Andrew H. Walker, Getty Images Nine days after the deadly tornado that touched…
- Posted on May 29th 2009 5:00PM by James Sullivan
By then, he'd already been dead to the San Francisco rock scene for years. One of the brightest flames and quickest burnouts of the psychedelic era, Alexander "Skip" Spence drifted into decades of hard-core drug addiction after recording his only solo album, 'Oar,' in 1969. An early member of three key Bay Area groups -- Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape -- the dynamic, multitalented Spence was effectively through with performing by the age of 23.
After playing guitar for the first group and drums for the second, Spence took off for Mexico unannounced and was dumped by the Airplane. (One of Spence's songs, 'My Best Friend,' was later included on the band's definitive album, 'Surrealistic Pillow.') With manager Matthew Katz, another Airplane castoff, he put together a new group called Moby Grape. The band, with its three-guitar interplay and its effortless blend of country, folk, rock and psychedelia, was soon recognized as the cream of the San Francisco crop.
Signed to Columbia Records, the Grape had a gala introduction at the Avalon Ballroom. Fifty thousand orchids were dropped from the balcony, and the crowd shared hundreds of bottles of "Moby Grape Juice" wine. Janis Joplin and members of the Airplane and the Grateful Dead joined the band onstage for an all-star hippie jam.
But the band was ill-fated from the start. When it was noted that drummer Don Stevenson appeared to be flipping the middle finger in the group portrait on the album cover, Columbia was shamed into airbrushing the offending digit. The label infamously torched its new band's commercial prospects by launching an ill-considered publicity campaign, releasing five singles from the self-titled debut album simultaneously. Soon the group's five members were fighting with Katz, who'd managed to secure rights to the band name for himself. Within a few years, he would be putting all-new lineups calling themselves Moby Grape on the road.
Meanwhile, Spence was falling into heavy drug abuse. In New York during a protracted recording session for the Grape's second album, he started hanging around with some demonic characters. At the Albert Hotel, Spence flipped out, taking an ax to his bandmates' door. After being subdued, he spent six months in Bellevue, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.
When he was released, Spence jumped on a motorcycle -- allegedly in his pajamas -- and rode straight to Nashville, where he recorded all the tracks for his solo opus, 'Oar,' in four days. The ghostly, one-of-a-kind album was released in 1969, to paltry sales. In Rolling Stone, critic Greil Marcus predicted that it would one day be seen as a classic of the era.
Thirty years later, Grape guitarist Peter Lewis seconded the notion about Spence. "I guarantee you," he told the New York Times, "he will become the Van Gogh of the '60s. This guy was peerless." The occasion was the 1999 release of 'More Oar,' a tribute album featuring tracks by fellow Spence admirers including Beck, Robert Plant and Tom Waits.
Weeks before the album's release, Spence was lying in a hospital bed. This time he really was dying, of lung cancer. Spence's family and friends listened to a copy of 'More Oar' as they pulled the plug on the troubled guitarist.