 100 greatest guitar songs of all time.

Spence is acknowledged as having been instrumental in the formation of the Doobie Brothers, by way of introducing John Hartman to Tom Johnston, and encouraging their musical development, as well as occasionally sitting in with their pre Doobie Brothers band Pud, though Spence never was an official member.

During the recording session of Moby Grape's second album, Wow, in 1968, Spence attempted to break down a bandmate's hotel room door with a fire axe, while under the influence of LSD. Spence's deterioration in New York and the "fire axe incident" are described by bandmate Jerry Miller as follows: "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. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while. Next time we saw him, he had cut off his beard, and was wearing a black leather jacket, 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."

As described by bandmate Peter Lewis, it appears that both Jerry Miller and bandmade Don Stevenson were targets of Spence: "We had to do (the album) in New York because the producer (David Rubinson) wanted to be with his family. So we had to leave our families and spend months at a time in hotel rooms in New York City. Finally I just quit and went back to California. I got a phone call after a couple of days. They'd played a Fillmore East gig without me, and Skippy took off with some black witch afterward who fed him full of acid. It was like that scene in The Doors movie. He thought he was the anti-Christ. He tried to chop down the hotel room door with a fire axe to kill Don (Stevenson) to save him from himself. He went up to the 52nd floor of the CBS building where they had to wrestle him to the ground. And Rubinson pressed charges against him. They took him to the The Tombs (and then to Bellevue) and that's where he wrote Oar. When he got out of there, he cut that album in Nashville. And that was the end of his career. They shot him full of Thorazine for six months. They just take you out of the game."



During his six months in Bellevue, Spence was diagnosed with schizophrenia. On the day of his release, he drove a motorcycle, dressed in only his pajamas, directly to Nashville to record his only solo album, with no other musicians appearing on it, the now-classic psychedelic/folk album Oar (1969, Columbia Records).

Spence continued to have minor involvement in later Moby Grape projects and reunions. He contributed to 20 Granite Creek (1971) and Live Grape (1978), though his bandmates always included at least one of his songs on group recordings, irrespective of whether he was capable of performing with the group at the time. He had been similarly remembered by Jefferson Airplane, whereby his song "My Best Friend" was included on the group's definitive Surrealistic Pillow album (1967), despite his departure from the group.

Due to his deteriorating state and notwithstanding that he was no longer functioning in the band, Spence was supported by Moby Grape band members for extended periods. Voluminous consumption of heroin and cocaine resulted in a further involuntary committal for Spence. As described by Peter Lewis, "Skippy was just hanging around. He hadn't been all there for years, because he'd been into heroin all that time. In fact he actually ODed once and they had him in the morgue in San Jose with a tag on his toe. All of a sudden he got up and asked for a glass of water. Now he was snortin' big clumps of coke, and nothing would happen to him. We couldn't have him around because he'd be pacing the room, describing axe murders. So we got him a little place of his own. He had a little white rat named Oswald that would snort coke too. He'd never washed his dishes, and he'd try to get these little grammar school girls to go into the house with him. He was real bad. One of the parents finally called the cops, and they took him to the County Mental Health Hospital in Santa Cruz. Where they immediately lost him, and he turned up days later in the women's ward."

Mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism thus prevented Spence from sustaining a career in the music industry. Much of his life was spent in third party care, as a ward of the State of California, and either homeless or in transient accommodations in his later years. He remained in and around San Jose and Santa Cruz, California. Peter Lewis regularly visited Spence during the latter years of his life: "The last five years I'd go up‚ he lived in a trailer up there‚ Capitola. I used to hang around with him; we'd spend the weekends together. But he just basically kind of hit the…he was helpless in a way in terms of being able to define anything or control his feelings."

As one of his four children, son Omar Spence, recalls, "When I saw my dad, it broke my heart. ...There were moments of clarity when he was genius smart, and then he'd wander off having a conversation with himself. Here's a homeless guy that most people would walk past and pity, and he'd say, 'I've been working on a song', and he'd scratch out some barre chords and musical notes on a napkin."

Spence died in 1999 from lung cancer, just two days shy of his 53rd birthday. More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander "Skip" Spence, an album featuring contributions from Robert Plant, Tom Waits, and Beck, among others, was released a few weeks after his death. Prior to its release, the CD was played for Spence at the hospital, in his final stages before death. As Peter Lewis recalls, "He was in a coma‚ and the last thing to go is your hearing. And they had More Oar in there and were playing it for him as they pulled the plug and we were holding his hands. I mean‚ it was like this death of Van Gogh or something. That's the drama of it. You know…it was just so intense."

Spence's "Land of the Sun", one of the only post-Grape recordings he ever completed, was nearly placed on The X-Files soundtrack, Songs In The Key of X. He had been commissioned to write the song.

In June, 2008, a Skip Spence Tribute Concert was held in Santa Cruz. The concert featured Spence's son Omar, who has sung with various configurations of Moby Grape in recent years. Omar Spence, singing his father's songs, was backed by the Santa Cruz White Album Ensemble, with Dale Ockerman and Tiran Porter, both formerly of the Doobie Brothers, and both of whom have played with various members of Moby Grape in several bands over the past three decades. Keith Graves of Quicksilver Messenger Service played drums. Peter Lewis joined the group onstage for the finale. An additional Skip Spence tribute concert was held in October, 2008.



The album was recorded after Spence had spent six months in Bellevue Hospital. The majority of the tracks were recorded using a three-track recorder. As described by Ross Bennett, "Combining the ramblings of a man on the brink of mental collapse with some real moments of flippancy and laughter, Oar is a genuinely strange record. Unsurprisingly, the journey from "Little Hands"’ Grape-esque guitar grooves to "Grey/Afro"’s terrifying nine minutes of mantric drone, isn’t an easy one. Even when Spence builds his songs around a familiar sound (primarily minimalist country-folk) unsettling oddities and ominous modulations creep in. ...at least he left Oar – more than most of us sane, functional people will ever manage. Just take a look at the tousled-haired, half-smiling figure gazing out from the record sleeve and tell me you don’t want to peer inside." The album is viewed by Lindsay Planer as follows: "A common motif to this album is the presence of saints and demons. Even the straightforward narratives such as the love ballad "Broken Heart" or "Cripple Creek" — which feature vocal treatments reminiscent of folkie Fred Neil — are bathed in unusual chord sequences and lyrical double-entendre. The majority of the sounds on this long-player remain teetering near the precipice of sanity."

Subsequent reissues have added ten more songs, in different stages of completion, to the original dozen. The original release ended with a fade out of "Grey / Afro". The 1999 Sony/Sundazed reissue appends "This Time He Has Come" to a fade-less "Grey / Afro", which reflects how the two songs appeared on the master tapes.

In 1999, the Birdman label of Burbank, California released a tribute album titled More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander "Skip" Spence. It featured covers of the original record's tracks by Robert Plant, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Waits, Greg Dulli, Mark Lanegan, Ryan Mendoza, Wafic Omran, Beck, and others. (wikipedia)

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