Thursday, May 28, 2020

War/Peace: War In Peace

Alexander “Skip” Spence: War In Peace

I know that many people—and not only people in the 50+ demographic—think that the best era for music was the late 1960s-late 1970s. I’m not going to debate that now, but there’s certainly an argument to be made. And I think that there are those who would argue that much of the best music from that era was created because of, or enhanced by, the use of drugs. Yet, we also know that drugs also had negative effects—think of all of the great musicians from that era who died young from overdoses, or in other ways  directly or indirectly related to their addictions.

Then, there’s the group of musicians who stayed alive, but whose careers were cut short, or hampered, by drug related mental illness (although in many cases, the causal link between the drug use and the mental illness isn’t certain).

One such musician, who has been mostly forgotten over the years, is Alexander “Skip” Spence, who was briefly a guitarist in Quicksilver Messenger Service, then became the drummer in Jefferson Airplane, departing after their first album, in part because he wasn’t a drummer, to become a founding member of Moby Grape. But by 1970, his musical career was effectively over.

By most accounts, Spence was an excellent musician (on guitar and other instruments, including the drums that he learned to join the Airplane) and songwriter (writing, among other songs “You’re My Best Friend,” which appeared on Surrealistic Pillow, released after he left the Airplane, and Moby Grape’s “Omaha,” later covered by The Golden Palominos, with Michael Stipe on vocals). If you read about Moby Grape, you’ll find quotes from contemporary critics saying that they were the best band from the San Francisco area during that era—better than the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver and the Airplane. But despite the quality of Moby Grape’s debut album, a bunch of record company missteps and a disappointing second album, among other things, led to the band never breaking through.

Among those other things was Spence’s increasingly erratic behavior. While working on the band’s second album in New York, Spence, under the influence of LSD, and maybe other substances, took a fire axe and attempted to break down the hotel room doors of band mates Don Stevenson and Jerry Miller. He then went to the studio at the CBS building, where he was disarmed and wrestled to the ground. The album’s producer, David Rubinson, pressed charges, and after a brief period in jail, Spence was sent to Bellevue Hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

During his six months in Bellevue, and despite not having access to a guitar, Spence had written a number of songs, and on his release, he was met by Rubinson (the same guy who pressed charges). Spence implored Rubinson to get him to a studio so that he could record the songs while they were still fresh in his mind. Showing how different the record business was in those days, Rubinson negotiated an advance from Columbia Records the next day, and Spence went to Nashville, on a motorcycle, to record the songs. Within six days, Spence cut nearly 30 songs, playing all of the instruments, singing all of the vocals and doing the arrangements himself. At this point, he was all of 23 years old.

Whittled down to 12 songs, the album, titled Oar, was released in May, 1969. Utterly unable to figure out what to do with its strange and eclectic music, Columbia simply ignored it, and it sold very few copies—it is often referred to as the worst selling album for the label to that point. (Hey, Richard Thompson’s first solo album, Henry The Human Fly, was considered the worst selling album at Warner Brothers Records, so that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is crap.) “When the people at Columbia heard it, Oar made no sense to them at all,” remembers Rubinson, who had sifted through the reels of tape, mixed the album and sequenced its dozen tracks. “It was so honest and real that the record company couldn’t relate to it. Neither could radio or critics. So they put it out, barely, and it sank without a trace.” To some, the album was the soundtrack to Spence’s mental illness, but to others, it was evidence of his emergence from it.

Over time, Oar gained admirers (and two reissues, with bonus tracks), including Robert Plant, Jeff Tweedy, Beck, Tom Waits, Robyn Hitchcock, Julian Cope, Chrissie Hynde, Mark Lanegan, and Jay Farrar (many of whom appeared on a tribute album, More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album) and it appears in a number of “Best Album” lists.

“War in Peace” isn’t the best song on Oar, or the strangest, and it is actually quite listenable, if you aren’t concerned about understanding the lyrics. There’s some good electric guitar, including a bit at the end that is generally acknowledged to be an homage to (ripoff of?) Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.”  

Oar was Spence’s last album. He contributed a little to Moby Grape reunion albums and appeared sporadically at live shows both with Moby Grape and other bands, and he recorded a song (which was not used) for the X-Files soundtrack but his mental illness, drug and alcohol addictions and related physical health issues, prevented him from having any sort of a music career. At times, he was committed to mental hospitals, was homeless, and, for a time, was living in a house provided by his former Moby Grape band members, who appear to not to have held a grudge for that whole fire axe incident. Robert Plant helped with medical bills at times.

Spence died in April, 1999, of advanced lung cancer, at the age of 52. The last music he heard was a copy of the More Oar tribute album, which featured a cover of “War in Peace” by Mudhoney.

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