The Album List: #80 Skip Spence “OAR”


I think it is probably clear by now I have a soft spot for those who are geniuses, but mental illness and/or drugs cause them to lose it completely and then they toil in obscurity, eventually dying sad deaths. Syd Barrett personifies the tragedy. Skip Spence, though, must never be forgotten.

Let’s put it this way. I searched for years for this album, first on vinyl ( I am a purist), then on CD, before finding it online a few years ago. Location, location, location… I was living in a place where people wouldn’t even know Moby Grape, Spence’s legendary (to us music people) band. How the hell am I gonna find his post-Grape solo album that sunk without a trace because even as a relic of the late sixties drug induced psychedelic rock scene, it was simply too bizarre?

Moby Grape was a band that could-have-been, even if only “Omaha” had ever hit it huge (huge being a relative term here).  Spence was the mind behind their greatest hit, but schizophrenia and drugs had him going off the rails, and he attempted to kill a band member with an axe. That landed him in Bellevue, were he wrote the entirety of OAR.

It is not an easy record. The isolation and paranoia seeps from every note. He was ultimately more tragic than a Julian Cope, who is still the acid washed court jester of English pop, or a Roky Erikson, the persevering hero of American indie rock, or even Daniel Johnston, the formerly obscure nut who was adored by Kurt Cobain. They survive to this day. No, Skippy is in the saddened circle of Syd Barrett, the person I am still convinced was Pink Floyd, and his breakdown means that the band that used the name after his departure is a joke and Roger Waters never wrote a song better than “See Emily Play” and Floyd fans can just stuff it ( I have had this argument on and off for nearly twenty years- you will not convince me, don’t even try). Skippy would end up homeless and dead of lung cancer at the age of 53. This is because the insanity in these songs was real, not an act put on to appear “cool”.  Genius linked with insanity may not be an actual rule of art, but sometimes it does happen, and in the end it makes me cry.

OAR is a complex folk-rock psychedelic masterpiece, laced with dark minor chords and wispy, almost angelic sounding vocals. It’s not an easy listen, even more difficult if you know Skippy’s story before hand. The album opens with “Little Hands”, the most conventional song on the record, a country tinged acoustic based ditty with slurred sounding lyrics (All I can clearly get is “Little hands clapping”). It’s simplicity is exquisite.

You go from that lovely song to the following track, a dark folk track that sounds like Captain Beefheart joined in on vocals. “Cripple Creek” is odd, and speaks to the schizophrenic nature of the songwriter and this album when you see these two songs side by side. He could be beautiful and he could be dangerous. Light and dark- there was no in between.

The album itself ends on what I think is one of the most brilliant songs ever recorded. The nine minute long “Grey/Afro” is an amazing achievement (and the Canadian-born Skippy did, in fact, have it as “Grey/Afro”, it is not “Gray/Afro”).  A loopy mess and sounding completely unfinished, with chugging percussive sections and wonky acoustic guitars under some droning, monotonous vocals, it’s the song that makes me think that  the lo-fi movement could not have existed if Skippy didn’t get there first. It’s raw music, unadorned, There is not a single polished sound on this track. It’s like someone recorded a jam session and tacked it on simply because they thought it was magnificent. Which it was.

My favourite song on OAR is the epic sounding “War In Peace”, the most prog rock sounding psychedelic nonsense. It’s all spaced out and electric guitars, with trippy vocals and ridiculous lyrics about rising dead and cosmic somethings… it just continues on its acid soaked way, wandering along in its own wacked out universe.  I can’t help but love it, even if it suffers from excesses I often accuse other artists of. Is it because I feel sorry for the poor bastard? Probably- I let Syd Barret get away with murder on his solo records, which are equally bizarre but seem more comprehensive. Skippy is someone who should have never been let go from the hospital, as his future indicates, but if he remained in Bellevue, this album never would have existed, and I’d be talking about something else instead.

The fact is, Skip Spence in his right(er) mind is less interesting- a song like “Broken Heart”, which sounds like a less murderous Nick Cave song, is less interesting than  the wonky humour of “Doodle”, a 1999 rerelease bonus track,  with its vocal hiccups and snorts that last all of a minute. OAR survives as a legendary lost record simply on the fact Skippy was a nutter who was once part of a band that should have been huge, and at one point was a drummer for Jefferson Airplane, and was in Quicksilver Messenger Service as well. He had grand musical ideas- “Omaha” remains the best song in the Moby Grape oeuvre- and was brought down by his own mind. The insanity and the genius melded perfectly in his little head, and he created a record that defines what it is to be a tragic figure lost in the history of time.

The album was released by Columbia in 1969. To add to the legend, it is rumoured to be  the lowest selling item it the label’s history. They deleted it after one year. It was released by Sony on CD in the 80s, but that is a terrible version. Go out and find the Sundazed version- it has more bonus tracks and is of a better quality overall.

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3 thoughts on “The Album List: #80 Skip Spence “OAR”

  1. I rediscover Oar every three years or so. Most recently last night while hunting through my collection to find sonic/emotional compass points for a recording session later this week. Of all the various takes on Oar I’ve found online, yours exudes the deepest affection. +1 from me for pretty much everything above…especially your understanding of “War In Peace.” “Grey/Afro” has always daunted me somewhat, but it’s beginning to lure me in. Good to hear this crucial record cheered so articulately and with such feeling.

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  2. As a Grape fan, at age 15 I was one of the probably eight or nine people who bought this LP immediately on release. Okay, it was pretty weird stuff, but come to think of it, who WOULDN’T want some yin for their yang?

    As for Skip’s best writing with Moby Grape before his hospitalization, though, my vote goes to “Seeing” from “Moby Grape ’69” (an early version was already in the works during the “Wow” sessions). The lyrics in retrospect seem to catch his mind right as he was in the process of going over the edge: “Help Me!, Help Me!”, with a beautiful melodic line that is classic Spence, and an arrangement that would have fit on the Grape’s best album, the first.

    As for Syd Barrett, I won’t get into a p***ing contest about relative merits of the Waters-Gilmour Floyd, other than to say that Syd Barrett, in the end, was rainbows and gnomes, while Skip Spence was the true prince of unhinged darkness. And that shows in all of its glory on “Oar”.

    It should also be noted that the great Grape bassist Bob Mosley was also (later) diagnosed schizophrenic while in the Marines in 1969, like Spence becoming a ward of the state, and who at one point in the 1990s was found living under a freeway overpass.in San Diego. Two in one band(!), gotta be some kind of record. He also recorded after that, including a not half bad solo album, but nothing like “Oar”.

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