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.

But More Oar -- with new versions of Spence's songs by Beck, Waits, the Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, Mudhoney, and Robyn Hitchcock, among others, in addition to a hidden track recorded by Spence himself for the X-Files soundtrack, though it was never used -- was too late to help Spence, at least the way Bentley originally wanted it to. On April 16, a few days after Bentley's visit, Spence passed away, just two days shy of his 53rd birthday. Yet while More Oar, released in July on Birdman Records (the label owned by another exec at Reprise, David Katznelson), might not have come out in time to aid Spence financially, it's not too late to help remind people of his tortured brilliance.

Spence is barely even a footnote in the history of rock and roll, an enigmatic free spirit who cut away his anchor with a fire ax and drifted away forever more than 30 years ago. In December 1968, Spence rode his motorcycle straight from Bellevue Hospital to a studio in Nashville, recorded Oar in less than a week, then headed to oblivion by way of Santa Cruz.

Oar was the end of Spence's tumultuous career that began in 1965 as the original drummer for Jefferson Airplane, and disintegrated abruptly after two albums as the guitarist-songwriter in Moby Grape. He would reunite with Moby Grape occasionally for a gig or two over the next decade, and he even began writing a few new songs during the last few years of his life. But, for the most part, Spence spent the next three decades in and out of hospitals until he checked in for the last time. No one noticed much when Spence passed on, except for the morbid few that had his name on their roster of celebrities expected to die this year as part of DeadPool '99 (www.deadpool.org); he was worth 48 points.

But as Bentley always knew, and most of the musicians on More Oar realized as well, Skip Spence was worth much more than that. Some were just learning about Spence themselves when Bentley contacted them. Mark Lanegan had never heard of Spence until his name appeared in a review of the Screaming Trees singer's 1990 solo debut, The Winding Sheet, and he didn't hear Spence's music until he tracked down Oar a few years later. Once he found it, Lanegan quickly fell in love with Oar's fractured fairy tales and whimsical odes to Diana and Margaret and Lawrence of Euphoria. Some of those characters were people Spence met at Bellevue; others existed only in his fragile mind.

When Bentley asked him to record a song for More Oar, Lanegan agreed immediately, at first intending to take on "Diana" before settling on "Cripple Creek." His version comes as close to capturing the spirit of Spence's original as any of the others (save, perhaps, for Robert Plant's best-he's-sounded-in-years redo of "Little Hands"), and it moved Lanegan so much that he ended up recording an entire album's worth of obscure covers. There aren't any Spence songs on I'll Take Care of You, recently released on Sub Pop Records, but Lanegan insists his presence is all over the album.

"The whole reason I made [I'll Take Care of You] is because of Skip Spence," Lanegan says from his home outside of Seattle, in between almost continuous drags on his cigarette. "It was inspiring recording one of his songs. There's just something about the songs he wrote. It's kind of indescribable, and you want other people to hear it too. After we were done, we decided to do a record with that same thing in mind. I mean, the idea behind records like this is so people will hopefully want to hear what the original sounded like, find something out about the guys who did these songs before."

Bentley echoes Lanegan's sentiment from his office in Los Angeles. It's what he tried to do with Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a similar tribute to Roky Erickson that Bentley organized in 1990, featuring R.E.M., ZZ Top, Doug Sahm, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Julian Cope, and the Butthole Surfers.

"This is the way I back-door people into music," Bentley says. "People that don't know about these people might hear this record because some of the people on it they like, then hopefully, they'll be inspired enough to go get the original music. It works. If you like Beck or Waits or Flying Saucer Attack, you hear this, you go, 'Well, I wonder what the original sounds like.' That's how I got into blues when I was a kid. I didn't know anything about Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf really, and I'd buy these Rolling Stones records in '63 and '64, and they'd do covers of the originals. So I went out and found Muddy Waters records, and all those people.

"That's kind of how you teach younger people about music, I think. I call it bait. You get them hooked on a little of the newer stuff, and if you're really interested in music, you can go backward. That's the beauty of recorded music."

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