Of the many groups to emerge from San Francisco in the late 1960s, Moby Grape stood out as the band that most preferred structured songs to free-form jamming and the one that mixed L.A. folk rock with San Francisco's standard psychedelia. But it was never able to capitalize on its potential, partly because of hype from Columbia Records that threatened to bury its debut album. Moby Grape grew out of Northern California's Frantics, which included Jerry Miller, Bob Mosley, and Don Stevenson. Mosley met Peter Lewis (son of actress Loretta Young), who had recently abandoned Peter and the Wolves for solo work; Skip Spence was a guitarist who had played drums with the Jefferson Airplane and cowritten several songs ("My Best Friend," "Blues From an Airplane") that appeared on the Airplane's early albums.
Released in June 1967, Moby Grape became infamous at once when Columbia chose to release eight of its 13 cuts simultaneously on 45s, confusing radio DJs. Only the frenetic "Omaha" charted. The record also came with a poster of the band and a front-cover photograph that featured Stevenson with his middle finger extended (later airbrushed out). Amid the furor, the actual music was virtually ignored.
Moby Grape's second album, Wow, was similarly derailed by gimmickry; it contained a track that could be played only at 78 rpm and a "bonus" LP, Grape Jam, that included Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. Moby Grape then disbanded but re-formed as a quartet soon after, without Spence, and commemorated the event with Moby Grape '69. This set a pattern of breakup, re-formation, album, breakup that continues until this day. Before 1995, the members were legally forbidden from using the name Moby Grape; over the years they came up with such imaginative permutations as Maby Grope, Mosley Grape, the Melvilles (as in Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick), and the Legendary Grape. Miller, Lewis, Mosley, and Stevenson carried the project into the early '90s. Mosley, who was homeless in the middle of the decade, was occasionally gone. A 1998 tour featured Miller, Lewis, and Mosley but not Stevenson.
Absent from these reunions was Spence, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who showed signs of mental illness during the Moby Grape's original run. On tour, he once broke into Stevenson's room, claiming that voices had told him the drummer was possessed by the devil; by 1968, he'd been committed to New York's Bellevue Hospital. In 1991, while a resident of a residential-care house in San Jose, California, he contributed a song, "All My Life I Love You," to a cassette by Miller, Stevenson, Mosley, Lewis, and two new musicians. This '90s version of Moby Grape opened shows for another reunited California band, the Doobie Brothers (whom Spence allegedly named). In 1993 Spence joined the other original members onstage for a Bay Area gig. That year's release of a CD retrospective, Vintage, brought this now-revered Moby Grape more attention than it ever received during its lifetime.
Spence's stark, darkly eccentric 1969 solo release, Oar, became a sought-after item in the late '90s. Shortly after the performer's death in 1999, Birdman Records issued More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander "Skip" Spence, a song-for-song cover of the album featuring acts ranging from Beck to Tom Waits to Mudhoney. The original LP was reissued with 10 bonus tracks that year as well.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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