Schizophrenia Series-Disabled Legend Alexander “Skip” Spence

Alexander Lee “Skip” Spence was born on 18 April, 1946 in Windsor, Ontario, Canada and died on 16 April, 1999 from lung cancer. Alexander “Skip” Spence was 52, just 2days shy of his 53rd birthday.

Alexander “Skip” Spence was a musician and singer-songwriter best known for his work with Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape and as a solo artist. Alexander “Skip” Spence and his family relocated to San Jose, California in the late 1950s. Alexander “Skip” Spence’s career was plauged by drug addictions coupled with mental health problems, and is described by a biographer as man who “neither died young nor had a chance to find his way out. Unlike the advice in the Neil Young song, he both burned out and faded away;” yet during his tenure in the public eye, he had a profound impact on the outsider music and psych-folk genres.

Alexander “Skip” Spence was a guitarist in an early line-up of Quicksilver Messenger Service before Marty Balin recruited him to be the drummer for Jefferson Airplane. After 1 album with Jefferson Airplane, their debut Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, he left to co-found Moby Grape, once again as a guitarist. It was with Moby Grape that Alexander “Skip” Spence found his greatest musical fame, writing among other songs, “Omaha”, from Moby Grape’s 1st album (1967) a song identified in 2008 by Rolling Stone Magazine as 1 of the 100 greatest guitar songs of all time.

Alexander “Skip” Spence is acknowledged as having been instrumental in the formation of the Doobie Brothers, by way of introducing John Hartman to Tom Johnston, and encouraging their musical development.

During the recording session of Moby Grape’s 2nd album, Wow, in 1968, Alexander “Skip” Spence attempted to break down a bandmate’s hotel room door with a fire axe, while under the influence of LSD. Alexander “Skip” Spence’s deterioration in New York and the “fire axe incident” are described by bandmate Jerry Miller as follows: “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 ax to the doorman’s head.”

As described by bandmate Peter Lewis, it appears that both Jerry Miller and bandmade Don Stevenson were targets of Alexander “Skip” Spence: “We had to do (the album) in New York because the producer (David Rubinson) wanted to be with his family. So we had to leave our families and spend months at a time in hotel rooms in New York City. Finally I just quit and went back to California. I got a phone call after a couple of days. They’d played a Fillmore East gig without me, and Skippy took off with some black witch afterward who fed him full of acid. It was like that scene in The Doors movie. He thought he was the anti-Christ. He tried to chop down the hotel room door with a fire axe to kill Don (Stevenson) to save him from himself. He went up to the 52nd floor of the CBS building where they had to wrestle him to the ground. And Rubinson pressed charges against him. They took him to the The Tombs (and then to Bellevue) and that’s where he wrote Oar. When he got out of there, he cut that album in Nashville. And that was the end of his career. They shot him full of Thorazine for 6 months. They just take you out of the game.”

During his 6 months in Bellevue, Alexander “Skip” Spence was diagnosed with schizophrenia. On the day of his release, he drove a motorcycle, dressed in only his pajamas, directly to Nashville to record his only solo album, with no other musicians appearing on it, the now-classic psychedelic/folk album Oar (1969, Columbia Records).

Alexander “Skip” Spence continued to have minor involvement in later Moby Grape projects and reunions. Alexander “Skip” Spence contributed to 20 Granite Creek(1971) and Live Grape(1978), though his bandmates always included at least 1 of his songs on group recordings, irrespective of whether he was capable of performing with the group at the time. Alexander “Skip” Spence had been similarly remembered by Jefferson Airplane, whereby his song, “My Best Friend” was included on the group’s definitive Surrealistic Pillow album (1967), despite his departure from the group.

Due to his deteriorating state and notwithstanding that he was no longer functioning in the band, Alexander “Skip” Spence was supported by Moby Grape band members for extended periods. Voluminous consumption of heroin and cocaine resulted in a further involuntary committal for Alexander “Skip” Spence, based on “Aqualung”-like behaviours. As described by Peter Lewis, “Skippy was just hanging around. He hadn’t been all there for years, because he’d been into heroin all that time. In fact he actually ODed once and they had him in the morgue in San Jose with a tag on his toe. All of a sudden he got up and asked for a glass of water. Now he was snortin’ big clumps of coke, and nothing would happen to him. We couldn’t have him around because he’d be pacing the room, describing axe murders. So we got him a little place of his own. He had a little white rat named Oswald that would snort coke too. He’d never washed his dishes, and he’d try to get these little grammar school girls to go into the house with him. He was real bad. One of the parents finally called the cops, and they took him to the County Mental Health Hospital in Santa Cruz. Where they immediately lost him, and he turned up days later in the women’s ward.”

Mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism thus prevented Alexander “Skip” Spence from sustaining a career in the music industry. Much of his life was spent in third party care, as a ward of the State of California, and either homeless or in transient accommodations in his later years. Alexander “Skip” Spence remained in and around San Jose and Santa Cruz, California. Peter Lewis regularly visited Alexander “Skip” Spence during the latter years of his life: “The last 5 years I’d go up‚ he lived in a trailer up there‚ Capitola. I used to hang around with him; we’d spend the weekends together. But he just basically kind of hit the…he was helpless in a way in terms of being able to define anything or control his feelings.”

As 1 of his 4 children, son Omar Spence, recalls, “When I saw my dad, it broke my heart. …There were moments of clarity when he was genius smart, and then he’d wander off having a conversation with himself. Here’s a homeless guy that most people would walk past and pity, and he’d say, ‘I’ve been working on a song’, and he’d scratch out some bar chords and musical notes on a napkin.”

Spence died More Oar: A Tribute to Alexander “Skip” Spence, an album featuring contributions from Robert Plant, Tom Waits, Beck, among others, was released a few weeks after his death. Prior to its release, the CD was played for Alexander “Skip” Spence at the hospital, in his final stages before death. As Peter Lewis recalls, “He was in a coma‚ and the last thing to go is your hearing. And they had More Oar in there and were playing it for him as they pulled the plug and we were holding his hands. I mean‚ it was like this death of Van Gogh or something. That’s the drama of it. You know…it was just so intense.”

Alexander “Skip” Spence’s “Land of the Sun”, one of the only post-Grape recordings he ever completed, was nearly placed on the X-Files soundtrack, Songs In The Key of X. Alexander “Skip” Spence had been commissioned to write the song.

In June, 2008, an Alexander “Skip” Spence Tribute Concert was held in Santa Cruz. The concert featured Alexander “Skip” Spence’s son, Omar Spence, who has sung with various configurations of Moby Grape in recent years. Omar Spence, singing his father’s songs, was backed by the Santa Cruz White Album Ensemble, with Dale Ockerman and Tiran Porter, both formerly of the Doobie Brothers, and both of whom have played with various members of Moby Grape in several bands over the past 3 decades. Keith Graves of Quicksilver Messenger Service played drums. Peter Lewis joined the group onstage for the finale. An additional Alexander “Skip” Spence tribute concert is planned for October, 2008.

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2 Responses to “Schizophrenia Series-Disabled Legend Alexander “Skip” Spence”

  1. Paul Gouldhawke Says:

    Apparently that photo is of Gary Duncan – he’s playing John Cippolina’s guitar. (both members of Quicksliver Messenger
    Service)

  2. Paul Gouldhawke Says:

    According to Skip’s ex-wife he DID NOT hop on a motorcycle in his pajamas after his release. He returned to California and then he went to Nashville with his family to record OAR.


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