Moby Grape ’69 at 50
Moby Grape ’69 is an album that, directly and implicitly, asks for a second chance: we know we squandered your trust and affection, it says, and we’re recalibrating (there’s even a song called “If You Can’t Learn From My Mistakes”).
The liner notes, penned by the band’s producer, David Rubinson, on behalf of himself and the Grapes, is one extended nostra culpa. “This album represents an attempt to retrieve all that was once so honest and easy and simple,” he writes. “We have promised each other: no more gimmicks, no more hypes, no egos. …” It’s a remarkable document, an acknowledgement that everything that had begun with so much promise had gone so terribly wrong. But strip away the plea for forgiveness. Moby Grape ’69, if it had come out by a new band without any backstory or preconceptions, would have been heralded as a bracing, varied, and confident album. It’d be talked about alongside Bayou Country, The Gilded Palace of Sin, and Neil Young’s solo debut—all released within a few months of the Grapes’ LP—as one of the key records in the evolution of west coast country-rock.
What did the band need to atone for, anyway? Making a masterpiece the first time out, only to feel the backlash for being over-promoted by their record company, the most major of the major labels, Columbia Records? Columbia committed the anti-groovy faux pas of a full-tilt marketing blitz, most egregiously (it’s said) releasing five singles from Moby Grape at the same time, thus assuring that no one track would become the band’s breakthrough hit. The noive! If you ask me, Columbia should’ve put out the whole album as a set of six picture-sleeve 45s (“Naked, If I Want To” is under a minute, and could have been a bonus cut on one single). Can you imagine what that collection would be going for now on the collector’s market? Anyway, Columbia threw a big album-release shindig, and took out full-page ads in trade magazines like Cash Box (“The Week the Country Went Grape”), and all of that hubbub was most unseemly in the world of San Francisco rock.
Never mind, then, that a lot of people considered Moby Grape the best of the Bay Area bands in ’67. All of its members—guitarists Jerry Miller, Peter Lewis, and Skip Spence, bassist Bob Mosley, drummer Don Stevenson—wrote and sang, the musical crosstalk was electrifying, the band could turn on a dime from storming rock to mellow vibes. Moby Grape came out soon after Sgt. Pepper, and I can tell you that in my small circle the Grape LP got more intense attention. But the Columbia launch was only the start of the band’s misfortune. Moby Grape was the Joe Btfsplk (the perpetually jinxed character in the Li’l Abner comic strip, with a cloud hovering over his head) of rock. About a week after the album came out, the Monterey Pop Festival took place, and they were relegated to an early-evening opening slot, while the crowd was settling in, instead of the showcase performance they deserved. Their manager, Matthew Katz, asked for too much dough, so no Grape in the Monterey Pop film. It went on like that, one mishap after another.
Then they made Wow and its companion LP, Grape Jam, which Rubinson also alludes to in his signed confession on the ’69 back cover. It was overreaching and overindulgent. Which is to say it was not an atypical rock album in 1968. If all the artists who put out inflated, ambitious, nutball albums in ’68—the year of the Electric Prunes’ Mass in F Minor, the Vanilla Fudge’s The Beat Goes On, Eric Burdon & the Animals’ The Twain Shall Meet, not to mention In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida—felt compelled to say they were sorry, the line for absolution would be very, very long. Still, Wow had a number of top-tier tracks: Mosley’s “Bitter Wind,” Miller & Stevenson’s “Murder in My Heart for the Judge,” and “Can’t Be So Bad,” Spence’s “Motorcycle Irene.” Grape Jam, which is mostly noodling around, leads off with the slow and bluesy “Never” by Mosley, a song to which the Led Zeppelin composition “Since I’ve Been Loving You” bears a startling resemblance. Or not so startling, given Led Zep’s tendency to “appropriate.”
When it came time to cut the band’s third album—or fourth, if you consider Wow and Grape Jam separate entities—Skip Spence was no longer around. Plagued by psychological problems, sinking deeper into drug use, he was periodically out of commission during the recording of Wow, and Moby Grape ’69 was recorded by the remaining quartet. But he left behind the song that became the album’s concluding track, the anguished psychedelic pre-grunge epic “Seeing,” a holdover from the Wow sessions, where it started out as “Skip’s Song.” You listen to it now, the howls of “Save me!” the quiet/loud dynamic, the shifts from light to darkness, and you may hear the roots of Nirvana, with some Zep thrown in. (Plant, who also covered Grape’s “8:05,” did a version of “Skip’s Song” that shows he was taking notes.) But that’s Spence’s only contribution, and it had to come at the end, because nothing could follow it.
Moby Grape ’69 might not provide the head-snapping jolt of the debut, but its dim commercial fate was a shame, and the group—and the album—doesn’t get the credit it should for previewing the dueling-guitars rowdiness of southern rock (on “Trucking Man” and “Hootchie”) or for beating the Dead and Jefferson Airplane to a more back-porch country-flavored approach (Workingman’s Dead came in 1970, and the Airplane’s “The Farm” was on their late-’69 Volunteers). Don’t “Ain’t That a Shame” and “I Am Not Willing” feel like they would have fit on CSN&Y’s Déjà Vu? Shouldn’t the beatific “It’s a Beautiful Day Today” be on ’60s-themed soundtracks as ubiquitously as “Get Together” and “Turn, Turn, Turn”? Didn’t “Ooh Mama Ooh” get the jump on the rock’n’roll revival of the early ’70s?
It’s remembered as a story of bad luck, blown chances, hype, and folly, and their legacy is still something of a shambles, their first albums tied up in legal limbo (you can’t find Moby Grape, Wow, and Grape Jam intact on Spotify). But for a while, they were a band that had everything. Live, they were stunning, based on the couple of shows I caught in 1968. Why dwell on “what if”? From the sunshine of “The heaven will shine from dawn to dusk with golden rays of sun” (“It’s a Beautiful Day Today”) to the despair of “My wiles and mind can’t beat a dream of death today” (“Seeing”), Moby Grape ’69 is an album by a band that owes no one an apology.