April 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
Skip Spence’s “music from the other side.”
Skip Spence is known for his work in Moby Grape, a seminal psych-rock outfit, and for his only solo album, Oar (1969), which has one of the most gloriously unhinged creation myths in the history of popular music.
In ’68, Spence—who would be, coincidentally, sixty-eight today—was cutting a new Moby Grape record in New York. The city was not bringing out the best in him. One night, as his bandmate Peter Lewis tells it, Spence “took off with some black witch” who “fed him full of acid”: not your garden-variety LSD, mind you, but a powerful variant that supposedly induced a three-day fantasia of hallucinations and cognitive haymaking. The result? “He thought he was the Antichrist.”
Spence strolled over to the Albert Hotel, at Eleventh and University, where he held a fire ax to the doorman’s head; from there, he negotiated his way to a bandmate’s room and took his ax to the door. The place was empty. So he hailed a cab—you know, with an ax—and zipped uptown to the CBS Building, where, on the fifty-second floor, he was at last wrestled to the ground and arrested. He did a six-month stint in Bellevue, where he was deemed schizophrenic. “They shot him full of Thorazine for six months,” Lewis said. “They just take you out of the game.”
But Spence wasn’t out of the game. The same day they released him from Bellevue, he bought a motorcycle, a fucking Harley, and cruised straight on to Nashville, where he planned to record a series of new songs he’d written in the hospital. He was clad, legend maintains, only in pajamas.
If I had to choose one image to condense and aggrandize the rock ’n’ roll mythos, it would be this: a schizophrenic man fresh out of the loony bin, exultant astride his gleaming new hog, wheels aimed south, gaze narrowed, hands steady, pajamas whipping in the wind.
It’s probably not true, at least not in toto. But Spence did, somehow, make it to Nashville, where, at Columbia’s studios, he recorded and produced Oar in seven days. He plays every instrument on the album.
The label released Oar on May 19, 1969, with zero fanfare. It was their worst seller, and it was soon expunged from their catalogue. Small wonder, given the ads they ran for it, which at once exploited Spence’s illness and doomed his music, suggesting it was inaccessible:
As maladroit as it is, the “crazy music” label stuck, especially as the story of Oar’s creation began to spread, taking on the sheen and hyperbole of urban legend. Ross Bennett describes it as “the ramblings of a man on the brink of mental collapse.” Lindsay Planer writes, “The majority of the sounds on this long-player remain teetering near the precipice of sanity.”
That would imply that Oar is difficult to parse, or fragmented to the pointed of obscurity, or just, like, kind of out there, man. But it’s much more put-together than all that; fragile, yes, off, yes, but not off the deep end. These are folk songs inflected with psychedelia. Their reputation as deranged curios doesn’t stand up.
For starters, Spence’s lyrics seldom bear the scars of his perilous journey to the fringes of consciousness. “Little Hands,” for instance, is just a warmed-over serving of free love:
Little hands clapping
Children are happy
Little hands loving all ‘round the world
Little hands clasping
Truth they are grasping
A world with no pain for one and all
You can practically hear the Thorazine at work. And as for the other eleven tracks, many of them are straightforward ballads—or winking expressions of lust. In fact, if there’s one thing Spence sings about most on Oar, it’s wanting to get laid—hardly the abstruse concern of a man lost to metaphysics.
Still, the music is certainly strange, full of unconventional chord changes, harmonies, and voices, lush at one moment, bare and droning in the next. And lyrically, a song like “Broken Heart” has its far-out moments:
An Olympic super swimmer
Whose belly doesn’t flop
A super racecar driver
Whose pit, it can’t be stopped
A honey dripping hipster
Whose bee cannot be bopped
Better to be rolled in oats
Than from the roll be dropped
Likewise, “Fountain” contains the memorably oblique couplet “If I’m dropping quarters on your bed / It seems like it’s the right thing to do.” Are these images crazy, though, or are they just sort of artfully peculiar?
Oar is maundering and strikingly shambolic—but it’s also a much more cogent statement than its critical reputation suggests. Spence tore across the country to make it happen; he put nine hundred miles between himself and New York. That might be something you’d do if you were insane, but it’s also something you’d do if you were merely insanely ambitious. That’s the greater compliment. To say that the record is a product of monomaniacal drive is much more favorable than to cast it, however desirably, as the crude discharge of an unwell mind. Is it really so difficult to believe that Spence was in control? You should listen to Oar for the music, not for the crazy.