Alexander Spence – “Oar” (1969)

January 1, 2010 at 1:43 pm (Music, Reviews & Articles)

This poor-selling but influential album by Moby Grape singer-guitarist Alexander “Skip” Spence is a cult classic. This article comes from the Crawdaddy! website from Nov. 24, 2009 and was written by Andrew Lau. Spence was one of the great acid-damaged visionaries of the 60s…

Oar After 40 Years: Brilliant or Mere Ramblings?

Retired Columbia Records staff producer and industry rabble-rouser David Rubinson sits across the table from me in a vegetarian restaurant tucked away in the Richmond district of San Francisco. We’re here to discuss his involvement with Oar, the only solo record by Skip Spence. The record turned 40 this year and has slowly, quietly grown far beyond original expectations. In fact, in the beginning, Rubinson seems to have been the only person with any faith at all. The producer remains baffled by the general indifference.

“When I brought the record to [Columbia], they didn’t hear a thing,” he says with his hard-to-miss Brooklyn accent. “The record company barely released it.”

“You had to push them to release it?” I ask.

Begged. Pleaded. They had no motivation to put this record out, they didn’t think it was ever going to sell, and it came out to complete silence. Nobody said, ‘Jesus Christ, this is a masterpiece. This is great work of poetry; this man has created a great work of art.’ It wasn’t packaged, no promotion campaign, no release party. I actually don’t recall anything happening.”

Today, of the handful of people involved with the project, there are only a few left to tell the story. Besides Rubinson are recording engineer Mike Figlio (who refused to be interviewed for this piece), mixing engineers Don Meehan and Fred Catero. Spence, who is credited as producer and played all the instruments himself, died in 1999 as did Bob Cato who designed the stunning cover art. Second recording engineer, Charlie Bradley, died in 2005. All of these people had a large impact on the final version of a record still hailed as a masterpiece by some and nothing more than mere ramblings from an acid casualty by others. Either way, Oar is still being talked about all these years later. This is how it was made.

In June of 1968, Alexander “Skip” Spence was admitted into the Psychiatric Ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital in lower Manhattan, putting an end to a highly creative period of his life. Oddly, it also signaled the beginning of his most prolific writing cycle. Unbeknownst to everyone involved with his career at that point, Bellevue provided Spence the safety he needed and the time to create what was to become his best-known work.

Having spent a good portion of his youth in San Jose after his family relocated there from Ontario, the talented and handsome Spence couldn’t find a better place to start than San Francisco. By the end of 1966, he had already been involved in two seminal acid-rock bands—an embryonic version of Quicksilver Messenger Service and the first recording line-up of Jefferson Airplane, in which he was the drummer.

But it was former Airplane manager, Matthew Katz, who formed a group around Spence when things began to happen. Surrounding him with R&B vets Don Stevenson, Peter Lewis, Bob Mosley, and Jerry Miller, Moby Grape was born. And this is where David Rubinson comes into our story.

Already known in the industry as a brilliant, strong-willed producer and talent scout, the East Coast native was in San Francisco for other reasons when he happened across the band, and from the moment he first saw them, he knew he had to work with the group. Leaning over our table, he still gets excited almost 45 years later. “When they came on they just burned like crazy. They were incredible. There was no lead singer, they all sang five-part harmonies, and the guitar work was incredible, impeccable, three-guitar orchestrations, and [Bob] Mosley was a killer bass player.”

Instincts told him there’d be a bidding war, so he worked hard to see that Columbia was the one that would sign them. He befriended the band right off, worked with them, paid their rent and even dental work, and, most importantly, believed in them. The Moby Grape/Rubinson team was so hot after Columbia signed them that a rival company offered Rubinson a job as long as he brought Moby Grape with him.

It wasn’t hype either; Moby Grape’s self-titled debut is still touted as one of the greatest debuts of that era. Although much like their peers in mind and spirit, Moby Grape didn’t have a lot in common with them musically. They cut away the fat and kept it simple: No extended instrumentation, no surreal lyrics, no starry eyes. And it worked. Ten no-nonsense songs, only two of them over three minutes, with every one a possible single. Unfortunately, they also had what has been described to this reporter (by several credible sources) as one of the worst managers in the history of rock music, which is saying something. By most accounts, Katz was exceedingly selfish and had no idea how to book, promote, push, or finance the band, and Moby Grape suffered.

There were, shall we say, distractions during the making of the first LP in Los Angeles, and Rubinson thought it would be better for them to record the anticipated follow-up in New York, where they could concentrate without interruption, with different studios, engineers, and more available studio time. Spence, always a bit of a wild card, was already showing signs of erratic songwriting. “Just Like Gene Autry: A Foxtrot” was his elaborate tribute to old-time dance bands (and was mastered on the original LP at 78rpm), while “Seeing” had him shouting “Save me, save me!” during the refrain—an early glimpse of what was to come.

It was near the end of these sessions when he disappeared with a woman known only as “Johanna” who, as Rubinson recalls, was English, practiced black magic, and was fond of a certain brand of LSD that produced a three-day high. They vanished into the wilds of the city for two days and things were never the same. It’s a fairly well-documented story that’s as heartbreaking as it is intriguing.

Spence returned a changed man—very high, very agitated, very paranoid. The woman had convinced him that his bandmates were the embodiment of evil. Rubinson was in the studio alone with engineer Roy Halee when a call came from the band’s road manager at the Albert Hotel where the group was staying. Apparently, Spence had cut through the door of Stevenson’s room with a fire ax, and not finding him inside, was headed to the studio, with eyes-a-fire. In a cab.

“How he got into a taxi with a fire ax in his hand, I have no idea,” muses Rubinson, “but that’s New York!”

Members of Moby Grape, the police (who Rubinson had called), and Spence all converged outside the studio door at the same time. During the emotional stand-off, Rubinson was able to talk Spence down; he took the ax from him and the police took over, after which he, Miller, and Stevenson followed the police car with Spence inside to the nearest precinct.

“Don and Jerry had to come over [and] swear out complaints, because there was no way we were going to get him clean or dry or down or get this shit out of his system. We didn’t know what to do, maybe we fucked it up. I didn’t know anything about drugs, I have to admit it. But talking to him and seeing him… his eyes were like one-arm bandits.”

Spence was taken to the Manhattan Detention Center on White Street (better known as “The Tombs”) and then later moved to Bellevue. His band moved on without him; there was no other choice. Rubinson paid for a lawyer out of his own pocket and convinced Columbia to put some money towards the legal fees.

In November, Spence walked out of Bellevue with nothing but his hospital-issued clothes and a batch of newly written songs that he’d kept locked away in his head. Everything else he had given away. Rubinson was there to pick him up and took him uptown, bought him new clothes and breakfast, and had Columbia put him up in a nice hotel with room service. Then they started talking about what to do next.

“We’re sitting in this fancy hotel room,” he says quietly, “I asked, ‘What do you want to do?’ He said he wanted a Harley-Davidson and he wanted to go to Nashville and wanted to record; he’d written a lot of songs while he was in the hospital. Then he wanted to get on his motorcycle and drive home to his wife. I said, ‘Fine.’”

Once Columbia gave up a small advance for the solo project (small for even those times, and part of which went to Spence’s new motorcycle), Rubinson called his friend and recording engineer Mike Figlio, who was working at the Columbia studios in Nashville. Rubinson saw him as the perfect foil for the project. Knowing his good-humored and patient nature, it was obvious that Figlio could handle the eccentricities of an artist like Spence. “I said, ‘Mike, I’m sending Skip Spence down and he’s going to do an album. Listen to me very carefully: I want you to get a lot of tape. I want you to load up the machines with tape and have one of them running all the time. Never. Stop. Recording. Whatever happens, even if it gets crazy, even if it gets quiet for 20 minutes, I want you to record everything.’ Everybody had heard about the ax and Bellevue. He said, ‘This guy’s crazy, what are you doing?’ I said, ‘He’s a good guy, he’s harmless.’”

And this is where Rubinson’s expertise for producing helped him make what could be the most crucial decision. “I wanted to go sit there with him and work on the songs in the worst way,” he says, “but it was the wrong thing to do. If I had been there, I would’ve produced it. I didn’t know how to sit quietly and get sandwiches. It wasn’t in me. I thought he needed a tape running all the time.”

Legend has Spence driving his motorcycle down to Nashville by himself in what would be winter, arriving at the studio in early December. While there are a few people who wonder about the validity of that story, chances are that Spence did in fact make the 900-mile trip by himself, perhaps enjoying a renewed sense of freedom; after all, this is a man known for his unusual temperament. Once in town, he took a room at a hotel near Columbia’s Nashville studios on 16th Ave. According to Rubinson, it wasn’t even a real studio that had been set aside for him, but an editing room where equipment had been set up. Microphone cords trailed off to an old three-track recorder (“Whatever machine they had down there that nobody wanted anymore”), which sat behind a wall where Figlio would sit and watch the reels of tape spin. “[Figlio] was a great guy. He was the catalyst that made the record happen.”

Rubinson would get updates from his friend in Nashville. “Mike was saying, ‘Hey David, you don’t understand, the guy comes in, sits for an hour or two, nothing happens and all of a sudden he starts singing. He wants to put on his own bass, then he puts on guitar…’ I said, ‘[enthusiastically] Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever, just keep the tape running and do whatever he says.”

Spence and Figlio worked for exactly one week. “He’d eat, he’d go back to [the hotel], he’d go and record,” says Rubinson, “and Mike had a three-track machine running all the time.” Within the confines of that tiny studio, Spence unveiled the deepest corners of his talented and fractured mind; the songs he was recording were his essence. With a minimal sense of lyrical writing and crafty wordplay, it seemed a forgone conclusion to those involved that the record would be special.

“He was a great songwriter but he never labored,” Rubinson confirms. “He’d sit down and write the song. It would come right out of him. He would write the song the way Picasso would paint. He wouldn’t pay attention. He’d grab a pencil and the back of an envelope and write the song; he’d sit down and play the song. Then he’d tell everybody what the concept was. He was a remarkable, amazing dude.”

Interestingly, Oar opens with “Little Hands,” a bright but slow-strummed tune with bass, drums, guitar, and Spence’s double-tracked vocals. A heart-filled paean to a world filled with children’s hand clapping, “shatterin’ records and rules” in a world with “no pain for one and all.” With this opening song, Spence is looking either back or towards a time when things were less complicated. Simplicity in words, simplicity in worldview.

Compared to the rest of the record, “Little Hands” sounds almost quaint. From here on, the singer dives inward towards his other world. “Cripple Creek,” the second track, is delivered in a syrupy baritone, his voice sounding heavily medicated. With this song’s first lines, the mood is established for the remainder of the album: “A cripple on his deathbed / In a daydream did ride.” Though Spence was not a cripple, nor was he on his deathbed, these songs make up a good example of what it must’ve been like for a hyperactive, creative workhorse to be locked up in a mental ward.

There’s pain and otherworldliness at work here, a report from the brink of one man’s vanishing point with every song giving a different perspective. The dreamy ballad of “All Come to Meet Her,” the simple waltz pushing the not-so-simple tale of “Broken Heart,” the haunting “Diana,” the almost jubilant “Lawrence of Euphoria”, and the incredibly catchy “Dixie Peach Promenade” (on which he takes a throw-away line such as “I could use me some yin for my yang” and makes it into one of the catchiest parts on the record). It comes to a skittering, abstract end with nine-and-a-half minute “Grey/Afro.”

There are multi-layered guitar parts, off-kilter time signatures, and brilliant musical ideas such as the entry of the bass and drums after the first verse in “Dixie Peach” that gives the song an irresistible lift. Another remarkable aspect here is the way he turns his voice into an instrument and uses it much more than he did with Moby Grape—from the throaty yelp on “Books of Moses” to the echo-drenched, quasi-Roy Orbison falsetto during “War in Peace.” All in all, a stunning array of creativity.

“It’s like Mozart writing the Requiem,” says Rubinson. “[Spence] had the clear light. He could see everything in absolute detail, in the sharpest illumination, in total relief, in the sense he could be cooking an omelette and turn around and say something so mind-bendingly clear and perfect; he would express it in incredible terms and it was obviously true. It was the trance medium process; he was the medium for the stuff coming through. It was that way with the clothes he wore, it was that way with the way he wanted to do business, the way he treated people.”

Perhaps the most harrowing track is the slow-waltzing dirge of “Weighted Down (The Prison Song).” With just a guitar, acoustic bass, and his voice, he gives you the sound of a man locked up within walls, locked up within his own head, locked away from his family, his band, past, and future. When he sings, the words are clear and gentle; this is Spence in top form:

My darling, you’re darning my action
Of when three months, I was gone
But whose socks were you darning, darling
While I been gone so long

The wordplay doesn’t distract from his pain and he effortlessly glides into the chorus:

Weighted down by possessions
Weighted down by the gun
Waited down by the river for you to come

This is legitimate anguish partly disguised as an old-time ballad and just one of the dozen tracks here that are completely honest and bare, striped of all pretense and ego, the type of music that’ll give you a smile and the chills at the same time.

Despite being steeped in a gauzy haze, most of these songs contain that trademark Spence charm so evident on his Moby Grape material. No matter how dire sounding Oar can get, there’s always a lyrical wink or a double entrendre to keep it somewhat anchored, never slipping into self-importance. During the final moments of “War in Peace,” for example, one can almost see him smile to himself as he dreamily plucks out the main riff to Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love.” One of Rubinson’s favorites is “Margaret-Tiger Rug,” which he quotes to me without hesitating: “Well, there goes Margaret, the daring ice skater / She skates the truth on the ice / If she wasn’t so daring and dashing / Her lips would be chapped at half the price.”

“Fuck man, that was one of the funniest lyrics I’d ever heard!” he exclaims, his enthusiasm cutting through the restaurant din.

Having recorded everything, Spence simply checked out of his hotel room, got back onto his motorcycle and headed west to his waiting family and an unclear future. As Rubinson would write in the LP’s original liner notes, “It is the purest possible representation of that human being who was known as Spence at that time.”

When it came time for Rubinson and engineer Don Meehan to begin the mixing process, they called Memphis for the masters and received not just a few reels of tape, of course, but a week’s worth. Following his instructions, Figlio had indeed recorded everything that had happened, including Spence quietly thinking to himself in that small studio.

For Meehan, it was just another job, although a job that involved “stacks and stacks” of reels. Editing took place at the Columbia Studios on East 52nd Street in Meehan’s room and the mixing process was done a floor below in Studio B with Fred Catero now joining the team. “He just brought in the tapes to the mix room,” remembers Meehan, “and we spread out and worked on ‘em. It was a task.”

“We listen to everything within reason,” says Rubinson. “We’d fast forward, hear music, stop [the tape], and listen. Trying to make an album out of this was challenging because it was very fragmentary. But we really worked on it; it was a labor of love. There were no commercial aspirations. It was really, to me, a way of Skip living.”

Their hard work paid off. The sequencing alone is incredible. Each song perfectly follows another, not necessarily to tell a story, but to move along with Spence’s temperance. The transition from “Weighted Down” to “War in Peace” is an especially emotional way to end the first side.

Columbia grudgingly released Oar on May 19, 1969 (CS 9831) with no intention of promotion. Rubinson shakes his head. “Nobody heard it, nobody understood it. Except I got amazing phone calls from some very, very amazing people, but very, very few and far in between. It went under the waves and submerged.”

One of the few people who did hear it was Rolling Stone columnist Greil Marcus. His review, printed a few months after the record’s release, was way ahead of the curve. Referring to the music as “quiet and insinuating” and likening its randomness to Gold Rush-era California campfire songs, Marcus already foresaw the grim future for this record, despite its amazing qualities. “Get ahead of the game,” he cautions at the end, “and buy Oar before you no longer have a chance.”

He was right. Within a year’s time, the record was the Columbia’s worst seller at that time and had been stricken from their catalog. “I don’t have much more to say [about the record],” Marcus tells me. “I think of it all as someone trying to row to shore—or out to sea—with just one oar. You go ’round in circles forever. That seemed to be Spence’s argument about life.”

Despite what others have written about this record over the ensuing years, Oar cannot be dismissed as a throw-away by some half-assed musician, nor is this about drugs or drug abuse. Almost everyone involved, everyone I’ve talked with, agree that Spence, above all else, loved life even when it was pushing him down. His kinetic personality made him as popular with those inside Bellevue as he was with those inside the Fillmore. Simply put, behind the legend and the lionizing of a talented but troubled man, Oar contains brilliant music.

“He had this connection to the truth and the truth was coming through him and it’s very, very hard to carry that around,” concludes Rubinson as the restaurant empties out. “It’s very hard to turn off, it’s very hard to say. ‘I’m not going to feel all this, I’m not going to know all this.’ If you see the picture on the cover, this is an incredible, transcendent picture. It has everything in it I was talking about: Trance medium, transcendence, and the truth coming through him.”

If anything, Oar allows us, the listener, to witness the battle between an artist’s immense creative ability and his growing mental illness. It’s an uneasy listen at times, but that’s expected when a musician puts himself on the line, bare and honest. Spence wrung himself out onto tape, said what he had to say, sang what was in his heart, and then rode away victorious.

Everything else is left in the dust.

Andrew Lau

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