By Lee Zimmerman
Founded in late 1966, Moby Grape had all the elements necessary to ensure stardom. The Grape coalesced at a perfect time and in a perfect place, the heady San Francisco musical environs of the mid-’60s, when other bands like The Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company and The Jefferson Airplane were spearheading a rock renaissance. The band had a seasoned manager in Matthew Katz, who had previously overseen the Airplane’s affairs, and whose business acumen seemed to suggest the promise of an unimpeded upward trajectory. And most importantly, Moby Grape boasted five brilliant musicians in bassist Bob Mosley, drummer Don Stevenson and guitarists Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis and Alexander “Skip” Spence. Even the band’s name seemed to ring with an air of inevitability, although it actually came from the punch line of a silly joke: “What’s big and purple and lives in the ocean?” Moby Grape, of course.
Nevertheless, the Grape’s saga was fraught with disappointment, failed potential, and, in the case of Skip Spence in particular, terrible tragedy. A talented, innovative singer, songwriter and guitarist, Spence’s brilliance was waylaid by emotional upheaval. Born in Canada on April 18, 1946, Spence played a critical role in the evolution of the Bay area’s seminal music scene in the mid- to late ’60s, first in a brief role in an early incarnation of Quicksilver Messenger Service, then switching to drums as part of Jefferson Airplane’s early lineup, which led in turn to an appearance on the band’s first album, “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off.” That wasn’t the end of Spence’s association with the Airplane, however. After he left the band, one of his songs, “My Best Friend,” made its way onto the Airplane’s breakthrough sophomore set, “Surrealistic Pillow.”
However, Spence’s real break came when he came to the fore with Moby Grape. With three guitarists in the band’s front line and a strong reserve of singing and songwriting culled from all five members, Moby Grape was San Francisco’s answer to The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. The group matched the strengths of both and proved equally adept at melding rock, country rock and folk rock, each with equal prowess.
Sadly, Moby Grape’s management bungled several opportunities to ensure the band’s stardom. The group was perceived as overhyped, thanks in large part to the simultaneous release of five singles from its eponymous debut album. One of the members, Don Stevenson, opted to display a raised middle finger on the cover of said LP, causing many retailers to howl in protest. (It was later reissued with the offending digit airbrushed off.) A preferred position in the lineup at Monterey Pop, which helped boost Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix to international acclaim, was squandered when the Grape’s handlers demanded an outrageous sum to include the band in the landmark film that followed.
In his liner notes to “Vintage: The Best of Moby Grape,” Sony/Legacy’s Moby Grape anthology, rock writer David Fricke recounts the over-the-top press party that heralded the arrival of that first Moby Grape album.
“The overselling climaxed on the night of June 6, 1967, at the Avalon Ballroom, where Columbia hosted a coming-out party for the Grape that remains unequalled in rock and roll annals for its excesses and c**k-ups,” Fricke wrote. “Guests received purple velvet press kits with the five singles, a gee-whiz bio and cute pix of each Grape. Ten thousand purple orchids floated down from the Avalon ceiling, but once on the floor, the slippery petals had people falling ass-over elbow all night. Columbia provided seven hundred bottles of wine with Moby Grape labels, but no corkscrews.”
Can you say “disaster?”
However, the biggest blow to the band’s success came when Spence started suffering symptoms of mental instability, exacerbating the already fragile state of the group’s internal affairs. During the recording of the band’s second album, 1968’s appropriately dubbed “Wow,” Spence took a heavy dose of LSD and went after bandmates Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson with an axe, first breaking down the door to their hotel room. Spence then went to CBS’ New York headquarters, where security had to wrestle him to the ground. He was subsequently arrested and sent to the city’s infamous Tombs jail facility before being committed to Bellevue Hospital, where he spent six months in psychiatric care and was given Thorazine, a drug used to treat schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders.
in According to a popular legend – later denied by Spence’s wife — on the day he was discharged, Spence jumped on a motorcycle, and, dressed only in his pajamas, headed for Nashville, where he immediately began recording “Oar,” his first and only solo album. He played all of the instruments on the album and produced it himself. However, the album’s dense, foreboding textures, obtuse melodies and a bizarre lysergic sensibility made it difficult to decipher, and it remained a lost treasure reserved for only his most diehard devotees.
Spence had occasional brief reunions with the band, most notably on the 1970 album “20 Granite Creek,” which found him contributing one track, “Chinese Song.” Unfortunately, his continued disintegration into drug use, alcoholism and mental illness further distanced him from his bandmates, although Lewis, in particular, attempted to help him.
“The last really profound thing that happened to the band was when I took Skippy to get an exorcism,” Lewis related in an interview with Sundazed Records, the label that has reissued much of Moby Grape’s back catalog. “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’d 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. When you put Skippy with crazy people, he’s like god — real powerful. Even at his weakest, he can really f**k with you, mentally. It’s the same thing that made him so loveable when I first met him. He could look in your eyes and play these things on the guitar that only he could think up.”
With his musical career all but ended, Spence’s downhill spiral continued unabated. He spent his remaining years alternating between homelessness and being a ward of the state of California, mostly hanging out in and around Santa Cruz and San Jose. Aside from infrequent reunions with his band mates, Spence’s only real opportunity to rekindle his muse came in 1994, when he participated in a music program for the mentally ill, sponsored by the City of San Jose. In 1996, he was tapped to write a song for the “The X-Files” soundtrack, “Songs In The Key of X,” but it was never used. However, the song — titled “Land of the Sun” — did end up as a hidden track on the tribute album “More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album,” which featured contributions from artists including Robert Plant, Tom Waits and Beck.
Spence heard the album in the final days of his life, before succumbing to lung cancer on April 16, 1999, two days before what would have been his 53rd birthday. One of rock’s most enigmatic individuals, he died with his legacy tarnished by the haze of instability.
Mosley, Lewis, Stevenson and Peterson continued to record in various combinations after the release of “Wow” and its accompanying disc of studio instrumentals, “Grape Jam.” “Moby Grape ’69” followed in January 1969. The album boasted another Spence song, “Seeing,” sometimes referred to as “Skip’s Song.” The eerie, unsettling tune foretold the sound of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana and was tellingly punctuated by Spence’s haunting cries of “save me.” Mosley and Lewis’ songs dominated the album, but Mosley unexpectedly departed soon after to join the Marines. He was discharged months later after assaulting a fellow soldier, and, in due time, found himself homeless, as well.
Moby Grape’s remaining members soldiered on and released the band’s final album for Columbia, “Truly Fine Citizen,” in late 1969. However, following its release, the band essentially broke up. Miller and Stevenson formed The Rhythm Dukes, bringing singer Bill Champlin into the fold a short time later. The band recorded one album, which was finally released in 2005, but still remains difficult to find.
Still, it seemed there was more life left in Moby Grape, even at that point. The aforementioned “20 Granite Creek,” recorded for Warner Bros. and featuring all five original members, was released on Reprise Records in 1971. A disastrous gig at the Fillmore East would have seemed to seal the band’s fate, were it not for the fact the set list included several songs that the band had yet to record, among them Mosley’s “When You’re Down The Road” and “Just A Woman;” Lewis’ “There Is No Reason;” and even a pair from Spence, “We Don’t Know Now” and “Sailing,” which Spence would later perform with the band during the quintet’s final one-off reunion in 1996.
Although the band called it a day following the Warner Bros. release, there were other albums boasting the Moby Grape moniker — or representing the band under a different handle. Mosley and Miller recruited future Call vocalist and guitarist Michael Been and drummer John Craviotto for “Fine Wine,” which was originally released only in Germany.
Later, Mosley and Craviotto worked together in the Ducks, a one-off backing band retained by Neil Young. A self-titled Moby Grape album appeared in 1983 on the short-lived San Francisco Sound label. In 1987, the original quintet again regrouped for a series of shows that also featured It’s a Beautiful Day, Fraternity of Man and the Strawberry Alarm Clock.
A protracted legal tussle with Matthew Katz over ownership of the band’s name forced the original members to adopt other names, including Mosley Grape, Legendary Grape or The Melvilles, for those rare occasions when the band was revived. Likewise, the Legendary Grape album released in 1989 was temporarily withdrawn and later re-released as credited to The Melvilles when Katz again threatened to take the band’s members to court.
There have been several Grape reissues in recent years, the best of which have come courtesy of the Sundazed label, which released the band’s first five albums with additional tracks, as well as “The Time and the Place,” an assortment of demos, outtakes, rarities and live tracks from the band’s earliest incarnation and “Moby Grape Live,” the first full compilation of live Grape recordings. Katz again interceded, forcing the label to temporarily take the product off the shelves.
Even so, the legal battles continued unabated, in part over an earlier settlement that had stripped the band’s members of royalties that would have been due them from the “Vintage: The Best of Moby Grape set,” released in 1994. Fortunately, the group won the right to reclaim its name in 2006. The following year, the four surviving members of the band performed together in Golden Gate Park as part of the 40th anniversary celebrations for the Summer of Love.
Miller, Mosley and Lewis continued to release solo material throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium. For the most part, their albums are difficult to find or available only as imports.
Miller came out with “Now I See” in 1993, “Life Is Like That” in 1995, “Live at Cole’s” in 1998 and “Runnin’ The Train” in 2003.
Lewis recorded his self-titled solo debut in 1995 and later formed an acoustic duo with David West that issued “Live in Bremen” in 2003. He also joined a reconstituted version of The Electric Prunes, contributing guitar to the band’s “Artifact” album in 2002.
Mosley, meanwhile, played occasionally with country artist Larry Hosford, played in a duo with Doobie Brothers keyboardist Dale Ockerman and released four albums of his own: “Bob Mosley” (1972), “Never Dreamed” (1974), “Mosley Grape Live at Indigo Ranch” (1994) and “True Blue” (2006), as well as an acoustic EP, “Wine and Roses” in 1986.
Stevenson more or less left the music business to focus on real estate, but he did appear with Omar Spence (Skip’s son) and Miller at the South by Southwest music festival in 2010. Lewis appeared separately with Stu Cook in a band called “The Explosives.”