There's something rather romantic about the tale of the small, vanished musician who leaves behind a hint of genius buried beneath the debris of madness. All hail Roky Erickson and Syd Barrett and Brian Wilson, the holy trinity of pop's martyred madmen. Even better if you're crazy and dead; it's far easier to fabricate and exaggerate that way. Hence the tales about Alexander "Skip" Spence, the former Jefferson Airplane drummer and Moby Grape guitarist-songwriter who died in April, three days before he was to turn 53. Myriad stories abound about Spence, many involving axes swung at bandmates and men possessed by demons and long stays in mental institutions and, eventually, a painful death brought on by cancer. One tale has it that his son Omar was playing Skip More Oar during the final hour of his tortured life. No publicist could come up with a better advertisement tagline: "Skip Spence died for this record."
One can only imagine what Spence thought of this ragtag assemblage of all-stars (Robert Plant, Beck, Afghan Whig Greg Dulli, Tom Waits, R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Son Volt's Jay Farrar), small-stars (Alistair Galbraith, Mudhoney, Robyn Hitchcock, Alejandro Escovedo), and other unknowns reproducing, in sequence, Spence's one and only solo record, 1969's Oar. Maybe, when listening to Plant's elegiac rendition of "Little Hands," Spence thought he was walking into the warm, beckoning arms of tiny angels; not in years has Plant's voice sounded so tender, so fragile, so genuine. Or maybe Spence heard himself in Mark Lanegan's "Cripple Creek," the voice shot through with shards of broken glass and broken heart. Or perhaps the man listened to Beck's playful, pealing "Halo of Gold" and only wondered what could have been. After all, deep down Spence and Beck were not so different: pop freaks with ears too big to keep a good sound down. Beck's mutated rendering of Spence's gem is, so far, 1999's pop highlight, Odelay's shimmering moments filtered through freak-out fuzz.
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More Oar shows only a vague resemblance to its forebear; it's the scrawny child all grown up and filled out. Rich where Oar was often barren, fun where Oar was brooding, alluring where Oar was unbeautiful, this is the rare homage worth such an appellation. From The Durocs' pet-sounds rave-up of "Margaret Tiger-Rug" to Waits' front-porch ground-gravel rendition of "Books of Moses" to the Minus 5's hypnotic 17-minute "Doodle" finale, there's not a dishonest note played or a moment wasted. That it only makes you want to hear the original is the most meaningful tribute of all.