It’s been over 20 years since we sadly lost Skip Spence, the Canadian-American singer known for his solo career as well as his career with a variety of bands, most notably Moby Grape which he helped start.
He was one of the most influential musicians and singer-songwriters in the psychedelic rock subgenre. To this day, many musicians consider him a major influence for the genre.
He was a gifted artist, but he sadly also had his troubles that often took its toll on his life. As with many artists, the larger-than-life persona often clashed with the artist behind the veil.
So, who was Skip Spence and how did he get his start and what had been his journey through life?
Let’s learn about Skip Spence’s fascinating life and career and how he spent his darkest years in a psychiatric ward…
WHO WAS SKIP SPENCE?
Alexander Lee Spence was born on April 18, 1946, in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. Music was part of his genes, as his father was a piano player and a singer-songwriter who toured Route 66 in addition to various odd jobs such as being a machinist and a salesman.
His parents seemed keen to give their son a musical education. At the age of 10, young Alexander, nicknamed “Skip” was given his first guitar. He never looked back after that. He and his family moved to San Diego, California during his teens and he spent his formative years in the United States.
During his teens he was part of an amateur band called The Topsiders. They played rock music in the ‘Easy Surf’ subgenre which was an essential part of the Californian culture.
He began his professional music career in the mid-1960s when he was entering his twenties. Skip Spence initially played the guitar for the band Other Side and later began drumming for the popular group, Jefferson Airplane.
Skip played the drums for their debut album Jefferson Airplane Takes Off. Sadly, this was his only stint with the band because, soon after, he took off to a trip to Mexico and was dismissed from the band.
He decided to return to playing guitar and that’s when he decided to form a band of his own.
Before we tell you more about Skip Spence, his fascinating life, and his darkest years, why not “like” this video and subscribe to FactsVerse for more current news and interesting stories. Now, let’s learn about how Skip Spence began his music career…
The band Moby Grape was started in 1966 with Skip Spence being one of the band’s co-founders. It was an American rock band that had the unusual distinction of having all 5 members contribute to the singing and the songwriting. To this day, this is rare for most bands and it’s part of what made Moby Grape special.
The band was coming of age at the time when American music was going through one of its richest periods. It’s also when Rock music was experimenting with different styles.
The 60s was the decade when we saw the rise of bands who redefined rock music. These included The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Black Sabbath, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Monkees, The Animals, and Creedence Clearwater Revival – to name a few!
Among this list should be Moby Grape, which has often been overlooked and sadly, overshadowed by more popular bands.
The band implemented a variety of styles in their music. These styles included folk music, jazz, country and western, blues, and psychedelia. This latter style is what really made them stand out. It’s also this latter style that brought Skip Spence to widespread attention.
Skip Spence’s Live Performance
Their albums appealed to a niche but loyal audience. Their live performances were among the most popular rock concerts ever. One of their best venues was a nightclub called The Ark where they performed regularly. The band became heroes at The Ark and this is also where Skip Spence became a local celebrity.
While he never reached the celebrity status that many of his contemporaries had, he nevertheless was a respected figure in the music industry. Many of his contemporaries considered him to be an influence on their own style. To this day, there are aspiring rock musicians who look at Skip Spence as an icon of rock music.
With Moby Grape, Skip Spence worked on 7 albums – including two that were released posthumously. These albums were Moby Grape, Wow/Grape Jam, Moby Grape ’69 , 20 Granite Creek, Live Grape, The Place and the Time and Moby Grape Live.
He stopped performing with the band in the early 1970s and only occasionally collaborated with them in later years. He would occasionally perform gigs with them in the late 70s and 80s. After leaving Moby Grape, he decided to focus his efforts on solo albums.
However, he only released one solo album in 1969 entitled Oar. While he continued playing music throughout his life, he didn’t continue recording music and live performances became sporadic.
It was during the 1970s that Skip began experiencing his darkest years…
SKIP’S DARKEST YEARS
In the early 1970s, Skip Spence continued to experiment with music. Apart from his work with Moby Grape, he also performed with two other bands that he created – Pachuca and The Rhythm Dukes.
This may have seen great from an outsider’s perspective, but it was the 1970s that began Skip’s darkest years.
In the late 1960s, Skip Spence was diagnosed with schizophrenia. By the time the 70s rolled around, he began experimenting with drugs. He tried drugs such as heroin and cocaine and these took over his life. Alcoholism, also, sadly, became a part of his life.
Sadly, the drugs made him withdraw from his friends and his bandmates. He didn’t perform music as much and he didn’t have the discipline that he did when he performed with Moby Grape.
He failed to land more gigs and often, gigs that were once promised would eventually get cancelled. His bandmates, industry executives, and friends as well as his parents realized that it was time to intervene.
Skip Spence in a Psychiatric Ward
Skip soon checked into a psychiatric ward to help him cope with his mental illness and to kick his drug habit. He would spend his darkest years in this psychiatric ward, and he struggled to live normally as he always had a slew of doctors intervening in his life.
There were times he’d try to escape from the psychiatric ward. There was one incident when he hid in the women’s ward, hoping that the staff wouldn’t find him. Skip eventually checked out of the psychiatric ward but continued to struggle for many years.
Skip Spence lived as a ward of the State of California and even spent time being homeless. He would also spend time with different friends who allowed him to stay with them. Nevertheless, life remained a struggle for much of the 70s and 80s for Skip Spence.
Much of his later years spent in Santa Cruz and San Jose. He eventually settled in a small trailer where he lived for a few years. Skip Spence continued to struggle with his mental illness for the remainder of his life.
Skip sadly never got to recreate the success he once had. It seemed that the 1960s was where he hit his peak as a musician. However, during the final years of his life he did get opportunities to perform on occasion. He even re-united with Moby Grape and would occasionally perform live gigs with his bandmates.
SKIP SPENCE’S DEATH
Skip Spence died from lung cancer just before his 53rd birthday. While much of his life was dedicated to struggling with mental illness and his substance abuse, he’s thankfully remembered for his musical genius.
And so he should be! While he’s still not as famous as many of his contemporaries, he remains a respected figure in the music industry – particularly among rock musicians. He remains an influence on many upcoming rock musicians.
He’s especially an influence for psychedelic rock. His musicianship and songwriting are lauded among fans and performers of the subgenre.
Some of his music has gone under the radar from the mainstream audiences and critics. But this hasn’t stopped many music geeks from discovering his incredible art. His sole solo album Oar largely went under the radar when it was released in 1969.
SKIP SPENCE’S LEGACY
Mainstream audiences and critics couldn’t understand Oar as it was truly different from most rock albums of the time. Even today, there are few albums that are worthy of comparison to Oar. However, it’s lauded among fans and often praised for how “real” and “raw” the music is.
The music that Skip created still reaches audiences today. While still not mainstream, newer generations of music fans are discovering both his solo work and the work he did with various bands, especially with Moby Grape. While his work with Jefferson Airplane was short-lived, the fact that he was part of one of the most famous rock bands of all time has rekindled an interest in his work.
His life and career were sadly short. Much of his life was troubled and this took its toll on his work. Perhaps we never truly saw the full potential of Skip Spence. But we can only hope that his musical output will continue to get discovered for generations to come!
Are you a fan of Skip Spence’s? What are your favorite songs of his?
Here’s what we’d like to know from you:
Do you think that contemporary musicians and singers recognize his talent? Or is he underrated and needs more attention from the mainstream?
We look forward to reading your comments!
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