Alexander "Skip" Spence
Spence in early 1968
|Birth name||Alexander Lee Spence|
|Also known as||Skip Spence, Skippy|
|Born||April 18, 1946|
Windsor, Ontario, Canada
|Origin||San Francisco, California|
|Died||April 16, 1999 (aged 52)|
Santa Cruz, California, U.S.
|Years active||1965–1971; sporadically until 1999 (his death)|
Alexander Lee "Skip" Spence (April 18, 1946 – April 16, 1999) was a Canadian-born American singer, songwriter, and musician. He was co-founder of Moby Grape, and played guitar with them until 1969. He released one solo album, 1969's Oar, and then largely withdrew from the music industry. He had started his career as a guitarist in an early line-up of Quicksilver Messenger Service, and was the drummer on Jefferson Airplane's debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. He has been described on the AllMusic website as "one of psychedelia's brightest lights"; however, his career was plagued by drug addictions coupled with mental health problems, and he has been described by a biographer as a man who "neither died young nor had a chance to find his way out."
Early life: 1946–1965
Alexander Lee Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, in 1946. His father, Alexander Lett "Jock" Spence (1914-1965), was a machinist, a salesman, and played Route 66 as a solo singer-songwriter and piano player. Alexander Spence was a decorated Canadian WW II bomber pilot, having been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
In the late 1950s, the family relocated from Windsor to San Jose, California, based on Spence's father finding work in the aircraft industry. At the age of ten, he was given his first guitar by his parents.
Music career: 1966–1969
Spence was a guitarist in the band the Other Side before Marty Balin recruited him to be the drummer for Jefferson Airplane (apparently because he looked the part). Spence drummed on their debut, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, and was dismissed by the band after taking an unannounced vacation to Mexico. He briefly considered joining Buffalo Springfield as a drummer before returning to the guitar to co-found Moby Grape.
During the recording session of Moby Grape's second album, Wow, in 1968, Spence attempted to break down a bandmate's hotel room door with a fire axe, while under the influence of LSD. Spence's deterioration in New York and the "fire axe incident" are described by bandmate Jerry Miller as follows: "Skippy changed radically when we were in New York. There were some people there that were into harder drugs and a harder lifestyle, and some very weird shit. And so he kind of flew off with those people. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while. Next time we saw him, he had cut off his beard, and was wearing a black leather jacket, with his chest hanging out, with some chains and just sweating like a son of a gun. I don't know what the hell he got a hold of, man, but it just whacked him. And the next thing I know, he axed my door down in the Albert Hotel. They said at the reception area that this crazy guy had held an axe to the doorman's head."
As described by bandmate Peter Lewis, it appears that both Jerry Miller and bandmate Don Stevenson were targets of Spence: "We had to do (the album) in New York because the producer (David Rubinson) wanted to be with his family. So we had to leave our families and spend months at a time in hotel rooms in New York City. Finally I just quit and went back to California. I got a phone call after a couple of days. They'd played a Fillmore East gig without me, and Skippy took off with some black witch afterward who fed him full of acid. It was like that scene in The Doors movie. He thought he was the anti-Christ. He tried to chop down the hotel room door with a fire axe to kill Don (Stevenson) to save him from himself. He went up to the 52nd floor of the CBS building where they had to wrestle him to the ground. And Rubinson pressed charges against him. They took him to The Tombs (and then to Bellevue) and that's where he wrote Oar. When he got out of there, he cut that album in Nashville. And that was the end of his career. They shot him full of Thorazine for six months. They just take you out of the game."
During his six months in Bellevue, Spence was diagnosed with schizophrenia. On the day of his release, he drove a motorcycle, and as the urban myth goes (and not true according to his wife), dressed in only his pajamas, directly to Nashville to record his only solo album, with no other musicians appearing on it, the now-classic psychedelic/folk album Oar (1969, Columbia Records).
During the early 70's Spence also founded and experimented with a three-man rock band called Pachuca and later a larger ensemble called The Rhythm Dukes. He continued to have minor involvement in later Moby Grape projects and reunions. He contributed to 20 Granite Creek (1971) and Live Grape (1978), though his bandmates always included at least one of his songs on group recordings, irrespective of whether he was capable of performing with the group at the time. He had been similarly remembered by Jefferson Airplane, whereby his song "My Best Friend" was included on the group's Surrealistic Pillow album (1967), despite his departure from the group.
Due to his deteriorating state and notwithstanding that he was no longer functioning in the band, Spence was supported by Moby Grape band members for extended periods. Voluminous consumption of heroin and cocaine resulted in a further involuntary committal for Spence. As described by Peter Lewis, "Skippy was just hanging around. He hadn't been all there for years, because he'd been into heroin all that time. In fact he actually OD'ed once and they had him in the morgue in San Jose with a tag on his toe. All of a sudden he got up and asked for a glass of water. Now he was snortin' big clumps of coke, and nothing would happen to him. We couldn't have him around because he'd be pacing the room, describing axe murders. So we got him a little place of his own. He had a little white rat named Oswald that would snort coke too. He'd never washed his dishes, and he'd try to get these little grammar school girls to go into the house with him. He was real bad. One of the parents finally called the cops, and they took him to the County Mental Health Hospital in Santa Cruz. Where they immediately lost him, and he turned up days later in the women's ward."
Mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism thus prevented Spence from sustaining a career in the music industry. Much of his life was spent in third party care, as a ward of the State of California, and either homeless or in transient accommodations in his later years. He remained in and around San Jose and Santa Cruz. Peter Lewis regularly visited Spence during the latter years of his life: "The last five years I'd go up‚ he lived in a trailer up there‚ Capitola. I used to hang around with him; we'd spend the weekends together. But he just basically kind of hit the...he was helpless in a way in terms of being able to define anything or control his feelings."
In 1994, he participated in a music program for the mentally ill, sponsored by the City of San Jose. Two years later, in 1996, he was commissioned to write a song for The X-Files soundtrack, Songs in the Key of X; though not used, it was included on the More Oar tribute record as "Land of the Sun".
Spence's final performance with Moby Grape occurred on August 9, 1996 at Palookaville in Santa Cruz. At this final show, Spence led the group through a rendition of "Sailing" (a song performed during the 1971 reunion run) and an impromptu performance of "J.P.P. McStep B. Blues", which he'd written for Jefferson Airplane in 1966.
Spence died of lung cancer two days before his 53rd birthday. He was survived by his four children, 11 grandchildren, a half-brother (Rich Young) and his sister, Sherry Ferreira. More Oar: A Tribute To The Skip Spence Album, an album featuring contributions from Robert Plant, Tom Waits, and Beck, among others, was released a few weeks after his death. Prior to its release, the CD was played for Spence at the hospital, in his final stages before death. Spence is interred at Soquel Cemetery in Santa Cruz County.
Spence has been described on the Allmusic website as "one of psychedelia's brightest lights". Spence wrote "Omaha" for Moby Grape's first album which Rolling Stone Magazine listed in 2008 as one of the 100 greatest guitar songs of all time.
In June 2008, a Skip Spence tribute concert was held in Santa Cruz. The concert featured Spence's son Omar, who has sung with various configurations of Moby Grape in recent years. Omar Spence, singing his father's songs, was backed by the Santa Cruz White Album Ensemble, with Dale Ockerman and Tiran Porter, both formerly of the Doobie Brothers, and both of whom have played with various members of Moby Grape in several bands over the past three decades. Don Stevenson (an original Moby Grape member) also performed. Keith Graves of Quicksilver Messenger Service played drums.
With Jefferson Airplane
With Moby Grape
- Original albums
- Moby Grape (Columbia, 1967)
- Wow/Grape Jam (Columbia, 1968)
- Moby Grape '69 (Columbia, 1969)
- 20 Granite Creek (Reprise, 1971)
- Live Grape (Akarma, 1978)
- The Place and the Time (Sundazed, 2009)
- Moby Grape Live (Sundazed, 2010)
- Omaha (Harmony, 1971)
- Great Grape (Columbia, 1972)
- Murder in My Heart (Edsel, 1986)
- Vintage: The Very Best of Moby Grape (Columbia/Legacy, 1993)
- Crosstalk: The Best of Moby Grape (Sony International, 2004)
- Listen My Friends! The Best of Moby Grape (Columbia/Legacy, 2007)
- AndOarAgain (Columbia, 1969), remastered and expanded "Oar" with three discs by Modern Harmonic/Sundazed
- "Land of the Sun" (Sundazed, 1999)
- "After Gene Autry" b/w "Motorcycle Irene" (aka Previously Unissued Demo Recordings) (Sundazed, 2009)
- Heather Phares, Review of More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album; AllMusic
- Jeff Tamarkin, "Skip Spence and The Sad Saga of Moby Grape" Archived March 24, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, gotarevolution.com/index.html; accessed December 31, 2015.
- Alexander Lett Spence, Distinguished Flying Cross Citation Archived August 11, 2012, at the Wayback Machine; airforce.ca; retrieved 2013-02-09; "Alexander Lett Spence later resided in Flower Station, Ontario, a small community in the Lanark Highlands of eastern Ontario, before moving to Windsor, Ontario. Spence received the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery during a raid on Aulnoye, as a member of the 434 Squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Force. Spence died in San Jose, California, on May 1, 1965, at the age of 50. His body was returned to Canada, and interred at Clyde Forks Cemetery, in Lanark County, Ontario."
- Pierre Perrone, Obituary: Skip Spence Archived August 8, 2017, at the Wayback Machine, independent. co.uk, April 20, 1999.
- For What It's Worth: The Story of Buffalo Springfield. Einarson, John (2004). p. 146. accessed at Google Books, August 30, 2014
- University Place and East 11th Street, New York City. Now an apartment building, it was at the time a famous hotel originally owned by the brother of artist Albert Pinkham Ryder. The hotel was named in his honour. Robert Louis Stevenson used one of the hotel's rooms as his studio. Other famous guest was Thomas Wolfe. Patrick Bunyan, All Around The Town: Amazing Manhattan Facts and Curiosities. Fordham University Press, 1999.
- "Web Page Under Construction". www.gotarevolution.com. Archived from the original on February 1, 2017. Retrieved July 18, 2018.
- Interview with Peter Lewis Archived September 4, 2007, at the Wayback Machine by Jud Cost, 1995; www.sundazed.com.
- "Disabled World, "Famous People with Schizophrenia"". Disabled-world.com. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
- This commonly accepted version of events has recently been challenged as being mythical. It is asserted, without citation, that Spence first returned to his wife and family in Santa Cruz and that his family accompanied him to Nashville; see Moby Grape.
- Karen Schoemer, "A Fragile Mind Bent in a Psychedelic Era". Contained in Peter Guralnick and Douglas Wolk (eds), Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 Archived November 2, 2006, at the Wayback Machine, Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80999-0.
- For example, on Truly Fine Citizen (1969), a Jerry Miller-Skip Spence song, "Tongue-Tied", was included. On the Legendary Grape album (1989, CD issue 2003), the album starts with a Skip Spence song, "(All My Life) I Love You", originally recorded by Spence in 1972. Spence was no longer with Moby Grape at the time of Moby Grape '69, yet an earlier song recorded by Spence, "Seeing", was nonetheless included on the album.
- On the 2003 CD reissue of Surrealistic Pillow. an additional Spence song,"J.P.P. McStep B. Blues", is included as a bonus track.
- Jud Cost, Interview with Peter Lewis (1995) Archived September 4, 2007, at the Wayback Machine, sundazed.com; accessed December 31, 2015.
- Doug Collette, Interview with Peter Lewis Archived July 25, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, Stateofmindmusic.com, July 2007; accessed December 31, 2015.
- Johnny Angel, Skip Spence dies Archived March 5, 2010, at the Wayback Machine, salon.com, April 19, 1999; accessed December 31, 2015.
- Matthew Greenwald, "Skip Spence Lived a Surrealistic Life", RollingStone.com, April 19, 1999.
- John Pareles, Skip Spence, Psychedelic Musician, Dies at 52, Nytimes.com, April 18, 1999; accessed December 31, 2015.
- Skip Spence Dies of Lung Cancer. CMJ Nw Music Reporter. May 10, 1999. Retrieved April 10, 2011.
- Margaret Moser, "Back Door Man: The Man Behind More Oar, Bill Bentley" Archived April 12, 2007, at the Wayback Machine. The Austin Chronicle, December 17, 1999
- Interview with Peter Lewis Archived July 25, 2011, at the Wayback Machine by Doug Collette, July 2007; Stateofmindmusic.com.
- Profile, Findagrave.com; accessed December 31, 2015.
- "Rolling Stone’s 100 Greatest Guitar Songs Of All Time" Archived June 22, 2018, at the Wayback Machine "Omaha" ranked at number 95.
- Commemorative poster from the Rio Theater concert
- Paul Davis,"Honor Thy Father" Archived June 19, 2008, at the Wayback Machine, metroactive.com, June 18, 2008; retrieved July 8, 2008. .
- Isaiah Guzman, "Father figure: Son friends plan tribute show for Skip Spence"[permanent dead link], Santa Cruz Sentinel released through Free City News, June 15, 2008; retrieved July 8, 2008.
- "Concert review", gather.com; retrieved on July 8, 2008.
- "Omar Spence at Don Quixote's in Felton, California". Jambase.com. October 3, 2008. Archived from the original on May 20, 2011. Retrieved December 7, 2011.
- Gibson, William (2012). Distrust That Particular Flavor. Viking. pp. 175–177.
- Includes one song with Skip Spence vocals, "Seeing", originally from "Wow" sessions.
- Release on a discount label of Columbia Records. The album is essentially Moby Grape '69, with Spence's "Omaha", from the first Moby Grape album, added. Cover of Moby Grape '69 is used as the cover for Omaha, with "Omaha" replacing "'69".
- Compilation album of selections from Wow, Moby Grape '69 and Truly Fine Citizen Archived March 23, 2011, at the Wayback Machine, deaddisc.com; accessed December 31, 2015.
- Featuring Spence's two post-Oar studio recordings, "Land of the Sun" (1996) and "(All My Life) I Love You" (1972).
- "Alexander "Skip" Spence* - After Gene Autry / Motorcycle Irene". Discogs. Archived from the original on July 18, 2018. Retrieved July 18, 2018.