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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Alexander Spence, "Oar"

Alexander Spence
Columbia (1969)
1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die + 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die

Alexander “Skip” Spence, the guitarist for Moby Grape and drummer for Jefferson Airplane, will always be known better for the more exotic moments in his life as opposed to his musical work. “Oar,” his only solo album, is noted for being what he did as soon as he got out of the Bellevue Hospital (a mental institution) after a six month stay. However the album is more meritable than simply being the last stand of a man devolving into madness.

His stay in the institution deserves some background however. As a member of Moby Grape, a ‘60s psychedelic band, Spence was heavily involved with drugs, was a confirmed schizophrenic, and in the days leading up to his internment, was involved with a woman who put a lot of stock in black magic. After an LCD trip and advice from his girlfriend that his fellow band members were trying to pry power from him, Spence was arrested after attacking his band mates’ hotel room door with a fire ax. So yes, in many ways, Spence was certifiably crazy.

On the other hand, “Oar” doesn't sound like the work of a madman, such as the later works of infamous Pink Floyd guitarist Syd Barrett. Even the more bizarre tracks on “Oar,” like “Margaret / Tiger Rug” and “Lawrence of Euphoria” sound more like the psychedelic style Spence was accustomed to than sheer insanity. Structurally, the album is sound, even though Spence handled all vocals, instruments and production. Spence simply left the institution with plenty of song ideas and went about recording them as soon as he had the chance.

Although many of the country-tinged tracks (it was recorded in Nashville, and although there isn’t an official reason why, my hunch is that Spence saw much of it in a country light, and therefore headed to the genre’s capital) are as strong lyrically as any sane man’s writing, the listener gets the idea that Spence understands his own predicament.

“Weighted Down (The Prison Song)” is the proverbial sad cowboy tune, with Spence lamenting but accepting his fate. It’s as if he understands that he is above-water for the moment, but soon the waves that landed him in a mental institution would swallow him up again. The instrumentals echo the sad sentiments. Like the rest of the album, the song was recorded at a low volume, which has its own gloomy effect. The background drums and guitars are far from dense, making the recording sound empty and sympathetic with its writer. It’s easy to imagine four Spences in the same room, each playing one of the song’s instruments, commiserating with each other.

The wave would indeed swallow Spence again. He fell hard into drugs, which coupled with his existing health problems led to further debilitation, and he died at age 53. Great songs like “Weighted Down” and “Heartbreak” could only have been written from Spence’s experiences up to that point, but it would have been nice to see what he could have done without all the chaos.

INTERESTING FACT: Columbia Records did not do any promotion for "Oar," because they saw it as a lost cause considering recent history. As a result, it was the label's lowest-selling record EVER up until that point.

Weighted Down (The Prison Song) by Alexander "Skip" Spence on Grooveshark

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