The search to find what wasn't there has brought him back to you. -- Skip Spence, "Cripple Creek," 1968
There are few albums in popular music as elusive as Skip Spence's Oar. Spence made a name for himself in the '60s as a drummer and guitarist, respectively, for the Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, and as a songwriter with a sublime and gentle touch (the Grape's "Omaha" is a keeper). But it was his disappearing act that brought him his greatest notoriety, mostly because he did it right there on vinyl. His only solo album, 1968's Oar, is a difficult yet rewarding trip. It doesn't matter if you listen on headphones or turn the volume up to eleven, you can never get any closer to it. Spence mumbles, he chants, he affects different voices, and plays all the instruments. By album's end he has quietly said goodbye. Only Syd Barrett ever fell further to pieces in front of our ears. On one of the tracks initially unearthed for Oar's first CD reissue on Sony (and properly titled "Givin' Up Things" on the new Sundazed Records reissue, which adds even more outtakes), Spence sings, "I have given up singing about people, places, and things." And he did.
A little more than 30 years later, on April 16, 1999, at age 52, Alexander Lee "Skip" Spence died of lung cancer after being admitted eleven days earlier to Dominican Hospital in Santa Cruz, California, for pneumonia. The occasional guest appearance on a Moby Grape reunion album notwithstanding, he never made another record, battling mental illness and choosing to live quietly in seclusion.
Two projects, however, had been in the works for some time. Under the auspices of reissue producer Bob Irwin, Sundazed Records planned to issue Oar in as close to its original mix as possible (and with even more bonus cuts from the sessions). Meanwhile the Birdman label scheduled a tribute to the album, with diverse players such as Robert Plant, Mudhoney, Tom Waits, and Beck each taking a shot at one of the record's impenetrable cuts. The result is the just-released More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album
Oar itself is singular in its unfinishedness. As an exercise in fragility it barely holds its own weight: Drums thump, bass guitars plunk, songs crumble with only snatches of melody left humming. Yet this very lightness only adds to Oar's beauty. The album has inspired countless folks such as Smog, the Palace Brothers, Jeremy Enigk, Sebadoh, and any number of indie rockers who believe that the best music often takes place in the shadows. But when it was first released, Oar had a scant number of adherents.
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Recorded in a few days on a small budget (much of which went toward the motorcycle Spence rode down to Nashville from New York City for the sessions), Oar is both a lo-fiers wet dream, and one of the great unheralded classics of the late '60s. "All Come to Meet Her" is elegiac and doomed, with a multitrack choir of Spence's voice searching for the right note. "Broken Heart" is a simple country folk song with lines of sharp psychobabble ("Olympic super swimmer whose belly doesn't flop"). "Books of Moses" beats Captain Beefheart at his own game, with Spence delivering the blues in a distorted yawp akin to the sound of John Kay of Steppenwolf on downers. "War in Peace" sparkles with Spence's crisp guitar lines and an onslaught of falsetto mutterings. "Diana" sounds as though he left the back door open; random percussion noises pop up while he sings, as if he's afraid the neighbors might hear him. The extra tracks are fragments, interesting because of the way in which they complete the sessions. Spence had plenty of ideas, just not the requisite attention span to bring them to fruition.
Tribute albums often and unintentionally remind us of what we've lost. Perfectly competent musicians who love and respect the music as much as the next fan are reduced to impotent worshippers, unable to improve on the genius that inspired them in the first place. Interpreting Spence, however, presents other challenges. The musicians invited to play on the tribute album had to decide how much of Spence's work to complete for themselves. Jay Farrar of Son Volt has an unmistakable voice that stamps everything with a weary Southern drawl. "Weighted Down (The Prison Song)," a song that Spence could barely keep on top of with his out-of-tune guitars, becomes steadied by Farrar's hand. This is either an asset or a liability depending on how much you believe in Spence's vision.
I like to remain flexible and let things exist for what they are. Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees was born to sing "Cripple Creek," with his baritone perfectly suited to weepy country inflections. Robyn Hitchcock tackles "Broken Heart" and if you didn't know otherwise, you'd swear it was a Hitchcock outtake left off one of his all-acoustic sessions, such as I Often Dream of Trains. Tom Waits sounds like, well, Tom Waits pulling off "Book of Moses," while Flying Saucer Attack adds an ambient, spacy vibe to "Grey/Afro." More interesting is Beck, who comes across as a shambling, Aquarius-seeking Donovan, tripping out on "Halo of Gold."
Weirdest of all, though, is Spence himself. Hidden after the final track (an elongated version of "Givin' Up Things" by the Minus 5 that taps the original's gorgeous melody for all it's worth) is "Land of the Sun," a mid-'90s recording Spence made for the X-Files movie. (The track was never used.) On it he only speaks above a mechanical background. His voice is weary and haunted. Much like the way William S. Burroughs could evoke paralyzing and catastrophic paranoia with a single croak, Spence conveys a sense of loss, an extraterrestrial feeling that he isn't quite all there anymore. Still he sounds frighteningly human. In the end Spence was a guy who saw real ghosts and rather than fight with them, chose simply to walk away.