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On This Date (April 16, 1999) Skip Spence / Moby Grape

Posted by themusicsover on April 16, 2010

Alexander “Skip” Spence
April 18, 1946 – April 16, 1999

Born in Ontario, Canada, Skip Spence moved with his family to the San Francisco area when he was in his teens.  Although his name might not be familiar to most, he was as much a part of the San Francisco scene as Janis Joplin or Jerry Garcia were.  Spence first came into the scene as a guitarist for Quicksilver Messenger Service, but was quickly recruited by Marty Balin to join Jefferson Airplane as their drummer even though he had never played the drums.  But after just one album, he left the group to co-form Moby Grape, the legendary psych-folk band that some consider the greatest band to ever come out of San Francisco.  Unfortunately, they never lived up to that reputation commercially.  Spence’s “Omaha” from Moby Grape’s debut was included on Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest guitar songs of all time.  In 1969, friends began noticing big personality changes in Spence.  One indicator was when he tried to break down a band member’s New York hotel door with an axe to kill him in order to save him from himself.  At the time he was using LSD heavily and claiming to be the anti-Christ.  The band was in New York City recording their second album, and by the time they left, Spence had been admitted to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  His mental stability and continued use of drugs and alcohol only made things worse.  He was all but out of Moby Grape by the ’70s, although they did take care of him as much as they could and generally included at least one of his songs on each of their albums.   Spence spent most of his adult life as a ward of the state of California and was basically homeless in the final years of his life.  He died of lung cancer two days before his 53rd birthday.

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2 Responses to “On This Date (April 16, 1999) Skip Spence / Moby Grape”

  1. In the summer of 81 a buddy of mine invited me to come sit in with his band. It was at this little dive bar called the Rusty Nail in San Jose. I got up on stage to play, but as I was grabbing my bass, this hippie chick comes walking up with this guy dressed in nicely ironed and creased khaki pants. His t-shirt was untucked but it was also neatly ironed, and over all this he wore a short sleeved, yellow,cream and black plaid short sleeve shirt. She begged the leader of the band to let this guy sit in and play guitar. She told him he used to play guitar with this band that had made some records, but he doesn't play much any more…he's had some problems. All the time this begging and pleading was going on, this cat is just looking at the floor, his arms hung limp at his side and his hands were shaking. I thought… Man this dude is fucked up! He looked like somebody that had done tons of acid and just didn't make it back one day. So Dave, the leader of this band, hands the guy a black and yellow sunburst Telecaster, he didn't take it. The girl grabbed it and told him, "They're going to let you play!" She had the biggest smile on her face and she was just totally excited. She took this guitar and draped it over his shoulder. All along this guy never looked up. Something about this guitar looked good on this guy. He had straight, medium length, blonde-grey hair that just covered the guitar strap and he's still just looking at the floor… So the hippie girl says something to Dave, he nods and says OK, then she goes to her friend and tells him, "You can play your song.", as soon as she told him that, this guy came to life, stood up straight and now he's about 5'5" tall. I had no idea what was going on. The next thing I hear is the drummer clicking off 1,2,3,4 and this guy just goes off into this driving lick that I've heard before, but I've never played the song. Went through a few moments where this guy was just a monster guitar player, then he would kind of lose it. The acid would take over, then he would come back and play and lose it one more time. After losing it for the last time, we decided to end the song. Through all that… I just knew there was something really special about this guy. This girl ran up on stage, ecstatic and just ever so thankful for letting him play. She took the guitar off of his neck, and his head just dropped again, staring at the floor. She shook hands with me and told her friend to say thank you. He said thank you, but never looked up. I told her, "You know, I've heard the song before, I just can't remember what it's called." She says, "It's called Omaha and Skip wrote it. This is his song. He used to play with a band called Moby Grape. Skip wrote it!" I told her that's cool, he did a nice job. She shook my hand again to thank me…She grabbed Skip Spence by the hand and told him what a great job he had done and how he needs to get out and play more. He just shuffled behind her, holding her hand, never looking up, never saying a word and they disappeared out the door and into the night. I had another beer and had to leave.

    June 21, 2011 at 7:22pm

  2. Rose Amador said

    Great story!

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