Alexander “Skip” Spence’s mercurial contributions to the musical treasure trove of the late ’60s easily rival those of other legends of the era such as Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison. As with those artists his best creative efforts ended with the decade, but Spence survived the ’60s only to fade from the limelight.
Spence first hit the scene filling in on drums for Jefferson Airplane’s (pre-Grace Slick) 1966 debut “Jefferson Airplane Takes Off“, but shortly after the album’s release he disappeared to Mexico with a girlfriend without notice.
The next summer, he returned to the U.S. to help found a new band called Moby Grape as the guitarist. You may know Moby Grape as being responsible for these awesome albums:
The band’s self-titled debut came out smack in the middle of San Francisco’s Summer of Love and to this day is hailed as one of the most influential psychedelic records ever released, with Spence’s guitar work being cited as a major contribution.
At this point, “Skip” Spence had already been struggling with drug abuse and what would later be diagnosed as schizophrenia. His bandmate Jerry Miller has said that during a 1968 stint in New York City, Skip started running with “…some people there that were into harder drugs and a harder lifestyle, and some very weird shit…”
At the Albert Hotel where the band was staying, he had a psychotic episode which culminated in him trying to chop down a door and attack Miller with a fire axe. As a result, Spence was jailed and then ended up in Bellevue Hospital where he remained for the next six months.
After his release it’s rumored that Spence drove straight to Nashville where he recorded his first and only solo album “Oar.” It’s a very airy, difficult and interesting album, as you’d expect from a man who’d had a year like Spence’s, and was intended to be only a demo. It was released by Columbia records as it was, with almost no promotion, and dumped from the catalogue after only a year. While both Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape would continue to release songs written by Spence on their albums, this was the last formal album release of his career.
Though the album has seen renewed interest, several reissues (including previously unreleased songs) and even a tribute album, things never really turned around for Alexander Spence. Despite his previous unpredictability, his friends in Moby Grape would provide for him as they could as he continued to struggle with drug and mental health issues. In later years he would spend much of his time as a ward of the state or homeless, and after years of hard living he finally succumbed to lung cancer in 1999.
While certainly not an uplifting story, “Skip” Spence is, for my money, one of the most interesting and tragic figures from the psychedelic era. You can get a sampling of his former bandmates’ stories about him HERE.
I found a short quote from Jeff Tamarkin’s book “Got A Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane” on that page and it really does highlight the difference between Spence’s fate and the other, more high-profile legends of the period. Tamarkin says “Unlike many other casualties of the ’60s, Spence neither died young nor had a chance to find his way out.”
Rest easy, Skip.
Nice article about this lost genius, gone but not forgotten. Thanks!
just listened to the ABC’s of Psychedilia on BBC6. Great section on Skip Spence. Unfortunately them are usually a bit off when dealing with the 60’s.