In December 1968, Alexander “Skip” Spence left Bellevue Hospital. For a six month stay, all he had to show for it were the pajamas on his back, a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and a head full of songs. So, as legend has it (Spence’s wife has denied that this ever happened), the young man got on his motorcycle and rode straight down to Nashville from New York City, clad only in those pajamas. The music was devouring him, and it needed to be let out. The music was all he had left.
At one time, Skip Spence had the whole world wrapped around his finger. He started out as an early member of Jefferson Airplane before going on to become the founder and principal songwriter of Moby Grape, one of the most promising young bands of the San Francisco psych rock scene. Their self-titled 1967 debut album was hailed by critics, who paid special attention to Spence’s songwriting and wild, flowing guitar prowess. This would-be rock god was barely old enough to buy alcohol.
Sadly, by 1968, it all started falling apart. The Grape decamped to New York City that spring to record their sophomore effort, Wow. But Spence was well on his way towards becoming another acid casualty. Things came to a head one day when Spence, high on LSD, tried to kill his fellow bandmates Jerry Miller and Don Stevenson with a fire axe. The men were unharmed, but it was more or less the beginning of the end for Moby Grape. Wow was a critical and commercial bust, and Spence was jailed before beginning his six month stay in Bellevue.
When he got to Nashville, Spence set about exorcising his latest batch of songs at Columbia’s studios, under the watchful eye of Mike Figlio. The engineer simply left a three-track recorder running while Spence wandered around the studio, picking up different instruments seemingly at random. A plucked guitar line
here, a drum roll there. They managed to get it into some sort of order, and from there, the recordings were handed over to Moby Grape’s longtime producer, David Rubinson. The tapes were originally intended to be demos only, but Rubinson was apparently so taken with what Spence had created that he sent the tapes to Columbia as they were.
The resulting album, Oar, celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. Of course, it is miraculous that the album is remembered at all. The record was virtually ignored by both critics and fans upon its May 1969 release; for many decades it had the unfortunate distinction of being the lowest-selling album in the history of Columbia Records. Perhaps the world wasn’t yet ready for an album like Oar: so dark, so mysterious, so stripped down, so full of doom, yet so full of heart. In many ways, Oar represents the most unusual of contradictions: Spence made a record that so perfectly summed up the end of the 1960s, but it wouldn’t find its audience for another few decades. Spence himself is the physical representation of the beautiful promise of the 1960s gone to seed.
Just listen to the opening track, “Little Hands.” It starts with plaintive, darkly strummed acoustic guitar chords, before Spence, in a husky, defeated voice begins intoning: “Little hands clapping/Children are laughing/Little hands clapping/All over the world.” Through the darkness, you can almost hear Spence’s vision; slap some electric instrumentation on there, maybe a choir and a string quartet, and “Little Hands” could’ve been a perfect breezy AM pop hit. It could’ve been used to sell Coca-Cola. But cast through Spence’s chiaroscuro lo-fi prism, it becomes something else entirely: a mocking lament for the end of the ’60s. It is the sound of the Hells Angels at Altamont, of Sharon Tate‘s slaughter at the hands of the Manson family, of thousands more dead in Vietnam. In the album’s gnarled folk pop (“Diana”), brain-melting psychedelia (“War in Peace”) and eerie abstract drone (“Grey/Afro”), we are confronted, over and over, in pure naked heartfelt emotion, with the end of innocence.
Not only with the end of innocence, but with the end of Spence’s career as a musician. Oar would prove to be his swan song. He spent the rest of his life in and out of mental hospitals and rehab facilities, dealing with homelessness, mental illness, and debilitating substance abuse. Spence died in 1999, at the age of 52. That same year, the boutique label Sundazed reissued Oar, adding ten extra tracks recorded during the sessions. The album has been a beloved cult classic ever since, providing brave listeners with a rarefied glimpse into the psyche of a disturbed genius with his calloused, malnourished hand on the pulse of society. Many people like to refer to Oar as a lost album, in that it languished in obscurity for so many years before receiving its proper due. But, on the contrary, the story of Skip Spence and Oar proves that truly great music is never truly lost.