Skip Spence

His troubled life might serve as a parable of the dark side of the '60s -- but his amazing music lives on.

Published April 19, 1999 10:00AM (EDT)

Alexander Lee "Skip" Spence, former member of the Jefferson Airplane, co-founder of the sludgy psychedelic band Moby Grape and one of the most enigmatic and bizarre figures from the rock era of the '60s, passed away last Friday in Santa Cruz, Calif. Spence had been suffering from lung cancer, congestive heart failure and pneumonia. Sunday would have been his 53rd birthday.

Skip Spence's tragic life story parallels -- and his death might serve as a cautionary parable of -- the turbulent San Francisco rock scene of the late '60s. Like Jerry Garcia, who later became the scene's figurehead, Spence gravitated to San Francisco after a stint in the military. And like so many others, he began playing folk music in the Bay Area. He was sitting in San Francisco's folk mecca, the Matrix, in 1965 when Marty Balin spotted him and his then almost-unheard-of Beatles mane, and asked Spence if he'd consider drumming for his nascent band, the Jefferson Airplane. Balin said later, "I was struck by the way he looked." Spence had never drummed in his life outside of the high school marching band, but he agreed. Spence lasted through the band's debut, "Jefferson Airplane Takes Off," before his already bad rehearsal habits and erratic behavior got him fired. He did, however, contribute to the Airplane the first single from their breakthrough album "Surrealistic Pillow," "You're My Best Friend."

Spence then hooked up with Peter Lewis and Bob Mosely, two Southern California bar-band vets, and Don Stevenson and Jerry Miller, two former members of the Bobby Fuller Four, and Moby Grape was born. Unlike the generally inept and sloppy psychedelic bands of 1966 San Francisco, the Grape was a tight and powerful unit, with five-part harmonies and short, punchy songs. Their debut in 1967, "Moby Grape," ranks with the greatest discs of that time, but the insane over-hype of its promotion (five singles released at once, grape-colored elephants trodding down Sunset Boulevard heralding the group) ruined the band's credibility, and its follow-up album, "Wow," was a dud.

During the recording of "Wow," Spence, who was by now injecting massive doses of speed to bolster his confidence, snapped in New York, and tried to attack Stevenson with a fire ax ("I thought he was possessed by Satan and I had to save him," Spence said later). He landed in Bellevue, and was out of the Grape.

Upon his release, Spence made his masterpiece, "Oar," in Nashville. This solo disc, on which Spence plays every instrument, is perhaps the strongest psyched-out legacy of the time -- dark, harrowing and mad, the American answer to Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd's similarly crazed first guitarist). "Oar" sank like a stone upon release and became the quintessential cult disc. A tribute to "Oar" will be out sometime this year, featuring Beck, Tom Waits, REM and the Grape's biggest booster, Robert Plant, doing numbers from it.

Skip Spence never lived to see its release. For the last 30 years, he was indigent and drifted in and out of institutions, a diagnosed schizophrenic who basically disappeared. But even though he was difficult to communicate with, his spirit remained undimmed, and his muse never left him.

I had the joy of jamming with Skip in San Jose in a small church basement back in 1994. The city had set up a music program for the mentally ill, and he and I and a few others puzzled our way through a few tunes until we got to "Omaha," his Moby Grape pinnacle. As I hit the high harmonies in the tune, Spence was totally bowled over -- "You know the song, wow!"

We all did, my brother. Rest in peace at last.

By Johnny Angel

Johnny Angel is a freelance music writer in Los Angeles.

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