By Bill Kopp
Ask a hardcore rock music fanatic to name the most underrated band of the 1960s, and the answer you’re most likely to get is “Moby Grape.” Though sometimes credited as an early example of country rock, Moby Grape could rock as hard as any San Francisco band. And they came up with catchy, single-worthy tunes; all five members of the band could write songs and sing. As one of the era’s few groups with three guitars, Moby Grape created musical fireworks without descending into musical chaos.
But today, Moby Grape is largely unknown outside the circle of pop music historians and serious students of ’60s rock. The ill-starred San Francisco Bay area band’s career was fraught with all manner of setbacks — arrests, battles with management, mental illness and a backlash to shameless over-hype by its record label — yet Moby Grape crafted a near-perfect debut album. The succession of records that followed 1967’s Moby Grape were arguably uneven, but all contained at least a few gems. Yet in the face of overwhelming adversity — the product of both bad luck and bad choices — the band never fully capitalized on its stellar debut.
Nor did Moby Grape ever completely break up. Though for many years the band couldn’t legally use its name — former manager Matthew Katz claimed ownership of it — the musicians got together often, billing themselves as The Melvilles, Mosley Grape, Fine Wine, Legendary Grape and even Maby Grope. The group’s history is one filled with heartbreak, gallows humor and — most of all — some great music.
These days, when Moby Grape reconvenes for a live show, the lineup often includes three founding members: lead guitarist Jerry Miller, bassist Bob Mosley and rhythm guitarist Peter Lewis. Founding drummer Don Stevenson appears occasionally. And the current-day lineup keeps it in the family: Miller’s son Joseph plays drums and on guitar and vocals is Omar Spence, son of original singer Alexander “Skip” Spence, who died in 1999 after years of battling mental illness, addiction and homelessness.
After 1971’s overlooked 20 Granite Creek, Moby Grape would only release two more studio albums: Moby Grape ‘84, a record that — bizarrely, in light of shared antipathy — was produced by former manager Katz, and Legendary Grape, a cassette-only limited release from 1989 that would eventually be reissued on CD in 2003. Neither project included Spence, who did play with the band on and off through the ’70s.
Most of the original band would remain active musically outside the band as well, at least for a time. Spence released only one album, 1969’s Oar, an acid-folk collection that — while it originally sold about 500 copies and quickly went out of print — is regarded as a minor classic. Mosley released a self-titled album in 1972, and though he had more than his share of personal difficulties, he would go on to release five more albums; 2005’s True Blue is his most recent.
Jerry Miller released three solo albums in the 1990s, and has kept busy beyond Moby Grape and solo work; he filled in for Sky Saxon when The Seeds took part in a ’60s revival tour. Don Stevenson released his debut solo album in 2010; Buskin’ in the Subway followed in 2018.
Today at age 74, guitarist, singer and songwriter Peter Lewis still has plenty to say musically. In recent years he toured and recorded with another ’60s legend, The Electric Prunes. Among other music-related activities, he made a self-titled album in 1995, released two live albums with David West, and produced 2015’s Arwen, an album by his daughter and featuring new versions of classic Moby Grape songs.
Lewis’ latest release is 2019’s The Road to Zion, a collection of songs some of which date back many years. He says that at this point in his life and career, he doesn’t feel the need to “write a cool song anymore. It’s more (about) trying to communicate something about life that I’ve learned,” he says.
One of those life lessons came in 1983 when Lewis was part of a backing group playing at the opening ceremonies for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He recalls the glad-handing and schmoozing that was part and parcel of the experience. “You’re expected to interact with all these people, the public side of the music business where you’re there to just be part of this carnival scene.” Making the point that for the most part, being a musician is a solitary endeavor, he admits that “I went back to my hotel room, thinking about how much I would like to not have been there.”
That program also included an ad hoc band made up of what Lewis describes as “writers who play music for fun.” He says that their performance felt like a mean-spirited parody of real, working musicians. “They were all up there in costumes and making fun of music,” he recalls. “It just seemed so far away from the ’60s.” The unpleasant experience did have an upside; it would yield “In This Place,” a standout track on Lewis’ The Road to Zion.
The songs on Lewis’ new album are rooted in a country-rock style that will sound warmly familiar to listeners who enjoyed 1968’s Wow. “The Road to Zion” would be right at home on Moby Grape ‘69, and “When I’m Gone” bears a melodic resemblance of the title track off Moby Grape’s fourth album, 1969’s Truly Fine Citizen. Lewis is in fine voice throughout the 11 songs on The Road to Zion, hitting occasional high notes with ease and exploring the sonic textures found in a variety of electric and acoustic guitars.
Lewis has some experience distilling inspired music from difficult situations. His powerful “Fall On You” for Moby Grape is an uptempo rocker, but its lyrics focus on pain, betrayal and loss. And sometimes — as with another song on Moby Grape’s debut album — the equation worked in the reverse direction. Lewis says that when he wrote the melancholy “Sitting by the Window,” he “had a marriage that worked, and everything. But then when that song got out there, in a weird way, that song started singing me. I ended up a year later without a marriage; I became that guy in the song.”
His problems at the time weren’t nearly as severe as those facing Spence, who famously came at bandmates Miller and Stevenson with a fire axe. Mosley suffered a breakdown of sorts as well in 1969, abruptly quitting the band and enlisting in the Marines (he was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic and discharged within months of joining).
Lewis — who has been asked about his bandmates’ problems countless times, and who has had decades to consider the subject — has his own take on their challenges. “When you look at what happened to Skip or Bobby, part of what that is, I think, just the metaphysics of fame,” he suggests. “They get out there and they show people a certain character, however they’re dealing with their career, however seriously they take their music. And that can sort of get you in a feedback loop with the future. And then, (they can suffer) not knowing how to deal with that, trying to make it real.”
He says that Mosley “was always kind of emotionally disturbed, but I think Skip really thought he was the Messiah. But then, at some point, he started getting really into downers when we were in New York making the second record, and it just all caved in. He changed from Mr. Love into Mr. Hate in about a weekend.”
That kind of confusion calls out for a response, even if it’s not the right one. “How you deal with that — whether it’s with drugs or whatever — is very much a no-win situation,” Lewis says. “Because it’s just depending on some kind of chemical, controlling your body to make you feel this way or that.”
Speaking like a wise old survivor of the late ’60s music scene, Lewis adds his own prescription to the idea of drug use. “Maybe use it more like a surfer,” he suggests. “Use it as a wave. Keep it at your back.”
For his part, during that turbulent period Lewis reached out to another record producer, hoping he could help rally the group and salvage the sessions. He contacted Terry Melcher, an old friend from his high school days in L.A. Lewis — the son of film star Loretta Young — attended school with the sons and daughters of other celebrities’ offspring. The son of Doris Day, Melcher was a few years older than Lewis. “He had a car, so he got all the chicks,” Lewis recalls with a chuckle. He says that for a time, Candice Bergen was Melcher’s high school girlfriend. “I was her boyfriend, too,” he says. “For a minute.”
Melcher — famed for his work with The Beach Boys, Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Byrds — was interested in producing Moby Grape, but changed his mind when news broke of Spence’s axe incident. “Well, look, the whole band would have to want to do it,” Melcher told Lewis. “And if you don’t have him anymore, that’s pretty much it.”
Lewis still holds thoughts of what might have been. “The trouble with the first album was that at Columbia, you couldn’t turn the faders up past 0 dB because the union had a rule (against) distortion,” he says. Terry Melcher had free rein at his studio “so you could go in there and turn it up as loud as you wanted,” Lewis says with admiration. “He knew how to get it right before it made the needle bounce out of the grooves of a record.”
And Melcher’s skills went beyond capturing loud sounds. “Terry was a sound guy. He knew how to get certain sounds, and also he could hear something that was out of tune. If one string player in an orchestra was off, he knew who it was.”
Lewis is more than willing to answer questions about Moby Grape, but he chooses his words carefully when the subject of the band’s early manager Matthew Katz comes up. “He’ll sue you for defamation of character if you try to tell the real story,” Lewis says. He will allow that Katz — whose actions have confounded the band at nearly every turn, from putting together a fake Moby Grape for live dates to scotching various reissues — has a mindset that differs from the peace-and-love values of the Haight-Ashbury scene.
“It’s not like the rest of the ’60s,” Lewis says. “It has nothing to do with cooperating.” Lewis makes it clear that he’d rather not even think about Katz. “You don’t want to get consumed with bitterness or dedicate your life to getting even with this guy,” he says. But he can’t hold back expressing regret. “I was in this band that was my one shot, and he screwed that up. And there’s no way to ever forget about it.”
Peter Lewis is forthright about the hazards of the music business. “It’s a shark tank, and you’ve really got to know how to survive to get famous without having signed the rights to your soul away,” he says. But more than 52 years after 10 of Moby Grape’s songs were released (as A- or B-sides of 45rpm singles), he’s showing himself to be a survivor. He mentions the final track on his new record, “The Gypsy.” “It talks about this place of no returning, where you have this sense that you’re free, finally, from whatever it is that plagues the soul,” Lewis says.
“And all of that is in The Road to Zion,” he says. “Zion is that circle, the end of all paths, where all roads lead into this place where you can feel like, ‘Well, at least I’ve got this.’”