Grape of Wrath

If every Sgt. Pepper's begets its Satanic Majesties Request,and every Woodstock its Woodstock '99, Alexander "Skip" Spence's post-Bellevue Oar, first released in 1969, resembles a dark, delayed reaction to Brian Wilson's fuzzy-wuzzy 1966 nervous breakdown aftermath, Pet Sounds. Both share themes of sexuality, loneliness, and California dreamin', and each was written and produced by a former rock star still in his early twenties. But where Pet Sounds was directly inspired by the Beatles' sophistopop masterpiece Rubber Soul, Oar has an awkward, shit-splattered country-psych vibe possessing somewhat less in common with such pseudo-cowpone contemporaries as the Band, Quicksilver Messenger Service, or the Dead. Whatever its antecedents, though, Oar is a tuneful, if ultimately harrowing, arcane benchmark for those of us enthralled by cracked musical artifacts-crippled Americana division.

Spence's former band, Moby Grape, could have been America's answer to the Rolling Stones, with Spence their perfectly coiffed Brian Jones. But the Grape's glory days lasted less than a year. A sinister acid experience in the company of a satanically inclined girlfriend may have activated Spence's schizophrenic predisposition, causing him to go after bandmate Don Stevenson with a fire ax during the recording of Wow,the band's second album. "Save me! Save me!" screams the chorus to "Seeing," the last Spence song the Grape would record.

He decanted Oar completely by himself, in Nashville isolation, two years before Paul
McCartney's bigger-deal one-man-band debut. The newly remastered Sundazed reissue restores much of the spectral backwoods aura missing from Sony's 1991 CD version, along with five previously unreleased songs. Dark, horny, utterly beguiling, and redemptive in turns, it will either save your life or drive you over the brink. Oar allowed Spence to cast off all connections to "people, places, and things" before motorcycling off into a 30-year street-Zen oblivion of schizophrenia, substance abuse, and indigence that ended with his death by lung cancer last April 16, two days shy of his 53rd birthday.

Skip Spence, 1946–1999
photo: Sundazed Music
Skip Spence, 1946–1999

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More Oar
Birdman

Alexander Spence
Oar
Sundazed

Spence's arrangements are casually out-of-focus, assembled from up-front bass, guitars, and free-form drum fills. Oar begins optimistically, with the charming and childlike "Little Hands," but descends quickly into an alternately whimsical and portentous quagmire of spiritual confusion and sexual jonesing. Spence sounds shamanic in the droning, newly restored, and mostly indecipherable "Grey-Afro"/"This Time He Has Come" medley, as though he were searching the void for a messianic presence to lead him home. Sometimes his preoccupations are combined, as in "Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin for Yang)," in which he rejects Buddha for s-e-x. "I'll stay by your side by the day," he promises some lucky girl, "if you'll stay underneath me at night."

It's tempting to bundle this sort of stuff into the straitjacket of "nut rock." Though often compared to Syd Barrett's, Spence's music is infinitely more rough and lonely than the self-professed madcap's post-Floyd records. Neither should you reduce him to the likes of such sadly compulsive '80s weirdos as Daniel Johnston (redeemed by K. McCarty) or Jandek. Spence oozes charisma even when obviously making it up as he goes along, but the songs stand tall, often sounding even better when somebody else sings them.

Most tribute albums pay homage to an entire body of work. But More Oar doppelgängs, track by track, Oar's original vinyl version and the five tracks added to the Sony CD. Care for poignant? Spence literally spent his final hour listening to More Oar for the first and, yep, last time. He heard Robert Plant supply his piper's call to "Little Hands Clapping" and Tom Waits positively nail the Old Testament finality of "Books of Moses." Beck twists the sexy and convoluted "Furry Heroine (Halo of Gold)," a song he might have written himself, inside out, while British pub-rockers Diesel Park West uncover the mommy-goddess electric funeral mantra of "All Come To Meet Her." Other alterna stars-Uncle Tupelo's Jay Farrar, Afghan Whigs' Greg Dulli, and Robyn Hitchcock-fare less well by taking Spence's warped tunes either too seriously or not seriously enough. More Oar was intended as a last-gasp effort to raise Spence's morale and make him a few bucks, but his death appeared to prank even that noble goal.

"I've had my fun," cackles Spence himself, (unconsciously?) quoting the Chambers Brothers in More Oar'ssecret coda, "Land of the Sun." Spence's bass-and-tabla tune, recorded for Songs in the Key of X, was deemed unsuitable for the X-Files-inspired anthology. In it he sounds exactly like your snaggletoothed, neighborhood estimated prophet: that scraggly survivor thoroughly keyed in to the cosmic goof, and just about ready to meet her now.

 
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