Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence was a Canadian-American rock musician and singer-songwriter. He was best known as the co-founder of the band Moby Grape and for his 1969 solo record, Oar.
Spence was born in Windsor, Ontario on April 18, 1946. His family relocated to San Jose, California in the late 1950’s, a move that would expose the young Spence the city’s burgeoning arts community. A precocious child, Spence displayed an aptitude for music at a young age. He would be gifted his first guitar by his parents at the age of ten.
Spence played for various bands in the early 1960’s, including an early line-up for Quicksilver Messenger Service. He was invited to play drums for the seminal psychedelic band Jefferson Airplane by singer Marty Balin. Spence’s drumming was recorded for the band’s 1966 debut record, Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. He left the group in 1967, and founded the psychedelic rock band Moby Grape.
Moby Grape released their self-titled debut album in 1967. The album was met with critical acclaim, and has gone on to be considered a classic by such publications at Allmusic and Rolling Stone. Spence’s mental health would deteriorate in 1968, during the recording of Moby Grape’s second album, Wow. The musician’s recreational drug use and increasingly erratic behaviour led to his admittance into the Psychiatric Ward of New York’s Bellevue Hospital. He received treatment for six months, during which time he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
In December of 1968, Spence was released from Bellevue. Immediately after his release, Spence drove a motorcycle to Nashville where he would record his only solo album, Oar. The album was released on Columbia Records on May 19, 1969. While not successful upon its original release, the album’s legacy has grown in the years following. In 2013, Ballast Magazine ranked it as the 8th best Canadian record ever released, and in 2009 the famous musician Beck re-recorded and released the entire record as part of his “Record Club” series.
Mental illness and substance addiction prevented Spence from sustaining a music career in the following decades. He briefly returned to music in the 1990’s, participating in live performances, fund raisers, and recording a song for the 1996 X-Files Soundtrack, Songs in the Key of X. The song was unused by the soundtrack, but was released on the 1999 tribute album, More Oar.
Spence died of lung cancer on April 16, 1999. He is survived by four children, 11 grandchildren, a half brother, and a sister.
Christgau, Robert. “Moby Grape: Moby Grape.” Rolling Stone, Oct. 18, 2007. Web. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016.
Frickle, David. “Skip Spence 1946-1999”. Rolling Stone, issue 813. May 27, 1999. Web. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016 from Canadian Reference Centre.
Kreps, Daniel. “Beck’s Record Club Tackles Skip Spence’s “Oar” with Wilco ,Feist.” Rolling Stone, Nov. 13, 2009. Web. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016.
More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander “Skip” Spence. Allmusic.com. Web. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016.
Pareles, Jon. “Skip Spence, Psychedelic Musician, Dies at 52.”” New York Times. April 18, 1999. Web. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016.
Pierre Perrone, “Obituary: Skip Spence“. The Independent. April 20, 1999. Web. Accessed Nov.23, 2016.
Skip Spence. Allmusic.com. Web. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016.