The kind of do-it-all combo that comes along only once or twice in a rock & roll generation, Jerry Miller, Skip Spence, Peter Lewis, Bob Mosley and Don Stevenson blew on to the San Francisco scene like a white pop tornado, the ultimate A&R; man's fantasy come to life. Combining incisive, effortlessly commercial songwriting with the electrifying three-way crosstalk of Miller, Lewis and Spence's guitars, Moby Grape was further blessed with eye-popping stage energy, a punky pin-up sensuality that was part Free Love, part 16 Magazine and soulful, note-perfect vocal orchestrations - five-part harmonies to die for. "When I first saw them play," recalls David Rubinson, who signed the Grape to Columbia Records at the turn of '67, "I knew that this was a band that could go around the country, around the world, and really kill." So did the other dozen labels that tried to sign the group.
At first, Moby Grape paid off on all bets by creating that rarest of rock artifacts, the Perfect Debut Album. Issued in June, 1967, two weeks after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Moby Grape was - and still is - an effervescent synthesis of choirboy folk-rock singing, clattering garage-rock propulsion and white R&B; moxie, charged with a love of rock's early roots and a vigorous refusal to be bound by the conventions of genre. Sublime in concept, immaculate in execution, the album was imbued with a contagious, celebratory optimism that was the Spirit of '67 incarnate. Bob Mosley's spoken invitation over the bright, twangy intro of "Come In The Morning" - "Come on, people, we're gonna tell you about good dreams and things to make you happy" - was not just idle studio chatter.
Yet against all of the apparent odds, Moby Grape went on to become the most notorious "noble failure" story in rock & roll, an object lesson in how not to succeed in the music business. Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong for the Grape during their first three, star-crossed years together: legal nightmares, police busts, stolen equipment, disastrous road and recording experiences, even drug-induced madness.
And hype. As writers and performers, Miller, Spence, Lewis, Mosley and Stevenson deserved every rave that came their way. As commodities, they didn't stand a chance against the grotesque over-selling of Moby Grape - the purple balloons and badges, the lavish album-launch party, the legendary five-singles-at-once marketing blunder. The band continued to make music together, much of it wonderful and enduring, as you can hear in this collection. But in a weird, ironic twist on the Melville-Ahab associations of its harmlessly daft name (based on a bad sixties joke, "What's purple and lives at the bottom of the sea?"), Moby Grape earned its place in rock history not by emerging victorious, but by going down valiantly, with style.
"We were the Next Big Thing," Peter Lewis says now, still quite proudly. "We were in the right place, at the right time, and we were ready. But we didn't know what we had until we were through with that first album. Being in a band is about hanging out with the guys that you like, and who like you, and who can entertain each other even when you're not playing gigs. We didn't have enough of that. Six months after we met, we were rock stars. That was horrible."
Another six months after that, they were trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Moby Grape - as a band, as artists, as friends - never quite recovered.
On paper, it was an unlikely alliance. A raven-haired dreamboat, Lewis (born July 15, 1945) was a Hollywood brat, the son of film and television actress Loretta Young. After doing time in military school, the Air Force and as a commercial pilot for Shell Oil, he took up finger picking guitar, after falling in love with the luminous jangle of the Byrds, and formed his own band, Peter and the Wolves. Gifted with a big, raw earth-quaking voice, like some Viking warrior incarnation of Otis Redding, blond, brash Bob Mosley (born December 4, 1942) was a hardened veteran of the brass knuckled Navy bar scene in San Diego (recording one single with the Misfits), as well as an irregular compatriot of L.A. singer-guitarist Joel Scott Hill. Lewis, who signed on with Hill in early '66, still remembers the day he first met Mosley at a bar in the L.A. airport: "I showed up in my long hair and bellbottoms, and there was Bob, with his hair in a ho-daddy look, wearing sunglasses, a goatee and bermuda shorts, sucking a beer. He didn't say anything until we got in the car, when he suddenly announced 'I can sing anything up to high C and play like a mother-fucker. What can you do?' And when he did sing and play, it was everything he said it was."
Jerry Miller (born July 10, 1943) and Don Stevenson (born October 15, 1944) were bar band cats from the Pacific Northwest, Tacoma and Seattle, Washington respectively. As a teenager, Miller crossed paths with local hotshots and future legends like Paul Revere and the Raiders, the Sonics and a young Jimi Hendrix. He briefly toured with the Bobby Fuller Four and then joined a prominent club band, the Frantics, as lead guitarist. When the Frantics' drummer was injured in a car wreck, Stevenson - an R&B; and jazz journeyman who had backed singers like Etta James and Big Mama Thorton when they passed through Seattle –- got the nod. Sometime near or during 1965, the Frantics emigrated to San Francisco and later that year, in a strange bit of serendipity, briefly recruited Bob Mosley as singer - bassist. When Moby Grape formed in the late summer of '66, it was Mosley who fingered Miller and Stevenson (then playing as the woefully named Marsh Gas) for the lead guitar and drumming spots.
The Grape's wild card, quite literally, was Canadian émigré and visionary singer-guitarist Alexander "Skip" Spence (born April 18, 1946). A charter member of the Bay Area psychedelic in-crowd, he passed through an embryonic version of Quicksilver Messenger Service, drummed on the first Jefferson Airplane LP and wrote or co-wrote some of that band's finest early songs, including "Blues From An Airplane" and "My Best Friend." But it wasn't Spence's acid-beat resume that impressed Peter Lewis when they met in August, 1966, at the San Francisco office of ex-Airplane manager Matthew Katz. It was Spence's infectious energy and locomotive train of thought.
"Skippy was always 'high' on this other level," says Lewis, who had gone north with Mosley, at Katz's invitation, to form a new band ostensibly around Spence. "His mind was always churning over with stuff. It was hard for him to sit and talk. He didn't deal in words, but in ideas. Yet he was an inspiration, always able to get people going on his trip."
"He was a full-on Aries, laughing all the time," remembers Miller, who arrived at Katz's place with Stevenson a short time later. "Skippy appeared to be crazy. But he was crazy like a fox. We started rehearsing right there. He picked up a guitar and played a nice, basic rhythm, so Pete could do his finger picking and I could glue things together with a few licks. It came out real natural."
It all came out that way - the guitars, the voices, even the tunes. Within days of plugging in, Moby Grape had the makings of a class-A songbook in Lewis' breathless twang-jewel "Fall On You" and the galloping Miller-Stevenson rocker "Changes." Mosley was touting an early version of his haunting ballad "Bitter Wind." Spence was also showing flashes of delectably errant genius.
"He was the most unique songwriter I'd ever heard," raves Lewis. "Like in 'Indifference' on the first album, the way he changed keys right in the middle of the song. Skippy was definitely not copying anybody I'd ever heard. Yet it always came out great."
During September and October, 1966, Moby Grape (the name was Mosley's brainstorm) rehearsed daily, eight hours at a clip, at the Ark, a big old paddleboat-turned-club in Sausalito, and in the process went from being an extraordinary collision of strangers to the tightest, most talked-about band in San Francisco. The sessions became an off-hours magnet for other Frisco musicians and visiting dignitaries like the Buffalo Springfield. In a scene where deep-space jamming and indifferent stage presence were the norm, the Grape electrified its peers with a propulsive stopwatch intensity and exultant physical attack. Guitarist Sam Andrews of Big Brother and the Holding Company once put it quite simply to Lewis: "You guys are better than the Beatles."
Talk like that had record execs descending on the Ark en masse including Columbia's David Rubinson. A young staff producer who worked both sides of the pop fence - Tim Rose and the Chambers Brothers on one side, MOR squares like Anita Bryant and Phyllis Diller on the other - Rubinson diligently romanced the Grape in the face of heated competition from Elektra's Paul Rothchild, who actually got as far as cutting a demo acetate with the band. Rubinson put the band's hotel and restaurant bills on his own expenses, and even once paid Skip Spence's dental bill.
He insists it was worth both the time - the deal was finally signed in February, 1967 - and the expense. "Because while I found much of the San Francisco scene very provincial, I thought this was a band that could have hits."
The business end of things wasn't all champagne and kisses. By early '67, the Grape's original honeymoon association with manager Matthew Katz was already in the early stages of divorce, ultimately a quite fractious one. Moby Grape's public debut at California Hall on November 4, 1966, was a Katz-produced fiasco; Peter Lewis says the band played to five people and several hundred empty folding chairs. Also, at some point, an agreement was struck by which Katz assumed legal rights to the name Moby Grape, a decision the band dearly rues to this day.
But with Rubinson as cheerleader, the band knuckled down to the task of capturing its lustrous guitar majesty and Moby Tabernacle harmonies on record. Three weeks were devoted to intensive pre-production at a CBS Radio facility in Hollywood - "rehearsing, cutting, changing," Rubinson says. Extended stage features like the hypnotic "Dark Magic," an elastic ragaesque beauty written by Skip Spence, were set aside in favor of potential AM radio torpedoes like "Hey Grandma" and "Come In The Morning."
That, Rubinson admits now, was a mistake. "I was exercising an excessive amount of discipline to what might have been a freer situation. I was trying to crystallize what they had." At the same time, he insists, "the group dynamic was very weird. These guys never had the time to get to know each other. They didn't live on a commune or go on a bus, doing one-nighters and changing tires in a rainstorm. That separateness worked musically. But they were never all-for-one, one-for-all."
Moby Grape cost a mere $11,000 to record and was cut in Hollywood under surprisingly primitive conditions: on eight-track tape machines linked to a four-channel console, which necessitated endless, arduous bouncing of tracks. But it was done with lightning speed - a dizzying three weeks - and mostly cut live, except for the vocals. At the same time, the band, an intensely competitive songwriting democracy, was in a non-stop composing frenzy. The Ark days had been prolific ones for the individual Grapes (who rarely collaborated except for the Miller-Stevenson team). Lewis had written his melancholy plea "Sitting By The Window" while watching the rain fall outside of Mosley's San Francisco apartment; Miller came up with the idea for the gorgeous, acoustic lovesick-blues ballad "8:05" while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to rehearsal (he asked the clerk at the toll gate what time it was).
The pace quickened during recording. One day, Miller brought in an idea for a ballad, written on the bass, to which Stevenson added harmonies and a delicate bridge. Then, as Miller tells it, laughing, "Skippy came in and commenced to tear it all apart, adding these breaks and little stops to it." The result was the beautiful "Someday." The album's opening guitar hurricane, "Hey Grandma," was also written in Hollywood, according to Don Stevenson. "It was about the cute young girls in the Haight who wore all those granny dresses: 'Hey grandma/You're so young/But your old man's/Just a boy'."
Then there was "Omaha," arguably Moby Grape's finest two-and-a-half minutes on record, the absolute distillation of everything that made them great, and should have made them famous. With its dynamic backwards-apocalypse intro (the stereo ping-ponging of reverse-tape guitars and drums), the charging dual-octave riff and the glass-wall harmonies in the "Listen my friends" chorus, "Omaha" was the Beatles on speed, at once demonic, ravishing and irresistible. A lot like the composer himself, Skip Spence.
"'Omaha' was pure Spence energy," David Rubinson declared. "He was imbued with the demonic. He was the maniacal core of the band, the guy who would say 'Fuck it, we'll do it anyway.' He was an idiot savant. He couldn't add a column of figures for you, couldn't pay a check in a restaurant. But he saw things in 'a clear light.' He could see through immediately to the truth of what was going on."
Incredibly, Spence had two songs of "Omaha"'s caliber written for the album. But the other, a Byrdsian powerhouse called "Rounder," was never finished in the studio. The two versions heard in this collection - one is the instrumental backing track made for Moby Grape, the other a scorching live reading from 1968-vividly suggest what might have been.
Neither Miller or Lewis can remember how Spence wrote "Omaha." But Miller recalls that the band used to just call it "Listen My Friends." "Then the people at Columbia asked him what the title of it was, so they could put it on the album cover. He couldn't think of anything, so he just said 'Omaha.' It has nothing to do with the song ."
"Omaha" should have been the first single from Moby Grape (both Miller and Lewis say "8:05" would have been the perfect B-side). But the album was rife with possibilities and when Rubinson said as much to Columbia, the label responded literally with an embarrassment of riches, five singles at once: "Omaha," "Hey, Grandma," "8:05," "Fall On You" and "Sitting By The Window." "Omaha" actually charted (reaching #88) and "Hey Grandma" appeared in the then-active Bubbling Under section, but the shotgun approach confused DJs and merchandisers. The strong whiff of hype didn't help either.
The overselling climaxed on the night of June 6, 1967, at the Avalon Ballroom, where Columbia hosted a coming-out party for the Grape that remains unequalled in rock & roll annals for its excesses and cock-ups. Guests received purple velvet press kits with the five singles, a gee-whiz bio and cute pix of each Grape. Ten thousand purple orchids floated down from the Avalon ceiling, but once on the floor, the slippery petals had people falling ass-over-elbow all night. Columbia provided seven hundred bottles of wine with Moby Grape labels, but no corkscrews.
Then in the early hours of June 7th, after the Grape played a stunning set, police caught Miller, Lewis and Spence with three underage girls in Marin County and arrested the musicians for contributing to the delinquency of minors. Miller was also charged with marijuana possession. The charges were later dropped, but the rollercoaster was definitely heading downhill.
"It was like the bell that signalled us out of the gate was the death knell," says Stevenson, only half-kidding. "Things like the orchids falling from the ceiling were opposite to everything we believed in ." It was not a fatal blow; Moby Grape reached Number 24 on the Billboard chart. But a national tour promoting the record was a disaster. Columbia president Clive Davis sent the group an angry telegram complaining about their behavior on and off stage. David Rubinson also discovered, to his dismay, that when his stereo mix of the album was played back in mono, the widescreen panning effect of the vocal harmonies was cancelled out, particularly on "Omaha" and "Indifference." This was especially problematic given the large number of people who then listened to FM stereo underground rock stations on mono radios. Anyone who only heard the Grape on the radio at the time probably never heard the band in its true vocal glory.
As if that wasn't enough, someone at the company noticed, belatedly, that in the Moby Grape cover photo Don Stevenson had his middle finger plainly extended in "fuck you" position on the washboard he was holding. "I was tired and pissed off," he says of the session, which took place in front of an antiques store after an exhaustive day of location scouting. "Every shot Jim Marshall [the photographer] took, somewhere I slipped the finger." Columbia airbrushed the photo on subsequent copies to remove the offending digit and, in some kind of conservative political panic, airbrushed the American flag hanging behind Skip Spence as well. (Stevenson in 1992: "You're kidding? I never even noticed that.")
Dizzy, drained but determined, Moby Grape quickly reconvened in Hollywood with David Rubinson just two months after Moby Grape's release. The four songs recorded there, all featured in this set, boded well for a sophomore LP: stunning, electric versions of "Bitter Wind" and the Miller-Stevenson mini-suite "The Place And The Time"; the plaintive Lewis ballad "He"; "Sweet Ride," a choppy rocker (with a "Foxy Lady"-derived riff) written for a B-surf film of the same name. But discipline had all but gone out the window. The band, living in a house in Malibu down the beach from the Buffalo Springfield, partied harder than it worked. Columbia, concerned about its investment, demanded that the new record be done in New York. Only "He" was saved from the "unreleased" scrap heap.
That Moby Grape survived the Wowsessions at all, much less finished an album, was a miracle. The band was thrown out of hotels all over Manhattan. Lewis quit at one point to tend to his disintegrating marriage, leaving three unfinished tracks including the playful "Looper" (heard here as it was first cut for the band's January '67 Columbia audition). Spence took up with a woman named Joanna, allegedly a practicing witch, and consumed psychedelics at an alarming rate.
"There was a schism," Stevenson recalls, sadly. "At least in California, we were a band. In New York, we'd work with only one, two, maybe three guys at a time. All the strings and horns on that album were there to make up for the lack of having a band"
In that sense, Wow bears a distinct, if not as successful, resemblance to Buffalo Springfield Again, a class-from-chaos gem also recorded by a group in mid-splinter. But even the individual Grapes didn't always follow their own best instincts. Jerry Miller remembers leaving the studio after finishing the acoustic-with-strings version of Bob Mosley's "Bitter Wind" and telling Mosley, "I think we finally have a hit." Alas, Mosley wasn't done; during mixing, he and Robinson tacked on a pseudo-arty sound effects coda that nixed any chances of AM airplay.
Yet great music was made: Mosley's eerie "Rose Colored Eyes," inspired by his girlfriend Rose, with its floating-tremolo guitar effect; the hot-licks showcase "Miller's Blues"; the hilarious, funky "Murder In My Heart For The Judge," written by Miller and Stevenson back in the Frantics days and based on a true, and costly, encounter Stevenson had with a California judge over a stack of unpaid parking tickets.
Even in his continually altering state, Skip Spence still made sense in song. "Motorcycle Irene," based on a real biker-moll acquaintance, was a brilliant gender inversion of the Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack." The catchy scratch-demo "You Can Do Anything," released here for the first time, was a hit single waiting to be finished. "Just Like Gene Autry; A Foxtrot" was classic, cracked Spence, recorded with a real 1930's style dance orchestra led by Wow engineer Lou Waxman and introduced by CBS Radio and TV old-timer Arthur Godfrey. "Skippy bumped into him at Columbia," says Miller. "The two of them were like Mutt and Jeff, cruising around arm-in-arm. The funny thing was that Arthur Godfrey thought that 'Gene Autry' was the kind of music we did all the time."
But Spence had crossed the dark border from natural manic energy to drug-accelerated delusion. One day at the Albert Hotel, Spence went looking for Don Stevenson - with a fire axe. He hacked through the door to Miller and Stevenson's room and, finding it empty, headed over to the studio. They actually passed each other, going in opposite directions. At the studio, it was left to David Rubinson to disarm Spence; the policemen who answered the emergency call refused to do it. Spence was jailed at the Tombs for a time and then committed to Bellevue Hospital for six months.
That Skip Spence was on a one-way trip out of the here-and-now can be heard with frightening clarity in the one last, great song he left behind, "Seeing." Heard here in both its early, naked Wow demo and its epic, official Moby Grape '69 version (a separate Wow take later fortified with overdubs and turbulent echo), it was plainly a cry for help. When Spence howled "Save me! Save me!", he - or something inside of him - wasn't kidding. At the end of 1968, after his discharge from Bellevue, Spence headed to Nashville and recorded his epochal Oarsolo album. But as far as Moby Grape was concerned, he was gone - in body and mind if not in spirit. "He was a visionary," Don Stevenson says. "And what happened was he broke through. And part of him didn't want to compromise, come back and rejoin the rest of us."
Wow did better on the charts than it probably deserved to. It topped off at Number 20 in Billboard, no doubt aided by the consumer incentive of a free bonus record of extemporaneous (though not particularly inspired) blues workouts, Grape Jam,recorded during downtime with studio guests Al Kooper and Mike Bloomfield. The band would have been better off acting on Skip Spence's proposal for a high-octane party platter of old rock & roll covers by Chuck Berry, Bobby "Blue" Bland and Little Richard among others, played in original, electric Grape style.
But Columbia said no, maybe because - according to Stevenson - Spence also wanted to change the name of the band to the Cows. "We could have done a major job with that," Stevenson argues. "We'd spent our lives playing those songs. And it would have helped us get our bearings again ."
Even without Spence, or becoming the Cows, they managed to find a way to become a band again and, for the first time, real friends. With the Wow debacle behind them, Mosley, Lewis, Miller and Stevenson all bought houses in Boulder Creek, California, and started writing and rehearsing together again. "I hung around with Jerry a lot," says Lewis, "and we arranged a lot of songs for Moby Grape '69sitting up at his house. Mosley would come and visit me. We were sort of making friends, you know? All this shit had happened and we were starting over again ."
Surviving live tapes of the reborn, Spence-less Grape from 1968 and early 1969 crackle with defiant hallelujah spirit and the three '68 tracks featured in this collection - "Rounder," "Miller's Blues" and "Changes," all recorded in San Francisco - show just how much Moby Grape still had to offer as a foursome. For Don Stevenson, a major turning point was a '68 show in Philadelphia, a big arena blowout with the Chambers Brothers, the Staple Singers and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
"We were amazing," he says proudly. "Everybody came back to the dressing room and said we were great. Our harmonies were nailed and we played incredibly well that night to 20,000 people. After that, we knew we still had a band, that we could still play."
They proved it on record; too, with the criminally underrated Moby Grape '69, which was started in the spring of 1968 but finished in a breathless, productive spurt the following November. Compared to Wow, it was a paragon of modest, articulate song craft and rootsy common sense, grounded in basic rock & roll chord changes and gussied up with nothing more than church bell guitar twang and fresh mountain-air harmonies. They were not entirely trouble-free sessions; Bob Mosley was drifting out of the picture and the bass on at least one song, "Ooh Mama Ooh," was played by Jerry Miller.
Miller also complains now that Moby Grape '69 was recorded too fast, without sufficient rehearsal or the caliber of material that sparked Moby Grape. "The feeling was that we had to get in there, lay these tracks down and make silk purses out of sows' ears. And they just stayed sows' ears. The magic didn't happen, certainly not the magic the five of us had in the beginning."
A feeling of tired resignation underscored songs like Miller and Stevenson's "Going Nowhere" and Peter Lewis' "What's To Choose." But Mosley's "Trucking Man" was a turbo-charged marriage of highway bard Red Sovine and fuzzed-up Sun era Jerry Lee Lewis. "Hoochie" was strong, streamlined boogie topped with Mosley's soulful coyote howl. Ditto "Soul Stew" with its spunky rewiring of the Buffalo Springfield's "Mr. Soul" riff; the song, released here for the first time, was left off the album yet certainly deserved better.
Out of the ashes of Peter Lewis' failed marriage came the defiant slow-march "I Am Not Willing" and the stoic ballad "If You Can't Learn From Your Mistakes," featured here in a heart-tugging solo Lewis demo version. "Big," a prairie-campfire waltz liberally salted with doofus humor (the first verse rhymes "nerd" with "turd") and understandably left in the can at the time, shows that the Grape was having at least some fun during the sessions.
You wouldn't have known it from reading David Rubinson's terribly misconceived, guilt-ridden liner notes. Riddled with references to the hype of '67 and the ensuing fuck-ups that were nearly the band's undoing, the producer's back jacket copy was, as Alec Dubro put it in his Rolling Stone review of '69, "a colossal waste of honesty." Rubinson ended on an upbeat note, describing the music as "pure, honest, and with a most hopeful eye to the future." But that, Jerry Miller concedes, was the biggest lie of all.
"That was ridiculous, saying 'We had a tough time and now we got our things together.' We didn't have our thing together. We were a leaf ready to fall off the tree."
It didn't take long. Moby Grape '69 was released on January 30, 1969, while the band was in Europe on its first, and only, overseas tour. Upon returning in February, Bob Mosley quit - to join the Marines. "He wanted to get as far away from rock & roll and the whole hippie scene as he could," Miller suggests. "We were all getting pretty cracked up and I think he wanted to get some real organization and discipline in his life."
"He was angry," Peter Lewis concurs, "and if he got into the Marines, he'd be around a bunch of guys and start his thing all over again. Bob was a good guy. But he was comfortable being with other people. He counted on that and we couldn't give it to him any more." (Mosley's military career didn't last long; he was discharged after nine months for allegedly getting into a fight with another Marine.)
Moby Grape's troubled relationship with by now ex-manager Matthew Katz continued to deteriorate. In late 1968, Katz filed a million dollar lawsuit against the Grape, claiming ownership of the name and asking for a restraining order against use of it by the band. He even formed his own fake Moby Grape and put them on the road for a time. Jerry Miller actually saw the ersatz Grape in Los Angeles at the Cheetah and, as he put it, "scolded them good."
Still, the band that made Truly Fine Citizenover just three days in Nashville in May, 1969, was Moby Grape in name only. The record was little more than a contractual obligation and Miller and Stevenson had to convince Lewis just to make it a trio. Lewis quickly learned the songs in a Nashville hotel room just before recording. In a further nod to absurdity, Miller and Stevenson credited all of their songs on the record to Grape road manager Tim Dell'Ara to circumvent legal complications from the ongoing litigation with Matthew Katz. (The suit was eventually settled in 1973; Katz kept the Moby Grape copyright.)
Even David Rubinson was conspicuous by his absence from the producer's chair. Local session man Bob Moore was hired to play bass, and Rubinson's replacement, Bob Johnston (Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel), made it quite clear that he would not tolerate any screwing around on his time. According to Lewis, "Johnston said to us, 'I've heard about you guys. If this record isn't going to be done in three days, then you can go home now."'
Adds Stevenson, "We were no longer anybody's golden child."
Truly Fine Citizen did have its moments, two of them resurrected here: Peter Lewis' bittersweet country jangler "Right Before My Eyes," and the title track, a brief but vintage Grape-like rocker inspired by a black, self-ordained hippie holy man named Kamoo that the band met in Boston in 1968. "He was a mechanic and owned a metaphysical book store," Stevenson explains. "He gave us this brew that he made. Probably had bat wings in it or something, But we drank it and it made us feel great. So we went home and wrote a song about him."
But Moby Grape had obviously reached the end of its first lifetime. Although there were prescient flashes of the country-rock sound that would soon become rock's next big fashion, the rush-it-through quality of the performances made the songs sound more like rough demos. The most obvious miscue, however, was the cover photograph of a paunchy, smugly grinning cop, a bad title-pun in a bloody year of youth-in-revolt. But Miller says it was just an innocent joke. The officer was, in fact, a security guard at the Columbia studio in Nashville "and he kept everybody out of the studio so we could smoke dope. Which we thought was a truly fine thing to do."
The obvious thing for Moby Grape to do was break up - which it did, shortly after completing the album. "It took some strange kind of genius to screw it up, and screw it up so bad," says Miller. "But there wasn't much point in calling it Moby Grape anymore. We just kind of went back to fixing our own flat tires. No more limousines."
And yet the five members of Moby Grape have another strange kind of genius as well, one that forces them to prove over and over again that they are an ongoing entity, a living, evolving rock & roll organism. Since 1969, Miller, Stevenson, Mosley, Lewis and Spence have periodically reformed in various configurations and recorded no less than four reunion albums - 20 Granite Creek(1971); Live Grape(1978); Moby Grape(1983, produced by, of all people, Matthew Katz); and The Melvilles(1990, note the circuitous Moby Grape reference), an independent cassette-only corker featuring all five members - and recorded all in first takes - that is the closest thing to a real second album as the band has ever made.
The different Grapes are spread up and down the West Coast now, each in his own space. Lewis is working on a solo album at this writing; Stevenson is in vacation real estate, although he still plays a lot locally with Miller; Mosley is an itinerant, as is Spence in his own time-space way. But the dream refuses to die - because the music, and the friendships that somehow survived the mess, still give it life.
"For some strange reason, because of what happened to us and what was happening in the world then, we remember those early days together as the best of times," says Peter Lewis. "And everything that has happened since hasn't been enough to get us out of that, into something else.
"Besides," he adds, laughing, "who else are we gonna play with? I truly believe it's because of loyalty, not legacy. In that '69 period, we became friends for the first time. It didn't work out, but we kept trying. And we still go out and play, we still have our moments. We can still get people back to what that was at, sometimes more than the bands from our era who still have their success. There have been times when we gave up.
"But we've had this willingness," he declares, "to believe in an almost unreasonable optimism. We were so fucked over at one point that we can't help believing we can get it right in the end."