You know you’re onto something when a late-night black hole of YouTube videos delivers you to Alexander “Skip” Spence, the original member of Jefferson Airplane & Moby Grape who, after barreling into his bandmate’s hotel swinging a fire axe, was diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic and went on to record his 1969 masterpiece in-and-out of mental institutions.
Spence agreed to join the newly formed Jefferson Airplane in 1965 as their drummer, even though he didn’t really know how to play. He went home with a pair of drumsticks and held on tight through their first album, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, but he was fired by the band after taking an unannounced vacation to Mexico. It was then that he was offered a spot in joining Neil Young’s Buffalo Springfield, but declined in favor of forming Moby Grape.
This new venture found real commercial success as well as high praise from the critics, but Spence only made it through two albums before things started to unravel. In 1968 he tried breaking down his bandmate Jerry Miller's hotel room door with an axe while under the heavy influence of LSD. Miller described the night in Jeff Tamarkin’s 2003 Jefferson Airplane biography: "Skippy changed radically when we were in New York. There were some people there that were into harder drugs and a harder lifestyle, and some very weird shit. And so he kind of flew off with those people. Skippy kind of disappeared for a little while. Next time we saw him, he had cut off his beard, and was wearing a black leather jacket, with his chest hanging out, with some chains and just sweating like a son of a gun. I don't know what the hell he got a hold of, man, but it just whacked him. And the next thing I know, he axed my door down in the Albert Hotel. They said at the reception area that this crazy guy had held an axe to the doorman's head." It was after this event that Spence had to be committed to an asylum.
At first, he was taken to “The Tombs,” a Manhattan detention center that featured the famed “bridge of sighs,” a platform connecting the prison directly to the criminal court. But then he was transferred long-term to Bellevue, where he wrote the Oar album in its entirety. The legend goes that on the day he was released, he fired up a motorcycle while still dressed in his pajamas, and drove straight to Columbia Studios in Nashville to record the new songs.
Although recorded on a simple three-track tape machine, Oar’s production ranges from phased out drums and echoing vocals to calm, singer-songwriter-like standards. In his book titled Unknown Legends of Rock n’ Roll, Richie Unterberger described the album as "not psychedelia in the San Francisco sense, but a sort of summit meeting of Delta Bluesmen and the spirit of Haight-Ashbury." The fact that someone living on the fringes of sanity could craft such an artful and meticulous piece of music is fascinating. And it’s not just that he wrote a good song. Spence arranged each part and produced the entire record himself, playing every instrument and singing each note you hear, with the help of a few of Columbia’s studio engineers to place the mics and hit record. Sometimes the drums sound unsyncopated, and sometimes the guitars sound a bit off, but it all fits in irregardless, to complete a record kaleidoscopic in approach but perfectly simplistic in delivery. There are clownish oddities like “Lawrence of Euphoria” and “Margaret - Tiger Rug,” classic-rock psychedelia like “War In Peace” and “Little Hands,” and outlaw-country acoustic strum-alongs like “Cripple Creek” and “Broken Heart.” Each track sounds at the same time heavy while elated, joyous while melancholy, gentle while unhinged. Moby Grape’s producer David Rubinson wrote a short essay for the back cover of the record, in which he describes it as “an oasis of undersell...so guileless, so remarkably un-selfconscious, that its integrity is its unity.”
A 1999 tribute album titled More Oar featured covers and contributions from Tom Waits, Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin), & Mudhoney to name just a few. Beck even took a shot at it with his Record Club series, covering the entire album front-to-back with help from Wilco & Feist.
Spence died at the age of 53 due to complications arising from pneumonia and lung cancer. Bill Bentley, publicist for Reprise Records and producer behind the tribute album, said of Spence’s last few days: “He was a free spirit, and he was not meant to be anything but. They had him on a ventilator and every time he regained consciousness he tried to pull the tubes out. He knew he couldn’t breath without it, but he wanted it out.”
The first pressing from 1969 is extremely rare to come by, with five copies currently available on Discogs starting at $300. A Sundazed 180-gram reissue brought Spence into the spotlight for a newer generation, with MOJO calling it “the ultimate auteur record...nothing less than a spiritual and psychic journey.” The Rolling Stone likewise sang their praises: “Genius and madness coexist brilliantly on Oar’s deceptively still waters. This sonically faithful and lovingly documented reissue will only further its legend.” CD copies have also been reissued with previously unreleased bonus tracks. Although Oar initially flopped and became one of Columbia’s lowest selling releases, it has certainly made its comeback for a new era of music lovers and record collectors alike.