Moby Grape: When Bad Things Happen to Good Bands

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Moby Grape–Skip Spence at upper left

Fifty years ago this week, the debut album by the San Francisco band Moby Grape was released on Columbia Records. Generally hailed as one of the finest recordings from the ’60s San Francisco scene—and often as one of the great debuts of all time, period—its release presaged a series of missteps, legal sagas and tragedies that have since become legend.

In this edited excerpt from Best Classic Bands editor Jeff Tamarkin’s 2003 biography, Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane, he recounts the tale of Moby Grape and the band’s enigmatic co-founder Skip Spence.

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In the summer of 1965, the recently formed Jefferson Airplane decided to dismiss their first drummer, Jerry Peloquin. That’s when a golden boy named Alexander “Skip” Spence came waltzing into [San Francisco’s] Matrix club and was immediately signed up by Marty Balin, the band’s co-founder.

Spence had little experience as a drummer but Balin just knew he’d be right for the group. He sent Spence home with a pair of drumsticks and he soon debuted with the band, playing on their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Spence wasn’t one for staying in the same place very long though, and he took off to Mexico one day with a girlfriend or two, neglecting to tell the band he was leaving. They decided he wasn’t going to work out and Spence was soon replaced by Spencer Dryden, who remained the Airplane’s drummer throughout their key years of 1966-70.

Related: The Summer of Love, by those who were there

In the summer of ’66, Skip returned to the Bay Area from Mexico and resurfaced with a new band, Moby Grape, this time playing guitar, his first instrument. They woodshedded in Marin County for months and played their first gig at the city’s California Hall on November 4; everyone who heard them agreed that this was an astounding band.

One of the great rock debuts of all time. The album cover was reprinted after early pressings, with Don Stevenson’s offending middle finger statement airbrushed out.

The Airplane—who’d been working in Los Angeles on their sophomore album, Surrealistic Pillow, and playing gigs out of town—missed the chance to catch their former drummer’s new band right away. What really confused the Airplane, however, was learning that the Grape was managed by Matthew Katz. Katz had also been the Airplane’s first manager, and he’d given them nothing but grief. Subsequent lawsuits involving Katz would tie up the court system for a whopping 21 years. Why Skip Spence would choose to continue working with Katz was just one of the many unfortunate mysteries in which his life became entangled during the three-plus decades following his Airplane tenure.

The Grape’s saga is one of squandered potential, absurdly misguided decisions, bad luck, blunders and excruciating heartbreak, all set to the tune of some of the greatest rock and roll ever to emerge from San Francisco. Moby Grape could have had it all, but they ended up with nothing, or less.

Katz had helped engineer the Grape’s formation. In addition to Spence, the quintet included two other guitarists: Peter Lewis (the son of actress Loretta Young), who used to play with Spencer Dryden down in L.A. and was most recently working with a band called Peter and the Wolves; and Jerry Miller. Miller and drummer Don Stevenson had played together in a bar band in the Pacific Northwest called the Frantics, and Miller had earlier worked with Bobby Fuller, the Texan rocker who died under mysterious circumstances in the summer of ’66 just months after scoring a Top 10 hit with the Sonny Curtis-penned “I Fought The Law.”

Related: Moby Grape was a highlight of the Monterey Pop Festival. Who were the others?

The Frantics relocated to San Francisco in 1965, where bassist Bob Mosley worked with them briefly. Mosley recommended Miller and Stevenson to fill out the lineup of the proposed new group, which took its moniker from the punch line of a dumb joke: “What’s purple and swims in the ocean?”

At first, the rest of the Grape-to-be wasn’t sure about working with Spence.

Jerry Miller: He was a little bit too crazy, even then. When we first met him, he looked a little bit crazed. He was one of the first guys I’d seen with ratted hair. And he’d laugh hysterically when he’d get the feeling. But he played excellent rhythm guitar. He did these things where he would muffle the strings. And he did that better than anybody, ever. And when the five of us played together, there was something happening that was undeniable.

Cover of the Wow half of Moby Grape’s second album

Moby Grape was a record company’s dream band when they debuted. Their complementary three-guitar lineup produced a thunderous noise, not unlike what Buffalo Springfield was doing down in L.A., and each member of the band could sing. Their songs were expertly composed and had both commercial possibilities and the integrity demanded by San Francisco audiences. They looked great onstage—they had a real presence, and real moves, unlike some of the other local bands—and put on a dazzling performance. Many felt that they were the most accomplished band on the scene musically from the moment they showed up. They were tight, and worked within structures that were anathema to some of their peers in the city.

Said keyboardist and singer Al Kooper, then working in New York with the Blues Project, “The only San Francisco band that did anything for me was Moby Grape. They adhered to more of a three-minute mentality.”

But the Grape was doomed. For starters, they allowed Matthew Katz to retain ownership of their name, precipitating legal battles that continued to tie up the court system clear to the end of the 20th century and kept the musicians from exploiting their own legacy. And in 1967, upon the release of their first album for Columbia Records, hailed by many critics as one of few perfect debuts in rock history, the Grape was the victim of one of the most misguided marketing efforts in the annals of the music industry: the simultaneous release of nearly all of the songs on the album as A-sides or B-sides of singles. By pitting the five records against one another, Columbia effectively canceled out the possibility of any one of them gaining enough momentum to become a hit. The disaster was compounded by a press party at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom so overblown in its hype quotient (purple flowers everywhere) that Moby Grape never really recovered.

Moby Grape manager Matthew Katz (from his LinkedIn profile page)

Katz’s management style proved consistent with the way he’d managed the Airplane. Jerry Miller says that he remembers the Grape missing a photo session for the high-circulation Look magazine because Katz had gotten the time of the shoot wrong.

Things got worse. There were busts and a second album, Wow/Grape Jam, generally considered inferior to the first. And then, in 1968, began the downfall of Skippy Spence. Spence had taken to gobbling tabs of LSD like Pez, and taking harder drugs, becoming increasingly unreliable and unpredictable. While the band was staying in New York, at the Albert Hotel, Spence chopped away at Stevenson and Miller’s hotel room door with a fire axe, and when he failed to find them there, continued on to the studio where the group had been recording.

Producer David Rubinson managed to get the weapon away, but Spence was taken by police, first to the Tombs jail and finally to Bellevue Hospital, where he spent six months undergoing psychiatric care. He was never the same after that—the old Skip Spence, described by everyone as a happy-go-lucky, good-time fellow, falling into a dope-induced psychosis.

Jerry Miller: 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. They were really strange, almost Nazi-ish. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while. Next time we saw him he had cut off his beard, and he had a black leather jacket on, 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.

Listen to the ballad “8:05” from Moby Grape’s debut, as performed on The Mike Douglas Show

At the end of 1968, Spence was released, and hopped a Triumph motorcycle pointed toward Nashville, where he recorded the idiosyncratic solo album Oar for Columbia. Although largely ignored in its time, Oar grew in stature as a cult favorite over the years, culminating in the simultaneous 1999 re-release of the album, with bonus tracks appended to it, and a tribute album called More Oar, consisting of new interpretations of the album’s songs by contemporary artists such as Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin and Tom Waits.

But by then, it was too late for Skip Spence. After a near-lifetime as a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, living much of the time in institutions as a ward of the state, only occasionally venturing out to make new music with the former members of Moby Grape, Alexander “Skip” Spence died on April 16, 1999, in Santa Cruz, California. He was two days shy of his 53rd birthday. Although the official cause of death was lung cancer, Spence had entered the hospital on April 5 with numerous ailments, including pneumonia, hepatitis and congestive heart failure. His lifestyle and years of poverty and neglect had finally caught up with him. Unlike many other casualties of the ’60s, Spence neither died young nor had a chance to find his way out. Unlike the advice in the Neil Young song, he both burned out and faded away.

Yet he touched so many.

Sam Andrew (of Big Brother and the Holding Company): I went to see the Airplane at the Matrix when they were starting out, and what knocked me out was Skip Spence. He was all I could see the night I went. He was the drummer but he had so much charisma. He was really a great player. He was really driving the band. It was just so complete, such a good sound.

Listen to “Omaha” from the debut

Paul Kantner (of Jefferson Airplane): He wasn’t the preeminent guitar player in Moby Grape, but he probably was responsible for a good 30 to 40 percent of the exuberance of Moby Grape, just him alone. On stage at his height, he was a force to be reckoned with, in terms of joy and participation and passion with what you’re doing and connecting it to people out there. He was a really bright star. He came up with beautiful chord changes and the melodies going through them. He had a real knack for that. He was one of the casualties. That didn’t happen until he left the Airplane. And then he had troubles with Matthew and Moby Grape and acid and heroin and girlfriends; those things all conspired against him to blow him over the hill.

Miller says that the Grape, when they first formed, was unaware of the problems that the Airplane had had with Katz.

Skip Spence’s Oar solo album

Jerry Miller: Neither Skippy nor Matthew told us that he fell out of favor with them. So it took a while before we found that out that they definitely didn’t like the Matthew guy. He had a talent, but he abused the hell out of it. I’m not real pro-Matthew at all. I wouldn’t piss in his face if his eyebrows were on fire.

The Grape held on until 1969, recording and performing without Spence and Mosley, who, disgusted with the turn of events, joined the Marines in an effort to get far away from the rock ’n’ roll world. Mosley was discharged after nine months, but the Moby Grape saga continued to grow more bizarre and frustrating for the members in subsequent years. In 1970, Katz, who owned the band’s name, put together a new Moby Grape consisting of none of the original members. Eventually a court decision sided with Katz on the ownership of both the name and the Grape’s recorded catalog, making it virtually impossible at times for the original members to capitalize on the music they had created in the ’60s. Even Columbia Records was unable to reissue the Grape’s albums, which came out instead on a label set up by Katz.

There would be other Moby Grape recordings and reunions, both under that name and others—the Legendary Grape, the Melvilles—concocted in an effort to circumvent Katz’s claims on the group, but for the most part, despite the occasional resurfacing, Moby Grape was sunk almost from the start. Katz spent the better part of the years after the band’s original demise in courts fighting appeals and initiating new suits, not just against the Grape but another prominent San Francisco band he managed, It’s a Beautiful Day. (Ed. note: Katz is still alive as of this posting, now 88 years old. In 2010 he ran unsuccessfully for the Malibu, California, city council.)

Meanwhile, after spending several years in and out of the Grape and other bands, Mosley’s life took a downward spiral, and he spent considerable time homeless before coming around again in the late ’90s. By that time, not only had Miller, Mosley, Lewis and Stevenson reunited as Moby Grape, they had done so legally, the courts finally deciding in their favor on the name ownership issue. Miller, Lewis and Mosley still  perform today on occasion as Moby Grape, augmented by Skip’s son, Omar Spence, and Joseph Miller, Jerry’s son. Jerry Miller also performs with his own band.

Watch a rare live video of Moby Grape performing “Hey Grandma” from their debut album

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Jeff Tamarkin

Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been one of the most respected and prolific music journalists in the country for some four decades. He was editor of Goldmine for 15 years, the first editor of CMJ and Grateful Dead Comix, and an editor of Relix magazine. He has written for dozens of publications including Billboard, Newsweek, Playbill, Creem, Mojo, Newsday, New York Daily News JazzTimes and others, and has contributed to the Guinness Encyclopedia of Popular Music and All-Music Guide. He has written the liner notes for more than 80 CDs, including most of the Jefferson Airplane catalog as well as the Beach Boys, Merle Haggard, Tom Jones, Chubby Checker, Al Kooper and the J. Geils Band.

Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. As a consultant to the Music Club CD label, he assisted in releasing over 180 reissues and compilations, in styles ranging from jazz to country to pop. His first book was Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane (published in June 2003) – the first biography of this legendary San Francisco band written with the cooperation of all of the band members. He is also the co-author of Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc, with Howard Kaylan. From 2002 to 2006 Jeff was the editor of Global Rhythm, the leading magazine for world music and global culture. He was the Associate Editor of JazzTimes from 2008-16. He lives in Hoboken, NJ, with his wife, the novelist and Boston Globe book columnist Caroline Leavitt. Their son, Max, is a theater major at Pace University in New York.
Jeff Tamarkin
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  1. Mike L
    #1 Mike L 10 June, 2017, 02:30

    Damn that’s one helluva crazy story. Sad what happened to them. They had so much potential. I was only a little bit into them growing up being a late 60s baby..but it’s easy to see how far they could have gone with the right opportunities and manager…Katz sure seems like a real dick!

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  2. rcarolinian
    #2 rcarolinian 13 June, 2017, 14:29

    I’m glad to see this lore on Moby Grape, who got the attention of many of the musicians I’ve worked with in the years since. They were definitely one of the great under-appreciated bands. However, it’s disappointing to see so much attention devoted to Skip Spence, when other members, including Jerry Miller and Bob Mosely, were way more talented. And the same old stories about cult-figure Spence evidently took up space that could have been spent on this band’s music. Perhaps the most important element in my mind was Jerry MIller’s guitar playing. Many players that I know rank him way up on the list of blues-rock players. His work on the Grape albums — and there’s great stuff on the two later albums — stands up well against anybody you can name. Moseley was a great, intense singer and a talented songwriter. Oh, and Peter Lewis was very cool as well. If he had only recorded the mystical “He” on the second album, he would be well worth remembering. The band brought to bear a high level of musicianship on psychedelia, blues, country and even a bit of gospel as in “Three-Four” on the album “Wow.” I don’t know what to call “Murder in My Heart for the Judge” except great.

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