Alexander "Skip" Spence - Biography
By Scott Feemster
Though usually remembered as both the original drummer in the Jefferson Airplane, and as one of the founders, and songwriter and guitarist, of the seminal late '60's San Francisco Bay area group Moby Grape, Alexander “Skip” Spence has gained something of an underground legend in later years for his only solo album, 1969's Oar (Columbia/Sundazed). Oar has become highly influential in the underground music scene and has become something of a template for much of the so-called psych-folk genre.
Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario, Canada, on April 18, 1946. Not much is known about his early life in Canada, but by his early teens, he relocated with his family to San Jose, California in the late 1950's. By the time he got to California, he had learned guitar, and influenced by the burgeoning folk scene, became a folk singer. Spence started playing in Bay Area folk clubs and coffeehouses, and eventually met some of the same musicians who would make up the membership of many of the bands that would come to define the “San Francisco Sound” in the mid to late 1960's. One of the first bands to come together was Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Spence joined the band as a guitarist. While playing at the San Francisco club The Matrix with Quicksilver Messenger Service, the club’s owner, a young singer/songwriter named Marty Balin, spotted Spence as someone with a lot of musical talent and drive. Balin had recently started his own band, the Jefferson Airplane, and was dissatisfied with their drummer, Jerry Peloquin. Though Spence considered himself mainly a guitarist, he did have some drumming experience, and Balin convinced him to leave Quicksilver and join the Airplane as their drummer. The Jefferson Airplane quickly became one of the Bay Area’s most popular bands, and at the end of 1965, signed a recording contract with RCA Victor Records. The Jefferson Airplane line-up of Marty Balin and Signe Anderson on vocals, Paul Kantner on vocals and guitar, bassist Jack Casady, lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen, and Skip Spence on drums, recorded the group’s debut album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off (RCA) in 1966 in Los Angeles. Though Spence was a competent enough drummer for the band, (and even co-wrote four of the band’s songs with Balin),he was starting to get into heavier drugs during his tenure with the Airplane, and the other members found that he was getting more and more unreliable. Spence was fired from the Jefferson Airplane in June of 1966. At around the same time, the Airplane also fired their manager, Matthew Katz, and Katz and Spence hatched the idea to form a new band similar to the Jefferson Airplane around Spence as a singer/songwriter/guitarist.
The idea for a new band was to use the template the Jefferson Airplane had used, in other words, a band with several singer/songwriters that could pool their strengths. Katz and Spence soon recruited lead guitarist Jerry Miller and drummer Don Stevenson, both transplants from the Seattle area, who had moved down to the Bay Area with their previous band, The Frantics. The next to join the burgeoning band was singer/guitarist Peter Lewis, a son of actress Loretta Young, and lately of The Cornells, and bassist Bob Mosley, who had moved to the Bay Area after spending time as the bassist of the band The Misfits in the San Diego area. Though the group was essentially a group made up of strangers, they quickly jelled, and spent time jamming and wood-shedding. The fact that the band had three distinctive guitar players and vocalists immediately set them apart from other bands on the scene, and the group’s tight playing and memorable songs quickly established them as one of the Bay Area’s top draws. The group were quickly snatched up by Columbia Records, and recorded their debut album, Moby Grape, in the early part of 1967. With the San Francisco music scene exploding and on the cusp of the legendary Summer of Love, Columbia put all of their promotional might behind the album, but many of their promotional ideas backfired, including the idea of issuing almost all of the songs on five singles before the album came out, (thus diluting the anticipation), and throwing a dance party celebrating the release of the album that featured wine bottles with “Moby Grape” on them but no openers, and a dance floor that was covered in flower petals that made the surface impossible to dance on, let alone walk on. Though the album gained rave reviews from critics, it was perceived in the underground as being over-hyped, and many of the people who might have liked Moby Grape turned away from them on word of mouth. The group toured in support of the album, even playing at the legendary Monterey Pop Festival, but in another cruel turn of events, their manager, Katz, demanded the band receive one million dollars for appearing in the film and on the live album from the event. When the organizers balked, Moby Grape were left out of their piece of musical history. Despite the disappointments, the band regrouped and recorded their next double album, Wow/Grape Jam (Columbia), released in 1968. The album was two albums issued together, one, Wow, a more concise song-based follow-up to their debut, the other, Grape Jam, a loose and largely improvised set of mostly instrumentals. By the time of the recording of the two albums, Spence had been experimenting heavily with LSD, and when the band de-camped to New York to record, Spence fell in with what his bandmates called “a heavy crowd”, and showed up at the hotel where the band was staying one night with an axe, and tried to chop down a door to drummer Stevenson’s room saying he was trying to “save” Stevenson. Eventually Spence was subdued, and was committed first to the Tombs, and then to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital for observation. Spence spent six months in Bellevue, and while there was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. He also used the time to write the songs that would make up his one and only solo album. When Spence was released, he headed back home to Santa Cruz, gathered up his family, and headed to Nashville to record Oar (Columbia), released in 1969. Oar was recorded with Spence playing every one of the instruments on the album, (and recorded in just two weeks), and its mix of psychedelic strangeness with strong folk elements and unforgettable melodies made it an almost instant classic among those looking for the unusual. To the general public, though, Spence and Oar were too strange, and the album basically sunk without a trace. (This fact made the album that much more collectable in later years, and added to it’s mystique for later generations of listeners.)
Spence would later have some minor involvement with Moby Grape, contributing songs and performing on later Moby Grape albums like 20 Granite Creek (Reprise)(1971) and Live Grape (Escape)(1978), but he continued to battle substance abuse, and later became a heroin and cocaine addict. Spence was also an alcoholic. He was later again committed to a psychiatric hospital, and when released, lived in a semi-homeless condition for the rest of his life, as a ward of the State of California, and occasionally accepting help from his family and his former Moby Grape bandmates. Because of his substance abuse battles and diminished mental capacity, Skip Spence was never again in a position to return to a career in music. Alexander “Skip” Spence died on April 16, 1999 in Santa Cruz, California from complications due to lung cancer, just two days shy of his 53rd birthday. A tribute album, More Oar: A Tribute To Alexander “Skip” Spence (Birdman) was released just weeks after his death, and included such artists as Robert Plant, Beck, Mudhoney, Tom Waits, Mark Lanegan, and Robyn Hitchcock paying tribute to the talented and influential Spence and his beloved album Oar.