Saturday, February 04, 2017

Skip's Song: The music of Alexander Lee "Skip" Spence & Show # 653

There is a story about Skip Spence that in 1968, following his exit from Bellevue Hospital, where he was committed after some bad acid trips and an incident involving a fire axe. He was diagnosed as a schizophrenic, however following his six months in Bellevue he got on his motorcycle and drove down to Nashville to record his first and only solo album. The story also states that he exited Bellevue in his pajamas and then drove immediately to Nashville. Whether or not this is completely true or just a myth has never been completely confirmed. But, one thing is true Spence did record music in Nashville. It would eventually be released as Oar in 1969.

Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario on April 14th, 1946. In the late 1950s, Spence’s family relocated. In the 60s, Skip Spence became involved in the San Francisco psychedelic music scene. He was an early member of the Quicksilver Messenger Service and despite being a guitarist, was asked to be the drummer in pioneering psychedelic rock band Jefferson Airplane. Chosen because apparently he looked the part, Spence drummed on the band’s 1966 debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off and had a few writing credits with the band. However, he was not in the band long. Shortly after this, he returned to guitar and co-founded Moby Grape. The band would release two full-length albums with Spence and despite the attraction and interest in the three-guitar driven psychedelia that was Moby Grape, the band never really took off in the mainstream. While recording Moby Grape’s second album Wow, Spence showed up at the hotel room of Moby Grape drummer Don Stevenson with a fire axe. He chopped down the door, but Stevenson was at the recording studio. Spence with axe in hand went to the studio and the situation was diffused. But, Spence was never really the same.

Recorded in Nashville in December of 1968, Spence put down the tracks to his songs quickly and played all of the instruments on them. Musically, the album was a mix of folk, country and a bit of psychedelia. The songs were for the most part stories that dealt with many themes of the battle between angels and demons. They were crafted in a way that they serve as folktales, with the characters searching for a deeper meaning. And while it is obvious that the circumstances that preceded this recording were influential on the songs, they aren’t everything that the songs are about. “Cripple Creek” is an almost murder ballad type song. Sung in a lower register, the song tells the story of someone visited by an angel that embarks on a surrealistic journey, “Diana” is a bit haphazard, although it is filled with devotion and anticipation in the lyrics, while “Weighted Down (The Prison Song)" takes on an immediate, mellow country-folk influence. The song is most likely influenced by the isolation that Spence experienced in Bellevue, however, it is woven into a narrative that appears throughout this album.

“War In Peace” has been called a resurrection hymn that dips into psychedelia, with electric guitar and various sound effects, “All Come To Meet Her” is surrounded by a more laidback Moby Grape vibe, as “Books of Moses” reflects on past mistakes telling a tale of battles between angels and demons, complete with thunder, rain and hammering sound effects. “Dixie Peach Promenade” continues the same country-folk vibes as “Weighted Down (The Prison Song)”, but this song shows a sense of hopefulness in the lyrical content, as “Laurence of Euphoria” is a short bouncy track about overcoming troubled times. “Grey/Afro” ends the album, delving into psychedelia complete with off kilter drums and guitars and vocals loaded with effects.

Called “one of psychedelia’s brightest lights”, Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence has drawn comparisons to artists such as Syd Barrett and Roky Erikson, and although there are some similarities, Spence was different from them. Oar stands as an album that is rough around the edges and not over produced. It was apparently supposed to be a collection of demos initially with a full band arrangement to follow, but Columbia Records released Oar as is in May of 1969. It was not promoted by Columbia Records at the time of its release and within a year was deleted from their catalogue. It has since taken on a story of its own. It has its own myth that is surrounded in mystery that draws in listeners. Whether or not it was intended to be demos, Oar has taken on its own life as a result of the journey it took Spence to arrive to these songs. The songs, while some may say are not all that perfect, show that it is the journey and stories found within these songs that brings listeners to Oar.

Skip Spence Playlist:

1. Moby Grape - Indifference (Live) (Live (Historic Live Moby Grape Performances 1966-1969 - 2009)
2. Jefferson Airplane - Blues From An Airplane (Jefferson Airplane Takes Off - 1966)
3. Skip Spence - Books Of Moses (Oar - 1969)
4. Skip Spence - After Gene Autry (Demo For Columbia Records) (After Gene Autry/Motorcycle Irene - 2009)
5. Moby Grape - Skip's Song (Demo) (The Place and The Time - 2009)
6. Moby Grape - Omaha (Moby Grape - 1967)
7. Mudnoney - War In Peace (More Oar: A Tribute - 1999)
8. Outrageous Cherry - Keep Everything Under Your Hat (More Oar: A Tribute - 1999)
9. Moby Grape - Motorcycle Irene (Wow - 1968)
10. Skip Spence - Doodle (Oar Outtake) (Oar - 1969)
11. Skip Spence - Lawrence of Euphoria (Oar - 1969)
12. Skip Spence - Cripple Creek (Oar - 1969)
13. Skip Spence - All Come To Meet Her (Oar - 1969)
14. Skip Spence - Little Hands (Oar - 1969)
15. Skip Spence - Margaret - Tiger Rug (Oar - 1969)
16. Tom Waits - Books Of Moses (More Oar: A Tribute - 1999)
17. Beck - Halo of Gold (More Oar: A Tribute - 1999)
18. Greg Dulli - Dixie Peach Promenade (More Oar: A Tribute - 1999)
19. Mark Lanegan - Cripple Creek (More Oar: A Tribute - 1999)
20. Jefferson Airplane - It's No Secret (Jefferson Airplane Takes Off - 1966)
21. Moby Grape - The Lake (Grape Jam - 1968)
22. Moby Grape - Funky-Tunk (Wow - 1968)
23. Skip Spence - Land of the Sun (More Oar: A Tribute - 1999)
24. Skip Spence - War In Peace (Oar - 1969)

To download this weeks program, visit CJAM's schedule page for Revolution Rock and download the file for February 4.

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