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The man, the myth: Skip Spence, drummer for Jefferson Airplane, then rhythm guitarist for Moby Grape, left behind more questions than answers when he retreated from the spotlight in the early '70s.

Honor The Father

Omar Spence and the White Album Ensemble pay tribute to the late great guitarist and longtime Santa Cruz resident Skip Spence.

By Paul Davis

There's a depressing myth in the music industry that equates self-destructiveness with genius, schizophrenia with inspiration. Those who make it through the gauntlet of early-20s rock stardom might get an opportunity later in life to bare their demons on reality TV. The less fortunate, the casualties of rock life excess and/or untreated mental ailments, have not been so lucky--note the sad fates of Pink Floyd's skewed genius Syd Barrett, pop's great composer Brian Wilson or the Bay Area's own Skip Spence.

The tendency in the annals of rock criticism has been to canonize these artists, make them martyrs to their eccentric genius. And while there is a certain romantic mystique to this cult of idolatry for the mad, there's an equal amount of tabloid sensationalism that drives the fascination. The musician and his work become consumed by the tragedy, and it becomes nearly impossible to disentangle the work from the sensationalism.

For better or worse, Skip Spence is the recipient of this sort of twisted hagiography--the iconic status comes as a much-needed corrective for a great artist whose short career has threatened his place in the rock canon. Unfortunately, people tend to focus on Spence's madness rather than his truly striking body of work.

For the uninitiated, Skip Spence might appear to be a footnote in rock history. But it's likely that even if you're not familiar with Spence, you're familiar with some of his work and the people he ran with in the '60s. A multi-instrumentalist who cut a striking swath through the decade's psychedelic scene, Spence first rose to prominence as the drummer for Jefferson Airplane. He was fired by the band after its first album, and then joined the legendarily heavy Moby Grape, penning the band's signature song, "Omaha." Upon the release of Moby Grape's debut, Spence and the band became the toast of the far-out late-'60s rock scene, but troubles were on the horizon.

Unnerved by the attention, Spence resorted to taking speed, which exacerbated his already shattered mental condition. In an episode that lives in rock infamy, Spence became convinced that his band mate Don Stevenson was possessed by Satan, and chased him with an ax during the recording sessions for the band's sophomore release. Spence was promptly kicked out of the band and committed.

Upon Spence's initial release from the Bellevue Hospital, he went to work on his only solo release, Oar, which has quietly taken its place as a forgotten classic, a cult album for true rock cultists.

Oar is, for lack of a better term, haunted. In ramshackle sessions, Spence recorded the entire album by himself, reaching deep into prewar folk forms and his own troubled psyche to release a masterpiece of psychedelic folk music. It's loose, strange, yet undeniably entrancing, seeming to channel the ghosts of long-forgotten blues, gospel and folk artists while laying down a road map for generations of musicians to follow. Artists as disparate as Led Zeppelin and R.E.M., Tom Waits and Alejandro Escovedo have all declared the album to be a major influence on their work.

Spence would never release an album again, even though he lived to see the impact his work would have on generations to come. In fact, weeks after Spence passed away in Santa Cruz in 1999, many of the aforementioned artists appeared on More Oar, a long-overdue tribute to his seminal album. For those in the Bay Area who'd come to know and love not only Spence's work, but also the man, the memorial was to continue.

Spence's funeral was attended by Santa Cruz luminary Dale Ockerman, whom many will recognize from his gig in the White Album Ensemble. A friend of Spence's son Omar and a number of his former band mates, Ockerman was intimately acquainted with Oar and the work of Moby Grape. Nearly a decade later, their paths would cross again to honor Skip's memory.

With a voice that bears an eerie resemblance to his father's, Omar was approached in 2005 by the former members of Moby Grape to join the band for a reunion tour. He obliged, and in the process came to know his father better than he had been able to while Skip was alive.

"I didn't know my dad growing up. I never knew him as a clear-minded, healthy musician," Spence says. "When I met him he was schizophrenic, living in a halfway house. By meeting the people who had played with him in his 20s, I had a chance to get to know him differently." The band hit the road for a successful club tour, on which Omar Spence proved a revelation. Ockerman was singularly impressed.

"When I saw [Omar] with the Grape reunion, he was the fireplug behind the performance. Skip had this magic, and somehow Omar's got that without being a professional musician or doing drugs or being in the hippie scene."

White Album Inspiration
Unfortunately, the logistics have proven difficult for the reunited Grape--the band members live in different states, making touring difficult. Omar still wished to spread his father's music to a wider audience, but had reached an impasse. After seeing the White Album Ensemble perform at the Rio, he was struck by inspiration.

"The sound was phenomenal and the mix in the room was really clean. I was so impressed that I approached Dale and asked him if he would be interested in doing something for my Dad, to honor his music."

Ockerman is explicit in his intentions for this show. By paying tribute to Skip Spence's work, he hopes to move some of the attention away from Spence's travails, and instead focus on his body of work. "I've been a friend and fan of Moby Grape since I was about 16," he says. "People tend to dwell on Skip as a drugged-out, spaced-out songwriter." Instead, Ockerman has chosen to immerse himself in Spence's music, to try to capture the artistic intention in the work in order to draw the audience's attention to Spence's incredible body of work. "I like to do things really in detail," he says, "like a method actor. I like to think of the motivation behind the songs."

Ockerman says the process of introducing Omar to the band has been a pleasure. "It's wonderful--he doesn't have any baggage," he says. "He sounds the way he does naturally, he's not trying to capitalize on anything. Omar has a respect for what we do so he just plugs into that energy."

Ockerman recognizes that it will be a challenge conjuring up the haunted energy of Spence's best work, with its rough-hewn instrumentation. The White Album Ensemble, known for its pitch-perfect tributes, might seem at first like a counter-intuitive choice to resurrect the sound and energy of Spence's loose sessions. While Ockerman acknowledges that they've cleaned up the arrangements a bit, he emphasizes his intention to conjure the energy and intent of Spence's work.

"When you're listening to Oar, you're listening to one man who had a very short amount of time to record," Ockerman says. "We're making subtle little changes. But he was an electric madman onstage. We're trying to not make it too calmed down, not a Prozac version it. We're trying to arrange it so it works--lovingly crafted, polishing up the songs without taking a hit off them."

THE SKIP SPENCE TRIBUTE CONCERT takes place Friday, June 20, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20, available at Streetlight Records. For more information, call 831.429.1812.

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