Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene L'Age d'Oar

Reissue and tribute LP highlight the work of an iconoclastic genius

By Jim Ridley

JULY 12, 1999:  Nashville in the late 1960s must've been a more interesting place than anyone gives it credit for being. Recent years have turned up reissues of locally produced recordings by We the People and the Feminine Complex that expand our sense of the city's studio scene. But the oddest, and in many ways most fascinating, artifact of the psychedelic era in Music City is a record that for decades was famous mostly as one of the lowest-selling LPs in the history of Columbia Records.

In 1965, Alexander "Skip" Spence was a colorful figure in the San Francisco music scene. The story goes that his Beatles haircut got him a gig as the Jefferson Airplane's first drummer; his next band, Moby Grape, was positioned by Columbia Records to catch the cresting wave of hippie culture in 1967. But the label's absurd overhype--including parades of blue-dyed pachyderms and the simultaneous release of five singles--crushed the group's first album. As if Spence's fortunes could fall any further, a bad acid trip in New York made him hostile and paranoid. He reputedly went looking for a bandmate with a fire ax, and was subsequently tossed in the Bellevue Hospital prison ward.

A fine chapter on Spence in Richie Untermeyer's book Unknown Legends of Rock 'n' Roll lays out the story. While imprisoned, the jittery, unnerved singer passed the time by working out songs. After Spence was sprung from Bellevue, he told an associate he wanted two things: to get a motorcycle, and to ride south to Nashville to record a solo album. In December 1968, he arrived in Music City and recorded at Columbia Studios for four days. He played every instrument himself while engineers worked to make sense of his tapes.

The resulting album, Oar, reportedly sold only 700 copies when released. But the wit, spontaneity, and homely beauty of its playful acid-folk made it an instant cult item. Veering from raga-like drones to goofy puns to delicate, countryish ballads unmoored in space and time, the record sounds at once primitive and transcendental--qualities not often associated with the Nashville studio system.

Though made strictly on a major label's dime, Oar doesn't suffer from the usual singer/songwriter solipsism that today's Nashville breeds. Its overall sense is of someone reaching for a light that barely penetrates his half-closed-window eyes. It's also surprisingly listenable. However fragile Spence's mental condition was at the time, he made the inside of his head seem like a compelling, even inviting place, demons and all.

In later years, Spence was reduced to poor health, mental illness, and homelessness; at one point, he was declared dead of an overdose, until he sat up and asked the coroner for a glass of water. Oar, however, has only gained in stature through the years. This week, Birdman Records releases More Oar, a tribute record that recreates all but one of the 1988 reissue's 17 tracks in sequence. Only this time, the songs are performed by artists such as Robert Plant ("Little Hands"), Tom Waits ("Books of Moses"), Son Volt's Jay Farrar ("Weighted Down [The Prison Song]"), and Beck ("Halo of Gold"), whose own spacy, associative neo-folk owes a debt to Spence's ionospheric musings.

Sadly, Skip Spence did not live to see the record's release. He died Apr. 16 after a long bout with lung cancer, congestive heart failure, and pneumonia. But most tribute records are mixed blessings anyway. What can Robert Plant tell us about looking at the world through Skip Spence's haunted eyes, however noble his intentions? On the other hand, given that this record seeks to honor the pacing and scope of Spence's original album, it could be a fine collection indeed. Whatever the case, it's a fitting tribute, if only because all proceeds from the album will go to help pay the deceased performer's medical expenses.

If you've never heard Spence's singular album, simply wait a week and check out the Sundazed label's reissue of the original Oar, with five previously unreleased bonus tracks, due next Tuesday at CDnow. Or search Tower and other local record stores and get them both. It's not every week you can hear the direct results of Nashville's psychedelic legacy.

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