War in peace

Skip Spence recorded one brilliant album, then spent the next 30 years dying in obscurity. Now, a tribute album is giving him life again.

Bill Bentley never met Alexander "Skip" Spence, never even spoke with the man whose music meant so much to him. He had come close before, when Spence's erstwhile band, Moby Grape, played at the Catacomb Club in Bentley's hometown of Houston. But Spence wasn't there that night, kept off the stage because he had fallen ill after the previous night's gig in Austin. More than 30 years later, the two of them were finally going to get together, near Spence's home in Santa Cruz. Bentley was going to play him the songs off More Oar, the tribute to Spence's one and only solo album, 1969's Oar, that Bentley had been putting together for the past three years. Yet Bentley, vice president of media relations at Reprise Records, never made the trip north from Los Angeles. Spence was sick, he was told, so the meeting would have to be postponed. As it turned out, permanently.

A few months later, Spence was sick again, in the hospital with pneumonia, and he would never leave. Not sure whether this would be his last chance to speak with Spence, Bentley went to Santa Cruz with a completed tape of More Oar in his hand. When he arrived, however, he soon realized that his final opportunity had probably already passed. Doctors had discovered a huge lump in Spence's chest -- lung cancer -- and it was just a matter of time. But Bentley found the man he was looking for in that hospital, still fighting to live the last few moments of his life the way he wanted to.

"I got in his room -- he was in intensive care -- but he was being sedated so heavily, he was unconscious," Bentley says. "The reason they sedated him was because, if he was conscious, he would pull out all the tubes from the ventilator they had to put in him to help him breathe. I stood in the room over his bed for about 10 minutes. I talked, but I don't know if he listened to me or not. But I have feeling he knew what I was saying."

Bentley had been wanting to say something to Spence for a long time, since he first heard Oar when he was 18 years old, almost flunking out of the University of Texas at Austin, and staring down a felony arrest for possession of a half-ounce of marijuana. He didn't have much to look forward to, and the gravelly voice he heard on Oar told him he wasn't alone. The album, largely ignored upon its release, stuck in Bentley's head and never left. Over the years, he often struck up conversations with musicians about Spence and Oar and found out that quite a few of them felt the same way he did about the record. He filed those names away for later use, in case he ever needed them.

A few years ago, he finally did. After Bentley read an article in the LA Weekly in 1996 that detailed the poor condition of Spence's life -- broke and living in a halfway house outside of San Jose -- he decided to spearhead a tribute to Spence that would remind people of his musical contributions with Oar and Moby Grape, as well as contribute to a better life for him. Bentley wanted to get Spence the help -- both medical and mental -- that he needed. He began rounding up musicians to appear on the disc, placing his first call to Tom Waits. Bentley knew that Waits was the only one who could do justice to "Books of Moses," and so did Waits. Of course, it would take more than two years before he would record the song, but his commitment to the project, Bentley says proudly, "never wavered."

Around the same time, Bentley received a call from John Butler, lead singer of Diesel Park West, a band from England that he had never heard of, and he's definitely not alone. Bentley says he couldn't really understand him -- "I got about one out of every five words" -- but he guessed that Butler and Diesel Park West wanted to be on the record, so he said yes. Compiling the rest of More Oar's track listing was as easy as securing the first two artists. The only problem was deciding who couldn't be on the album.

"There were more people that wanted to be on it than I had songs," he says. "I was limited to 17 songs, which is what the re-issued version of Oar had that came out on Sony [in 1991]. I probably had around 25 artists by the end of it all that would have done it. It was sort of first come, first served at that point. I ended up turning down some people. I mean, Chrissie Hynde loves Skip Spence and Oar and Moby Grape. She said she could do something if it worked out, but it just didn't. I wasn't about to take off any of the artists, even the lesser-known ones. I wasn't going to bump them because I had some bigger artists. I thought that would have been unfair."

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