Listen, my love
Get under the covers
Squeeze me real tight
All of your lovin'!
Oh behave, Moby Grape! (Yeah, baby!)
You remember the old grade school joke that asked "What's big and purple and lives in the ocean?" The punchline was "Moby Grape." And that's how this band got its name.
Jeff Tamarkin has been a pop music journalist for some 25 years. In his book, Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of the Jefferson Airplane, he wrote this about Moby Grape:
The Grape's saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever to emerge from San Francisco. Moby Grape could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, and less.
In other words, if it wasn't for bad luck, Moby Grape wouldn't have had no luck at all (to quote "Born Under a Bad Sign").
For example, the band appeared at the legendary 1967 Monterey Pop Festival, but their appearance was not included in the famous documentary movie about the festival because of legal squabbles. (The Moby Grape footage filmed for the Monterey Pop movie was finally shown publicly in 2007.)
You may wonder why Tamarkin was commenting on Moby Grape in a book about the Jefferson Airplane. For one thing, one of Moby Grape's guitarists was Skip Spence, who played drums on the Jefferson Airplane's first album.
Spence formed Moby Grape at the behest of Matthew Katz, who had been the Airplane's first manager. The members of that group had a falling out with Katz, and it's hard to explain why Spence decided that he should be Moby Grape's manager.
|Matthew Katz in 1967|
Katz paid Moby Grape's rent and living expenses when they were trying to the group off the ground. In exchange, he added a provision to his management contract giving him ownership of the band's name. This turned out not to be such a good idea -- the group's members litigated with Katz off and on until 2006, when a California appeals court brought the unhappy saga to an end by uphelding a lower court's decision holding that the band owned the Moby Grape name and its songs and recordings. (One of the band members told Jeff Tamarkin that he "wouldn't piss in [Katz's] face if his eyebrows were on fire.")
That court decision came far too late for Skip Spence, who died 1999 but who had checked out decades earlier.
Spence, a charismatic and energetic performer who has been described as "one of psychedelic rock's brightest lights," wrote "Omaha" for Moby Grape's eponymous debut album. "Omaha" is two and a half minutes of country-folk-psychedelic pop perfection.
Rolling Stone summed the song up as follows:
Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis and Skip Spence compete in a three-way guitar battle for two and a quarter red-hot minutes, each of them charging at Spence's song from different angles, no one yielding to anyone else.
"Omaha" was the one of five singles that Columbia Records released simultaneously when the Moby Grape album was issued. It was the only one to chart, but only made it to the #88 spot on the Billboard "Hot 100."
|Moby Grape concert poster|
Why did Columbia release five singles from the same album simultaneously? Moby Grape's debut album was hyped like crazy, and maybe some brainiac at that record company decided that releasing five singles all at once would get lots of attention and capitalize on that hype. In reality, the release of five singles at the same time guaranteed that none of the five would get the kind of attention a pop record needs to thrive. Moby Grape wasn't the Beatles, after all.
When the group went to New York to record its second album, Skip Spence fell in with a bad crowd. (My mother always warned me about that, and I bet Skip's mother did the same.)
Under the influence of LSD, he took a fire axe to the hotel-room door of Don Stevenson, who was one of his bandmates -- he apparently thought he needed to kill Stevenson to save him.
|Skip and Don Stevenson |
before the axe attack
Spence ended up in the notorious Manhattan jail, the Tombs. From there, he was transferred to Bellevue, New York City's famous public psychiatric hospital, where he was diagnosed as having schizophrenia.
While he was in Bellevue, Spence wrote a bunch of songs. When he was released in 1969, he headed to Nashville and recorded a solo album titled Oar.
When I call Oar a "solo" album, I mean that literally -- Spence did everything on the record himself. (Apparently he thought he was doing a demo record, but the producer decided to release it as is.)
One critic described Oar as "[c]ombining the ramblings of a man on the brink of mental collapse with some real moments of flippancy and laughter . . . a genuinely strange record."
Another critic had this to say about the album: "The majority of the sounds on this long-player remain teetering near the precipice of sanity.
According to one source, Oar was the lowest-selling album in Columbia Records history when it was deleted from the company's catalogue a year later.
Spence moved back to California, where he lived for another 30 years, but there was no there there for most of that time.
The other band members helped support him after his breakdown. Spence consumed mass quantities of heroin and cocaine, and was once involuntarily committed to a California mental hospital. Another one of the Grape's guitarists, Peter Lewis, later described what was Spence was like during those years:
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 OD'ed 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.
Much of Spence's later life was spent in institutions or transient accommodations or simply homeless. Spence's fate is even sadder than that of Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, whose drug use led to his being institutionalized and given electroshock treatment.
Erickson eventually found doctors who could help him, and he is now performing and recording again. But Spence never turned things around. He didn't make a record in the 30 years that he lived following the release of Oar -- he died of lung cancer in 1999, just two days before his 53rd birthday.
Moby Grape once appeared on The Mike Douglas Show -- Douglas introduced them as the "Moby Grapes":
Neither "Omaha" nor the Moby Grape album are available from Amazon's MP3 store. Click here if you'd like to buy the recording of the group playing "Omaha" at the '67 Monterey Pop Festival: