An article on the late Alexander “Skip” Spence, taken from The New York Times, July 4, 1999…
Like Bob Dylan’s motorcycle accident or the sandbox Brian Wilson built in his living room, Alexander (Skip) Spence’s freakout is the stuff of rock myth. In 1968, Spence, a guitarist for the San Francisco pop-psychedelic band Moby Grape, was in New York working on the group’s second album. He hooked up with a woman who was known as a witch, and she gave him bad acid. Spence disappeared for a few days, and when he turned up again he was banging down the hotel room door of the band’s drummer with a fire ax. The drummer wasn’t there, so Spence proceeded to the recording studio in a taxi, ax still in hand. At the studio someone wrestled the ax away from him, but charges were pressed and Spence went to jail. He was given a choice: prison or a psychiatric hospital. He chose Bellevue, and he was there, doing penance, for six months.Spence, who died in April at the age of 52, was well on his way to being another 60′s casualty. But before he got there, he took a side trip. Upon his release from Bellevue, he asked his label, Columbia, for a small advance – under $1,000 – and a motorcycle so he could drive to Nashville and make a solo album. In just four days in December 1968, Spence recorded Oar, an album of songs he had written in Bellevue. He produced it himself and played all the instruments himself. When he was done, he got on his motorcycle and headed back to California. He was 22 years old.
Released on May 19, 1969, Oar showed one of the bleakest undersides of the 60′s. It was a snapshot of mental illness, a portrait of bitter isolation in a time of communal celebration. Not surprisingly, Oar sold only a few hundred copies. Columbia didn’t promote it; it got no airplay, cracked no chart. A few months later, the critic Greil Marcus wrote a prescient review for Rolling Stone. ”This unique LP is bound to be forgotten,” he said. ”Get ahead of the game and buy Oar before you no longer have a chance.” It was the perfect curse to lay on Oar. Mr. Marcus knew that in rock-and-roll, nothing worthwhile is ever truly forgotten. The harder it is to find, the more it is coveted. Oar was bound for a particular cult doom: an album so obscure and neglected that it could eventually be embraced by a different generation as something exceptional and brand new.
Thirty years later, it’s finally Oar‘s time. On Tuesday, Sundazed Music will reissue a remixed and remastered version of the album with 10 bonus tracks. That same day, the independent label Birdman will release More Oar, a lovingly compiled tribute featuring Tom Waits, Robert Plant, Beck and Son Volt’s Jay Farrar recreating the album’s songs in order. Tribute records are often obnoxious celebrity showcases, but More Oar is the rare case that really enhances the original. Bill Bentley, a longtime record-company executive and the album’s producer, made sure that only performers who really cared about Oar contributed.
”Once word went out that I was doing this, people started contacting me,” Mr. Bentley said. ”Bands said, ‘We love Oar. We have to be on this.’ We’d send people $500, and a few weeks later these DAT tapes would show up in the mail. It was great.”
The two albums work well in tandem. Each brings out strengths the other doesn’t show. Because of his fragility of mind, Spence’s version is hushed and tentative. The songs are like hot, cramped rooms, full of wandering thoughts and fragmented images. The vocals rasp and quaver; the drums shuffle in a halting, folksy rhythm. It’s the sound of a man talking to himself. Some songs are nearly formless psychedelic workouts; others, like ”Cripple Creek” and ”Diana,” are muttered depictions of characters at the end of their ropes. Oar also has moments of joy: Spence relished childish singsongs and eccentric wordplay. ”An Olympic super swimmer whose belly doesn’t flop,” he sings in ”Broken Heart.’ ”A honey-dripping hipster whose bee cannot be bopped.”
More Oar sacrifices the singular, mind-bending intimacy, but it’s more confident and accessible. In the hands of accomplished pros like Beck and Mr. Plant, the songs get room to breathe; the best interpretations reveal elegant structures and breathtaking melodies that Spence himself muffled. Spence’s version of ”All Come to Meet Her” feels like a pretty, half-finished thought; he hums and repeats the title line over and over, like a daydreamer musing on a place he’ll never reach. Diesel Park West’s cover brings out the pop brilliance at the song’s core. The drums crash, the electric guitars ring out; it’s nothing short of celestial, a hymn of fulfilled longing. A transcendence Spence could only imagine Diesel Park West brings to life.
Mr. Bentley is one of the faithful who bought the record in 1969. ”I didn’t have those kind of mental problems, but I wasn’t doing too well,” he said. ”You listen to this and you go, well, there’s people farther out and with bigger troubles than me, and they’re still making art. Maybe there is a way to get through all this, and not just run and give up.”
For Mr. Bentley, More Oar was a way to make sure Spence’s work wasn’t forgotten. When he began work on the project four years ago, he found that many musicians had been moved by Oar just as he had been. ” ‘Books of Moses’ reminded me of a Tom Waits song before there was a Tom Waits,” Mr. Bentley said. ”I thought, ‘I’ll just ask him.’ He just said, ‘Sure.’ He cut it in his garage, played all the instruments himself. He’s a guy that really taps into the mental space that a guy like Skip lived in. I think that’s part of Tom’s allure. He always, from the start, got inside the head of the have-nots and society’s expendables.”
What makes Oar and More Oar so compelling is that both records puncture many of the myths we’ve come to take for granted about the 60′s. No other decade in rock has been so overhyped. From Dylan’s plug-ins to Jimi Hendrix’s guitar burnings, from the Beatles at Shea to Janis Joplin at Monterey, from Eric Clapton’s solos to the Grateful Dead’s endless jams, the era is stuffed way past capacity with icons, masterminds, earth-shakers and ground-breakers. The last thing anyone needs is another 60′s legend.
Spence was the antithesis of 60′s heroism. He was of the era but apart from it. He came from the Haight-Ashbury scene, but he did his best work in solitude. Unlike Brian Wilson, whose mental instability became part of his mystique, Spence never parlayed his illness into money or fame. ”Skippy was not really in shape after ’68 to ever come back and pick up where he left off,” said Peter Lewis, a Moby Grape guitarist. ”He couldn’t be a show-business person. All that talent wasn’t something he could pull out of his hip pocket and use.”
Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario, then moved with his parents to the San Jose area. He migrated to San Francisco in time to spend a year as the Jefferson Airplane’s original drummer. In 1966, he helped start Moby Grape, a slightly more garagey version of Buffalo Springfield, with rustic three- and four-part harmonies overlaid on snarly guitars. Moby Grape’s closest thing to a hit was Spence’s ”Omaha,” an exuberant call-out to good times. ”Listen my friends!” the song exclaims again and again.
”There’s no way to describe the way he plays guitar, and the way his chords work,” said Mr. Lewis. ”Him and the guitar, it was like a whole orchestra. The way the melody moved and the chords moved was totally unpredictable but totally cool. Nobody else could do it. It’s Skip.”
After Oar, Spence worked sporadically with Moby Grape. He contributed to the 1971 album 20 Granite Creek and to Live Grape in 1978. But in between, Spence, a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, began a cycle of living in halfway houses and state mental institutions. One time in the late 70′s, Spence wound up in a facility in Santa Cruz. ”They called us three days or so after they had committed him,” Mr. Lewis remembered. ”They said, ‘You’ve got to take this guy out of here because he got lost and we found him in the women’s ward with a harem.’ ” Another time, Mr. Lewis added, he suffered a drug overdose. ”They took him to the morgue, tag on his toe and everything. And he got up and asked for a glass of water.”
Still, Spence was well enough during the late 70′s to play gigs with Moby Grape in northern California. Scott McCaughey, whose band the Minus 5 contributed to More Oar, saw a few of them. ”Skip would sometimes be there, sometimes play, sometimes be there and not play,” Mr. McCaughey recalled. One night after a show, Mr. McCaughey approached Spence. ”He was kind of ambling about,” he said. ”My friends and I said, ‘Do you want to come over to our house and have a beer?’ He was like, ‘O.K.’ So he came over and sat in the middle of our funky living room. I said, ‘Skip, what do you want to listen to?’ He said, ‘Rubber Soul.’ So I got it, and we listened to it, smoked some pot and just kind of talked. He was friendly but not super on the ball. You definitely got the impression he wasn’t all there. After the record was over, I said, ‘So, what do you want to listen to now?’ He said, ‘Rubber Soul.’ It wasn’t like, ‘Let’s listen to it again.’ It was like it never happened. So we listened to Rubber Soul again.”
After Live Grape, Mr. Lewis lost track of Spence until the early 90′s. Mr. Bentley said that Spence was never homeless, but that ”he would panhandle money and drink quarts of beer all day.” Around 1994, his life stabilized. He moved into a trailer with his girlfriend and apparently quit drinking. Spence played one last gig with Moby Grape in Santa Cruz in 1996. In the spring of this year, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and hospitalized.
Mr. Bentley had spent the last few years of his life pursuing Spence’s elusive legacy. He went to see him in the hospital and brought a copy of More Oar. But Spence was in a coma by then. On the day he died, April 16, Spence was surrounded by loved ones: his girlfriend, his ex-wife, his children, Mr. Lewis. They took him off his ventilator and played More Oar as he slipped away.
Peter Lewis sees his legacy in a slightly different way. ”The thing that made Skip suffer in the end was he knew everybody loved him, but he couldn’t come back,” he said. ”People had expectations for him to be well again and play music, and he just couldn’t. I admire him as an artist and a human being, even though he was just a guy you’d pass by in the street, just another bum with a cup in his hands. But I guarantee you, he will become the Van Gogh of the 60′s. This guy was peerless.”
25 years ago today, this article appeared in Rolling Stone magazine. Written by Michael Azerrad, this comes from the Rolling Stone archives site…
Psychedelic Rappers Introduce the D.A.I.S.Y. Age
“Hello, you’ve reached Mars. What can I do for you?” Trugoy the Dove is on the telephone in the tidy basement of his parents’ house in suburban Amityville, Long Island, waiting for the other two members of De La Soul to arrive.
The group’s highly-acclaimed debut album, 3 Feet High and Rising, is a dense psychedelic pastiche of recombinant R&B, ingeniously incorporating countless odd snippets of everything from Sly Stone to Johnny Cash (whose sampled voice supplies the album title), layered over laid-back, languid dance beats. The record’s twenty-three tracks include the requisite tales of sexual conquest (“Jenifa Taught Me”) and low adolescent humor (“A Little Bit of Soap”), but they are also peppered with almost dadaist sonic collages (“Transmitting Live from Mars”), ecological fables (“Tread Water”) and cryptic imagery (“Potholes in My Lawn”).
The members of De La Soul, who love wordplay, made up their stage names (they won’t divulge their real ones). The bearded and bespectacled Posdnuos got his name by reversing Sop Sound, his old DJ tag. P.A. Pasemaster Mase says that Mase is an acronym for making a soul effort; actually, it’s also short for Mason, his family name. Trugoy the Dove got his name by spelling yogurt – his favorite food – backward; Dove is a nickname his mother gave him because he was a peaceful child. He also owns a dove named Perdue and sports an angled haircut that he refers to as a Gumby. At twenty, Trugoy is the oldest member of De La Soul.
The odd names initially led to the misapprehension that the three rappers were members of a tiny Muslim sect called the Five Percenters, who take names based on the significance of certain letters of the alphabet. Dove says that Posdnuos is by coincidence a “really righteous” Five Percenter name.
In concert, De La Soul’s two dancers, China and Jette, throw flowers from the stage, which is festooned with peace signs and Day-Glo colors. So is De La Soul a hippie band? “No,” the three say patiently, in unison. They’ve heard that one before – the group even has a song about it, “Ain’t Hip to Be Labeled a Hippie.” Still, there’s no denying the flower power of a concept like the D.A.I.S.Y. Age, which pops up all over 3 Feet High and Rising. “D.A.I.S.Y. stands for da inner sound y’all,” Dove says. “This is the age that we’re bringing up, the sound where everything comes from within. It’s not a false look or a copy or a mimic of any sort, it’s just what’s coming from inside of us.”
Many see De La Soul as the savior of a rap scene in danger of descending into self-parody. Resolute non-conformists, especially in the cookie-cutter world of rap music, the members of De La Soul have their own “new style of speak” (heralded in their first single, the trippy manifesto “Plug Tunin’”), and their dress tends to be baggy jeans and hiking boots, not Adidas. Songs like “Do as De La Does” and “Brainwashed Follower” spoof the herd mentality, as does “Take It Off,” which urges hip-hoppers to cast off their Cazal glasses, Kangol hats and Jordache jeans. “I don’t want no fads,” says Dove, who has a plastic monster with a peace sign on it dangling from his neck.
Though a lot of thought goes into De La Soul’s lyrics, the group members say most of their music is discovered by accident. They get records from their parents’ collections (everything from Yma Sumac to Haitian jazz) or obscure record stores, then look for interesting sounds to sample or loop. For the song “Eye Know,” they constructed a catchy obbligato out of a seven-note bite of Otis Redding’s whistling on “(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay” and also used a fragment of Steely Dan’s “Peg” for the chorus.
Besides their voices, an occasional drum machine and jingled coins, everything on the record originated from a sample. Although sampling is a highly controversial practice, the group is confident that their music is art, not theft. “I consider it a crime if you’re not going to make it sound better or different than it originally was,” says Posdnuos. “A lot of new R&B music consists of old ideas from other singers anyway, so you could say that was also stealing. Sampling is borrowing ideas, too – it’s just easier to see where they’re coming from.”
All three band members were born in New York City and moved to Amityville when they were kids. After bouncing around various groups, Pos, Dove and Mase did a homemade version of “Plug Tunin’,” using an old record Pos’ father had. Mase played the tape for his neighbor, Prince Paul Huston of the rap group Stetsasonic, who loved the quirky tune. Within months, De La Soul was signed to the New York hip-hop label Tommy Boy, with Prince Paul producing.
The group’s post-modern hippie-hop isn’t merely an exercise in nostalgia. “We are going back to the Sixties,” says Pos, “but also to the Seventies, the Fifties, the Eighties and on into the future.” Pos must be optimistic about that future – he just bought an outsize button that reads “almost famous.”
June 21, 1978…
This review comes from Stephen Holden, from The New York Times, dated Jan. 18, 1981…
The Sardonic Style of Steely Dan
Nearly three years in the making, Steely Dan’s Gaucho (MCA-6102) is as refined as pop music can get without becoming too esoteric for a mass audience. Though it consists of only two men, Steely Dan must be counted one of the most influential rock ”groups” of the past decade. Founded by the songwriting team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen eight years ago, they started out as a touring sextet. With Becker, the bassist, and Fagen on lead vocals and keyboards, the group had a string of hits including ”Do It Again,” ”Reeling in the Years,” and ”Rikki Don’t Lose That Number.” After 1974, they stopped performing and made the recording studio their artistic base, using a shifting array of session musicians instead of fixed personnel. Over the course of seven albums, they’ve evolved an unusually subtle and literate brand of pop-rock that blends modal jazz harmonies, fusion instrumentation and funktinged polyrhythms within extended pop structures. Though other rock groups like Blood, Sweat & Tears and Chicago have enjoyed commercial success blending jazz and pop, none has come close to matching Steely Dan in sophistication and taste. They helped inspire rock singers like Joni Mitchell to explore jazz and paved the way for the Doobie Brothers’ brand of pop-funk. Even stylistically unrelated groups like the Eagles were influenced by Steely Dan’s carefully blocked arranging style.
But more than their studio craftsmanship, what distinguishes Steely Dan is their songwriting. Becker’s and Fagen’s specialty is the cryptically sardonic vignette. Gaucho‘s seven extended studio set pieces are also interrelated short stories. The main characters are would-be hipsters who define themselves in terms of style rather than feelings or ideas. Steely Dan’s sour-sweet pop-jazz style with its modal harmonics and dips into polytonality illustrates both the comedy and the pathos of trying to keep your cool in even the most dire circumstances. Though the melodies are always heading toward sentimental resolutions, somewhere along the way they get short-circuited. And the painstaking construction of the arrangements mirrors the characters’ desperate maintenance of appearances.
Gaucho is a word for Latin-American cowboy, but Fagen and Becker also use it as a pun on the French word gauche. All seven songs on the new album puncture cultivated mystiques. The ”bodacious cowboy” of the title song wears a spangled leather poncho and is a social embarrassment to the friend who brings him to a party at the mysterious ”Custerdome.” The narrator of ”Glamour Profession” is a cocaine dealer who wears Brut cologne and boasts about the telephone in his Chrysler. In ”Hey, Nineteen,” a thirtyish man dating a teen-ager realizes that they have nothing in common beyond the booze and dope that will make the evening ”wonderful.” ”Babylon Sisters,” ”Time Out of Mind,” ”My Rival,’ and ”Third World Man,” look askance at swingers, gurus and sexual and political paranoia.
Gaucho‘s satire is so oblique that the songs avoid sounding snidely hip in the manner of Frank Zappa, one of Steely Dan’s obvious influences. Their humor is compassionate, for they see the struggle to stay cool as noble in addition to farcical. Instead of delivering broadsides, they sidle up to the scenes they describe and pick out oddly telling details. Their perspective is at once far-sighted and clinically fascinated. It’s also emotionally double-edged, for despite its coolness, the music is quite beautiful. With its crystalline keyboard textures and diaphanous group vocals, Gaucho contains the sweetest music Steely Dan has ever made.