Rock combo Moby Grape has weathered its share of seismic shifts
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SONIC REDUCER As the Summer of Love turns 40 with a whiff of the haven't-we-been-here-before birthday blues and a soupçon of marketing bluster if you can't trust anyone over 30, as one boomer so succinctly put it, well, doesn't 40 seem beyond the pale? Look out, big five-oh! one wonders less about where all the good times went than how we can look ourselves in the eye while we try to resurrect a past, now conveniently viewable through the rosy-hued granny glasses of nostalgia, after writing off the real thing. 'Cause the reality isn't always as pleasant, sexy, or sensationally deadly as, say, the post-'67 summer bummer of Altamont.
Witness the real final years and quiet death of Skip Spence, now considered the Bay Area's Syd Barrett and one of the most notorious songwriters in Moby Grape, still regarded as the best combo from the SF rock scene to meet the least success the overly hypey simultaneous release of five singles from their self-titled '67 debut (San Francisco Sound/CBS) is said to have damaged their cred. What kind of fanfare did Spence, the original Jefferson Airplane drummer and onetime member of the Quicksilver Messenger Service who inspired Beck, Robert Plant, and Tom Waits to cover his music on More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander "Skip" Spence (Birdman), receive around the time of his South Bay death in 1999? On the occasion of the release of Listen My Friends! The Best of Moby Grape (Legacy) the title cribbed from the rousing, flower-strewn Spence-penned boogie anthem "Omaha" and a tentative Grape date at the Monterey Pop 40th-anniversary event in July, I spoke to Spence's youngest son, Omar, from Santa Cruz to get an idea.
"My dad drank, but he wasn't doing heavy drugs," says the longtime private investigator who now works construction when he isn't playing guitar, singing, or leading worship at Calvary Chapel. When, in 1994, Omar got reacquainted with his father at the urging of his two older brothers, Skip was living as a ward of the state in a Santa Clara halfway house with a 10 p.m. curfew and was suffering from schizophrenia. According to Omar, Skip's everyday routine at the time consisted of panhandling on street corners in order to get beer and cigarettes. "He would buy a quart of beer and nurse it all day," his son adds with a chuckle. "He just wanted a trophy."
Whisked out of a chaotic life with Skip by his mother when he was about three, Omar, now 39 and with a family of his own, readily confesses that he harbored a lot of anger toward his father. Still, he confesses, "When I saw my dad, it broke my heart. I loved him instantly. My brothers brought him to Santa Cruz and took him to lunch he had a bad leg, and we bought him a cane. But he was very sick. There were moments of clarity when he was genius smart, and then he'd wander off having a conversation with himself. Here's a homeless guy that most people would walk past and pity, and he'd say, 'I've been working on a song,' and he'd scratch out some bar chords and musical notes on a napkin."
Omar tried to get involved in Skip's life and rekindle their relationship, though his father couldn't live with him because of Omar's children and the care Skip required this was, after all, the man who legendarily interrupted the recording of the Grape's second LP, Wow (Columbia, 1968), by taking an ax to the hotel room door of guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson, a supposedly acid-triggered episode. "I tried to get him to move here so I could be closer to him, and then I found out he was seeing a gal. I was, like, 'I hope he doesn't start a family. He's not the daddy type,'" Omar says, sounding like the little boy whose father used to lead the kids in alarming wake-up serenades aimed at Mom. (Fortunately, the girlfriend turned out to be a "sweetheart lady" who wanted Skip to live with her in a Soquel mobile-home park.)
Reviving Skip's musical career, however, didn't seem to be an option, although Omar says his father found a way to play at Grace Baptist Church in San Jose. "People would give him a guitar, and he'd give it away," his son explains. "You'd give him a jacket, and he'd give it away. He was just a very giving guy. It was really humbling in a way. You could see the side of him that people loved."
The old Skip, who bounced around onstage and was "most vulnerable to being out of control," would probably have gleaned the irony that his conscientious youngest son was the one to step into his shoes now that, after decades of legal battles, the Moby Grape have won the right to use their name from their old manager Matthew Katz. With much encouragement from Skip's ex-bandmates, Omar has been practicing with the Grape, playing and singing his father's parts. "I wish my dad was here right now to experience the fruit of this," Omar says. Nonetheless, he adds, "My dad knew they really had something, even when he was sick at the end of his life. He had a cockiness about him. He knew he was good and they were good. And they can still play." *
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