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by Mike McGuirk

April 23, 2012

Skip Spence's Greatest Hits

by Mike McGuirk  |  April 23, 2012

Born in Canada on April 18, 1946, Alexander "Skip" Spence was a guitarist in the original Quicksilver Messenger Service lineup, played drums on Jefferson Airplane's first album and founded San Francisco's psych-rock heavyweights Moby Grape. He also attacked his Moby Grape bandmate with a fire axe, spent six months in Bellevue and disappeared after recording one album, the psychedelic folk touchstone Oar. He played every instrument himself.

There are a bunch of legends surrounding Spence's tragic life. As the story goes, in 1968, Moby Grape were recording their second album in New York City, and Spence was spending a lot of time with this scary hippie witch (as his friends describe her) who is said to have given him some kind of bad acid. From there, Spence's behavior became erratic, culminating in him chopping down the hotel room door of bandmates Don Stevenson and Jerry Miller with the aforementioned fire axe, the plan being to kill them and thereby save himself. He spent the next six months in Bellevue, where he was diagnosed as schizophrenic.

When he got out, he somehow secured an advance from Columbia Records, bought a motorcycle with the dough and rode it to a recording studio in Nashville, Tenn. Over the course of seven days, he recorded Oar, then disappeared on the motorcycle.

This was the story for years. He didn't actually disappear. He spent the rest of his life in and out of state hospitals and homeless in the Santa Cruz area, where he was in some contact with his Moby Grape bandmates (they supported him financially), got married and fathered four children. Addicted to heroin and saddled with alcoholism, he never got it together enough to record any more music, although there were many attempts to bring him back. One more legend that must be told is that at one point he OD'd and was dead in the morgue when he sat up from the table and asked for a glass of water.

Skip Spence died of lung cancer on April 16, 1999. It's difficult to tell Spence's story without sensationalizing it. The fact is, he was a victim of mental illness and drug addiction, but when your tale includes LSD, attempted murder by fire axe, a record recorded like a sun burst, disappearing on a motorcycle and coming back from the dead, your status as a rock casualty is nothing short of monumental. And, really, the world is a better place thanks to Skip's album. It really is. For anyone who has never heard it, Oar is simply one of the most beautiful, psychedelic and damaged albums you're ever going to come across. The fact that it exists at all is mystifying.

This playlist covers songs from Oar, along with some of his work with Moby Grape and on the first Jefferson Airplane album. The last song is by Moby Grape, and Spence is not on it at all -- it's on here because it's awesome.

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