Skip returned to San Francisco to help co-found Moby Grape with Matthew Katz, the Airplane’s former manager. The group’s name came from the corny joke, “What’s big and purple and lives in the sea?”. Answer: Moby Grape. The intent with the band was to implement four-part harmonies in the band and play with more focus than some of the other current San Francisco bands. Spence moved from timekeeper to rhythm guitarist. Moby Grape went on to release their eponymous debut album in the “Summer Of Love” in ’67.
It was an excessively hyped affair that Columbia Records employed trying to cash in on the burgeoning hippie movement in San Francisco. In fact, Columbia was to release five of Moby Grape’s singles off the album at the same time, saturating the market with product. Many publications have called their debut one of the strongest debuts of all time. Rolling Stone listed the Spence penned Omaha as one of their 100 Greatest Guitar Track Of All Time and also placed the album in their top 500 albums of all-time.
The future looked bright for the Spence and the band in ’68 as they set to record their follow up album in New York City. On a break from recording, Spence ingested voluminous amounts of acid and speed and had an episode. Episode is putting it mildly. Spence freaked, grabbed an axe and held it to the doorman’s head at their NYC hotel, then went searching for his bandmates. He found himself at Don Stevenson’s (drummer) door and proceeded to chop down his door, determined to kill the drummer and rid him of his demons. See, in Spence’s altered state, he saw Stevenson as the Anti-Christ and brutally butchering him would be the only to exorcise and free him of said demons.
Fortunately, Spence was wrestled to the floor before he could do any physical harm to Stevenson or anyone else. The authorities were dispatched to imprison and control the troubled axe-wielding guitarist. It was soon discovered that Spence was in serious need of help. He was taken to Bellevue for an extended six month stay, where he was to be administered daily shots of Thorazine and was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
On his release date, Spence drove his motorcycle, still dressed in his pajamas straight to Nashville, to record his opus, Oar. The songs on the album had been written by a man teetering on the brink of insanity during his extended stay at Bellevue. Recorded on a 3-track with Spence handling all instrumentation and sounds, the album is sparse and minimalist, yet eerie and haunted. The cover of the album features a half smiling Spence, looking dazed, fatigued and confused.
Skip’s copious intake of heroin and cocaine continued as the ’60s closed and the ’70s began. He would reform with his Moby Grape brethren in different incarnations of the band, but was never able to quite keep it together. There’s an oft told story of Spence overdosing and winding up on morgue table with a toe tag, only to rise and request a glass of water. His days consisted of white lines and attempts to quiet his inner demons. Fellow Moby Grape member Peter Lewis remembers Spence’s existence as being similar to the one described in Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, as Spence would lure nearby Catholic school girls into his home. One of the girl’s parents called the cops and Spence wound back up at a mental health hospital.
Skip’s life continued be a battle of addictions and sanity, winding up living his life as a homeless transient. Matthew Katz, with whom Spence had founded Moby Grape, had kept royalties of Moby Grape’s releases for himself, forcing Skip to die penniless in 1999 of lung cancer. A tribute album for Spence’s Oar album was released in ’99 with Robert Plant, Beck, Tom Waits, etc., etc. contributing tracks. It was on Spence’s deathbed when he first heard the tribute album. Omar Spence, Skip’s son, has become a frequent collaborator with Moby Grape reunion shows and appeared at both Skip Spence tribute shows in 2008.
A cripple on his deathbed
In a daydream did ride
All past the streams of fire
On a petal path did glide
He left his wheelchair spinning
Deeper in the mud
In it set his memories
In its body and its blood
An angel came to greet him
By his side she flew
Whispered, as a part of him
What he already knew
His head was spinning freely
And it was plain to see
His burden was himself, he bore
The sight his eyes could be
His death, it died quite easily
Right there, was gone for good
But he couldn’t see his loved one
Like he thought he should
He thought if they were gone, said he
And this cannot be true
The search to find what wasn’t there
Has brought him back to you
“Cripple Creek” by Alexander “Skip” Spence
Oh wow. Thanks for the good article.
A life with such promise, ending in such tragedy and sadness. Truly a victim of the 60’s counterculture and one of the first acid casualties. Kind of like an American Syd Barrett.
Great story, Matt. Well done.
For those interested, here’s another video of Moby Grape with Skip Spence singing lead on Hey Grandma followed by Sitting By The Window. Enjoy.
The picture at the top of the page is Gary Duncan of QMS, not Skip.