Today’s track comes from Alexander “Skip” Spence, a Canadian musician closely associated with the psychedelic scene of late 1960s San Francisco. Spence got his start as a guitarist in Quicksilver Messenger Service, though he left the group before they put out any recordings. His first credited release is with Jefferson Airplane, drumming on the group’s 1966 debut, Takes Off.
After he and manager Matthew Katz were forced out of Jefferson Airplane, Spence came together with drummer Don Stevenson, bassist Bob Mosley, and guitarists Peter Lewis and Jerry Miller to form Moby Grape, with Katz acting as manager of the new band. Moby Grape, which came to be known for the three-guitar assault of Spence, Lewis and Miller, released a self-titled debut in 1967. That year they also played the Monterey Pop festival, though their performance was left out of the famous D.A. Pennebaker film documenting the event (allegedly because Katz demanded $1,000,000 for the rights to the performance).
During the recording of their second album Wow in New York the next year, Spence suffered a psychotic break after taking LSD that led him to be arrested and committed to a mental hospital. As Peter Lewis described it in a 1995 interview:
He tried to chop down the hotel room door with a fire axe to kill Don 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 [producer David] Rubinson pressed charges against him. They took him to the Tombs 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 six months. They just take you out of the game.
As Lewis suggests, Spence recorded Oar immediately following his time in the hospital, where he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Spence recorded the album, as the sole performer, in Nashville in 1968, and it was released by Columbia in 1969. Rubinson must have forgiven Spence for his axing antics, because he mixed the album. Due to his ongoing mental health problems and struggles with drug addiction, Oar remains Spence’s only solo release; he died of lung cancer in 1999. The album today has rightly become a cult classic—this version of “Diana” includes an extended freakout that was cut from the LP version and most subsequent reissues.