Skip Spence and The Essence of Psychedelic Weirdness: Its Peaks and Pitfalls
Canadian born songwriter, singer, guitarist, drummer (and a few other things), in many ways represents the essence of psychedelic weirdness, with all the brilliant music it produced as well as all personal pitfalls that came along with it. Many songs, lyrics, or album titles would aptly describe the man that departed us in 1999 – Robert Wyatt’s album Ruth is Stranger Than Richard or even better, that line from The Grateful Dead’s iconic song “Truckin’” – “What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been.”
After all, Spence was a member of a few essential West Coast psychedelic bands, composed some of the most influential psych themes, and came up with Oar – probably one of the weirdest, and at the same time, most important psych albums of all time. All along, he had a main role in some of the strangest and most recounted events connected with rock music. As such, Skip Spence stands as the epitome of psychedelia.
From A Whisper to a Scream
So goes the Allen Toussaint song, yet another that can fit the story of Skip Spence. Starting out as a member of the obscure West Coast band The Other Side, and being one of the initial members ofQuicksilver Messenger Service, one of the revered San Francisco bands of the ’60s, Spence, who immediately showed his guitar-playing skills, was chosen by Jefferson Airplane singer Marty Balin to become their drummer.
Maybe Spence would have reached all the heights Airplane did if he didn’t take a sudden, unannounced vacation to Mexico and was promptly fired.
Spence knew nothing of the drums and Balin picked him because he thought he would look cool as the drummer on stage. It took Spence a couple of weeks to actually become a proficient drummer and as such, he was featured on Takes Off, Jefferson Airplane’s debut. It immediately turned out that Spence had excellent songwriting skills and the two songs he co-authored with Balin were included on the album: “Blues From An Airplane” and “Don’t Slip Away.”
Maybe Spence would have reached all the heights Airplane did if he didn’t take a sudden, unannounced vacation to Mexico and was promptly fired. He was then offered to play the drums in the Buffalo Springfield, yet another chance at fame, but he turned it down – he didn’t care for drumming and wanted to stick to the guitar.
But Spence left a lasting impression on the former Airplane manager Martin Katz, who brought him on to play the guitar (one of the three) in the then emerging Moby Grape. Katz obviously had a knack for discovering talent, because the band’s self-titled debut remains one of rock’s legendary albums and probably one of the best debut albums period. Spence contributed two songs to the album – the closing “Indifference” and “Omaha” (Moby Grape’s best selling single and one of the most quoted and covered psych songs around). He also co-wrote “Someday” with two other Grape members, which Chrissie Hynde openly admits she used as a base to write “Talk of The Town” for The Pretenders.
Still, the problems started at the inception of the band. Katz used Spence to make the band sign over the rights to the Moby Grape name to him, something Spence continually regretted while he was still around. And then that hushed whisper started turning into a very loud scream.
…in New York, Spence got involved with some strange people and started using a combination of hard drugs, and he started having strange (and very long) trips.
While recording Moby Grape’s second album ,Wow!, in New York, Spence got involved with some strange people and started using a combination of hard drugs, and he started having strange (and very long) trips. At one point he picked up the fire axe in the hotel the band was staying in, threatened a hotel attendee with it then attempted to attack his band colleagues Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson, as he ‘explained,’ “to save them from themselves,” chopping the door of Stevenson’s room with the axe. The police were called in and Spence was admitted to the infamous Bellevue mental hospital in New York.
Things Fall Apart, Bring Excellence, and Fall Apart Again
Spence spent six months at Bellevue where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and fed heavy doses of Thorazine. The previous heavy use of all sorts of hard drugs and those given to him at the hospital obviously left permanent effects on Spence.
While still at Bellevue, Spence started writing songs that upon his release, attracted the attention of producer David Rubinson. He sent Spence to Nashville and to his trusted recording engineer Mike Figlio, to whom he gave just one instruction – “keep the recording equipment on at all times.” For a week, Spence and Figlio were the only people in the studio, Spence singing and playing all the instruments and Figlio recording. During that time, they recorded about 30 songs, of which Spence chose 12 that he thought might be used as demos for an album that would be re-recorded later.
Rubinson, who was not present at the recording sessions at all, simply took the 12 tracks to Columbia to be issued as the aforementioned Oar album. The result – one of the best self-played and produced folk/rock albums around that had been at the same time both described as “most harrowing” and “most exhilarating.” One of those that championed the album was Greil Marcus, one of the most renowned music critics, who advised his readers to get the album before it was gone. A year later, a lot of unhappy people at Columbia dropped the album.
…he was even commissioned to write a song for The X-Files soundtrack. It was rejected for being too weird.
From then on, Spence was more or less gone from the music scene, except for occasional patches with the constantly re-uniting Moby Grape and some obscure bands. At one point in 1996, he was even commissioned to write a song for The X-Files soundtrack. It was rejected for being too weird.
After recording Oar, Spence was continually being involuntarily re-admitted to mental institutions and various hospitals for other health problems before finally being admitted to Dominican Hospital in 1999 and diagnosed with pneumonia and lung cancer. In the meantime, his work with Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape was being kept alive by both bands continually playing the material he recorded with them, and his sole masterpiece, Oar, starting to get full re-appraisal.
The album had numerous re-masters and expanded editions, and Beck even decided to re-record the whole album in 2009 for his “Record Club” with members of Wilco and Feist, among others, but the album also got a fullre-recorded tribute under the title More Oar, with contributions from Beck, but also the likes of Robert Plant and Tom Waits.
The album had numerous re-masters and expanded editions, and Beck even decided to re-record the whole album in 2009 for his “Record Club”…
Actually, More Oar, came out in 1999, the year Spence died. As the story goes, his son Omar brought a promotional copy to Spence and played it to him by his hospital bed. Upon listening, Spence showed a weary smile. A few hours later he was gone, two days ahead of his 53rd birthday. The long strange trip got its conclusion.