Swinging a fireman’s ax through the hotel-room door of his band mate landed Alexander “Skip” Spence in prison followed by a six-month residence in Bellevue Mental Hospital in 1968. At the time, he was the drummer for the psychedelic rock band, Moby Grape, and already the former drummer of the just-taking-off rock band Jefferson Airplane.
Following a short stint in prison and his treatment at Bellevue, Spence immediately traveled to Nashville in order to record a collection of songs he had written while incarcerated. Over the course of seven days and funded (with reservations) by Columbia Records, Spence recorded non-stop, playing every single instrument and piecing together every lick; the finished product was a 12-track album titled simply, “Oar.”
For most first-timers, the immediate reaction of hearing Spence’s voice and instrumentals is usually disgust. His vocal lines are slightly out of sync, the mixing is wildly unbalanced and the musicianship sounds, at best, amateur. It sounds as if Johnny Cash was suffering from a Syd Barrett complex and given a bunch of toys to play with, but that is effectively what makes the album unique. It’s not a typical psychedelic studio production taking its listener on an astral journey through the reaches of space, riding the rainbow waves of synthesizer patches.
Spence is in a room, exploring the cosmos within his own mind, tracing through the layers of gray matter that have folded in on themselves to get at whatever it is that’s making his brain rattle. It’s a journey that takes place between him and a listener, all within the confines of the room he is in. The mics are on and the tape is rolling.
The album begins with the track “Little Hands,” a choppy, hand-slappy song that has a crucial guitar line spurring a tantric melody, but the song stays more comfortably in Spence’s wheel-house, being heavily percussion based, with the drum-set and acoustic rhythm guitar fronting most of the instrumental weight of the song.
All of that precedes the haunting melody lines sung by Spence that carries the rest of the track. His ghastly lyricism and his melancholy voice doubled in the same register are immediately chilling and off-putting. It’s as if the studio was not inhabited by Spence, but by his ghost, or at least, a shell, singing about greeting a new generation of children meant to change the modern paradigm of systemic control.
That’s followed by “Cripple Creek,” a song that is musically insignificant, but lyrically seems to stem from his experience at Bellevue: “A cripple on his deathbed/ And the daydream he did ride/ All past the streams of fire/ On a petal path did glide.” The following track “Diana” is a switcheroo, the lyrics being a cry for a woman named “Diana,” but the primary substance of the track is laced within the instrumentals.
Every instrument drags with an invisible weight, the rhythm and tempo tread through the song like trying to walk from the beach into the ocean when the water’s still too low to start swimming, but too high to take normal steps. The layers of acoustic guitars, rippling in and out of chord variations and accidentals, send currents across the cymbal-heavy drum beat that weighs on the heart like a 100-pound dumbbell.
“Margaret-Tiger Rug” is similar to some of the silliest songs on Pink Floyd’s “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and the simple boom-clap percussion does a lot to boost the opinion that this project is just a half-lucid attempt at recording. Tastefully, it’s followed by “Weighted Down (The Prison Song),” an acoustic blues track that is the paragon of broken down prison songs. The tuned-down guitar gives the strings a very messy, but deep, reverberation, complemented by Spence’s low-tenor, bass voice crooning about his imprisonment.
This song features some of Spence’s most brilliant song-writing, with his lyrics lamenting how his time in prison is due to more than just his mental illness; it’s also his inability to fit in a society that prizes the accumulation of possessions, that values narcs and the corruption of people in power.
It doesn’t allude to his being in prison for attempted aggravated assault, but again, these lyrics demonstrate the mental space that Spence was in. His thoughts transcended the physical, observable reality, by making legitimate criticisms about his concerns with society, but bordered on insanity for his inability to ground himself and recognize how his actions led to his incarceration.
“War in Peace,” the following track, is an angry song that sees Spence mocking pro-war rhetoric, using the upper register of his range, doubling his falsetto as well as using much more electronic guitar to carry the rhythm and musical accentuations. The descending guitar line of the verses builds into these long refrains of chaotic whistling noises and polyphonic guitar parts scrambled all over the mix.
Fading in and out, from side-to-side, there’s a cacophonous combination of deranged vocal inflections and guitar bits popping around the mix until it all builds to a cursed rendition of Cream’s famous opening riff in “Sunshine Of Your Love.”
All across these tracks, and the ones following, much of the music carries that amateur, half-baked quality to it, with little moments of missed syncopation or variation; there are little skin-tags of music that remind the listener, as they’re drawn into the twisting helix of Spence’s psyche, that they are still in the same room as when they started. The consistency of errors shocks the listener back from delirium and into the room it’s composed in. That use of space, purposeful or not, permeates throughout the album and sustains the soundscape in which the listener inhabits.
The final track is the most haunting, the most daunting, and the most psychedelic and insane. “Grey/Afro” is a nine-minute song with the most use of post-production effects: Spence’s voice rests on the edge of your ears with a fluctuating flanger effect, the bass guitar is turned all the way up and the drums have some sort of strange “wah” effect, or echo, that makes them sound like they’re from outer space. The repetition of the bass part and the sporadicness of drums, as well as consistency of tempo, are hypnotizing and carry its listener across time and space like psychedelic music should. This song IS the out-of-body experience.
The album is far from perfect and it lacks the scope and range of other psychedelic paragons like Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix, but it captures an organic and expansive picture of the depth that psychedelic music can penetrate and uncover within the human brain. What is psychedelia more than the chemicals of our brain morphing reality? “Oar” is not delving into Spence’s third eye to reveal some fractalizing new interpretation of reality, it’s showing us his mind, bare and naked, but irreparably stained in tie-dye.