Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Obscuro Vol 1: Renaissance Man

Alexander “Skip” Spence (1946-1999) is most famously known, forty years ago, as a member of such seminal 60s psychedelic outfits as Quicksilver Messenger Service, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape. A veritable Renaissance man, he covered everything from drums to guitar to vocal duties (and more) in these groups. More infamously, he is referred to as the “American Syd Barrett,” for his tale was one of mental illness and drug addiction that made his considerable talents moot and his musical output rather limited. But, like Barrett, he left one shimmering, if murky, testament of his genius – the darkly surreal and, to my mind, aptly titled Oar.

I can pretty much guarantee you’ve never heard anything quite like this album, and if you have -- this is the original. A collection of low-key folk rock compositions delivered in a sparse, ramshackle style and interwoven with Spence’s sleepy baritone croon, the momentum of Oar is essentially one of laidback urgency. Spence’s vision isn’t so much his view of a private world, but the unique reading of the world he shared with everyone else – the same hopes and fears, a desire for love and acceptance and success, the random, the trivial and the mundane ins and outs of life. Some of these songs are little more than snippets, seeming to start and end in mid thought, as if at the time of recording Spence knew exactly where he was, but neither where he was going nor even where he was coming from. And yet others have a clear and concise purpose, like Weighted Down (The Prison Song), about the premeditated murder of a wayward lover, or (original) album closer Grey/Afro, concerning his lack of ability to communicate with, presumably, a lover, and yet likely anyone and everyone with whom he came into contact. Often Spence says so much by saying very little, as in the heartbreak ballad Diana, or can say most anything by saying seemingly nothing at all, as in the somewhat apocalyptic Books of Moses.


A weighty doom hangs over Oar and, if this could be considered a musical self-portrait, did as well over Spence’s own life. Recorded solo in Nashville in 1969 (after spending six months in a mental hospital where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia), recurring themes of death, seclusion, alienation and a sense of loss permeate these songs. Yet there is a certain strength as well, a confidence and an aptitude that exist in the creation of such a beautifully unassuming and yet starkly profound album, despite the fragile state of mind Spence was in at the time. It’s not so much that he has a message for the world, but a statement he would like to make (very softly), and if you would care to listen, he’s happy to oblige. The end result is that you are left feeling down but not entirely unhappy, because Spence speaks to and for the quiet places in your mind where even you are afraid to go.

At left with Moby Grape

Unfortunately, Spence never really got it together again after this album. He contributed a few songs or recorded tracks for various Moby Grape releases, but never functioned fully as a musician. He spent most of the next 30 years either destitute, living off the charity of friends or as a ward of the state of California. And yet his legacy has certainly not been forgotten. Oar has influenced countless artists, from Tom Waits to Beck, and has been rereleased a couple of times, most recently and fully on the Sundazed label, which includes ten bonus tracks of rough song fragments and demos, each revealing another piece of Spence’s mind, all as intriguing and worthwhile as the original album.

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