In the Mouth of Madness

Oar, folk, and good jokes: Skip Spence

THERE ARE THOSE albums that are direct reflections of insanity and those that merely couldn't exist without it. It's the difference between sociology and art, though only a fool would attempt to break the two apart at the ribs. By the time Alexander "Skip" Spence, onetime drummer for Jefferson Airplane and former guitarist for Moby Grape, recorded Oar in December of 1968, his everyday delirium was still in its early stages. He had run amok in a recording studio with a fire ax earlier that year and was subsequently committed to Bellevue Hospital for six months. Upon Spence's release, his muse had hiccupped way past fellow oddball Arthur Brown in the lyrical mumbo-jumbo department, though Spence wasn't quite scratching himself in the streets like Wild Man Fischer. In between the two may have been the most inspiring place to be: sane enough to know you're crazy, crazy enough to think you're Orson Welles.

Syd Barrett was undergoing a similarly acid-induced turmoil at the time and emancipated three albums worth of material before wandering off into his mom's doghouse. Alex Chilton later medicated his way into a single period of unstable genius (collected on Sister Lovers), before settling into a long and checkered career. It's easy to sneer at the survivors, though Spence didn't die immediately after making his masterpiece. Rather, he surpassed Fischer--victory!--leaving Oar as his final testament when he died in April of this year. (The record would later inspire the name of Minneapolis music institution Oarfolkjokeopus.) Listening to the album's acoustic pallor today on the recent Sundazed reissue, one observes that everyone whom rock drives off the deep end seems to turn against the form. Although he recorded in Nashville, Spence didn't go all Burrito country on us. But the results are so quiet and distant that one can only assume he wanted to sound lost.

That's canny enough to suggest that he wasn't entirely gone. With Spence overdubbing all the instruments himself, there's a loose, id-freed flow of ideas that suggests an entire AM radio spectrum playing nonstop through his head. He could throw in musical quotations of "Hey Jude" (on "Diana") and "Sunshine of Your Love" (on "War in Peace"). And, with the exception of a few old-time song parodies (the sort of whimsy that was quite the fashion back then), Spence sounds as if he's receding into the wallpaper. His vocals are hissed beneath his shirt or howled into echo. Mark Eitzel would kill for this sort of reckless mellow.

Sundazed did its job well, cleaning up the sound (in a good way), adding five fragmentary pieces, and keeping the previously unearthed songs of the first CD reissue. The new version also removes the break in "Grey/Afro," the extraordinary ten-minute trail of tears that closes the album by floating the vocals under lassitudinous bass and drums.

You don't recreate this sort of stuff unless you're willing to go through something most people only go through by accident. Certainly the careerists paying tribute to Spence on the new More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album (Birdman) mean well. Some have integrity. But they're the sort that got into this business because they have no plans to die. Robert Plant, Beck, and Robyn Hitchcock are just the type of eggheads that possess an enormous respect for madness, but maintain a relation to it like that of a worm to an apple. Just because contributor Tom Waits once tipped the bottle doesn't make him a convincing mental patient. And this is not to fault him or them. You cannot choose the pathway that Spence went down. And I'm not going to be the one to prevent anyone from romanticizing it.

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