Alexander Lee ‘Skip’ Spence, original drummer of Jefferson Airplane, and co-founder of Moby Grape, was one of sixties psychedelia’s bright lights, but as with so many of this psych colleagues (Barrett, Wilson etc.), his career was short and plagued with demons, fuelled by drug addictions and mental health problems.
After having successfully released an album with Moby Grape, Skip and the rest of the group suddenly found themselves in New York, working on the follow up. But by then Skippy’s behaviour had started to change radically.
Things got really dark, after experimenting with harder drugs, and tripping out, Skip tried to chop down the hotel room door with a fire axe to kill bandmate Don Stevenson, apparently to try save him from himself.
Skip was put away, and during a six months’ stint in Bellevue – where he wrote most of the song that appears on his first and only solo album, Oar – Spence was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Then, on the day of his release, he drove off on a motorcycle, (according to legend, dressed in only in his pyjamas) directly to Nashville to record the album, with no other musicians appearing on it. Oar has since become a psychedelic/folk classic.
In later years, mental illness, drug addiction and alcoholism prevented Spence from sustaining a career in the music industry. Much of his life was spent in third party care, as a ward of the State of California, and either homeless or in transient accommodations in his later years.
Skip Spence died of lung cancer 17 years ago, just two days short of his birthday, which is today.
Words: Anders Knudsen