Dallas Observer, October 7 - 18th, 1999

War in peace

Skip Spence recorded one brilliant album, then spent the next 30 years dying in obscurity. Now, a tribute album is giving him life again.
By Zac Crain

Skip Spence recorded one solo record, 1969's Oar, after leaving Moby Grape. Bill Bentley never met Alexander "Skip" Spence, never even spoke with the man whose music meant so much to him. He had come close before, when Spence's erstwhile band, Moby Grape, played at the Catacomb Club in Bentley's hometown of Houston. But Spence wasn't there that night, kept off the stage because he had fallen ill after the previous night's gig in Austin. More than 30 years later, the two of them were finally going to get together, near Spence's home in Santa Cruz. Bentley was going to play him the songs off More Oar, the tribute to Spence's one and only solo album, 1969's Oar, that Bentley had been putting together for the past three years. Yet Bentley, vice president of media relations at Reprise Records, never made the trip north from Los Angeles. Spence was sick, he was told, so the meeting would have to be postponed.

As it turned out, permanently. A few months later, Spence was sick again, in the hospital with pneumonia, and he would never leave. Not sure whether this would be his last chance to speak with Spence, Bentley went to Santa Cruz with a completed tape of More Oar in his hand. When he arrived, however, he soon realized that his final opportunity had probably already passed. Doctors had discovered a huge lump in Spence's chest -- lung cancer -- and it was just a matter of time. But Bentley found the man he was looking for in that hospital, still fighting to live the last few moments of his life the way he wanted to. "I got in his room -- he was in intensive care -- but he was being sedated so heavily, he was unconscious," Bentley says. "The reason they sedated him was because, if he was conscious, he would pull out all the tubes from the ventilator they had to put in him to help him breathe. I stood in the room over his bed for about 10 minutes. I talked, but I don't know if he listened to me or not. But I have feeling he knew what I was saying."

Bentley had been wanting to say something to Spence for a long time, since he first heard Oar when he was 18 years old, almost flunking out of the University of Texas at Austin, and staring down a felony arrest for possession of a half-ounce of marijuana. He didn't have much to look forward to, and the gravelly voice he heard on Oar told him he wasn't alone. The album, largely ignored upon its release, stuck in Bentley's head and never left. Over the years, he often struck up conversations with musicians about Spence and Oar and found out that quite a few of them felt the same way he did about the record. He filed those names away for later use, in case he ever needed them. A few years ago, he finally did. After Bentley read an article in the LA Weekly in 1996 that detailed the poor condition of Spence's life -- broke and living in a halfway house outside of San Jose -- he decided to spearhead a tribute to Spence that would remind people of his musical contributions with Oar and Moby Grape, as well as contribute to a better life for him.

Bentley wanted to get Spence the help -- both medical and mental -- that he needed. He began rounding up musicians to appear on the disc, placing his first call to Tom Waits. Bentley knew that Waits was the only one who could do justice to "Books of Moses," and so did Waits. Of course, it would take more than two years before he would record the song, but his commitment to the project, Bentley says proudly, "never wavered." Around the same time, Bentley received a call from John Butler, lead singer of Diesel Park West, a band from England that he had never heard of, and he's definitely not alone. Bentley says he couldn't really understand him -- "I got about one out of every five words" -- but he guessed that Butler and Diesel Park West wanted to be on the record, so he said yes.

Compiling the rest of More Oar's track listing was as easy as securing the first two artists. The only problem was deciding who couldn't be on the album. "There were more people that wanted to be on it than I had songs," he says. "I was limited to 17 songs, which is what the re-issued version of Oar had that came out on Sony [in 1991]. I probably had around 25 artists by the end of it all that would have done it. It was sort of first come, first served at that point. I ended up turning down some people. I mean, Chrissie Hynde loves Skip Spence and Oar and Moby Grape. She said she could do something if it worked out, but it just didn't. I wasn't about to take off any of the artists, even the lesser-known ones. I wasn't going to bump them because I had some bigger artists. I thought that would have been unfair."

But More Oar -- with new versions of Spence's songs by Beck, Waits, the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, Mudhoney, and Robyn Hitchcock, among others, in addition to a hidden track recorded by Spence himself for the X-Files soundtrack, though it was never used -- was too late to help Spence, at least the way Bentley originally wanted it to. On April 16, a few days after Bentley's visit, Spence passed away, just two days shy of his 53rd birthday.

Yet while More Oar, released in July on Birdman Records (the label owned by another exec at Reprise, David Katznelson), might not have come out in time to aid Spence financially, it's not too late to help remind people of his tortured brilliance. Spence is barely even a footnote in the history of rock and roll, an enigmatic free spirit who cut away his anchor with a fire ax and drifted away forever more than 30 years ago. In December 1968, Spence rode his motorcycle straight from Bellevue Hospital to a studio in Nashville, recorded Oar in less than a week, then headed to oblivion by way of Santa Cruz. Oar was the end of Spence's tumultuous career that began in 1965 as the original drummer for Jefferson Airplane, and disintegrated abruptly after two albums as the guitarist-songwriter in Moby Grape. He would reunite with Moby Grape occasionally for a gig or two over the next decade, and he even began writing a few new songs during the last few years of his life. But, for the most part, Spence spent the next three decades in and out of hospitals until he checked in for the last time. No one noticed much when Spence passed on, except for the morbid few that had his name on their roster of celebrities expected to die this year as part of DeadPool '99 (www.deadpool.org); he was worth 48 points.

But as Bentley always knew, and most of the musicians on More Oar realized as well, Skip Spence was worth much more than that. Some were just learning about Spence themselves when Bentley contacted them. Mark Lanegan had never heard of Spence until his name appeared in a review of the Screaming Trees singer's 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet, and he didn't hear Spence's music until he tracked down Oar a few years later. Once he found it, Lanegan quickly fell in love with Oar's fractured fairy tales and whimsical odes to Diana and Margaret and Lawrence of Euphoria. Some of those characters were people Spence met at Bellevue; others existed only in his fragile mind. When Bentley asked him to record a song for More Oar, Lanegan agreed immediately, at first intending to take on "Diana" before settling on "Cripple Creek." His version comes as close to capturing the spirit of Spence's original as any of the others (save, perhaps, for Robert Plant's best-he's-sounded-in-years redo of "Little Hands"), and it moved Lanegan so much that he ended up recording an entire album's worth of obscure covers.

There aren't any Spence songs on I'll Take Care of You, recently released on Sub Pop Records, but Lanegan insists his presence is all over the album. "The whole reason I made [I'll Take Care of You] is because of Skip Spence," Lanegan says from his home outside of Seattle, in between almost continuous drags on his cigarette. "It was inspiring recording one of his songs. There's just something about the songs he wrote. It's kind of indescribable, and you want other people to hear it too. After we were done, we decided to do a record with that same thing in mind. I mean, the idea behind records like this is so people will hopefully want to hear what the original sounded like, find something out about the guys who did these songs before."

Bentley echoes Lanegan's sentiment from his office in Los Angeles. It's what he tried to do with Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a similar tribute to Roky Erickson that Bentley organized in 1990, featuring R.E.M., ZZ Top, Doug Sahm, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Julian Cope, and the Butthole Surfers. "This is the way I back-door people into music," Bentley says. "People that don't know about these people might hear this record because some of the people on it they like, then hopefully, they'll be inspired enough to go get the original music. It works. If you like Beck or Waits or Flying Saucer Attack, you hear this, you go, 'Well, I wonder what the original sounds like.' That's how I got into blues when I was a kid. I didn't know anything about Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf really, and I'd buy these Rolling Stones records in '63 and '64, and they'd do covers of the originals. So I went out and found Muddy Waters records, and all those people. "That's kind of how you teach younger people about music, I think. I call it bait. You get them hooked on a little of the newer stuff, and if you're really interested in music, you can go backward. That's the beauty of recorded music."

Peter Lewis, Spence's bandmate in Moby Grape, has had enough of going backward. At least, that's what he says when he answers the phone at his Southern California home. Spence and Lewis were like brothers, "different sides of the same coin," Lewis says, and he's tired of going over it all again -- how his friend "got lost" a few decades ago and never quite found his way back. The whole sordid mess still brings up an anger in him that you can feel through the phone, especially when he's talking about how he believes Moby Grape manager Matthew Katz drove Spence into Bellevue. According to Lewis, Katz was worried that Moby Grape was going to leave him behind, so he did the best that he could to make sure they would leave him without anything to call their own, including their name. (Katz has sued the remaining members of Moby Grape on numerous occasions when they've tried to re-form under their original name.) He says that Spence knew what Katz was doing and couldn't take it anymore. He just wanted to be free -- that's all he ever wanted. Lewis thinks he finally might have found his freedom on Oar. "You listen to that album, and you think, 'Could I have made an album like that in a hospital?'" Lewis says. "And the answer is no. There's no way I could have done what Skip did on Oar. No way. I don't think that what people say about the album is right though. This wasn't about a man losing his way. It was Skip finding his way. He came out of that hospital, and he beat it. That's what Oar is to me. It's a triumph."

Bentley couldn't agree more, which is why he spent so much time trying to remember a musician the world had forgotten. And maybe Spence would agree as well, although no one is really sure what he thought of his life and his music. But his songs were the last thing he ever heard: A copy of More Oar was in his room when he died, along with Lewis and the rest of his family. "They disconnected his ventilator after he'd been in the hospital about 10 days, and he came to consciousness," Bentley says, recounting the story told to him by Skip's son Omar. "They played him the tribute record in the last hour of his life, and then he died. So he heard the whole record. I don't know if he heard the hidden track. It's hidden five minutes after [The Minus 5's] 'Doodle' ends, so they might not have kept with it for Skip to hear himself." Bentley laughs, wondering whether Spence had a chance to hear the aborted contribution for The X-Files soundtrack that is tacked onto the end of the record. "Which, if you listen to that track, it's kind of a summing-up of his life. 'My work has been done in the land of the sun, California.'"