Moby Grape: Americana Lost and Found
God only knows how many ways I’ve tried to avoid using the term “Americana” in describing the music I love. My go-to response has at times been “it’s a radio format, not a genre,” but I’m aware it’s deeper than that. I just don’t like the word, and it’s an itch I can’t seem to scratch. And when even the Americana Music Association can’t exactly understand or articulate it — handing out lifetime achievement awards to folks like Richard Thompson, Robert Plant, and this year’s recipient, Van Morrison — a singular music blogger would be best served by just falling in line. So I have, at least for this moment, chosen to bend in the blowing wind and accept the inevitable. Go pitch your enormous tent, throw it all under the canvas, and call it whatever you want. I surrender.
It was actually something that Jason Isbell said while on the Charlie Rose Show that tipped me over. Wish I could remember exactly what he said, and I’m too lazy to hunt it down. But it was much more convincing than AMA’s honcho Jed Hilly’s description: “If you can taste the dirt through your ears, that is Americana. It is music that is derived or inspired by American roots traditions. I think that’s pretty solid.”
I think it’s pretty lame, but Jed’s heart is in the right place so he gets a pass and I get off my horse. Go forth Americana … and to quote No Depression co-founder Peter Blackstock from when O Brother, Where Art Thou? broke out into the mainstream, “This is the next medium-sized thing.”
Y’all probably remember Moby Grape, but if not let me give you the thumbnail version. Three guitars, a bass, and drums. Everybody sang, everybody wrote. Infinitely talented. They wore cowboy costumes: boots, buckskin fringe jackets, and other similar Western wear. Their incubation occurred 50 years ago in San Francisco during the infamous Summer of Love, and they were victims of poor management, record label ineptness, marketing plans that undermined their music, and at least one member suffering from mental illness. In later years, another ended up homeless.
Rolling Stone, prior to it becoming a fashion magazine with occasional music marketing fluff, called the band’s debut album “a stunning artifact of San Francisco rock at its ’67 peak. Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, Don Stevenson, Bob Mosley, and Skip Spence all sang like demons and wrote crisp pop songs packed with lysergic country-blues excitement. And the band’s three guitarists – Miller, Spence, and Lewis – created a network of lightning that made songs like ‘Omaha,’ ‘Changes’ and ‘Hey Grandma’ shine and sizzle.”
While those three songs are probably their best known, I’ve often preferred the more acoustic ballads and straight country blues they offered. And in addition to the debut album, all of their work still stands the test of time, with songs that sparkle and shine and are ripe for rediscovery.
I was fortunate to have seen the band several times in the late ’60s, and each set remains etched in my brain. They are a touchstone and tentacle to my youth, and although I often enjoy reminding people of their existence, I imagine that they’ll never get the institutional recognition from the Americana cartel. Without a label to promote them, a new product or tour to promote (Hi Van … hope to see you on the road later this year), a rabid publicist, or tragic demise, they are destined to remain in the dustbin of time. ’Tis a shame.
Postscript: Skip Spence died of lung cancer two days before his 53rd birthday on April 16,1999. He was survived by his four children, 11 grandchildren, a half-brother, and his sister. Oar was his only solo album, recorded in Nashville over seven days in 1999. Originally meant to be simply a group of demos, his manager convinced Columbia Records to release it and it holds the distinction as being the lowest-selling album in the label’s history.
Ross Bennett from Mojo magazine:
“Combining the ramblings of a man on the brink of mental collapse with some real moments of flippancy and laughter, Oar is a genuinely strange record. Unsurprisingly, the journey from “Little Hands”‘ Grape-esque guitar grooves to “Grey/Afro”‘s terrifying nine minutes of mantric drone isn’t an easy one. Even when Spence builds his songs around a familiar sound (primarily minimalist country-folk), unsettling oddities and ominous modulations creep in.”
More Oar: A Tribute To the Skip Spence Album, an album featuring contributions from Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Jay Farrar, and Beck, among others, was released a few weeks after his death. Prior to its release, the CD was played for Spence at the hospital, in his final stages before death. Spence is interred at Soquel Cemetery in Santa Cruz County, California.
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