Rock history may eventually deem no Sixties band more of their time than Moby Grape. Originally a quintet in which all five members sang and wrote (and three played complementary guitars)‚ the band suffered publicity-hype backlash‚ run ins with the law‚ managerial disputes‚ as well as the mental breakdown of Skip Spence‚ who had come to the group upon leaving Jefferson Airplane.
In the midst of this maelstrom‚ Moby Grape continued to soldier on touring and recording‚ following a musical evolution that stands as something of a template for bands of the era: the band relied on its songwriting as they moved past experimentalism and blues jams and progressed into the acoustic folk-country realm popularized more widely at the time by Bob Dylan and The Byrds when they traveled to Nashville (a genre now popularly known as Americana).
The Grape has refused to give up the collective ghost ever since their own trip to Music City. Their personal loyalties carry on to this day in the form of fitful reunions and failed attempts thereof (Spence's son Omar now plays with the remaining members). As cofounder Peter Lewis alludes to Herman Melville's classic early in his conversation with Doug Collette‚ the band's story is something of an epic one‚ deserving larger than life commitment in proportion to its larger than usual potential.
Doug Collette: It's a real pleasure to talk to you‚ Peter. I have to tell you‚ I pull out the Moby Grape Vintage CD that I have on a pretty regular basis and it always sounds fresh and a little better every time I hear it.
Peter Lewis: Well‚ that's great‚ man. Thanks.
DC: In a way I was surprised that there was another collection coming out-Listen My Friends (Legacy/Sony)-because I know that record labels don't just put things out for the fun of it; they gotta feel like there's an audience out there. Did it surprise you that the label wanted to put out another anthology?
PL: Yeah‚ but the reason they did is because our old manager stopped them from‚ or tried to stop them from‚ continuing the release of Vintage. We got rid of him in a court battle a few years ago‚ so we own the name and the publishing now. That's why they're doing it.
DC: That must have felt good‚ to regain the rights to your music and your name again after all these years.
PL: Yeah‚ it did. It was a long fight‚ but we won.
DC: It almost seems‚ and I'm thinking of the liner notes to Vintage‚ where David Fricke talked with you‚ that you guys just seem to refuse to let Moby Grape go even with all the melodrama of the early years and the battle with Matthew Katz. You put a lot of value on the friendships that you guys have developed over the years. Must be a pretty strong bond you have.
PL: I think that's part of it. And I think some of it's flipped into this whole… you know‚ I always thought of it as kind of a metaphor for Moby Dick‚ where you've got this situation where you sort of put your image out there on a certain level where it looks like nautical instead of…I wore a pea coat on the cover of the first record. And‚ you know‚ calling it Moby something‚ people don't know what else to do with it‚ so they kinda stick it in this other bag that's been made before. If that's true‚ in that previous story‚ which I think we were kind of subconsciously trying to deal with or change the script to really‚ we all kind of slipped into this self-fulfilling prophetic event that ended up putting us on this boat together where we couldn't get away. You know‚ we tried to. But I don't think that you know‚ because of the preconceptions that people had about us‚ whether they were conscious or otherwise‚ you know‚ it sort of…it kind of kept pulling everybody back in‚ including Skip (Spence). And he may have wanted to get away more than anybody.
DC: Yeah‚ I can see what you mean. It's interesting you'd say that on a couple of fronts‚ because as I was preparing to talk to you today‚ I was searching around the internet and I came across this YouTube video of the band's appearance on the Mike Douglas show back in 1971. Much of the camera work focused on Skip‚ and I was thinking about how you guys had persevered over the years after he left and thinking‚ again‚ what a bond you must have to continue working after he left‚ make those couple of fine albums…
PL: I think sort of the myth…there have been a couple people that have been coming around here‚ they're interested in doing a story about Skip‚ and you know‚ he being this undiscovered genius kind of like Daniel Johnston because he had schizophrenia‚ there was this unrecognized mad genius. Which I think that we all would agree that Oar is a work of genius. So‚ you know‚ that's fine. But I don't think the rest of us really thought of Skip that way; he was more of‚ you know‚ he was a great arranger and he was a guy who could write songs that would tie the group together in a way that made it Moby Grape instead of just a consortium of songwriters. So our preconceptions of him were a lot more personal than people who were looking at it from a step removed. And I think not letting Skip get away with that shit when he was around us‚ that sort of kept him half-sane. So there's this other dynamic that had to do with our preconceptions of him…it sort of in a way was the only thing that anchored Skip to the…something that was a little bit…that he had some control…not control over‚ necessarily‚ but he couldn't totally go crazy around us because we knew him. So he had to respond to that. But when he got around people that thought he was nuts‚ that would make him crazy‚ because when you get to a point where you see‚ like he did‚ I think you know the vision is of a world where you're really just the product of everyone's preconceptions; there is no autonomy or anything going on with that. You know‚ this thing about being helpless in the face of this awareness people have about Skip‚ which was his gift and it was a curse‚ too.
DC: Sure. Well‚ talk about self-fulfilling prophesies-that was probably one of them.
PL: But that was his vision of the truth. And in a way‚ that's what I learned from him. I mean‚ he was right about that. And especially when you're in show business‚ where more people know you than you know. You're basically stuck. Like my mom‚ you know‚ growing up with her (Lewis' mother is the late Loretta Young‚ an Academy-Award-nominated actress)‚ it was the one thing that I think…before she died she told me‚ "Peter it's all an act." And I said‚ "Well‚ sure‚ you were a great actress." And she said‚ "No‚ that's not what I mean. I mean I was always trying to act like a good mother‚ a good wife‚ or a good person. You know the only time it was real to me was when I was being filmed." And sort of the same thing is true about musicians‚ you know? Like when they're playing music‚ that's real. The other stuff is trying to show the world‚ if they're smart‚ then the rest of the time is sort of spent trying to show the world what the world expects of them. But not being overwhelmed by all the preconceptions. And that's the dynamic that drives you crazy.
DC: Oh‚ I'm sure‚ and a lot of musicians talk about how frustrating that is for the short period of time that they're onstage; that's the reality that they live for.
PL: Yeah‚ well‚ they have to live for that because that's where they sort of cast their bread upon the waters. That's when people get to make their judgments and so you want that to be redeeming. You know‚ at all costs‚ after the drugs and everything else come into play. Some of that stuff is done despite your best intentions‚ and that's why you saw the problems with Skip develop the way they did. Especially with Mike Douglass because that wasn't like…a normal guy we were watching there.