When I eventually procreate, I hope I'll remember to play this record for the little ones and their friends. If only on Halloween.
Alexander 'Skip' Spence will probably end up, barring a veto, being the 'least Canadian' artist on this list. He was born in Windsor, Ontario on April 18, 1946, apparently to a veteran of the Canadian Air Force. I've never been able to clarify exactly how much of his life he spent in Canada, but it seems he was very soon living in the United States. Still, given how eager we are to celebrate even the most tenuous of connections in this country (see: Naismith, Dr. James), it surprises me he's not mentioned more often. Even if only in passing.
A member of both Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape, Spence, when celebrated, is revered by Mojo-reading types as another of those lost souls - a casualty of excess and troubled times. Belly full of drugs. Head full of demons. Heart full of songs reflecting as much. His solo output limited to one, ragged, 'lost' bit of genius. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Such stuff tends to bore after awhile. But Skip Spence's Oar - the record, like the man, resurrected six years ago for some all-too-late glee shortly before his death - is the rare myth that actual holds up under close inspection.
The nutshell backstory: Spence, drug addicted and schizophrenic, goes after mate with an axe. This earns him six months in Bellevue. While there he gives all his possessions to fellow inmates and sets to spilling his cranium into songs. Once released he hops on a motorcycle, sets off for Nashville and spends a little more than a week in early December 1969 committing everything of himself to a 3-track. Spence plays all instruments. Handles all arrangements and production. As the original liner notes explained, "Alexander Spence is the only sound you hear."
From there, it - and Spence to a degree - disappeared. A year later, in a review for Rolling Stone, Greil Marcus wass already making the case for it as an undiscovered gem of late 60s psychedlia and the San Francisco scene Spence was deep within. Sundazed eventually reissued it in 1999, coinciding with a tribute album that featured Beck, Robert Plant, Alejandro Escovedo, Mudhoney, The Minus 5 and others covering songs from Oar.
The remastered record is bizarre and hilarious and scary and ridiculous and beautiful at equal turns. Many of the 'songs' barely qualify as such - fading out or trailing off into all the dark places. Spence, in this ghostly
baritone, swoons and wails like I suppose I imagine the late 60s to have sounded. Captivating but fucked as fuck. It is surely the blackest (in the colour sense, not the racial sense) record I own. But I don't know if it's
possible to walk away from it with anything but giddiness.
The gem - and my nomination - comes at track six - War In Peace (though I was tempted to go with the hysterically hippie Lawrence of Euphoria). It sounds now like a White Album b-side. The R-rated version of Helter Skelter - sexier and bloodier than the Beatles' roller-coaster ride. Spence sounds like smoke. Everything behind him obscured by the murk. But out of the haze he soars and crashes on this monster guitar solo. The whole thing comes apart in the end, lasers or birds audible in the background until it all washes away. Lasts about four minutes in its entirety. Probably wouldn't even meet the scientific requirements of song. But somewhere in there is everything that is awful and perfect about so many things.