Recently, after several years without a turntable, I treated myself to one and started digging out LPs I hadn’t played in years. Among the delights I rediscovered was the music of Moby Grape. Moby Who? I hear you say.
Well, for 6 months or so back in 1967, Moby Grape were the ‘next big new thing’ for the record companies starting to take a serious interest in the burgeoning hippie music scene of San Francisco. Unfortunately Moby Grape’s star did not rise for very long, crashing down in a tragic welter of legal disputes, drug abuse and ‘madness’.
RCA already had an album out by Jefferson Airplane by late 1966. Warner Bros had signed the Grateful Dead but didn’t quite know what to do with them. Quicksilver Messenger Service were just getting going and Janis Joplin was beginning to find her feet in Big Brother & The Holding Company.
For most A&R men/talent scouts filtering into the San Francisco Bay Area, the local hippie bands, with to some extent the exception of the Airplane, were just weird. They didn’t understand the music business. Moreover, in their insular, stoned way, most of them didn’t want to understand that music was a business! Most of the local bands just wanted to play whatever music they and their friends fancied, without the slightest thought of whether their songs could ever be made into hit singles.
The Airplane understood – or at least some of the band’s members did! – that music was a business and that their sense of art sometimes had to be compromised if they wanted to make serious money from their music. Unsurprisingly then, the Airplane were the first of the San Francisco hippie bands to make a record and the first to have hit singles. That band’s ability to balance art with commerciality kept them on the charts for around 25 years while continuing to earn critical accolades right into the late 1970s as the renamed Jefferson Starship before they lost most of their sense of art in the pursuit of money during the 1980s.
Back in late 1966 Moby Grape had a similar ethic to the Airplane – this ethic coming in part at least from sharing one Matthew Katz as manager. (The Grape can also be seen as the first of the many Airplane/Starship spin-offs as singer/guitarist Skip Spence had previously spent around 6 months as the Airplane’s drummer.) While the Grape, with a 3-guitar attack, would jam for 20 minutes just as readily as the Grateful Dead, they understood that pop records needed shortish, hummable tunes with distinctive arrangements. Moreover, unlike some of the local bands, they polished their singing until they could produce the best male vocal harmonies this side of The Beach Boys.
The video below of the Grape performing ‘Omaha’ and ‘8:05’ live on The Mike Douglas Show in 1967 gives a little flavour of the range and quality of the band’s music. Left to right, the band are Spence, Jerry Miller (vocals/lead guitar), Bob Mosley (vocals/bass) and Peter Lewis (vocals/guitar), with singing drummer Don Stevenson behind them.
While Warner Bros pondered just what they had signed with the Dead and Quicksilver laughed contemptuously at the men in suits who talked to them about recording deals, Columbia Records loved what they got in Moby Grape after a short but fierce bidding war.
And they thought they knew exactly what to do with them.
Too commercial for their own good…and too badly behaved!
What happened to the Grape is a legend among those who know.
What some rock critics still describe as the best of the San Francisco hippie band records, ‘MOBY GRAPE’, was sabotaged by Columbia releasing almost the entire album simultaneously as singles, thus confusing deejays as which one to push. A substantial section of the ‘underground’ press thought the album was too poppy – too commercial – and declared it ‘unhip’. Attempts to promote the album nationally were sunk by the Grape themselves who got thrown off a tour supporting The Mamas & The Papas for bad behaviour such as ‘mooning’ the teenage girls in the audience. In spite of all this, the album still made the Top 20.
The recording of the Grape’s second album was moved from Los Angeles to New York City after Columbia released the band were spending more time partying than recording. In New York, however, the band began to fracture, with Peter Lewis walking out to fly home, and some of the partying reached truly epicurean levels. After consuming large quantities of LSD with a self-declared black witch, Skip Spence decided Don Stevenson needed saving from himself and tried to chop down his hotel room door with a fire axe to kill him.
Spence was diagnosed as a schizophrenic and spent 6 months in Belle Vue psychiatric hospital before being released to cut an offbeat solo album, ‘OAR’, regarded by some as a ‘psychedelic masterpiece’ of sorts.
The Grape’s second album, ‘WOW’/’GRAPE JAM’ – though it certainly had its moments – was, unsurprisingly, a disjointed, indulgent affair. However, some of the underground press actually praised the psychedelic effects and the strangeness of some tracks. Still there was enough buzz about the Grape for it to do even slightly better on the charts than the debut.
With Spence incapacitated, the remaining quartet regrouped, recorded the engaging, country-oriented ‘MOBY GRAPE ‘69’ and set about some heavy touring schedules. In spite of this, the album didn’t sell well – and then Bob Mosley quit to join the Marines! At a time when American youth culture was convulsed with antagonism to American involvement in the Vietnam War, Mosley becoming a marine was seen as both bizarre and a betrayal. However, Mosley wasn’t a marine for long, being court-martialled out of the Marines after assaulting an officer and being diagnosed a paranoid schizophrenic.
Lewis, Stevenson and Miller made the more than marginally-interesting ‘TRULY FINE CITIZEN’ as a contract filler before going their separate ways.
And that should have been it…but in 1971 the band reunited with all 5 members. Such was the interest in a fully-fledged Grape reunion that the band were able to spurn the Airplane’s new Grunt Records vanity label, to sign with Warner Bros. Unfortunately the resulting ‘20 GRANITE CREEK’ didn’t have quite enough killer tracks to make it a winner and the short tour to promote it was marred by uneven performances.
The band members then found themselves unable to use the Moby Grape name as Matthew Katz, ex-manager now for a couple of years, claimed ownership of the name. The band began a 30+-year battle to regain it.
Various further reunions have taken place since the early 70s and a handful of interesting but unsuccessful albums have been made for minor labels, usually using some variation of the name, to avoid Katz suing. Spence was involved in some of the reunions, usually just for a short while; sometimes Mosley has not been involved in the reunions.
It would appear Mosley coped better with having Schizophrenia than Spence did – though the latter compounded his mental health problems by significant substance abuse (alcohol, heroin and cocaine). Spence spent long periods of time in residential mental institutions or transient accommodation. Both Spence and Mosley were homeless at times in the 1990s, with Mosley homeless again in 2006 when Peter Lewis picked him up from the side of a San Diego highway to tell him the band had finally won their name back from Katz. That, however, was way too late for Spence who had died in 1999 just before his 53rd birthday.
Moby Grape reformed in 2006 partly to help Mosley but news of a new legal injunction from Katz the following year reportedly led to a partial relapse.
The story of Moby Grape is indeed a tragedy – partly self-inflicted, of course – but no less a tragedy for that. When I think of Spence and Mosley, I must confess that it does irk me that men who have made such outstanding music and given me so much pleasure should have suffered so much.
20% of a group have Schizophrenia?!?
The incidence of Schizophrenia in the general population is around 1%. Even among dizygotic (non-identical) twins who share 50% the same genes, the concordance rate found in most sample groups is less than 20% – eg: Irving Gottesman found a rate of 17% in 1991. So it is quite remarkable that Moby Grape had a 20% concordance rate among their 5 genetically-unrelated members.
It could, of course, be a huge coincidence. Or, it could be that something in the way the Grape conducted themselves precipitated the onset of Schizophrenia in Spence and Mosley.
While research in recent years has moved the emphasis away from purely psychological explanations for Schizophrenia more onto biological causes, the concept of diathesis-stress (Joseph Zubin & Bonnie Spring, 1977) is still widely accepted amongst psychiatrists and clinical psychologists. In other words, you may have a genetic diathesis or predisposition to develop Schizophrenia – in the same way some people are more likely to develop cancer or heart disease – but it still needs some kind of ‘stress trigger’. For some people with the predisposition, this can be a single, emotionally-overwhelming life event such as the death of a spouse. For others, the stress trigger is more the accumulative effect of certain, dangerous lifestyle choices.
The Grape, certainly in the first flush of money and fame, were notorious for indulging in a party lifestyle. And, in San Francisco in 1967, a party lifestyle almost certainly included vast amounts of cannabis and frequent use of LSD. While the concordance rate linking the onset of Schizophrenia with cannabis use varies from study to study – with the age of the user being a significant variable factor – the association between the 2 is now well-established and generally-accepted – see: Time to turn against Cannabis!
There is almost no available research on whether the use of LSD is linked to the onset of Schizophrenia – though a number of experts have posited, from case studies, that it looks like a connection exists. Certainly, besides Spence and Mosley, there are a number of other high profile rockers from the 1960s who appear to have had Schizophrenia triggered by LSD use – most notably Roky Erickson of The 13th Floor Elevators, Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd, Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac and The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson – though Wilson’s illness was later reclassified as Manic-Depressive Psychosis (Bipolar Disorder). (There’s enough similarity between the features of Mania and Paranoid Schizophrenia to perhaps understand how Wilson’s psychiatrist made the misdiagnosis.)
It is, of course, dangerous to generalise from case studies but it is certainly tempting to use them to link Schizophrenia with LSD. So-called ‘acid casualties’ are largely a by-product of the late 1960s. The reason for this may be that LSD declined dramatically in popularity in the early1970s. Even in San Franciso, centre of the hippie culture, the preference switched to a different type of drug. (The Dead’s Jerry Garcia and the Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen both became heroin addicts; while Kaukonen’s bandmate Paul Kantner was just one of many well-to-do rock stars who went into rehab on numerous occasions in an attempt to kick cocaine.) While LSD enjoyed some revival in popularity in the club and ‘rave’ scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, it has never regained anything like the widespread and frequent use it enjoyed in the late 1960s.
Individual differences and risk
It is probably safe to assume the almost de rigueur heavy cannabis use amongst San Francisco musicians put Spence and Mosley at risk – and frequent LSD use may have increased the risk factor. That they developed Schizophrenia and the other 3 didn’t may well be due to Spence and Mosley having the genetic predisposition while the others didn’t.
That Mosley appears to have coped better with Schizophrenia than Spence was probably due to many factors, particularly social and support networks. However, their Grape bandmates – Peter Lewis in particular – have often been credited as supporting both men, as friends and by seeking to involve them in the various reunions. Undoubtedly heavy substance abuse will almost certainly have contributed to Spence’s continued decline.
Individual temperament may well have been a factor too. Spence seems to have been more of an extravert while Mosley, offstage at least, seems to have been more of an introvert – something of a reflective loner. Lewis’ descriptions of Spence trying to lure teenage girls to his trailer in the 1980s smack of the compulsive ruthlessness of Psychoticism. A temperament high in Extraversion and Psychoticism (Spence) would, according to Hans & Sybil Eysenck (1976), be more likely to facilitate the acting out of Paranoid Schizophrenia than a temperament inclined more to Introversion and Neuroticism (Mosley).
Much of this is, of course, speculation in trying to understand how Schizophrenia could blight the lives of 2 key figures in a band who could have been a major force in rock music in different circumstances.
As I close this blog post with a video below of the 4-piece Grape miming to Mosley’s sublime ‘It’s A Beautiful Day Today’ (from the ‘69’ album), I find it poignant to note that such glad-to-be-alive lyrics came from such a troubled mind.
Dawn to dawn a lifetime
The birds sing and day’s begun
The heaven will shine from dawn to dusk
With golden rays of sun
People on their way
Beginning a brand new day
I love (a-)hearing people say
It’s a beautiful day today
People in the streets
Moving fast and how I know
They got to get somewhere
People on their way
Beginning a brand new day
I love (a-)hearing people say
It’s a beautiful day today
Lyrics copyright © 1969 South Star Music & Blackwood Music