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.

Peter Lewis, Spence's bandmate in Moby Grape, has had enough of going backward. At least, that's what he says when he answers the phone at his Southern California home. Spence and Lewis were like brothers, "different sides of the same coin," Lewis says, and he's tired of going over it all again -- how his friend "got lost" a few decades ago and never quite found his way back. The whole sordid mess still brings up an anger in him that you can feel through the phone, especially when he's talking about how he believes Moby Grape manager Matthew Katz drove Spence into Bellevue.

According to Lewis, Katz was worried that Moby Grape was going to leave him behind, so he did the best that he could to make sure they would leave him without anything to call their own, including their name. (Katz has sued the remaining members of Moby Grape on numerous occasions when they've tried to re-form under their original name.) He says that Spence knew what Katz was doing and couldn't take it anymore. He just wanted to be free -- that's all he ever wanted. Lewis thinks he finally might have found his freedom on Oar.

"You listen to that album, and you think, 'Could I have made an album like that in a hospital?'" Lewis says. "And the answer is no. There's no way I could have done what Skip did on Oar. No way. I don't think that what people say about the album is right though. This wasn't about a man losing his way. It was Skip finding his way. He came out of that hospital, and he beat it. That's what Oar is to me. It's a triumph."

Raisin in the sun: Skip Spence recorded one solo record, 1969's Oar, after leaving Moby Grape.
Raisin in the sun: Skip Spence recorded one solo record, 1969's Oar, after leaving Moby Grape.

Bentley couldn't agree more, which is why he spent so much time trying to remember a musician the world had forgotten. And maybe Spence would agree as well, although no one is really sure what he thought of his life and his music. But his songs were the last thing he ever heard: A copy of More Oar was in his room when he died, along with Lewis and the rest of his family.

"They disconnected his ventilator after he'd been in the hospital about 10 days, and he came to consciousness," Bentley says, recounting the story told to him by Skip's son Omar. "They played him the tribute record in the last hour of his life, and then he died. So he heard the whole record. I don't know if he heard the hidden track. It's hidden five minutes after [The Minus 5's] 'Doodle' ends, so they might not have kept with it for Skip to hear himself."

Bentley laughs, wondering whether Spence had a chance to hear the aborted contribution for The X-Files soundtrack that is tacked onto the end of the record. "Which, if you listen to that track, it's kind of a summing-up of his life. 'My work has been done in the land of the sun, California.'"

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