Cult Heroes No. 25: Moby Grape
We’ve heard some odd stories during this series. But this is as insane as any. Moby Grape’s tale includes one member in a mental hospital, whose death bed scene is beyond any soap opera, some of the most incredible business decisions anywhere, and a vast talent just thrown away. It’s a doozie. Check out the past Cult Heroes here.
Words: Malcolm Dome
Somebody once said of Moby Grape that never had any band wasted so much potential, made so many bad decisions, suffered so much bad luck and heartbreak. You know what? They were right. Of all the psychedelic bands breaking new ground in California during the 1960s, none could match the Grape, apart from maybe The Misunderstood, but then they went to England to try and make their name (see Cult Heroes No. 18). No, it was Moby Grape who were innovative, intoxicating and infuriating in equal measures.
Their story began with a drummer called Alexander ‘Skip’ Spence, a mercurial talent whom many regard as the American Syd Barrett, and their parallels are surprising. Both founded landmark bands, led them for one album, disappeared (in almost every sense) during the recording of the respective acts’ second record, and never truly got back. The one difference, and we’ll get to that, is that Spence managed to record an extraordinary solo album – among the greatest releases of the era.
Anyway, Spence was on the 1966 debut album from Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Airplane, before being fired, along with manager Matthew Katz. It’s here that bassist Bob Mosley takes up the story.
“Peter Lewis (guitar) and I were in a recording studio in San Francisco doing one of Peter’s songs, when we got a call from Katz. He was in Los Angeles at the time, but invited us down to meet this kid he was looking after who wanted to be a guitarist and songwriter – it was ‘Skip’. So I got hold of Jerry Miller (guitar) and Don Stevenson (drums), with whom I’d played in a band called The Frantics in Washington State, and we had a line-up.”
They took their name from a joke that Mosley picked up on: “What’s purple and swims? A moby grape.”
Yeah, terrible joke, but something special was brewing ‘neath the waves.
The fledgling band quickly got their musical direction, almost finding it too easy to write and play together. But they as easily fell into a business trap.
“While we were getting to know each other musically,” recalls Mosley with a sigh. “Katz persuaded us to sign papers for management, publishing…and giving him sole rights to the name.”
This would come back to haunt them, badly. But this was only one of their travails.
Even in these early days, Spence was proving something of a handful.
“Sometimes he’d show up for gigs, sometimes he wouldn’t. Sometimes, even when he was there, he wouldn’t sing.”
The Moby Grape sound was predicated on a triple guitar harmony and also the fact that every member of the band could sing. Take away one of those factors and the fabric soon came apart. But, despite the irregularities and unpredictability of their seeming leader, the Moby Grape reputation was mushrooming, and a deal with Columbia gave them the chance to release one of the most important psychedelic albums of the era, 1967′s self-titled marvel.
This was stuffed full of the pioneering spirit and approach that the Grape were taking, with songs like Omaha and Hey Grandma (subsequently covered by The Move) proving inspirational. But, it’s here that the record label made a truly daft error of judgement. Perhaps they were on acid at the time, but someone at Columbia had the idea of releasing five singles from the album at the same time!
“I have no clue why they did that,” admits Mosley. “But it sure looked to everyone that we were being hyped.”
The result was that the band’s hopes of having one big hit (“We all thought Omaha could do it for us”) were scuppered, with Omaha being the only single to chart, and that was at a lowly number 88. The album itself made it to number 35, and had set the band on their way…when another disaster struck.
One of the biggest events of 67 was the Monterey Pop Festival. Which happened in mid-June. Moby Grape were due to play in a prestigious position on the bill, just below Otis Redding on the Saturday night, but all that changed when it came to being filmed for the planned documentary on the event.
“For some reason, our manager demanded a fee of $1 million for the rights to film us. That was crazy. But it meant we were moved to the previous day, playing when nobody was around.”
It’s only now that there’s audio of the band from Monterey available, and that’s on the recently released Moby Grape Live compilation, put out by Sundazed. It features five tracks from their set, on June 17, 1967.
The Grape’s next album was a double one, Wow/Grape Jam, which is actually two separate albums packaged together and sold for the price of one.
Recording for the Wow album started in Los Angeles, but was rapidly relocated to New York.
“The producer, David Rubinson (who was also about to take over management from Katz), wanted to be close to his family, which is why we ended up recording in New York. For the Wow album, he added in orchestration and horn sections on most of the songs. We also did the Grape Jam, which was a loose improvisation kinda thing – the title says it all. We had Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper coming in to guest for that one.”
The album reached number 24 on the charts, showing that there was a real buzz on the Grape, with Wow/Grape Jam showcasing two extremes of the band’s approach to music. But their momentum was again about to be hit, as ‘Skip’ Spence, always an enigmatic figure, finally skipped off the edge of reality.
“He found a girlfriend (some have called her a black witch) and never turned up to any of the recording sessions, so we had to carry on without him. He got into some very heavy drugs, and I think he was shooting up, although I can’t be certain what he was doing. I actually met up with him and this girl he was seeing. It was in the office of the art director at Columbia. It was a horrible experience. The girl attacked me, and I had to throw her off to escape. Later, both ‘Skip’ and the girl attacked the art guy, who called the police and they were taken to Bellevue mental hospital.”
Spence had become psychotic and delusional. He’d already attempted to kill Don Stevenson, using an axe to get through his hotel room door. But what happened to him next might be a sidetrack from the main Moby Grape story, but it is the stuff of legend.
After spending six months at Bellevue, Spence was discharged and, according to the accepted myth, got on a motorcyle in just his pyjamas, went to Nashville and recorded a collection of songs written while in hospital. He played all the instruments himself, produced everything, and the result (released under the title of Oar in 1969) is one of the most remarkable albums of all time. It’s a darkly depressing insight into the turmoil and confusion being experienced by a true musical giant. The clarity of vision and thought is incredible. Spence turned his own mental instability into a beautiful work of art. It is harrowing, unnerving, starkly violent, yet at the same time quietly composed. Not so much a plea for help as a message of understanding. It’s also cathartic for the performer, as he allows us all to feel his pain and to be part of a desperate healing process.
While Syd Barrett’s solo albums were rambling and incoherent (albeit still fascinating and worth having), this was Spence’s finest creation. It puts him right up there as one of the great artists of the period. Of any period.
Meanwhile, Moby Grape limped on without their talisman. Moby Grape ’69 was released in 1969. It didn’t even make the Top 100 (stalling at number 113), and it was obvious what the band had lost.
“We couldn’t go on without ‘Skip’. We missed his input. It just didn’t work without him. So I left the band after being conscripted, and joined the Marines.”
The remaining trio did one more album in 69, Truly Fine Citizen (this got to number 157), but they’d become a shadow of themselves. And split up soon after. Only to re-form almost immediately. Because in 1971, the original band reunited – yes, even with Spence.
“We all lived close to each other in Boulder Creek, California, so we always knew where ‘Skip’ was. We tried to get back together. But it didn’t work. One album did come out of it (1971′s 20 Granite Creek, which only made it to number 177 on the charts). But ‘Skip’ was still doing drugs. Every time he got money, he’d go off the deep end.”
So, once again the band gave up, and that’s the end of the story…well, not quite.
After various failed attempts to make a return, in 1987 the original Moby Grape line-up did reunite, for a couple of shows, on a bill with It’s A Beautiful Day, Fraternity Of Man and the Strawberry Alarm Clock. But it didn’t last – again. They also had an ongoing, exhausting and exhaustive legal battle.
The band spent an astonishing three decades in legal dispute with Katz over ownership of the name Moby Grape. It forced them to use other names in the interim, such as The Melvilles (under which guise they released the album Legendary Grape in 1989, without Spence), Fine Wine (also the title of a 1976 German only album, with just Mosley and Miller) and Mosley Grape.
This battle against Katz effectively ruined any chance of a comeback, but was finally settled in 2006, in favour of the musicians. By that time, though, Spence was dead. He passed away in 1999, from lung cancer, just two days short of his 53rd birthday. The tragedy is that he never got to realise the impact and influence he had on so many. And he was so close to finding out. Because just weeks after his death, an album was released in tribute to him. Called More Oar: A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album it features the likes of Robert Plant, Mudhoney, Mark Lanegan, Robyn Hitchcock, Tom Waits, Greg Duli and Beck all recording a track each from the original Oar. It also included as a hidden bonus track Spence’s last known recording, Land Of The Sun.
But Spence might have heard More Oar…, in the most melodramatic of fashions, as Peter Lewis describes:
“He was in a coma‚ and the last thing to go is your hearing. And they had More Oar… in there and were playing it for him as they pulled the plug, and we were holding his hands. I mean‚ it was like this death of Van Gogh or something. That’s the drama of it. You know…it was just so intense.”
Even Dynasty would never have dared to script something like that scene!
For the rest of the Grape, there was to be one last hurrah, as the remaining four returned to the stage in 2007 for the Summer Love 40th Anniversary show in San Francisco.
“We were given 15 minutes – what was the point,” says an angry Mosley. “It was a complete waste of our time.”
And earlier this year Sundazed released Moby Grape Live Historic Live Moby Grape Performances 1966-1969 (to give the album its full title), which rounded up previously unreleased gems. But now there is to be no more.
“We’ve reached the end,” says Mosley. “There is nothing left to put out. We will never play together again. Moby Grape is over.”
For Mosley, most of the past 40 years have been traumatic. Invalided out of the Marines, he was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, and although this has now been downgraded to a nervous disorder, he’s on medication for the rest of his life and also see a therapist every six months.
“I was hit on the head accidentally with a rifle, and that brought on the condition. But at least I have compensation pay for life as well.”
That’s an improvement over where he was just a few years ago when, homeless and in despair, he was hoping that the reissue of the first five Moby Grape albums by Sundazed (each with bonus tracks) would lead to some payment – only for the label to withdraw three of them after Katz issued a lawsuit. But today, he still plays regularly, as do Lewis (now a member of another great 1960s psychedelic band, The Electric Prunes) and Jerry Miller. Don Stevenson has given up the music business completely, and now cultivates other business interests.
But their legacy and influence continues, as Mosley is fully aware.
“I got a CD recently from a young Dutch band, and you hear the Moby Grape sound. That’s why they sent it to me, because we were a huge influence. It’s nice to know we still have an impact.”
Moby Grape gave the world a troubled genius – aren’t they all? – and two outstanding albums (well, three if you count Wow and Grape Jam as being separate). In the end they were the victims of the situations they probably did more to engineer than anyone else. Albeit inadvertently.
Now check out some of their great music:
Find out more at www.bobmosley.com
Tags: Al Kooper, Beck, Bob Mosley, Cult Heroes, David Rubinson, Don Stevenson, Electric Prunes, Fraternity Of Man, Greg Duli, It's A Beautiful Day, Jefferson Airplane, Jerry Miller, Mark Lanegan, Matthew Katz, Mike Bloomfield, Moby Grape, Monterey Pop Festival, Mudhoney, Otis Redding, Peter Lewis, Robert Plant, Robyn Hitchcock, Skip Spence, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Syd Barrett, The Frantics, The Misunderstood, The Move, Tom Waits