Alexander “Skip” Spence, one of the founding members of both Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape — two of the Bay Area’s most influential bands — died on April 16th from lung cancer.| Spence, who would have turned fifty-three on Sunday, died at Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, where he had been fighting a number of ailments. Spence was checked into a Northern California hospital with pneumonia on April 5th, and his condition quickly worsened. In an odd twist of fate, Birdman Records was just getting ready to release More Oar, a tribute album with performances by Robert Plant, Beck, Tom Waits and others, in a few weeks. The album is based on Spence’s 1969 solo album, Oar. The proceeds of the album, including artist royalties, were to be donated to a fund to help with Spence’s medical bills. Spence, a uniquely talented musician and songwriter, had suffered from mental illness for the last thirty years.
Spence began his musical career in 1965 as the original drummer for Jefferson Airplane. Although a guitarist, he was cast as the drummer by founder Marty Balin, who took one look at Spence — who was at the time auditioning for the Quicksilver Messenger Service — at a club and apparently announced, “That’s my drummer.” Spence’s songwriting talents were not wasted, however, and he co-wrote several songs on the Airplane’s debut album. Before leaving the band in 1966, he left behind one song, the folk-pop charmer, “My Best Friend,” which was chosen as the first single from the Airplane’s 1967 masterpiece, Surrealistic Pillow.
Spence was most well known for his involvement with Moby Grape, a band who pushed Murphy’s Law to its limits. Spence was the central figure in a band that boasted four singer/songwriters, combining elements of country, soul, folk and blues. Despite managerial nightmares and Columbia Records’ much-maligned marketing move of simultaneously releasing five singles from the 1967 debut Moby Grape, the album was an auspicious beginning and a classic of the period, including such Spence masterpieces as “Omaha” and “Indifference.” “Omaha” in particular is regarded as a rock classic and was covered in the Eighties by the Golden Palominos featuring Michael Stipe on vocals.
During the 1968 recording of the group’s second album, Wow, Spence allegedly attempted to break down a bandmate’s hotel room door with a fire axe while on L.S.D., and was committed for six months to the criminal ward at Bellevue Hospital. After his release, Spence negotiated a solo deal with Columbia and recorded Oar in Nashville. The album is an oddball masterpiece, and one that solidified Spence’s reputation as the “American Syd Barrett,” a true musical genius who was becoming a casualty.
Spence continued to have minor involvement in later Moby Grape projects and reunions, as well as helping the Doobie Brothers get signed to Warner Bros. Records (the Doobies idolized Spence and the Grape). More recently, Spence’s “Land of the Sun,” one of the only post-Grape recordings he ever completed, was nearly placed on the X-Files soundtrack.
Spence is survived by his four children — Aaron, 34; Adam, 33; Omar, 31; and Heather, 29 — and his former wife and current girlfriend.