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Oar—8

 

Released: 1969

1) Little Hands  2) Cripple Creek  3) Diana  4) Margaret-Tiger Rug  5) Weighted Down (The Prison Song)  6) War In Peace  7) Broken Heart  8) All Come To Meet Her  9) Books Of Moses  10) Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin For Yang)  11) Lawrence of Euphoria  12) Grey/Afro

 

The story of Alexander “Skip” Spence is tragic, but his music helps to reconcile the misfortune.  The Canadian born Spence, after being discharged from the United States Navy in 1965, joined the San Francisco based Quicksilver Messenger Service as lead guitarist.  The teenager was soon stolen by the Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin to become his group’s first drummer (despite the fact that he had never played drums before).  With the Airplane, Spence showed tremendous promise on sticks and had a fine flare for songwriting, penning “My Best Friend” on the Airplane’s masterwork “Surrealistic Pillow.”  A year from his hiring however, he was fired for missing a gig to take an acid trip to Mexico. 

 

Spence landed on his feet though, and soon formed the best California Sixties band you haven’t heard, Moby Grape, placing himself on lead guitar and vocals.  Staying with his band for two records and contributing a half dozen original songs (and a few arrests for allegedly bedding underage girls), Spence eventually became involved with a woman who was heavily into black magic (despite the fact that he was married with at least three children).  Together, the pair began using psychedelic drugs virtually everyday, and under the witches spell, Spence transformed from a happy, eccentric hippie into a dangerous lunatic.  Jammed full of acid and wanting to have more control over whose material the band was recording, Spence destroyed two members of Moby Grape’s hotel room with an ax in a fit of rage.  Still not satisfied, he took a taxi to the recording studio with that same ax, smashed some equipment and seriously threatened to kill his band mates, all the while still wearing his pajamas.  The police were called and Spence was arrested, judged, and sentenced to the Prison Psychiatric Ward of Bellevue Hospital in New York for six months.  There he was classified as a paranoid schizophrenic.   

 

Immediately after his release from the mental institute, Spence hooked up with his former Moby Grape producer David Rubinson and played him the songs he had written while receiving treatment.  Upon hearing the stark material, Rubinson somehow got Columbia to advance Spence $1000 to make his solo debut.  Skip used the money to buy a motorcycle and rode down to Nashville to begin recording what would be his lone album in December of 1968.  Spence recorded the entire album, which was titled “Oar,” in six days, playing every instrument and producing every track (with the help of a Nashville studio engineer) using a three-track recorder.  After the completion of the record, Spence hopped on his bike and went West, living the rest of his life in and out of mental institutions, battling alcoholism and lung cancer.  He died in April 1999 in a Santa Cruz hospital having never recorded a follow up.

 

Needless to say, “Oar” is a strange album—a powerful, extraordinarily clear sampling of a man who was insane.  Spence doesn’t play any of the instruments with virtuosity, but each tune is still perfect.  You can’t understand more than half of what he is saying, but his voice is more like another instrument than a communicator on many of the tracks.  If I had never knew of Spence’s background before hearing this album, I doubt it would have effected me the way it has, but as it is, this album more than any other, freaks me out.  Not that the music is bad, not at all…it just has that effect that clowns do on me.  You know…huge circus clowns, with their ghostly white makeup, and forever smiling grin…who knows what they are thinking about really?  Who knows if they have some kind of secret lair in the sewer, Stephen King style?  Whenever I get ready to listen to “Oar,” I have that strange feeling that I am about to be shoved into a room full of those “It” clowns…                           

 

Anyway, “Little Hands” is haunting country-folk, with a breathtaking melody, and is easily the catchiest offering on “Oar.”  Musically, it is almost a chant, slowly hypnotizing you into its cordial realm.  The lyrics are hopeful on paper, but come off desperate when actually sung by Spence.  Regardless, the tune manages to seduce you all the same.  Crippled Creek” is another totally captivating song, this time being a stoic story tune with the traditional “Jack-A-Row” melody that Spence adds unusual guitar fills and rhythm changes.  The main character of the song tells the tale of a daydream he has on his deathbed about meeting an angel and remembering a lost love, who it turns out never loved him back.  The words, music, and ultimately, Spence’s hoarse delivery leave you feeling bleak…The following track, “Diana,” hardly helps to bring you out of your despondency.  It is a longing ballad, constantly repeating “Diana,” over and over again, with a sparse melody, tape hiss, and hopelessness.  As a song, it is lost.  Just Spence aimlessly wandering in guitar spirals, not going anywhere in particular, but that is the entire point, isn’t it?  The tune is one of the best examples of a song that sonically captures what it is like to be in a dead end relationship where there is no way out. 

 

Margaret-Tiger Rug” is the first real taste of madness.  This song has more than a little of a Tom Waits feel to it, meaning happily creepy, circus-like, and fascinating.  But when Waits performs these carnival tunes, you assume he is a sane person who likes crazy music, so you just accept his nuttiness as part of his act…with Alexander Spence, everything is more unsettling because he was actually insane.  Like when a comedian acts like a mentally handicapped person on stage…you laugh because it is funny, but you would never laugh at an actual handicapped person.  Again, without knowledge of Spence’s background, this song would be a childish throwaway, but knowing his mental instability, this is yet another troubling peephole.  

 

The next track makes you realize that Spence wasn’t so far gone mentally that he couldn’t concentrate on performing an unwavering, tiresome tune.  Weighted Down (The Prison Song)” is a slow, baritone ballad with good lyrics that creeps along, lasting six and a half minutes.  It is boring and musically dull, sounding like a bad Leonard Cohen cover, but does nothing to lift the disquieting, odd atmosphere of the record.  War In Peace” is a much better effort, with Spence on the verge of floating away in this psychedelic tour de force.  The Jerry Garcia-like middle electric guitar solo is strangely uplifting, as is the general mood of the tune…that is until the end, when Spence plays the much more sinister sounding riff from “Sunshine Of Your Love” and the music slowly evaporates into madness.  Broken Heart” brings you out from the clouds and settles you in for another sluggish, dejected country song.  This time the melody is more varied and the song is about a dozen different sad characters with broken hearts, severed eyes, and deaths by drowning, all of which, Skip claims, would be better than the wrath of God.  All in all it is an excellent, off-putting tune, made more disturbing by Spence’s murky voice.

 

All Come To Meet Her” supports a great melody, still unnerving, with excellent double tracked harmony vocals, and features some of Spence’s best drumming.  It is short and inviting, in a creepy way, acting as a tease for the next track…happily melting you in, just to leave you feeling even more shocked when you hear “Books of Moses.”  I’m shocked that this wasn’t taken directly from “The Anthology of American Folk Music” with its simplistic, spine-chilling drone.  The rain effect in the background is a little much, but otherwise, the song is an emotional masterpiece…the kind of song that Bob Dylan would have been thrilled to cover on his debut album.  The rain carries over into the beginning of “Dixie Peach Promenade (Yin For Yang).”  This tune, however, is a goodtime county submission, as carefree and slight, as “Books of Moses” was intense and poignant—not terribly memorable or really that good, but it does have some great lines, including: “I will stay by your side by the day, you’ll stay underneath me at night.”

 

Another much more lightened song, “Lawrence of Euphoria” might as well be a cover of a Ray Davies song; it sounds that much like a Kinks track.  Blissful and catchy, it really only acts as a short, off-putting lead-in to the album’s epic, chaotic masterpiece “Grey/Afro.”  Lasting nearly ten minutes this track slips in and out of time and creates the ultimate atmosphere.  Spence’s distinctive drumming dictates the pace while strange sound effects bounce in and out, everything being anchored by Skip’s drug submerged voice.  It’s like watching a train wreck: compelling, sad, gory, and even though you might never see anything like it again, you really want to turn away.  It seems to be about seventeen different songs in one and none of them are good, but that doesn’t matter.  All that matters is the eerie way this tune makes you feel…like you are spying in on madness.  I have honestly never heard anything like this and at times find it so disturbing that I can’t make it through the entire recording.

 

And with those twelve tracks, Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence Junior left his mark on the recording industry as a solo artist.  Supposedly, “Oar” is the all time lowest selling album in Columbia’s catalog, but it has gotten some commercial boosts recently.  A tribute album entitled, “More Oar” was finished just days before Spence’s death and features Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Beck, and others recording their own versions of Spence’s tunes.  Later that same year, Sundazed Music released a reissue of “Oar” featuring ten bonus tracks apparently covering every new song demoed during the Nashville sessions.  By all means go out a buy this lost gem of an album and welcome with it the nightmares it will bring.

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